The High Atlas (Part 1)

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Sat 20 Sep 2014 10:57
We met Cordelia at the airport and set off for the high Atlas early the following morning.

Cordelia, our neighbour from Wales

The 'grand taxi' driver had refused to lower his price stating "prix anglais" for the 8-9 hour journey to Tabant in the M'goun area of the Atlas. We agreed on the basis that it was a return journey and that he would come and collect us at the end of our five day trek. He had spent considerable time finding out how to get to Tabant when we negotiated the price so we were rather surprised when as we set off he asked us if we were going to Tannant, also in the Atlas Mountains but much further west.

After clearing up the confusion, we drove for miles across the Moroccan plain, dusty, dry, mostly flat, past Casablanca, Oued Zem, Beni Mellal and then suddenly four thousand metres vertical straight out of the flatland: The Atlas. Up and up we went to Azilal, the main town serving the M'goun area, half Berber, half Arab.

The Moroccan plain

The patchwork quilt of irrigated land at the foot of the Atlas 

Beyond Azilal, although still tarmac, the road narrowed to a single track. It was late into the afternoon and we were all hungry, I had suggested a stop but we hadn't found anywhere serving food (If you know Franco you will realise the gravity of the situation).

As we travelled deeper into the mountains, our driver's mobile phone no longer had a signal and he started to panic, he was desperate to make a phone call and kept slowing down at the slightest hint of a signal. We were getting fed up with his behaviour, after nine hours in a taxi we just wanted to get to Tabant.

Eventually we arrived at the end of the road, we weren't exactly sure where, there were houses made out of mud and a rough track and that was it! I worked out that somehow we had missed Tabant and were in Imelghas, where we intended to spend the night in a gîte, only it wasn't obvious.


Our taxi driver told us he didn't want to come back here and that we should catch a local taxi to Azilal where he would meet us. We weren't amused. When Franco paid him his fare he had the cheek to ask for more! Although a way of life, baksheesh is only payable when satisfied with the service.

A gentleman arrived who could speak good French, he told us not to worry, that we would find a taxi to Azilal and went off to call someone to find us accommodation. The next man to arrive was from the 'Dar Itrane' hotel who offered us a bed for Dh 300. We declined politely explaining we wanted to stay in a gîte for Dh50 and that we had brought food with us. He went off to find the gîte manager, Hussein.

Hussein is a guide and a fixer, he took us to Mohamad Azorki ben Ichou's gîte which was cool, peaceful and comfortable and then invited us back to his home for 'até' the sweet, sometimes minted, green tea and bread dipped in olive oil. We discussed the route we wanted to take and he confirmed it was realistic, providing you were a climber. We then asked him to help us find a muleteer and he arranged for Ali (who could speak a bit of French) and his mule to meet us the following morning at eight. Hussein also advised on additional food for Ali and on prices.

Ali and Shemule* aka 'Farty' were fantastic company and we had some good laughs

10th September 2014

Orchards in the Aït Bougamez Valley

From Imelghas we walked through the lush fields (maize, potatoes, courgettes, tomatoes this time of year, wheat in the winter) and orchards (many apple and pear varieties, plums, walnuts) parallel to the road back as far as Agouti which we had driven through the day before, then we turned left and headed up to the village of Aït Sa'id (Arous catchment) and on to a shady lunch stop by the river. Cordelia was concerned for the welfare of Shemule as her load was huge and we were all relieved when she was unloaded for the lunch break. When it came to loading up time, Shemule gave Ali a really dirty look (as only female mules can!). On subsequent days we didn't stop for lunch which suited Shemule much better. On mule tracks, Ali let Shemule go ahead at her own pace, at first we thought he was steering her by the tail but we soon realised he was using her as a 'teleski' to help him uphill! he looked very sheepish when I pointed this out.

We stopped off at Café Atlas for a compulsory soft drink. By buying a drink you are putting a small amount into the local economy and in effect paying for your night's camping a little further on by a shepherd's hut on the Arous plateau.

Café Atlas

Food on a trek is shared by all, usually the walkers pay for the muleteer to source the food from other villagers and to prepare the meals. The guidebooks suggest there isn't much available in Tabant so we had brought food for four with us from Rabat. Ali was fine with our cereal bars and snacks, we had bought extra tinned sardines and flatbreads as recommended by Hussein but he took one look at my couscous and declared "Pas bon!" and refused to eat anything I cooked, instead he ate sardines and flat bread all week. I was a bit put out. The staple was 'até' which is just what you need after a long walk in the heat, though our teeth were starting to tingle from the excess sugar.

11th September 2014

From the Arous plateau we headed up to Tizi-n-Tarkeddit on the Tarkeddit ridge, the equivalent in distance and height gain to climbing Snowdon back in Wales but at much higher altitude. This was the highest point of our trek at 3380m and we could all feel the altitude as we found it harder to breathe. As we reached the col before the final ascent to the ridge a man appeared out of nowhere and asked for Ali's lighter. Ali asked Franco "how much" who answered "6 (dirham)" so Ali gave the lighter away thinking we had six more.

Behind us the sound of hooves, a muleteer and his he-mule were catching us up, Ali commented on how loaded it was, the branded luggage suggested this muleteer was working for one of the main trekking agencies. The man left the mule for a few moments, exhausted it lay down. As his owner returned the mule tried to stand up and nearly broke itself. Ali dashed down the hillside to help, and together they managed to get the mule back on its feet.

From the top of the ridge we faced the whole of the M'goun range.

Ighil M'goun 4068m - second highest peak in Morocco

We dropped down the other side, past impressive rock formations and colours: red, green, purple, and massive erosion to a large plateau which looked like we imagine Mongolia. This impression was strengthened by the number of encampments both of local people and tourists scattered around and mules roaming free. We  set up our camp near the Tarkeddit refuge 2920m (which is 3km north-east of where it is marked on our map!). We paid Dh20 to pitch the tent which Cordelia and I were sharing and were allowed to use the rudimentary toilets.

Tarkeddit Plateau

We spent a fascinating afternoon watching sheep and goat herds, mules and donkeys socialising as well as scantily dressed French women washing in the stream. Ali told us that it is only the French who pay no regard to local standards of modesty and that the Brits and Germans are generally respectful.

During the summer months from April to the end of September, the Tarkeddit plateau is home to a thriving community of herdspeople, whole families from the Tessaout villages move lock stock and barrel into simple dwellings in the uplands, a system very similar to the 'Hendre and Hafod' in Wales or the 'Alpage' in Switzerland. At the fountain we would meet women and little children in colourful, often velvet, gowns and headscarves. As we walked through the landscape we chanced upon blankets airing or laundry drying in the sun in the most unexpected places. At night the men wore their wollen 'jelab', a calf length tunic with a hood and often a turban on their heads.

We were particularly intrigued by the antics of a white he-mule who was a real troublemaker, he would gallop past donkeys minding their own business and side kick at them to terrorise them, he bullied all the she-mules into joining his gang (but not Shemule as she was tethered) and wound up a beautiful bay he-mule who was hobbled to the point of breaking his ropes. Together they galloped round and round creating havoc. At nightfall I noticed a Berber man chasing after the two stallions, eventually they passed by our camp and I offered to help. The mules stopped and watched me approach, just as I was about to catch the bay, the white mule side-kicked at the man and both mules set off at a gallop. Second time round I caught the bay, a beautiful and intelligent animal, his owner bridled him and galloped off bare-back into the night.

12 September 2014

We set off promptly for what looked like an easy day on the map. We crossed the Tarkeddit plateau to the source of the river Tessaout, from here we could see the upper reaches of the gorge we would follow the next day. We met quite a few people, one lady with her small boy asked Franco for money, a young woman laughing threatened Cordelia and I with her sling-shot, we laughed back.

After an easy ascent to the ridge we moved Shemule's load further back for the descent. We rapidly dropped down into the upper Tessaout gorge, steep, exposed and stunning. The map shows a fairly even steep slope rather than the indented, craggy, vertical nature of the landscape - very misleading! We were concerned for Shemule but she was fine, in places the track has been built up so that the mules don't fall into the abyss below. Ancient gnarly Cypress trees dotted the slopes, reflecting the lower grazing pressure on such steep terrain. We continued downhill to the Idromamem bivouac in a cypress 'forest' where we did some laundry and prepared our climbing gear for the Tessaout gorge the following day.

Bivouac Idromamem

Mulings …

The Berber economy is powered by mules and donkeys, they are the only means of transport once away from the main road and valley bottoms.
In Barbary mules are not given names, they are either 'He-mule' or 'She-mule'.
Mules are very economic to run, they walk all day carrying up to 100kg on rough terrain, they eat less than a nosebag of oats and a armful of hay a day and seem to drink only every other day. What's more they never complain though Shemule could do a fabulous lower lip wobble when food was a bit slow arriving.
Most trekking muleteers cannot afford to keep a mule all year round, they buy a mule in the spring (March) and sell it at the end of the trekking season in October to lowland farmers who use mules over the winter for 'other' crops.
Trekking mules tend to be older as they are more even tempered and don't mind going slower (walker's pace).
Dad is a donkey and Mum a horse. Never the other way round. I put the proposal to Ali who struggled with the concept but once he got what I was asking he was clearly amazed by my stupidity or lack of empathy.
Mules have their own social network not linked to their humans, on arrival at camp they will roll in the dust releasing a scented dust cloud which alerts other mules to their presence.

Shemule advertising her whereabouts