After a bit of research and a chat to our trustworthy technical advisor, we decided the next stage of our Moroccan journey would be the mountainous town of Imlil in the heat of the Atlas Mountains, North Africa’s Highest Mountain Range.
The starting point for most hikes towards North Africa’s highest mountain 4167m Jebel Toubkal, 2,500m Imlil is a small mountainside town growing in popularity thanks to Adventure Tourism. Given our extended travel plans, we didn’t have the equipment to summit the big one, but nevertheless, seemed like an excellent place to check out. Here’s our story…
The gateway to the Atlas Mountains and the start of many treks towards Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest mountain, Imlil was a place I felt we had to visit while in Morocco. Access from Marrakech is straightforward, normally by way of Grand Taxi or, as in our case, local bus. The journey takes about ninety minutes; sixty along fairly major roads and thirty up twisty, mostly paved mountain roads. Fifty dirhams later, and with an argument about how many bags they were going to take from us to place on the roof (I regret giving them either), we climbed in.
The vehicle was something I was a fan off; a forty-ish year old Mercedes Vario – essentially much older version of what I drove in the UK, and designed to seat sixteen; it would become clear, however, that the driver nor conductor were not aware of this fact as the journey progressed. We drove south, leaving Marrakesh and picking up people as we went, rarely dropping them off however. At one point a lady carrying a baby jumped on and she had to walk past three people until I offered her my seat, leaving poor little Mayumi on her own. To be honest, I do regret this decision – yes, I obviously did the right thing, but then spent the next hour standing with my legs forced apart by my bag, knees buckled, slouching due to lack of headroom and genuinely bloody uncomfortable. Had I stayed in my seat, someone much shorter may have offered her their seat and not had so much discomfort for doing the right thing.
Eventually, we arrived at the town at the foot of the mountains where we were impolitely asked to leave one bus and hurriedly asked to get on another which literally had no room. I don’t mean there was no seats – they’d disappeared twenty people ago, I mean the guy asked me to fit all two metres of me, wearing a decent sized backpack into an area you couldn’t fit a CD rack. I eventually made it by standing in exactly the same space as Mayumi, while the conductor decided the way he would travel would be to keep the side door open and lean himself out, holding on to the actual door (which moves) for support. After five minutes, he was bored of this, so closed the door and preceded to climb out of the window onto the roof. While we were driving along twist mountain roads.
This all sounds a bit wild, but that’s nothing to the driver who was being distracted by not one smartphone, but two. One was on the dashboard next to the token speedometer playing music videos from YouTube, while the other was in his left hand held to his face; from what I could work out from the WhatsApp chat I oversaw he was in the in the process of buying a Mk5 VW Golf. While driving a bus. Up a mountain. On a collapsing road. While watching music videos. While his conductor was climbing on and off the roof. While doubly (perhaps trebly) loaded.
Eventually, and thank the gods, we arrived at Imlil. First impressions were great; enormous green and beige mountains surrounding buildings containing the usual Moroccan bits and bobs, but also climbing gear, trekking huts, Riads (guest houses) and food outlets. We walked to our Riad which as the crow flies was 400m away, but took nearly an hour to get there thanks to the shape of the land causing us to walk about 1.5km up hills, down little tracks and over a bridge a foot wide, and all while carrying our travelling kit . This is something to be aware of you’re thinking about visiting.
Our accomodation was pretty standard affair; nicely decorated rooms, large communal areas and always a few avoidable things which really let it down – very common in Morocco and a fundamental attitude change needs to happen here before it can develop as a tourism mecca.
Firstly, we were in the wrong room – we’d paid extra for a particular room with particular furnishing Mayumi liked, but once we arrived we were put into a different room. She sorted this but super annoying and we wondered why we’d bothered paying the extra (£8 per night). Then there was no toilet paper in our en-suite; when we asked we were given non-disolvable paper napkins. So we had to buy our own. Then the host just kinda left us, repeatedly, dispite saying he’d be back. It took over an hour to propery check in – I was convinved he’d never actually done this before – “Oh my, guests are at my guest house – what do I do?!” You might think I’m being rude or a bit pedantic, but when you’re paying good money for something in a country where everything is so cheap, you expect decent standards, or at least some organisation. Eventually when he reappeared, I mentioned our plans – take a day hike towards Jebel Toubkal, have lunch at a mountainside village, then walk back. He liked the idea and offered us good advice.
We took a stroll into town for some lunch – one which became one of the more eventful walks-into-town I’ve ever taken part in. Following the path of least resistance in the direction back towards the centre of Imlil, we found the path sort of disppeared, then reappeard. We found ourselves in an orchard (the whole valley is full of apple trees which makes me wonder why people on our bus were travelling with bags of apples) where we met some local girls who gave us apples. The first and only free thing we got in three weeks in Morocco.
Eventually, after another 45 minutes, some minor injuries and a decision made to buy an actual map of the area rather than relying on a free app on a shared iPhone, we found firstly a building, then a track, then a cafe. An omelette and a delicious sandwich were accompanied with some dirty cutlery and a smile. Again, I’m not being fussy, but simple things like clean cutlery are expected when paying £3 for a cheese sandwich.
The cafe overlooked the centre of town; the coming and goings of Imlil consist of white girls getting in and out of Ford Transit minivans driven by plain-clothed locals, a couple of £50k Land Cruisers and many mules loaded to the nines with everything from liquid concrete to rugs, suitcases and bottled water.
Mules are the preferred transport of this part of the world thanks to the narrow, steep paths leading to different parts of the community; a bike wouldn’t carry half as much and a car wouldn’t fit. There were community-led building projects to improve the infrastructure in the area, but you get the impression much of it is for show to convince you the 21st century has hit this town, rather than for actual practical reasons – one bridge being built was clearly being built to support a car, but the path on one side of the river was barely wide enough for a mountain bike and with tighter turns than an alpine pass. Regardless, good luck to them, they appeared very happy building it.
We took what was to be a short stroll around town; I found a shop which sold a small but detailed laminated map of the area, and deciding it was perfect, offered the guy a few pounds for it. He asked me for fifteen. FIFTEEN pounds for a small laminated map; usually in situations like this, one would barter and find a price which works for both of us; however, having spent the last few days in Marrakech, I was sick to the death of haggling for everything so I just laughed very loudly and walked off, Mayumi following me confused as to why I hadn’t bought the only thing we actually need in this town.
The iPhone, however, once again got us around a lovely short loop of the valley perfectly and back to the safety of our guest house just in time for Tagine with a side of Tagine, a long shower and a good nights sleep ready for the next day – our hike into the Atlas Mountains…