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"Une Petite Promenade Dans Les Hautes Atlas"

Following my previous expeditions to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco I decided to return to undertake a circular trek through the Toubkal Massif.  Due to time constraints I only had one week available which had to include travelling time from UK.  On the face of it would appear unrealistic to attempt a high altitude trekking expedition in a remote mountain area with only such a short period of time available. Had I not had prior experience of the mountains I do not think I would have even given the project a second thought. However, safe in the knowledge that at the very worst I could rely on spending an enjoyable week with my friends in the village of Imlil, I decided to give it a go.  I hope that this report may serve as an inspiration to others wishing to travel in the direction of Morocco who find themselves constrained by time, funds or both.

Travel Arrangements

I took advantage of the new GB Airways Service which operates between London Heathrow and Morocco during the summer months.  Flights go via Gibraltar and are routed to Marrakech two days per week and to Casablanca three days per week.  This service is considerably cheaper than the alternative direct flight with Royal Air Maroc. GB Airways departures are also significantly more attractive to the traveller heading for the mountains in that they depart from Heathrow early in the morning arriving at Marrakech just after mid-day.

From Marrakech Airport it is possible to take a taxi into the centre of Town for 50 Dirhams (£3.50) where one can easily arrange onward transport to the mountains via bus or grand taxi (a shared taxi-cab in which comfort is sacrificed for economy and speed of transit).  Travel by bus from Marrakech to Asni costs only 80 Dirhams (£5 ) and takes approximately 1.5 hours.  From Asni one has to search out a taxi or a lorry which is travelling up the dirt road to the village of Imlil (this usually costs a further 50 Dirhams). Whichever method of transport is chosen it is entirely possible to arrive in Imlil by late afternoon giving plenty of time for accommodation to be found and trek arrangements to be made.

Accommodation

I used the Gite de Haute Atlas a small family run guest house on the outskirts of the village of Imlil.  The proprietor Jean-Pierre prides himself on the standard of his hospitality and the excellence of his cuisine (a single night stay with full board and lodging costs 150 Dirhams (£11.50).

For those searching cheaper accommodation, Imlil has a range of small guesthouses run by the Berber villagers and also boasts a Club Alpine Francaise hut where accommodation can be found for only 45 Dirhams per night (£3).

Trek Arrangements

Previous trekking experience in Morocco had taught me that a mule is a highly desirable addition to ones trekking group.  Accordingly I made arrangements on my first evening in Imlil (avoiding the use of the hustlers who tout for business in the early mornings and who extract a high negotiation charge for their services in arranging a mule for hire).  After protracted negotiations I obtained the services of Mohammed and his mule for five days for the cost of 300 Dirhams (£25). Mules will carry up to five rucksacks plus the necessary food and water for an expedition.

Description Of The Trek

Day 1. After an early departure from Imlil we ascended the main pathway leading up the Mizane Valley passing through the village of Aroumd to the Holy Shrine of Seti Chamharouch.  After a lunch break during which we managed to catch three respectably sized river trout in the river we continued into the upper Mizane Valley to arrive at the Neltner Refuge at 3,207 metres.  Where we made camp for the night on the grass plateau below the refuge.

Day 2. After a 5 o'clock start we ascended the Ouanoums Col (altitude 3,664 metres) before descending the long and arduous Ifni Valley to arrive at the famous Lac D'ifni.  The lake is famous as the only significant sized body of water anywhere within the High Atlas chain and is visited regularly by trekkers and more intrepid Moroccan holiday makers.  From the lake we descended to the small village of Ait Igrain where we passed the night in one of the local farmhouses (for the modest sum of 50 Dirhams per head which included a large evening meal comprising of Tagine, a local speciality, and fresh fruit).

Day 3. Once again making an early start with the first rays of the sun we descended the jeep track to the small market town of Amsouzart. From here we ascended the Ourai Col (altitude 3,109 metres).  This was an exceedingly long and arduous assent up a dry and rocky slope which being south facing took the full force of the early morning sun and being on the southern slopes of the mountains received the full warming effect of the Harmata wind which blows out of the Sahara Dessert during the summer months.  On the far side of the Col we descended into the Tinzer Valley, a very fertile high altitude valley renowned for the high quality of its grazing pastures.  After an enjoyable afternoon's descent through Alpine type surroundings we made our evening camp at the small summer herding settlement of Azib Likemt. Once again fishing in the local river proved fruitful and yielded up 15 fresh trout with which to supplement our evening meal.

Day 4. From Azib Likemt we climbed over the shoulder of Bou Iguenouane passing via the Likemt Col (altitude 3,540 metres) to arrive at the village Tacheddirt.  Tacheddirt is a characterful little village which is off the regular tourist trail although it does have a Club Alpine Francais refuge within the village.

Day 5. From Tacheddirt we descended back to Imlil using the main track via the Tamatert Col (altitude 2,279 metres).

Catering and Provisions

Throughout the course of the expedition we relied entirely upon local provisions.  The major villages within the Atlas Mountains all have small shops at which it is possible to purchase basic provisions such as cheese, tinned sardines, dried fruit, and tea and coffee.  During the summer months it is nearly always possible to trade tinned food for fresh bread and fresh fruit and eggs from small settlements along the way.  We also supplemented our diet by catching river trout in the mountain streams (a permit is needed for this and should be sought from the Authorities prior to departure).

It is normal practice for a mule driver to share all of his client's food so adequate provisions should be taken (re-payment in the form of regular cups of mint tea is usually forthcoming).

Environmental and Conservation Matters.

The High Atlas Valleys are exceedingly fragile and some areas are rapidly becoming severely damaged by the increased number of trekking parties travelling through them.  This is particularly obvious in the Mizane Valley leading from Imlil to the Neltmer Refuge at the base of Toubkal (the highest mountain in North Africa).  Unfortunately over use of the valley combined with the Berber's lack of consideration for the conservation of their own environment has led to a situation closely resembling that on the Everest base camp trail.  Lessons have been learned and it is encouraging to see steps being taken to remedy the problem, and to prevent similar disasters befalling some of the other Valleys which are only now starting to open up to trekkers.  The Toubkal area has been awarded National Park status and Wardens have been appointed.  However as yet they have little power, no adequate job description and unfortunately little respect from the local people as they are seen as interfering outsiders.

It is imperative that anyone visiting the area for trekking should do their utmost to take every opportunity to educate the local population in conservation matters.

Further Reading

The best available guide to the Atlas Mountains is that edited by Robin Collomb.  Entitled "Atlas Mountains of Morocco" this is both a climbers guide and a trekkers guide to the main areas of the Massif.  Detailed maps are hard to obtain as they are still classified as military secrets, it is however, possible to obtain the four maps covering the Toubkal area (these can be ordered via Stanfords in London or trom the map shop at Upton on Severn).

Andrew Newton FRGS - BEC member,   Habib Fouilloux
July 1995