Mt Toubkal, the Highest Mountain in North Africa
As you may be aware, I love mountains. I love the challenge of hiking to the summit, I love the wilderness and lack of people, I love staying out somewhere where the only way you can see it and experience it is to have hiked up on your own two feet and most of all I love the view from the top.
When doing a bit of googling about Morocco I searched hikes nearby, as I always do, and struck gold! A beautiful and high mountain range just out of Marrakech – whaaaat! Now you may also be aware I seem to often try and fit way too much in to not enough time. So, not wanting to miss out on this mountain goodness even when all our hiking gear (including our boots) is back home, I convinced Jono and Jared to hike up Northern Africa’s highest mountain, Mt Toubkal, quite unprepared, without a map and without enough time while wearing inappropriate footwear.
As the sun rose on Day 1 we were already up and on our way across the Marrakech medina to meet Jared. After finding him (quite spiritely for Morning Jared) we set off walking to try and find a taxi rank that we later discovered doesn’t really exist. Thanks to Jared’s taxi bargaining skills we eventually found a driver to take us to Imlil, the little village where the hike begins for 20 euro. An hour later we arrived and when we got out of the taxi there were lots of local men waiting who work as guides offering their services. However, since we were so ‘responsibly’ well armed with a ‘how – to’ blog and photos from the net on our phones we politely declined :p
Once we left the village of Imlil behind the path was easy to follow. Shortly we came to a village just above Imlil and the last between the Valley and the Mountain. It was already hot even though it was morning and Jono had wrapped his turban around his head for shade. During our trip to the desert Jono had received a fair bit of ridicule about his turban tying skills or lack thereof. Today was no exception, his turban looked semi ridiculous yet neither Jared nor myself had the heart to let him know since he’d declared quite proudly he thought this was his best effort yet. Funnily enough the first local we met while walking past the village didn’t share our reticence. He came striding out of his shop waggling his finger and saying ‘no, no, no, that is not right! That will be very hot”. He whipped it off Jonos head and expertly rewrapped it leaving Jono slightly abashed but very thankful.
Occasionally we saw other people hiking down the path and some lazy ones had even hired donkeys to carry their gear! The first day was 100% uphill, it was constant but not very steep and the track wound it’s way up through a long valley. It is 11.4 km to the mountain huts and the track 1700m of ascent. The landscape was beautiful, in the lower valleys the grass was a vivid green and the stream flowing down the middle of the valley was clear and cold. The higher you climbed the more the scenery became dry and barren and spectacular.
There were a couple of little huts along the way that sold drinks cooled in troughs full of icy water diverted from the stream. At one little village we stopped to paddle our feet, which was deliciously cooling and lovely until Jared put his hand on what we thought was algae but was in fact hundreds of leeches!
We knew we would have oodles of time to get to the top since we started hiking at 0930 and it was only expected to take 5-6 Hours. So we stopped frequently and didn’t rush. Around lunchtime we found a nice flat rock with a good view of the valley in the middle of a huge flock of sheep and goats. There were 5 shepherds responsible for the massive flock and as a party of several guides and donkeys were making their way down the path they stopped to chat. Turns out they were doing an old-fashioned business deal. One shepherd ran and caught a certain goat, carried it on his shoulders to the guide then helped him tie it onto a donkey, I felt like I was watching an event straight out of the times of David.
After a nap and laze we started out again and within only 20 minutes we could see the mountain refuge hut in the distance. Now Morocco and Moroccan food, whilst wonderful, doesn’t seem to agree so well with our Australian stomachs and so while we could now see the place we were going to be staying Jared said he might hike ahead to get there a bit quicker. We had already laughed about the fact that if (heaven forbid) you had to ‘go’ there was not likely to be any trees to hide behind! So, sadly for Jared and hilariously for us we round a corner to see his turbaned head sticking up behind a pile of rocks while he shouted ‘don’t look at me’. Funniest part of the whole thing, we’d been hiking for 6 hours and he’s had to go within 100m of the refuge. I felt bad so while I couldn’t help but laugh I didn’t laugh as hard as Jono who was merciless and found great joy in taunting Jared and throwing rocks at him…unfortunately for him and happily for Jared that came back to bite him the next morning.
There are 2 mountain refuge huts right next to each other at the top of the valley. One was new, lovely and empty while the other one dodgy, disorganised and full. Bet you can’t guess which one was twice the price of the other. Needless to say we chose the dodgy hut. We were showed to our dorm room, it slept around 24 people and was like 1 huge bunk bed where you just laid your sleeping bag down on a patch of mattress next to people you didn’t know. I was pretty stoked to note we had this 3 across bunkbed to our selves in the corner, lucky we’re all friends. We played cards to pass the evening and while the sun set the temperature steadily dropped until it was really, really cold outside. We didn’t even have any bedding. I was just planning to wear all my clothes (the one more layer I had with me) but luckily the dude gave us massive blankets. After dinner we were so exhausted we went straight to bed. Before we went to sleep we went through all the photos I had taken that day on my SLR. When we zoomed in on Jono’s terrible turban from that morning Jared and I laughed till we cried.
We were slightly unsure about the ascent to the summit in the morning, everyone said you should get up early so we got up at 5am and were on our way at first light. We’d no sooner left the refuge and got about 200m up the valley when disaster hit for Jono. While Jared and I laughed Jono ran for the closest boulder he could find. Haha!
The going was pretty hard. Its only 3.6 km to the top but with a 1km ascent. We set a cracking pace. In a lot of areas the path was so rocky and there was a fair amount of scree that we were just following cairns and the occasionally painted dot. The scree was slippery and as you took a step forward it felt like you just slid back half of it. The closer we got to the top the colder it got and once you were well above the valley the wind tore right through you. The scenery was severe and the path very steep. We got to the top of what appeared to be the summit only to find that the ridge continued to an even higher point. We got to the top in 2 hours and 30 minutes, which was less time we were told it would take. We hugged and jumped and celebrated reaching the summit! It was so exciting after such a hard hike to stand and enjoy the views!
We were the only ones up there for ages before other walkers came and went so we found ourselves an awesome ledge just under the summit marker. There we huddled together in the freezing cold, ate chocolate biscuits and enjoyed Gods creation. As we set out to return to the refuge we were giddy with success and happiness and excited about the kilometers of down hill.
Turns out walking down a really steep mountainside of small loose stones isn’t all that easy. Jared being a coordinated skater excelled and continually skated past me through the scree. I was more often than not in some stage of falling while he glided past giving me tips on how to do it better, thanks Jared. On the last open scree hill before the hut Jared skated right down and his iPhone disappeared into the rubble never to be seen again. Doh.
The next part of the hike past in a blur, we practically ran down to Imlil as we really didn’t have much time to spare. Jono had such sore feet form his stupid shoes that he even changed into thongs for the down hill powerwalk. We had to get down to Imlil, then get a taxi back to Marrakech, run through the medina to our hotel, grab the rest of our bags, run to the train station and then hop on the last train of the day to Fes. When we arrived back in Marrakech it was 40 degrees. We were tired, dirty, dusty, sweaty and in a rush. We finally got to the train station and realized Matt, Chloe and Jared would also be on the same train as us so it was awesome to prolong the laughs and goodbyes.
After almost 4 hours on the train, at 10:30pm, we reached Casablanca where the others left us and we changed trains to Fes. The train was crowded and we weren’t exactly sure which station we were supposed to get off at and so when we pulled into a station called ‘Casa-oasis’ I assumed it wasn’t the right one. Jono always fusses and panics about getting off and on the trains and we were all teasing him as he was just been a stresshead again. But then Jono disappears and asks about 5 people if this was the stop we wanted – apparently it was. He then runs back to our cabin and starts frantically trying to rally us to get off the train and we all started rushing. He turns and runs off and I’m the last one out the compartment after matt thankfully threw my heavy pack on my back for me. By the time I barged my way down to the carriage door and looked out to Jono and the others standing on the platform I realised the train had begun to move! Jono’s frantically waving and yelling at me and all I remember thinking was ‘I don’t want to get left behind’. The train was picking up speed and so with only a micro seconds hesitation I jumped out the door. With all the panic I didn’t really do so well with the calculations. The fact that I was moving sideways and the platform was not escaped my attention. I jumped straight out and landed smack bang on the concrete at Jono’s feet but sadly not on mine. I got away with a bruised leg and elbow but felt lucky enough. Everyone, especially Matt, thought it was possibly the funniest thing they’d ever seen.