Walking on the shoulders of Atlas

The Atlas mountains stretch along the north-west of Africa, separating the Mediterranean from the depths of the the dark continent and named after the Titan condemned to hold the world and sky upon his shoulders.

Getting there we negotiated a Grand Taxi, we were hoping more would come in with us, but we didn’t realise the stand was a further 200m down the road. Tam haggled a little old man down from 600 to 400 Dirhams for the journey – walking away always works, especially if you do it twice.

This charmer had a car decorated with postcard pictures of the Imlil Mountains, we were a little unaware, but as he was talking to us in French, he must have mentioned he was also a tour guide. He proceeded to tell us the names of the towns we passed – just like they said on the signs. Once we got out of the car, Mitch gave him his 400. He promptly stuck his hand out again. ‘Le Principal!’ he gestured and grimaced behind his John Lennon glasses and white moustache. “Sorry mate, not a good enough guide to give you any more!”. He would be one of our first guides.

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Weaving in and out of the small mud brick houses we eventually found our accommodation, nestled in narrow mud and snow covered alleyway. The host was more than welcoming, making our mint tea and giving us a good description of the hiking surrounds.

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The landscape was stunning – and the setting for the famous Brad Pitt Movie; Seven Years in Tibet. For our first hike we decided to walk up the valley towards Mt Toubkal. Only two days earlier tragedy struck the small alpine community. Two German mountaineers, sufficiently experienced, but unprepared and unaccompanied during the same snowstorm that prevented our earlier passage over the mountains. After some time, they got lost in the snow and the man had to leave his wife for shelter. He was found by a guide and rescued in a serious condition, while she was later found dead from hypothermia.

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We were much more fortunate to have a searing hot day over 2 degrees in the valley. We hiked under blue skies up to a lookout point. One man along the way sold us energy bars made from honey and nuts, while another tried to sell a carpet. What? A carpet along a hiking trail?! Pity we didn’t have a donkey with us to carry it back. Funnily enough, we were joined by a donkey (turns out it was a mule) on our walk back. It was originally following another man and his mule, but decided we were a bit more interesting.

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Arriving back at base, we saw a sheep being merrily lead down the hill. It didn’t seem to know what direction  it was going, but it was more than happy to follow the old woman carrying the sickle – soon it would learn the direction of Mecca. Lucky we had ordered vegetarian for dinner…

The next day would take us over the pass into the next valley – Tizi Oussem, the one less frequented by tourists. Our walk was quickly interrupted by a couple of young girls. ‘Bonjour, Dirham. Monsieur, Dirham. Madame, Dirham!’ they chimed in unison. A quick shake of the head we thought would have dismissed them. Ah, ah’, they started pointing directions. We were pretty sure we were going the right way. After a few more minutes of being pursued by our newly acquired “guides” they eventually gave up – only to be replaced by a group of small boys. These kids had clearly met tourists before. They lined up and had a running race. Oh, how cute? You want us to take a photo of your running race? Then you’ll want money for it! Sure enough, they came running at us. One boys pants kept falling around his ankles as he ran. They clutched at Mitch’s shorts, which had no pockets and asked for our water bottle – dangerous to give away if we were going for a day long hike. They too eventually gave up, but not without a swift punch to the thigh. Tourists really need to stop encouraging and rewarding this behavior for their photos.

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Once we crossed through the pine forest and up onto the saddle, we could see the valley stretched out. Today was going to be a long hike. Above the snowline, we ran into a few wayward locals. One in broken French gestured to his rheumatism in his hands and gestured lovingly at Mitch’s warm new jacket – they really knew how to sell. Every person we came across on the remainder of the trip insisted we stay in the local accommodation, but we had to get back.

A small house in the side of the road had improvised a waterfall over bottles of coke. It did it’s job and had bought a few guests in. It was the kind of operation that didn’t have a menu. You just said what you wanted and the grandfather and his grandson made it. We got an amazing Berber omelette for less than $5.

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After negotiating a moderately difficult (if you don’t want wet feet) river crossing and climbing the switchback we arrived back in the Imlil valley, a good 10 hour hike of 30km. Leaving the way we came, by a hard bargained Grand Taxi, we would after a week in Morocco, finally discover the hustle and bustle that Marrakech was known for.

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