Winter Trekking in Western Atlas Mountains

(by Anne Gilton, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2003)
A week in the lesser-known Western Atlas in Morocco

I’m very much a summer-only walker. Give me long evenings and warm days but come the winter, my boots are hung to dry in the garage and I don’t think very much about the outdoors. In November last year, I was tempted by something different. I hadn’t walked much outside of Europe and tempted by tales of dramatic landscapes on the edge of the Sahara, I signed up for a week walking in North Africa.

Nomadic Ventures, part of the Wilderplaces group, have been organising trips to Morocco for many years. It had been a bit of a slog to get there via London but direct flights to Agadir from Dublin, Cork and Belfast now makes Morocco extremely accessible. Most people on the flight were heading either for the beach resorts of Agadir and Essaouira or the bustling port towns Tangiers and Casablanca. Our plan though was inland.

Although not as well known as the Pyrenees, Alps or the Himalaya, the Atlas Mountains are ideal for trekking. Most visitors head for the High Atlas, home of Morocco’s highest peak Djebel Toubkal (4,167m). Our destination though was the more remote Western Atlas, home to the Berber, the longest-established inhabitants of Morocco. Berber hospitality is famous and very genuine. For most of the trip, we were to be the only non-Berbers in the area. If you want Coca-Cola, you have to bring your own.

Our base was Taroudannt, a town of 30,000 people about an hour by taxi from Agadir. Taroudannt’s economy is trade- rather than tourism-based and we certainly found it safe, friendly and laid back. It is regarded as one of the most elegant towns in all of Morocco with a bab, kasbah, koubba, medina, and the minarets and riab as you’d expect in an Arab Town.

Our group was a mixed one, combining Sunday ramblers with high altitude climbers. Once we got out of the town, the trek was supported by local guides, cooks, and mules to carry gear and food. Not that much extra gear was required. Apart from a 4-season sleeping bag and some rain-gear, just in case, it’s shorts and sun tan lotion all the way.

Weather in this part of the world is not guaranteed, but we had blistering sunshine every day. Temperature did drop at night but my memory is of being wrapped up warmly and sitting around camp-fires being entertained by the cooks and porters. Drumming was their thing and we let them at it rather intervene although they were impressed when one of our party was able to produce a flute and play the Coolin.

The mountains are out of mobile phone coverage, although the really important news does manage to get through. At breakfast one morning I was told by a very excited Man. Utd. supporting guide: "McCarthy gone, Keane now play for Ireland". He was at least half right.

The route took us through mountain villages, in some cases where it was unlikely there had been westerners before. The landscape is dry, dusty and very rugged. Villages have been quite literally carved out of a mountain and the approaches to these villages are quite breath taking.

We stayed overnight in two villages, feasting on local fayre of rice, couscous and the freshest of fruit and veg. But the real pleasure was in the Hammam – a local bathing house. We entered into a very low, dark, steamy room as a group of brown people and emerged again a half hour later somewhat whiter – you’ve got to experience this to appreciate the pleasure.

The longest day was a climb right up Immaraden, the highest peak in the area and higher than I’d been before. Everyone made it to the top giving us a very excited summit photo (with flags and all), a de rigueur part of any trekking experience.

The week was certainly great fun. The terrain was challenging at times, but the route for the following day could always be varied if anyone was struggling. I certainly found that for a break in a dreary November, we had a great time and would not hesitate to return.

My memories of the week are the peace and quiet of the mountains and walking in my shorts during November, all combined with market days, hammams, making bread the Berber way, souks, mint tea and of course fantastic scenery.

Day 1: Dublin-Agadir. Transfer to Taroudannt
Day 2: By taxi to Ouhed Brehil and truck to Tigouag (height 1650m)
Day 3: Day trek to the Tichka Plateau (2600m)
Day 4: Up to the northern rim to Immaraden (3350m) and down to Tizi ‘n Targa (2800m)
Day 5: Quick jaunt (1st Irish group!) up Askawn (3100m)
Day 6: Down to Taghmout in the Medlawa valley (1550m)
Day 7: Last day to Imoulas and back to Taroudant
Day 8: Shopping in Taroudant, then flight home to Dublin

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