“This is definitely not the Bruce Trail” Mary puffs, as we wind our way up the narrow rocky switch-back path to the Tizi nou Addi pass at 2960 meters elevation. It is Day One of a five-day trek through the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Our group of sixty-something-year-old women has been hiking together for months in preparation for this trip, trying out the hilliest hiking trails within easy striking distance of Toronto. None of our “training” prepares us for this trail. Thankfully, trepidation gives way to exhilaration as our trek progresses, our wonder at the surroundings overpowering minor discomforts of a higher-than-expected degree of physical exertion.
Inhaling pure mountain air, we reach the Tamatert pass, jab our poles in the air and yell with child-like joy at our accomplishment. We absorb breathtaking views of the valley on the other side of the pass. Green terraced fields embrace small clusters of adobe houses, which cling precipitously to the arid flanks of mountains, reaching upward to snow-capped peaks. We see no other trekkers; it’s as if we have the place to ourselves. It’s only day one and the hike has been really tough, but we’re entranced.
With several peaks above 4000 metres, the High Atlas Mountains span the country of Morocco from the Atlantic Coast in the west to the Algerian border in the east. The mountains are home to the indigenous Berber people who have inhabited Morocco, and in fact most of North Africa, for at least 5000 years. Commonly used by everyone in Morocco, the word “Berber” is derived from the Latin “barbarus” meaning barbarian, and some are justifiably sensitive to the negative connotations. Berbers call themselves I’Mazighen (singular: a’Mazigh), meaning “free people”.
On trek, we make our way slowly with short strides, single file, as directed by our guide, Abdul Hakim. In Marrakech, Hakim had introduced himself to us as “your guide, bodyguard and protector”. He was all this and much more – by the end of our trip our tight-knit group of friends felt nothing short of adoration for him. He looked out for our best interests, and guided us effortlessly along unmarked trails, maze-like village alleys and goat-paths. His steady footing and slow pace were deliberately designed to ensure that we enjoyed every second and did not strain ourselves. In his good humoured way, with an excellent command of English (and French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic and of course Berber), he indulged our curiosity with his seemingly bottomless knowledge of local geography, geology, fauna, flora, Berber history, habits, music, religion and culture.
He drew maps in the sand and regaled us with tales as rich as Scheherazade’s – of mythical and historical women, djins, the secret lives of camels, and his own adventures as a mountain guide. He pointed out flowers and birds, and greeted every passerby in the villages with a warm camaraderie. He opened our eyes to a way of life that has barely changed for centuries, one in which traditional values and hospitality have been mostly unaffected by the outside world.
We ask Hakim what else he does for a living when not guiding, expecting him to have a lofty profession like our Marrakech city-guide who was a professor of Art History at a private university. He tells us, with pride, that he is a shepherd. He left formal education after primary school to earn a living to help support his nomadic family. His deep local and worldly knowledge, multilingual abilities and love of literature are products, not of an education system, but of self-directed learning, keen intelligence, sponge-like absorption and enviable retention.
Along with us on the trek are our cook Hassan and muleteer Noredine walking comfortably behind the laden but content-looking, sure-footed mules. Compared to us, they move quickly. Shortly after noon on our first day of trekking, we come around a hairpin bend in the track to find that they have unloaded the mules on a grassy ridge next to a stream, and laid out carpets and cushions for our picnic lunch. As we shed our daypacks and settle on the cushions, Hassan brings over a teapot and ceremoniously pours refreshing, sweetened, mint tea into tall glasses. “Besseha” (to your health), he says, his smile captivating.
Over the next two weeks we come to love this tradition of “Berber Whiskey” that appears as if by magic whenever we stop for lunch or arrive at new lodgings. Our delight at the novelty of mountain-side mint tea is surpassed only by the feast that follows – fresh Moroccan chopped salads, local bread, rice and a hot tagine of lamb kofta (meatballs), chicken or lentils in warmly-spiced sauces, followed by local fruit – oranges, apples and pomegranates.
Carefully picking our way over rocky trails with the aid of headlamps, we arrive after dark on the first day at the Tigmi Tacheddirt (“tigmi” means home in Berber), a trekking lodge in one of the highest permanently occupied Berber villages in North Africa at 2300 m. After 8 hours on the trail, we are tired and ravenous but thrilled with our experience and surroundings. After another delicious tagine meal prepared by Hassan, we fall exhausted into bed.
As the sun rises over the wide terrace of the lodge the next morning, we are able to observe the village as it comes to life – goats, chickens, sheep and the odd cow wander between the tightly packed straw, mud and stone houses, as children wend their way to school, goatherds urge their flocks up the slopes and women return from the valley below, staggering under huge loads of fodder for their animals. The dirt tracks in the village are uneven and rough. There are no motorized vehicles; mules are used to move virtually everything.
A woman baking bread in a small outside clay oven invites us to watch, and accepts a small offering of coins only if we take away some bread to eat. We marvel at how little the Berber villages have changed in centuries – and at their relative self-sufficiency, the latter a byproduct of community collaboration and efficient agricultural practices, making full use of fertile areas with terraced gardens and orchards.
After leaving the village, we hike another 6 hours, and arrive at the amazing Kasbah du Toubkal, which Conde Nast calls the country’s first and foremost mountain retreat. On a promontory overlooking Imlil, it is an extraordinary Berber-European collaborative conversion of the home of a feudal ruler into a unique and elegant sanctuary.
The setting and our rooms at the Kasbah are fantastic, but best of all is our first experience at a Moroccan hammam (spa). The instructions, provided by the enthusiastic concierge, are lacking in practical detail. Clad in swimsuits covered by hobbit-like hooded djellaba robes and leather babouche (Moroccan slippers) provided by the hotel, we arrive at the hammam at our pre-booked time, and lock the door behind us for privacy as instructed.
This is a “self” hammam; there are no attendants. We locate fresh towels and a jar of black soap and through the steamy mist explore our mosaic-tiled surroundings – a steam room, a row of hooks for our robes, a central cold-water plunge pool, and a shower area. Giggling like school-girls, we enter the steam room and duly mix up individual buckets with scoops of steaming hot water mixed with cold “to taste”, and seat ourselves on stools. We feel awkward and prudish in swimsuits. Mary makes the first move. “No time to be shy here”, she says, stripping naked. It takes us two seconds to concur and follow suit. Laughing hilariously, we cover ourselves with black, oily soap, and scrub ourselves using the exfoliation gloves provided. Splashing unceremoniously we rinse ourselves with ladles and buckets full of clean water, before exiting the steam room. I am first to plunge into the cold pool. But without the aid of my glasses, I totally miss the recessed steps in one tiled wall of the pool, so have to heave my naked self out of the freezing water — inelegant to say the least! The entire experience is both refreshing and gut-splittingly funny. Our laughter continues in the richly decorated, candle lit dining room later as we are served a tasty and elegant three-course meal.
On Day Three, Hakim leads us on a winding day-tour, ever upwards, on a narrow dirt-packed track, high above the village of Imlil. The early morning sun heats the awakening earth around us. I follow step by step in the tracks of fellow hiker, Sari. She momentarily stops to acknowledge a feeling of deep contentment and spiritual liberty that is evident in her face. I connect immediately. The enjoyment we feel and share goes beyond the definition of a holiday. We breathe in clean mountain air and admire our colourful surroundings – golden autumnal almond trees and verdant green terraces, bright garments hanging from washing lines suspended between mud-clad homes, and exquisite hand-made carpets thrown over walls or spread on flat roofs for airing. Goats bleat, cicadas buzz and the Call to Prayer from minarets in surrounding villages intermingle on the airwaves creating a calming natural soundscape that accompanies our easy pace and quiet companionship. We stand to the side as a muleteer passes by, a horned sheep poking out of each saddlebag. We greet him with a well-practiced “Salaam alaikum” (“Peace be with you”), eliciting a broad smile and friendly response.
Our second night at the Kasbah provides us with the rest and resuscitation we will need to continue our trek with renewed energy and a sense of having arrived – no longer feeling awkward in this exotic new environment.
Hakim has warned us that Day 4 will be the most difficult: it includes a long sustained hike of over 21 km and an ascent of 800 metres. Perhaps it is our deliberate slow pace, perhaps we are in better shape after 3 days on the mountain, but we reach the top of the climb relatively easily and fairly skip down the other side of the mountain to end the day at a mountain-side trekking lodge in the village of Aït Aïssa.
For some, our fifth and final day of trekking is the most difficult: a 21 kilometre, mostly downhill route out of the valley, with river crossings and several very rocky sections of under-construction off-road tracks which are hard on our ankles and knees. We push on relentlessly for five hours to another perfect picnic lunch in a shady river-side. The trek is easier after lunch, last few kilometres taking us through interesting sun-baked adobe and prickly-pear terrain.
The sights and experiences of our 80+ kilometer trek over five days have left deep etchings on our souls and memories. We marvel at the perfect weather we’ve enjoyed. We congratulate ourselves for bringing good hiking boots and poles. We’re tremendously relieved to have avoided injuries, getting off lightly with a few small blisters. The weather has been perfect for hiking – clear skies and warm days, cooler nights. No bugs. And we thank the stars over Morocco for giving us Hakim as our guide. As we enjoy the pool-side terrace of the Ourika valley spa hotel at the end of our last day of trekking, we unanimously agree that our only disappointment is that our Atlas trek is over.
We went on to other amazing adventures in Morocco before returning to Toronto. We drove through the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, and on through the impressive Dades and Todra gorges. We rode camels into an overnight luxury desert camp, where Toureg musicians entertained us around a campfire under an alluring starry night. We reveled in the history of bygone eras in the caravanserai heritage site of Ait Bin Haddou and the Kasbah Telouet. We ate fresh grilled seafood dockside in the seaside resort town of Essaouria.
We bought Berber carpets and argon oil in Womens Cooperatives and failed miserably at bargaining in souks (but bought anyway). In Marrakech, we drank fresh-squeezed orange juice while watching snake charmers and entertainers in the Jma el Fnaa, took a caleche to soak up the greenery and cobalt-blue of the Majorelle Gardens, and watched storks roosting on the rooftops of the Saadian Tombs. We even splurged on lunch at the world-famous, luxurious La Marmounia Hotel. We ate tagine-cooked meals done fifteen ways, and experienced first-hand the Berber hospitality of well-appointed riads (small family-run boutique hotels).
We lived life to the fullest, enjoying every moment of these new and exotic experiences, eager to share them with our spouses, children, grandchildren and friends back home in Toronto. But as we made our overall Top Ten list, there was no ambivalence – the highlight for all of us was the five-day trek in the High Atlas Mountains. So two weeks flew by…and we are better friends than ever, ready for our next hiking adventure together!
Dates: Nov 5-18, 2015
Hikers: Mary, Sari, Charlotte, Nancy and Liz