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Published: September 29th 2019
Even the loftiest of mountains begins on the ground ~ Moroccan Proverb
Today we were travelling south from Marrakesh to Aroumd
We left Marrakesh around 9am and drove through the city with the snow-capped High Atlas looming on the horizon. This alluring and pervasive mountain range dominates the southern skyline of Marrakesh, and it wasn’t long before we were climbing and winding our way up towards the snow. As we ascended, the road narrowed and the scenery changed dramatically. There were steep drops to one side with barely enough room for two cars to pass. Tiny villages were set into arid hillsides, and I wondered what prevented them from tumbling down into the valley below. And all the while, the ever-present High Atlas Mountains towered above us.
Near-empty river beds ran along the valley floor, and occasionally we would descend into them, only to continue our ascent towards Imlil, a small bustling village used by many as a trekking base for the Toubkal National Park. We arrived in the late morning, stored our main packs in the upstairs room of a local hotel, placed our daypacks into the saddle bags of a few resident mules and set out on an uphill trek along rocky mountain paths to
the tiny Berber village of Aroumd. This walk was incredibly picturesque. With the High Atlas towering above us, we passed stone houses, shady orchards and villagers straddling mules and donkeys along the way. We arrived in Aroumd around midday.
I’m not sure that I’ve adequately described the stark and rugged beauty of the environment in which we were walking. The mountains were so peaceful, quiet and remote. I felt so incredibly far from the madding crowd. My affinity with the landscape felt so unconstrained and absolute. The air was clear, the sky was blue… my soul was free. Yet only a few months earlier in these very foothills, two young Scandinavian women were savagely beheaded by a mob of Islamic State supporters. They were on a Christmas camping trip. Studying to become tour guides. In their mid-twenties. They, like me, would have loved this place. I struggled to reconcile the horror of their deaths with the scenery around me.
Despite the sun being out, it was quite cold in the shade. Luckily our steep ascent kept us warm. On arrival at our hilltop home stay (Chez Hadj Omar) we were greeted with a welcome hot mint tea and
a plate of different nut varieties, which we enjoyed on a sunny rooftop terrace. The view from the terrace was extraordinary. We had a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Mt Toubkal (Northern Africa’s highest peak), along with a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains and hills. This really was a magical place.
Lunch was served on the terrace, and what an amazing feast it was. We started with hot lentil soup, fresh salad and khobz
(traditional round bread), before Berber omelettes
(omelettes cooked in a tagine), meat skewers and an enormous bowl of steaming rice were placed on the table. The meal was sensational, as was the hospitality of our hosts. And it was our first sample of rice since arriving in the country.
This was the Morocco I’d travelled halfway across the world to experience. Here we were, isolated in the mountains, surrounded by rugged hills jutting into the sky. What an extraordinary, extraordinary place. Morocco has been described as a cold country with a hot sun
, but I’d go one step further and describe it as a cold country with a hot sun and a warm heart
After lunch we dropped our daypacks in
our very dark and VERY basic room, then headed back up to the rooftop terrace to warm ourselves in the afternoon sun. I settled at a table and caught up on my travel writing using pen and paper, as I’d left my laptop in Imlil (having no desire to lug it on the trek to this remote hilltop village). With the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains towering above me, this was one of the most fantastic and relaxing locations I’ve ever written in.
I headed off on a four hour trek to the shrine of Sidi Chamharouch in the early afternoon, while Ren stayed and explored the village. My cold hadn’t lifted and my voice was still breaking, but I was feeling ok. We walked down from Aroumd into a flat river bed, followed a stony track along the valley floor and soon started ascending on fairly steep and narrow zigzagging tracks, with a fast flowing river (actually more of a stream) way below us. As we walked, the drop-off on one side of the track was gradual, but the higher we climbed, the steeper it became. After about an hour and a half of walking, my vertigo stepped in,
so I opted to sit out the last thirty minutes of the climb. I sat quietly on the side of the track as local guides took tourists up to the shrine – some walking, some on the backs of long suffering donkeys.
As I sat I was joined by a flock of alpine choughs (small black birds with yellow beaks), and they were very interested in my presence. I’m not sure if it was mere curiosity on their part, or whether they thought I was on my last legs and would make for a good meal that night. For most of the time I sat in complete silence, mesmerised by the flowing water below and the birds circling above. It was an incredible and very relaxing experience. Mountain goats came and went and clouds drifted over the mountain tops, shutting out the sun and nullifying any semblance of warmth in the late afternoon. My hands felt the cold, but I had sufficient layers to stay warm as I waited for my fellow travellers to return. I sat for ninety minutes in the mountain’s silent presence, and it was exhilarating.
As my fellow travellers came into view down the
mountainside, I joined them on our return journey to Aroumd. The late afternoon chill had well and truly set in, but walking downhill allowed me to warm up. We made our way back to the village, passing apple groves with white blossom and cherry trees on the way. Aroumd is very isolated – one of the last inhabited (and inhabitable) places before the High Atlas juts sharply into the sky.
We arrived back at the homestay in the early evening. I quickly showered in warmish water and rugged up with nearly every layer of clothing I had in my daypack before settling in a communal room for a home-cooked meal. We started with mint tea, warmed with a tasty harira
(Moroccan tomato soup) and khobz
bread before replenishing our energy with a comforting lamb tagine served with vegetables and potatoes. We finished the meal with fresh fruit.
We sat up for a while and struggled with the homestay’s intermittent wifi, but it wasn’t long before we retired to our icy dark internal bedroom (with no windows). We slept fully clothed, which kept us warm for most of our cold, cold night in the High Atlas Mountains.
woke early in darkness and began to prepare for the day ahead. It was reasonably cold, but nothing like the night before. We were sharing a single toilet and shower with a number of fellow travellers, so time was in short supply. We organised our daypacks and headed into the communal room for breakfast, which was a very simple affair – tea, orange juice, boiled eggs and msemen
(flaky Moroccan flatbread). It was nourishing, which was all we needed. We were trekking back down into Imlil where we’d left our main packs the previous day, and we were setting off early (8:30am).
The air was brisk but the sun was out, and we soon discovered that it was warm in the sun and cold in the shade. The sharp lines of the mountains against the deep blue sky gave the landscape a two-dimensional character. The contrast of mountain against sky was so perfect that it almost had a bluescreen cinematographic effect – to the point where it didn’t seem real.
We slowly descended a narrow rocky path from Aroumd to Imlil, making way as best we could for donkeys and locals on their way up into the mountains.
There wasn’t enough room for two people to pass, so we were happy to scramble up the scree to ensure the donkey’s arduous journey wasn’t interrupted.
We picked up our packs where we’d stored them the day before (in the upstairs room of a local hotel), jumped into a minibus and drove about 15km to the small town of Asni
where a traditional Berber market is held every Saturday. Luckily for us, we were travelling on a Saturday.
We wandered around the market for about half an hour, and it was a lively place. Nearly every type of produce was available, including fruits, vegetables and meat. We wandered past stalls with no semblance of refrigeration selling live poultry, headless chickens (very recently so), goat’s heads, cow’s heads, hanging carcasses, offal varieties and fish at varying stages of freshness. The smell was intense, and we were followed everywhere by jewellery sellers who were continually offering their goods at ever declining prices.
We were still in the foothills of the High Atlas on the northern side of the mountain range, and to get to our next destination we had to cross the mountains (via Morocco’s highest pass) to the
southern side. We were travelling to Ait Benhaddou on the edge of the Sahara Desert – a six hour journey by road – and it was late in the morning. Time to go! We jumped into the minibus and began our slow and winding descent out of the mountains. After a quick cafe nous nous
(a local cafe latte) on a servo terrace with bright sunlight warming our backs, we started our journey east, then north, then south, with the ever-present snow-capped Atlas Mountains shadowing the southern horizon. SHE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Marrakesh to Aroumd
(pronounced Arr-umm-m-d), by minibus and trekking!
We had been woken by a few work phone calls at 1am and 2am, and then slept restlessly until 5:30am. We finally gave up and woke at 6am. It was Friday and we were leaving the city for the mountains after breakfast.
Breakfast at the Les Trois Palmiers Hotel was lack lustre for me that morning – they weren’t serving my favourite msemen
(flaky Moroccan flatbread). I tried the beghrir
(spongy honeycombed semolina pikelets) but didn’t really take to them. So what’s a girl to do? Hit the cake and pastry
station of course! I had as many slices of their bread and butter pudding as I could. By the time I left the table I was starting to look like a pudding myself. 😊
When we checked out and piled into our minibus, the Red City was glowing in warm morning light as the sun rose over the Atlas Mountains and softly bounced along the ochre-hued buildings. The flurry of traffic picked up pace as we navigated multi lane roads in rush hour.
Finally leaving the bustle of Marrakesh behind, we drove towards the High Atlas Mountains. We were heading for a homestay in a gite
(traditional Berber mountain lodge) with a local family. We felt that there would be no better way to feel totally immersed in the local Berber village and mountain life than by staying with locals in this way.
Before we arrived in Morocco, I’d been fascinated by the chain of the Atlas Mountain range that seemed to stretch through most of the country. The range is divided by elevation into High-, Middle- and Anti- sections. We’d got very close to the Middle Atlas in Fes but didn’t quite get into
themselves. So I was very excited for our first excursion into Morocco’s best known mountain range.
When booking our trip, this part of the journey had excited us the most. However, a few months before the trip began, two young female tourists had been murdered while they camped on the side of the mountain very close to Aroumd. It was claimed as an ISIS inspired crime and dozens of people were arrested when the police uncovered a terrorist cell. We don’t get spooked easily, so this didn’t put us off the trip… but we were sadly very aware that those two girls had been senselessly killed while enjoying a part of Morocco that we were about to experience. 😞
We drove into the Ait Mizane Valley, with the scenery moving from urban to rural to mountainous in almost a blink of an eye. The drive was spectacular, with irrigated terraced fields of fruit trees and vegetables in the foreground and stunning views of stark dirty brown mountains in the distance. The sheer drops on the side of the road added to the adventure!
We were heading to Imlil, a town that we were going to use as
a gateway for our mountain trek. We passed the well-known market town of Asni and arrived in Imlil in just over an hour. Sitting at 1800m above sea level, Imlil is a small town in the foothills of the mountains. It is generally the last stop for trekkers hoping to conquer Mt Toubkal – the tallest peak of the High Atlas, and the tallest mountain in North Africa at 4167m.
We stored our big packs in a guesthouse on a very steep hill, and gratefully used their toilet before we commenced our trek. We were only taking a small daypack each for the trek (and night) in the mountains, and Khalid (our group leader) had organised a couple of mules to transport the daypacks to our gite
. As with using donkeys to carry our bags in Moulay Idriss, a few of us were hesitant about using the mules… but it was again explained that it gave work to the local farmers in the off-season. The donkeys we used in Moulay Idriss were obviously well fed and looked after, but sadly, I couldn’t say the same about these mountain mules. 😞
Setting off on our trek, we first meandered
uphill though Imlil, then cut between two houses and found ourselves walking through immensely picturesque orchards of apple and cherry trees in full white and pink blossom! There were also walnut trees that were just starting to leaf, and they added another colour to the otherwise dark brown landscape. I happened to look up and was blown away at the stunning snow covered peaks of the Atlas Mountains towering above us. We seemed to be literally at the base of Mt Toubkal.
Then the real ascent began. It was wildly beautiful walking up terraced steps between orchards and farms, and before navigating steep zigzagging paths in the hills past old trees and massive boulders. At certain points we’d have to move to the edge of the narrow rocky path to let mules overtake us (including the ones carrying our daypacks). It was a continuous uphill climb, and the constant incline made itself felt very quickly. It didn’t take long before my lungs started to protest at both the climb and the pure cold mountain air! Luckily stopping to take photos gave me a chance to catch my breath and actually enjoy the walk. 😊
After about an hour
we arrived at Aroumd, a tiny village sprawled on a mountainside. Under the watchful eye of the village children, we walked up to our gite
– Chez Hadj Omar – which was in the highest part of the village. Our gite
was simple but totally charming, especially the cosy rooms with rugs, low ceilings, traditional Berber artwork and locally made furniture. It certainly was far lovelier than the rustic mountain hospitality I had expected. It was set over four levels – entering by a small central courtyard, the bedrooms, shared bathrooms and living spaces spread over two levels. And then at the top, the absolute highpoint of the gite
– a rooftop with a jaw dropping view of Mt Toubkal directly ahead of us!
Our hosts welcomed us with sesame sweets, nuts and hot mint tea on that rooftop. We snacked and hydrated on the mint tea while we lazed in the brilliant sun and waited for the two members of the group who were being carried up the mountain on mules (after opting out of the trek). I couldn’t stop staring at the snowy wild magnificence of Mt Toubkal.
The Berber people of this area were traditionally
nomads. They would arrive in the Atlas Mountains from the Sahara in summer, looking for water and food for their animals. They stayed in caves, tents or simple structures built of stones. Before winter set in they would make the long journey back to the Sahara where vegetation would have started growing again. Many of those nomadic Berbers have since settled in permanent villages like Aroumd. They have also gradually moved into the cities, but the majority of the Berber population still live in the mountains and the Sahara.
I had worked up a huge appetite on the trek and it seemed like hours since we’d breakfasted in Marrakesh. So when they served us lunch on the long dining table on the rooftop, we fell upon the food like starving hordes. The traditional Berber food was absolutely amazing. We started with fresh and cooked salads, followed by a thick lentil soup with khobz
(traditional round leavened bread). Then came juicy chicken skewers, a bowl of rice and amazing Berber omelettes
(omelette cooked in a tagine). This was my first Berber omelette
and I was immediately in love with the smoky flavour.
That afternoon most of the group opted
for a four hour guided trek to the pilgrimage shrine of Sidi Chamharouch on the way to the summit of Mt Toubkal. However, a few of us decided to explore the little village instead. Aroumd is the last/highest settlement in this part of the High Atlas Mountains and it fascinated me.
Jasmin, Dot and I spent a few hours wandering through the higgledy-piggledy lanes of the village. We decided to start at the top of the village and find our way down to the river on the other side of the village. The path was never straightforward, and we came across a few dead ends and sudden drop offs. The village was a jumble of very old stone houses and more recent cement constructions. Most of the houses were built right to the path and had their front doors open, so I was very conscious of not intruding on the privacy of the locals when we stopped to take photos.
The village was very quiet because it was a Friday afternoon, but there were heaps of kids around. While the kids were happy to say hello and engage with us, it was sad that some of them asked
if we wanted to take their photos for a fee. Clearly tourists who pass through here have been quite irresponsible.
There was a small Argan Oil cooperative at the entrance to the village, so we dropped in to check out their products. The lady running the shop gave us a brief introduction to the argan nut and its associated health and cosmetic benefits. The argan tree is endemic to Morocco and the oil produced from its kernels is a prized commodity. It’s mostly used for hair and skin products, however in its most pure form, it’s also an edible oil. It was an interesting shop, but in a week or so we were going to be in the small region of Morocco where the argan trees grow, so I resisted buying anything at this point and continued our walk.
Aroumd is perched on a rocky outcrop of the mountains, so the edges of the village held stunning views in all directions, and it made me feel quite dwarfed by the openness and stark mountains. I really enjoyed our walk through the village, but the steep hills and big steps challenged my already tired legs.
We drifted back
to the gite
when the sun started to lose its heat and the wind started picking up. The bright light dulled rapidly and the brisk air was now filled with the smell of woodstoves. I sat on our gite’s
rooftop for a little while, still absolutely mesmerised by the colossal peak of Mt Toubkal. However, the blue skies and snow dappled peak started disappearing behind grey clouds that had rapidly descended on the mountains, and the chill in the air was immediate!
I thought of Andrew walking through that cold mountain range and hoped he’d taken enough warm clothing for the rapidly changing weather conditions. I had a hot shower and congregated with others in the vast living room as we waited for the rest of the group to return from the walk. The fire wasn’t yet lit and the house was freezing, so Jasmin and I huddled together under a big blanket and had a lovely chat about living in Hobart. We were happy little campers when the fire was eventually started by Mohammed the caretaker, and when the wifi router was turned on. The wifi turned out to be very sporadic, but our minibus for this portion
of the trip had great wifi, so it wasn’t really an issue.
When the group returned from their walk they were rather frozen, so they welcomed the hot mint tea we were served. The tea was accompanied by a delicious thin fried pastry with honey and jams. As delicious as it was, Khalid told us that a tagine was bubbling away on the stove for dinner, so I restrained myself.
Dinner started with a warming harira soup
(a minestrone-like hearty soup of tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and noodles) with khobz
bread. The much anticipated tagine was a lamb tagine
with vegetables and potatoes. Interestingly, it was a much lighter flavoured dish to the other lamb tagines we’d had so far. We finished the meal with slices of honeydew melon and bananas, served with mountain lemon verbena tea.
The only heating in the gite
was in the living room, and our tiny dark room was on the other side of the house, so it was seriously freezing! We were in bed by 10pm, and we had to sleep fully clothed to keep warm! Surprisingly, we got a reasonable night’s sleep considering how very very cold it was. When I
woke at 6:30am, the room actually felt warmer than the night before!
We were served breakfast at 7:30am, and it was a simple affair of tea, coffee and bread accompanied by a tray of breakfast condiments – olive oil, laughing cow cheese, honey, nutella, apricot jam, plum jam and amlou
(an oily spread made with ground almonds, argan oil and honey). The msemen
was more rustic in flavour and thickness than we’d had before, and it was quite delicious with the amlou
spread. The locals call amlou
‘Moroccan nutella’, but it was nothing like nutella – it was basically an almond butter. There were also eggs and yoghurt, but I skipped those in favour of having as much msemen
to fortify me for the trek that morning.
We thanked our hosts and began our trek back down to Imlil at 8:30am. We had walked up through the farmed valleys the day before, but were returning via a different route. It was a brisk morning with gorgeous bright sun – perfect mountain walking weather. We first walked down to the river at the bottom of the village, crossed the bridge and started walking up into the hills
across from Aroumd. It was quite stunning seeing how precariously placed Aroumd seemed to be on that sheer mountainside, looking directly into the face of mighty Mt Toubkal. We began zigzagging down a rocky and sandy path, and it required quite a bit for concentration to keep an even footing and not roll an ankle. Every so often we had to stand to the side of the path to let mules and donkeys pass on the very narrow track. It was a very beautiful walk and I enjoyed it very much.
We met our minibus back at the guesthouse in Imlil where we’d left our big packs. After an essential toilet stop, we loaded our packs onto the minibus and started our journey out of the High Atlas Mountain range. It was going to be a long six hour trip to our destination, but we had a few stops planned to break the trip up.
We first stopped at Asni
, the largest town in the area and the administrative capital. It was the weekly Saturday market and an ideal day to visit. It was mostly a produce, food and meat market, with a just a few houseware stalls.
The butchery section was the most ‘noteworthy’. By this stage of our trip I was used to seeing whole carcases swinging in the breeze, but the freshly beheaded chicken’s and goat’s heads were a little confronting! It was a very local market, but it was obvious that a few tourists must visit the market as this was one of the first places we were constantly hassled by men following us and trying to sell bad quality bracelets.
Khalid bought a bag of very delicious looking strawberries for us to taste, but Andrew was a bit uncertain about the water used to wash the fruit, and luckily stopped me from having any. It may have been ok, but we had been tummy-bug-free up until now, and we didn’t want to tempt fate with eating fresh fruit straight from the market.
About 30 minutes later we stopped for a coffee and toilet break at a small service station. Incredibly, it had a rooftop terrace with a 360 degree view of the landscape, and in particular of the beautiful mountain range we were leaving behind. The day was starting to really warm up, so we sat on the cafe rooftop with
our cafe nous nous
(like a cafe latte but with a frothier top) glasses in hand and enjoyed our last gaze at the snow-dappled Atlas Mountain range surrounding us.
Our trip to Aroumd had been a massive highlight, and gave us a taste of the unique Berber culture in the High Atlas Mountains. And dare I say it – it definitely matched that much-too-overused phrase ‘off the beaten path’.
Next we travel southeast to Ait Benhaddou, a Ksar that exemplifies Moroccan mudbrick architecture.
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