We found ourselves in Imlil, a mountain town ninety minutes south of Marrakech, which exists for little other than hiking the Atlas Mountains. Well, that and apple growing. A perfect place to hike into North Africa’s highest mountain range. One of our best adventures ever, this is what happened.
Our route was a linear one from central Imlil to the tiny hamlet of Sidi Chamarouch (31°05’50.87″N, 07°54’46.72″W), located just inside Toubkal National Park and on the way to Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest mountain. The weather was perfect – cool and bright and with just a slight breeze. We couldn’t go much higher due to lack of specialist equipment – crampons and ice axes would be needed for much higher and our extended travel plans allowed for no such luggage. Rental options are available, but Mayumi’s first time hiking on snow probably shouldn’t be now.
We began our hike from the centre of Imlil heading south through some tremendously beautiful woodland. It had a genuinely natural feel to it, unlike the managed woodland of the UK. Even here, amongst the trees, were rug salesman, joking with me that their products could fly and would carry us up the mountain. There were other adventurers too; a family of Americans making the same journey as us, but with rented mules and guides.
Our navigation, and I am ashamed of this, was via iPhone – an app named maps.me – using free source mapping; its surprising accuracy helped with finding our route when other alternative paths cross-crossed the area. That combined without realtime GPS locator made the whole thing almost too easy. Should I have had a real map? Yes, absolutely. And I’m stupid for not. But I tried to buy one the previous day and a young gentleman wanted £15 for a laminated foldout which in the UK would be less than £2. I knew that, in the worst case scenario, I could pay somebody less than that to throw me and my partner onto a mule and carry us down the mountain. And, having said that, using the iPhone was a good choice as there’s only one major path which climbs Jebel Toubkal from Imlil, so the iPhone works more like a clock than a map, keeping tabs on how far away lunch is. A four year old could navigate this hike.
The iPhone led us to a magnificent waterfall which we managed to not get any good pictures of, and then through some more woods, which we did. I put the phone away and followed my nose for a short time which led us to transferring a scree slope and some of the less confident footing of the hike and clearly due to poor navigation than a lack of real footpath.
It brought us to a village which we were surprised to come across and ti was clear there was lots of work going on here to make more of this area – even on a chilled out Sunday diggers are driving – although given that Moroccan’s don’t ever wear uniforms (a real problem which doesn’t build trust), it was difficult to tell if they were supposed to be driving the digger or just out for a Sunday joyride in stolen government property.
Either way, they were doing a good job and this area was looking pretty habitable.
Leaving civilisation behind, again, we began a long walk up a wide bottomed valley. It was gorgeous. We weren’t alone either, having mule groups pass us in both directions and even a peanut brittle salesman getting some business out of me. Still relatively flat, climbing only in short bursts, we enjoyed the gorgeous weather of clear skies, fifteen degrees and just a light breeze. Perfection. This was my kind of Morocco.
About thirty minutes later, the path lead us to the Eastern side of the valley where our climb would begin. A few huts along the way inhabited by the mule groups featured; the path becoming steeper and in some places steps. Generally, it was a good quality path – about a metre wide with small stones underfoot and nicely cut steps in some areas to make the climb easier. The most challenging parts, in fact, was when you had a mule to pass; they do what they want and it’s the walker’s job to get out of their way, not for them to avoid you – amazing you always find just enough space to pull into, but it’s only fun the first few times.
The path continued up the side of the mountain for about two hours. Mayumi didn’t enjoy the relentless sun (I loved it), but she did enjoy the scenery which was a mix of greens and yellows with a small river in the very bottom of the valley to our right. Not overly steep, and maintaining a gentle but efficient pace, fitness was never an issue, nor was technical ability. It’s not a walk for everyone, but it’s no worse than hiking in the Lake District – the challenges are different, but a bit of common sense and experience and this hike is a great introduction to overseas hiking.
Around lunchtime we were arriving at our destination, Chamarouch. It’s not really a town as such, more of a pitstop for those continuing up the mountain and onto the summit of Jebel Toubkal. Just over halfway to the overnight refuge, it’s the perfect spot for picking up a wooly hat (the temperature is dropping), a can of coke and a cheeky tagine – or in our case, a tin of tuna to match the breakfast’s left over bread.
After exploring the hamlet, picking up some souvenirs, snapping some picks and obligatory mint tea, we headed back down the mountain, this time making our journey more rewarding by picking up discarded litter on the way down. A selfish thing, you might say, as maybe somebody gets paid to collect the litter from the mountains – but frankly they were doing a crap job and we like contributing to the places that we visit by doing more than just throwing money at them. And actually, it really was an enjoyable experience, walking out with three full bags of tourist garbage tied to my backpack.
We got back to the road and rather than walking the slog back, hitched a ride with a local. He had a nice car and spoke pretty good English; dropped us off right in town and wished us well – karma for perhaps the litter-picking. Back to our accommodation, exhausted and feeling so great about our trip.