Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mt Toubkal: 1; Your blogger: 0

Morocco's Atlas Mountains

Mt Toubkal, for those of you who have never heard of it (which included me a few months ago) is the highest mountain in Morocco, and indeed in North Africa. It is 4167 metres high. But after four days of slogging along some very rocky and dusty goat-tracks in the High Atlas, none of these statistics was enough to make me want to climb the thing. I must be getting old. Everest Base Camp: yes. Mt Kilimanjaro: yes. Toubkal: who cares? Where’s my tent?

Your blogger rests. Again.
Toubkal is about 4 hours trek (unless you’re me, in which case it’s 5 hours) from the nearest village, Imlil. But our intrepid party of 14 trekkers, 2 guides, 8 muleteers and a corresponding 8 mules, decided that this was too easy. Instead, we spent four days getting to the base of Toubkal the hard way: over mountain passes, through remote Berber villages, and up and down rocky tracks which the mules only just managed.

Our cheery busload set out from Marrakech, passing Richard Branson’s magnificent compound on the way to a tiny village in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. There we met up with our mules, those trusty beasts of burden who would be carrying our shelter and supplies for the next few days. Off we set in the midday heat of 35 degrees C (what was that about mad dogs and Englishmen?) for an uphill climb away from the village and over our first mountain pass. The day was enlivened by the sight of Morocco’s famous tree-climbing goats, sitting in the branches of argane nut trees (the source of Morocco’s equally famous argane oil). Even on day one, I found the going rather long and tough. And uncomfortably hot. However, camp was on a grassy patch under walnut trees on the edge of a village. This had the advantage of being soft under-tent, but the disadvantage of being woken by the 4.30 am call to prayer from the local mosque. 

On the trail.
The next few days saw us climbing over ever-higher passes, the scenery dramatic, stark and barren. Beautiful in its own way, but the mood of your blogger was degenerating with every difficult step. The best bits were when I could walk in the shade; or when we finally reached a windswept pass and the next few hours would be downhill. I must sadly admit that at times I forgot to enjoy myself.

Resting again
There were some lovely lunch stops beside mountains brooks; there were spectacular sunsets from our rocky hillside campsites; there was the joy of icy-cold mountain streams for washing of the dust. Then there was the sheep that our team managed to slaughter for dinner (I may never eat lamb again); a ridiculously steep scree slope to climb (75 switchbacks - I counted ‘em); and the dust storms that coated my already-sad cheese sandwich with an additional layer of dirt. Yes, I did burden my companions with a bit of whinging. Our intrepid and professional guide Said (who has climbed Toubkal about 150 times, once in 14 hours return from Imlil in the snow) told me that he was pleased that I was going to climb the mountain. He said he worked with many Australians, most of whom complained that the trekking was “too hot and too far”. Wait a minute - isn’t that what I just said?

Goats in the argane trees
At the foot of Toubkal we camped outside a refuge, where - blessedly - there were hot showers. Remind me again why I have to climb this mountain? I made the decision to cop out, and then worried that I’d regret it. The next day, most of my companions set out, some  no stronger trekkers than I, but clearly stouter of heart. It took the strongest of them about 5 hours to return, the slowest about 8 hours. The horrible scree slopes were discussed more than the view. I felt vindicated in my decision, despite the howling dust storms that had roared all day in camp. But...as you can perhaps tell, I do feel a bit of a wimp....

Humans - and mules - on a goat track.

Yes, we climbed all the way up there.

The ascent trail of Mt Toubkal. From camp :-)

Morocco’s Atlas Mountains look a lot more beautiful to me now in my photographs than they did while I was slogging along the trail in the heat. But I did enjoy the best part of a good trek: the company of my companions, the guidance of a great guide, and the insight into an interesting culture. I won’t soon forget coming across “Boutique de Mohamed”, complete with an attractive cow in a cow shed, high up in the rocky Atlas. I bought mint tea from Mohamed, and temporarily forgot my complaints.

Sunset in the Atlas.

Boutique de Mohamed, and proprietor

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