From the Dades to the M'goun

One says that the Atlas mountains are relatively undeveloped and they are still relatively little visited. I wanted to know why Morocco, with its labyrinthine medieval cities, isolated hilltop casbahs, and epic landscapes, has fascinated travelers for millennia.


From the Dades to the M'goun

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

Asselda Mountain (2984m) Amsoud Mountain (3174m) M'goun Mountain (4068m)${QuickSuggestions} click here.${BestWay} Walking trail.

Day 1 : Marrakech

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

A five-hour flight takes us from Brussels Airport to Marrakech , with an intermediate landing in Casablanca. When we step outside the airport it already has become dark. In comparison with other Arabian airports I've been to, the small international Aéroport Marrakesh-Menara is very quiet and peaceful. With a few taxis we drive to the city-centre, about seven km of the airport. For me, arriving in the Red City, it is not such an overwhelming experience. It feels more like an undisturbed fuss. Although there is a lot of commotion in the streets and traffic seems a little bit chaotic, there's not so much assault of sound. Our hotel, Hôtel de Foucauld (Avenue El-Mouahidine), is impressively decorated in Morroccan style and its location is only a few footsteps away from Djemaa al-Fna, the city's central square. On arrival in the restaurant, the smell of simmering tagines with plums and almonds brings water to my mouth. One says that the Moroccan cuisine is among the best in the world and after this delicious diner I can only agree!

After diner - and meanwhile it has become midnight but due to the time difference it just feels like 10 o'clock - we decide to have a look around the busy Djemaa al-Fna. The famous town square of Marrakech owes little of its fame to its own beauty, but to the continuous day and night life. Years ago, it was a large grain market, or suq. Djemaa al-Fna means "assembly of the dead", referring to a time when the heads of executed criminals were displayed on poles around the square. Now it's one of the most extraordinary sights in Marrakesh because of the people working there: storytellers, snake-charmers, musicians, water-carriers in their outlandish costumes, healers, traders and lots of orange-juice and food stalls (photo ). There is also lots of commercial activity going on, but it is mostly clothing and tourist items. All together they form a shifting scene of vivid colour. People are swarming over the square. The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. Some of the acts are shrouded in smoke from the many food stalls where a sea of flames shoots high through the barbecue while setting the sausages on fire (photo ). Doesn't this kick up a tremendous fuss? What a spectacle! Remember that if you listen, watch or take photographs you will be expected to pay. Travel light and put some small change in your pocket. Men with jallabahs (large hooded smock with sleeves) and pointed shoes wander about the streets on little mopeds. They look like witches on motorbikes instead of brooms! We end the day (night) slurping at a mint tea on a terrace.


Day 2 : From Marrakech to the Dades valley

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

Early in the morning we leave for Ouarzazate. It promises to be a long trip. Furthermore this will be our first introduction with the Atlas mountains. We start a climb to Tizi n'Tichka over the highest highway of Morocco (2260m). The road goes from bad to worse. If you are seated next to the window on the ravine side, the treacherous hairpins on the winding road make a breathtaking ride of it. Now, it's a bit late to think of broken-down brake blocks, bald tires or the forgotten travel insurance! As we criss-cross through the mountains the panoramic views are of exceptional beauty. The higher we rise, the more mountain ridges follow each other, all with their own colours. The highest tops are still covered with a layer of snow. Behind the Atlas we enter another part of Morocco. Ouarzazate is set in the middle of an enormous rocky desert, the beginning of the Sahara. It sits at the junction of the Drâa, Dades and Ouarzazate valleys that makes it a site of strategic importance. Ouarzazate is also a boomtown with a prosperous film industry but it seems rather calm after the frenetic buzz of Marrakesh. We stop to visit the great Taourirt Kasbah . Kasbahs were former palaces of 'pashas' and were located beside the ancient caravan trade routes from the Sahara to the Mediterrainean, from Timbouctou to Spain. The 100-year old kasbah of Ouarzazate stands out as an exquisite example of how to take care of one's heritage with style. The entrance is clearly a bit on the clean and proper side, as if it was prepared for a foreign filmtake ­ something that happens quite a lot actually. Among the better spots for making movies (f.e. The Sheltering Sky) there is the beautiful Palace of Glaoui on the highest point. All in all it could remind you of Yemen, an impression that is helped by the white painting around windows on some of the houses.

We move on eastwards to Skoura where we stop for a picnic under huge olive trees near the ruins of an old kasbah of Amerdihil near the Dades river. Next we drive on to the Dades valley where we put up in the kasbah of Ibrahim and his family. Ibrahim, a schoolteacher, has restored this kasbah of Boumalne du Dades for the purpose of staying overnight. And doing so it has become a gîte. With four people, we sleep on the floor in a big room covered with carpets. It is recommendable to bring a sleeping-mat and a sleeping-bag because those gîtes don't always provide bedding. This will keep you warm and will also take some of the sting out of the hard ground.

Day 3 : Starting point

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

Early in the morning we get a guided tour through the kasbah of Ibrahim. A kasbah is a typical Berber building; an either large, communal house, that looks like a small fortress. Like most of the kasbahs, this one too is a square, fortified pisé (mud wedged between wooden boards) structure with turrets at each corner. For me, this one is much nicer than the one we saw yesterday in Ouarzazate.

A mini-bus takes us for an exciting ride through the dramatic rock scenery of the Dades gorge. As we leave Boumalne du Dades , the mountains close up on both sides. It looks like an enormous limestone rock slashed through with a single sabre-cut. In this ripped open universe, the wonderful kasbah of Bou Taghrar takes over chameleonic the purplish and reddish colours of the rocks. The strength of the colours will never escape my memory. Serpentine roads leads us slowly through community after community, villages set apart by dramatic twirls in the mountains, or by the fresh river meandering through the middle. Our imagination is fed by the marvelous nature that unfolds while we carefully make sure that we do not drive off the road. The Dades Gorge gives us a fairytale feeling.

A few hours later we move on into the desolate wasteland, a desertlike, rocky scenery with sharp drops and steep-sided hills. Finally we enter the High Atlas mountains. Around midday, near a small river, we accompany the porters, seven mules and a cook. Using a mule means you put money straight into the local pockets. But getting an exact definition of the service and payment from the muleteers will avoid misunderstandings afterwards. When that is arranged, we set off on the first day of our trek, a ride on the wild side through the heart of the High Atlas with breathtaking scenery and overnight stops in memorable wilderness locations. Fortunately our baggage, tents and food are carried by these incredibly strong and sure-footed mules for the rest of our journey in the mountains. Each mule carries about 100 kilos that usually equates to five backpacks. From now on we will be exposed to any kind of weather and as soon as we start walking, the weather turns. A cloudy sky has hidden the sun and because of the strong blasts we regularly have to shelter behind walls in the little villages. The valley of the kasbah village El Hot, we walk through, is very green and fertile. The Berber people are wellknown for their inventive irrigation systems by which, like the roots of a tree, water is channeled off the main stream and runs down through their valley by a simple dam. The water runs in ever-smaller channels, ultimately branching into channels that run through the fields. As we walk through these green fields over small paths beside the channels, we reach an enormous gorge. When we enter the gorge the key question pops up if we should exchange our walking shoes for sandals. For me it's no big deal because I only brought my walking shoes. Hopefully the water isn't that deep this time of the year. The walk through these vertiginous steep rocks - not more than ten metres in wide - is very relaxing. I even manage to get through without wet feet albeit the water sometimes stood as high as the edge of my walking boots. When we leave the cleft the weather has become very bad. Heavy wind and rain will accompany us until we reach the first gîte d'etappe at the small village of Alemdoun at an altitude of 1753m. Little children play hide-and-seek with my camera. Once we have found shelter inside the gîte, it stops raining. Luckily the sun joins in again with us the next morning.

Day 4 : The beginning of the walking trail

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

We start walking through a valley following a small river along divers terraces and irrigation channels. Like in a journey of time, we are brought back to the archaic world of the Berber. In the villages we pass, most of the people, and mainly the children, are very shy. From the moment someone brings his camera to the surface they run away and hide. One of my two cameras get jammed so I must chose if I want to shoot black and white or colour photographs. Step by step we start to rise. From this moment on, we have to live in a world of stone for almost two whole weeks. Rocks, stones, pebblestone, sand... and furthermore - almost nothing. And by the remorseless sun, even the stones get thirsty. Only the green islands that form oasis, don't fit in this picture. They look like swimming in this petrified ocean, of which the waves have come to standstill far above the little villages, ready to devour everything that lives here.

Brave, but nevertheless breakable, the mud brick Berber castles lie in the middle of these fertile oasis. Masterpieces in a landscape, perfect in harmony with their environment. From afar they look like strong and impregnable fortresses. But if you come closer, the ingenious structures appear elegant and fragile. Those who want to live in the middle of this stone world have to be strong and stand rough handling. The Berber people hang onto this and live here for many generations. They defy storms that lash the mountains. They defy the dryness when it doesn't rain for months. They defy the floods when the heavens open up. And they also defy the Arabic conquerors who drove them away from the fertile settlements and put them to flight into the mountains and the desert. Here they live, this is their home, in a landscape, how life-threatening it seems, still so infinite fascinating.

Not far away from Tichki (2344m) we reach a green plain between the mountains where we pitch our tents. This will be our first bivouac. It seems that the boys from the village come here to play soccer. Not that I'm such an enthusiastic football fan but I couldn't resist to play a match with them. And that of course isn't such a good idea as I soon sprain my ankle because the plain isn't so even as I possibly though. At the moment I don't feel bad. Before going to sleep, I bath my foot in the ice-cold water of a small river nearby. Unfortunately, the painful ankle disturbs my first night in the tent.


Day 5 : The Asselda mountain

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

Six o'clock in the morning. After a splash in the cold water again, I put some ointment on my wrenched muscles and tape my ankle with a stretchy bandage. Maybe I should have done this yesterday evening too. My first steps on the loose stones make it clear that I have to be very cautious. Luckily we soon leave the dry riverbed and start a steep climb. For the first time the sweat is running off my face. And the sun makes it even harder. We pass some shepherds who are about to go for a walk with their flock through the mountains. During the night the sheep and goats are kept together within a walled fence. Now, it's time to lead the cattle out to pasture. But there isn't much green for them to graze, only thorn-bushes. I'm wet with sweat. Gasping for water, I stop several times during this climb to sip at my water bottle. On top of the Asselda (2984m) we have an outstanding panoramic view and we also get an idea of how this hike will lead us to the top the M'goun mountain. Stillness, relaxation, restfulness and tranquillity are words that slip my mind. Not even the noise or the presence of a single airplane in the sky. This is what I had in mind when I left for Morocco. We can see that there's not much snow left on the tops of the surrounding mountains.

My foot stood very firm as we climbed but during the steep decent I have to let the group go as they run downwards. I carefully drop down a steep scree path. I know that if I sprain my ankle again this will probably be the end of my mountain trip. After a descent of 600m I rejoin the group in the shade of some almonds and walnut trees. We pause for our freshly prepared, daily picnic lunch, before pushing on to the next camp. The wind rustles through the little, bright green leaves of the trees and brings us some refreshment. I refill my water bottle by the cascade of a small creek . A little bit further I take off my hiking shoes to refresh my ankle and feet again. I don't know the first thing about birds but I have already seen some beauties around here. The multicoloured bee-eater, with its green, yellow and red colours, is the most stunning one so far. The whole afternoon we move on to Amassin . We pass through little villages surrounded by a patchwork of green fields among the magnificent peaks of the High Atlas. Towards the evening, we put up our tents on the loose stones of the dry riverbed near the village. It was a good idea to take a sleeping-mat with me because it will not only keep me warm, it will also take some sting out of the hard ground. We attract a great deal of attention. Almost every kid has come down to watch us settle for the night. Like foreign astronauts, we are surrounded by most of the villagers. Exotic items in an old world. Our appearance is that of many wide-eyed children standing and starring in awe. Once again we have to refresh in the ice-cold water of a small creek. I think we better get used to this for the days left. When the sun goes down, it cools off very fast and it's time to zip my trouser-legs back on and to put on a warm fleece again. After everybody has done his washing and cleaning we huddle together in one of the larger tents for supper: soup, stewed vegetables and a can of fruit for dessert. When the last round of tea is poured, we play cards and have a good laugh. Outside, the wind throws fragments of singing, coming from a wedding party in the village, into the silence of the night...

Day 6 : The Amsoud mountain

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

For the first time, we will go higher than 3000m. Sun cream, sunglasses and headgear would be no luxury. Luckily the complete expedition gear, including tents, camp stoves, tools, a large clump of sugar and food are carried by the mules, otherwise it wouldn't be imaginable. Today, the drivers take another route so we have to take a picnic with us. Rising, descending and rising again. In the midst of the fantasy mountain scenery, the sun burns down on us fiercely. Even if I think I'm in a desolate area, either a shepherd appears with his flock or somebody is ploughing a small field at this altitude. I guess you're never really alone in the High Atlas. The peak of this trail will be the climb of the Amsoud (3174m). On top, the panoramic view steals my breath. No forests, no streets, no houses, nothing other than space and light. We descend to the colourful plateau near the spring of Timatras. This will be our bivouac place for the next two days. Tomorrow, we will put it to the test and climb the M'goun mountain.

We are not alone on this upland plain. Our neighbours, two young Berber boys, live a bit further in a cave with their herd. One of them has filled his plastic containers with water at the spring and carries it home. When we sit and enjoy the beauty of this place, we also witness a fascinating fight between a falcon and two giant, black crows. At night uncountable stars twinkle icily in the sky. It promises to be bitter cold now we camp at an altitude of 2850m. Because we have to get up very early in the morning we soon hit the sack. To be sure I sleep well in my bivvy-bag tonight, I even put on some extra thermal underwear.


Day 7 : The M'goun traverse

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

It's not even six o'clock when I crawl out of the trekking tent. A tin layer of ice covers the moss around it. A long journey lays in front of us and it also promises to be a tough and heavy day. Shall I manage to reach the top of the second highest mountain of Morocco? While it is estimated that over 90% of walkers head to the Toubkal region, the M'goun Massif is a more remote part of the High Atlas than Toubkal. Its highest peak is Ighil M'goun (4068m).

Before sunrise we are already trudging through the loose stones in a straight line. The sunrise first lights up the peak of the Atlas mountains, creeps over the cliff and begins to warm us, then flows to the foothills of the Atlas. The High Atlas mountains are characterised by jagged peaks and steep-sided valleys with long scree slopes. The first hours are more or less easy zig-zagging but once we reach those broken stones we take some hard knocks and my condition is put to the proof. At this point, it quite suddenly starts to ascend very steeply. I see that some of us go for the slanting flank and by every step they take they slide back down again.

I decide to go straight ahead but that isn't easy either. This part of the climb is a very exhausting activity and it takes a lot of energy to get to the brow that also marks the start of a steep-sided ridge. Awfully! I'm completely out of breath and in dire need of water and candy. Now I feel that I haven't done anything to train for this kind of mountaineering. Much to my relief, the M'goun summit is clearly visible from this point. While I catch my breath, the panoramic view steals it again. Some of the surrounding peaks are still covered with snow. We follow the stunning ridge for a further 30 minutes. This stretch of the trek is not for the faint -hearted; at some points the ridge is very narrow and luckily for us there's not much wind. With a last effort I bridge the final steep section of ascent that takes me to the summit and then I rejoin the group on the roof of the M'goun Massif. It's windless and we lay down for a nap in the warmth of the sun. This really signifies the language of silence.

Time for the descend of the mountain as we want to be back at base camp before sundown. We glide over the loose stones like snowboarders do over the ice. My hiking shoes are the ones that are put to the proof this time but the descend isn't without any danger. I have to suffer the consequences of this wild ride. Because my knees have to stand hard, I slow down to relieve them. I also feel a blister coming up underneath my left foot as a result of the continuous slow down. Around four o'clock we arrive back at the bivouac and a refreshing splash in the little creek is more than welcome.

After the evening meal we touch glasses to the fact that everybody has made it to the top of the M'goun but that same night the trip takes it out of me. Or could it be as a result of the stiff whisky we had for the toast? I don't know. Luckily I can find some sleep after all...


Day 8 : Rest day

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

I get up very early in the morning but I can't remember much of last night except for the fact that I had to vomit several times and I also felt a feverish glow. As the sun comes up from behind the mountain I go refresh myself in the cold water while our neighbour Berber boy leaves his cave with his sheep and goats. I'm still not feeling quite to scratch but today we only have to walk a few hours. At breakfast I eat some extra sugar lumps to get more energy if only because of the thought itself.

We start walking beside the little creek but pretty soon we climb up a small path with loose stones and a yawning chasm on our left side. As usual and despite our quick steps, we can't keep up with the drivers and mules who race ahead to prepare the meal for our arrival. I don't see much of the vista because my eyes are almost constantly glued to the ground. It's a lot of puffing and sighing and even this short stretch is too long for me today. While the mountain path gets steeper and steeper, it gets too much for me and I ask if it's still far to the next camping place. "About 10 metres", sounds a spontaneous answer. "Hardly encouraging", I thought to myself but after a few more steps we suddenly stand in front of the tents and the mules. We are at destination. It is sweltering hot and the small river below has almost run dry. While everybody lay stretched out on the ground worshipping the sun, I seek shelter under a huge rock to get some sleep. And in the late afternoon, I already feel a lot better than before.

Day 9 : To the gorge of Tessaout and Amerzi

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

Well and fresh again! Quick as a flash, the tent is packed up. The smell of a loaf of bread, freshly baked at the break of dawn, makes me hungry. Breakfast tastes good. Today we walk through a landscape with many huge and jagged rocks that look like enormous pieces of coal, rough and ready. Coal-black. They lie scattered within this mountain area. On our way we pass some houses with terrace cultivation and young herds with their flock.

We go up again and come across another mountain pass over 3000m. In the distance, we see some bigger villages. Very slowly the rhythm of life flows through the deep valleys of the high Atlas. The flatlands of the valleys are very fertile and every possible space is cultivated. Sheer cliffs tower over the tall village houses. One of these villages will be our destination for today. So for a change, we will sleep in a gîte d'etappe again tonight. But before that, we first walk to the gorge of Tessaout. We picnic on a rock mass in the middle of the fast-flowing river. Some of us even go for a plunge. Brrr. Both sides of the river are precipitous and the walls are more than 100m high.

After lunch break, one part of the group goes upstream, a kind of canyoning, while the others follow the river downstream. I decide to join the ones who go directly to the valley. We have to clear a path against the mountain slope and edge our way through the rocks because at some places the river is too deep. In the thrill of the moment, rushing adrenaline, all our senses are sharp. At some parts as we enter the green valley, we have to balance on a small strip of land with on one side the deep rift and on the other side an irrigation channel.

The irrigation channel, which is derived from the fast-running stream, runs down through the valley. Like the roots of a tree, the irrigation system flows from water channeled off the main stream by a simple dam; the water runs down hill in ever-smaller channels, ultimately branching into channels that run through the fields. Like the approach to work in the fields in this region, the irrigation system is developed along lines that are cooperative and rotative . Everyone contributes labour to build and maintain the system. When water is distributed out to the fields, it is monitored and divided in a constant round up. And with success! It is wonderful to see so much green, walnut trees with marvellous blossoms and thousands and thousands of purple irises in the middle of these enormous mountains. It looks like a paradise-like oasis.

We descend through exciting gorges and along the fertile stream valley before winding down onto a wider track, almost a piste, which runs to the village of Tasgaywalt. Most of the houses are built of stone in this area. And thatched roofs are a rule. Between the houses stand big, magnificent hazels that provide enough shade. Everything is peaceful and little children ask us for a pen which we haven't got anymore after so many days except for the one I'm writing this story with. From the moment you get your camera ready everybody disappears. They hide behind the corner or run into their dark houses. A glimpse inside leads to the suspect that it probably is very chilly. The very thick walls protect the Berber people against cold in winter but particularly against the murderous heat in summer. The window-frames are made of steal and mostly provided with panes of glass. On our way through the village we pass a little platform with a group of children. They all hold a rectangular, wooden board in their hands with the prayers of the Koran. I feel a strong craving to take a snapshot but when I carefully ask the noble, well-dressed teacher for permission I get a silent answer in the form of a shake with his head. Perhaps it's ungracious to picture praying children for in eternity. Too bad.

As we follow the cultivated terraces and irrigation channels, we arrive in the village of destination, named Amerzi, at sunset. There's a lot more bustle and activity here and you can see elderly people and playing children everywhere. Signs with arrows immediately betray the presence of a classified gîte. This means no tent tonight. At the entrance of the gîte d'etappe it suddenly becomes very crowdy and busy. Boisterous little children, both boys and girls, gather together round us. I search for sweets and divide it amongst the young ones. They like sun cream too. In front of the gîte also sit a number of women in traditional Berber clothing with henna designs upon their palms and feet. I suspect there are three generations among them. The eldest woman her eyes look wild and she scrabbles for something to throw with at some boys while talking gibberish. It makes you sit up a bit but one of the younger girls gives a sign that she's a little bit crazy. The youngest girls sing songs and clap hands with one of us. It's a jolly fuss and everybody's smiling. There's this other thin-lipped woman who sometimes appears in the porch of the gîte with a little, satisfied smile on her face but her beauty vanishes as fast as she turns up. By the hullaballoo of loud singing an elderly man in a neat djellaba comes to look what's going on. It catches the eye that he first comes to Jan and myself to shake hands. Is it a sign of certain importance? Is it the mayor ? It's a mystery to us but we also greet him with the same friendliness, "In sha Allah". A few minutes later another man does the same so we can put the theory of the mayor aside. It's not far before sundown when the rest of the group arrives. It cools down fast and the crowd goes home. Inside the gîte we have to wait one's turn to take a shower with primitive means. First you have to put together some cold and hot water in a bucket but the idea of a warm shower gets the pleasure out of it . Within two rectangular rooms, covered with carpets, we unroll our sleeping bags, one alongside the other. After supper we all get to bed soon. Tired.


Day 10 : Tizi n'Rougoult

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Joel on April 19, 2002

In an Islamic country you should expect to wake up with a start when the sound of a muezzin starts at 5 o'clock in the morning but here the first thing I hear is an early cockcrow. A ceaseless crow withal ... It's already hot when we start walking around 9 o'clock. Out of the village of Tasgaywalt the path goes straight up again and as a consequence my face is already streaming with sweat. We keep ascending with the trail as it gets gradually steeper and the zigzags grow sharper.

There stand a lot of big junipers on the mountain slopes. They often represent the tree limit and can have very impressive dimensions. This hardy species is able to support extreme climatical conditions. Its sturdiness expresses oneself also through its resistance to mutilations. To these high altitudes (between 2000 and 3000m), the juniper constitutes the only wood findable for the inhabitants, but as a result of its regression, the mountain dweller's life will become more difficult and the disappearance of these trees will probably lead to a massive rural depopulation.

After a further 60 minutes of this the track leads onto a wide col, Tizi n'Rougoult (2860m). A network of well worn mule tracks lead over Tizi (col) to link with other valleys. There's a tempting , grassy area where we take a short break and refill our water bottles at a spring. From hereon, we will only follow the Titra stream downwards into the ravine. We criss-cross the stream jumping from one stone to another. At lunch time, we catch up with the porters and the mules at a quiet location near the stream. It has become kind of a habit that the cook has prepared a large dish with rice, pilchards, olives, oranges and lots of sliced vegetables for lunch on our arrival. After this delicious meal, it's time for a foot-bath and a siesta.

In the afternoon we set up our tents near the village of Rougoult . It will be for the last time because tomorrow we'll reach our destination point, the gîte of Agouti. After having tea at the local teacher's house we visit his classroom. The children are very enthousiastic and they even sing a song for us. That night most of us decide to sleep outside, under the open sky crowded with thousands and thousands of twinkling little stars!


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