As a teenager in the 1950’s wandering about in the Cheviot Hills with Eric Rayson, we talked about visiting the High Atlas to meet the Berbers on their home territory, but marriage, children and career responsibilities put the plan on hold for a few decades.
The plan for this 2002 trek grew out of a chapter by the eminent Scottish mountaineer and world traveller Hamish Brown in the book ‘Top Treks of the World’ (Author:Steve Razetti, Publisher, New Holland). In the book, Hamish describes a trek that he pioneered in the lates 80’s and called ‘The Wonder Walk’. This involves a crossing of the Tichka plateau and follows the Oued Nfis river for some distance before emerging briefly onto the tarmac road at Issoujka at about the midpoint. The second part of the trek involves rather steeper walking and culminates with an ascent of Djebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in the Atlas range.
Frank Trzebiatowski discussed the book with me and I mentioned the possibility to Maurice Robinson over in BC (Maurice had the same book!). We mulled the possibilities over for a few weeks before approaching Hamish Brown for advice. This was a good move, Hamish was extremely helpful, supplying names and contact details for guides, hotels in Marrakesh, etc, as well as lots of supplementary information about travelling in the Atlas region. We opted to make the trek under the care of El Aouad Ali, (just call him Ali!) and found him to be a most competent and trustworthy guide. A real gentleman, Ali has travelled the High Atlas with Hamish for many years and he is accustomed to working with European visitors (especially Brits!). Fluent in Arabic, Berber, French and English, Ali guards his reputation and good name very carefully – he took good care of everything and worked very hard to make sure that we had the best possible Moroccan experience.
Persons interested in making this trek should note that Ali is the only guide operating from Taroudant that Hamish recommends. Interested parties can contact Ali at:
El Aouad Ali
telephone – El Aouad Ali 0666/637972 (plus the code numbers from your location)
Last known email – elaouad_Ali@yahoo.fr)
Please note that Ali reads English well but is rather less confident at writing it. We found that the best way was to write letters in such a way that Ali could answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to our questions.
We started our trip with a day in Marrakech, to see the sights (and smells!) of the souks and to take a walk around some of the architectural wonders of this fascinating ancient city. We based ourselves on the Hotel Ali; a great place to stay, firstly because it is right in the middle of the city, adjacent to the famous square Jema el Fna, secondly because it is the jumping-off point for all sorts of Moroccan adventures and finally because it is cheap! Click here to see what Tripadvisor says about Hotel Ali.
Although we were late in arriving, we decided to take a walk around the Jema el Fna square to get right into the ambience of Marrakech – our senses were bombarded with the sheer press of humanity and the sounds and sights of the locals taking in the nights entertainments. The square gets really crowded and is an obvious place for pickpockets and touts to operate so simple security precautions are recommended.
Our first day in Marrakech was free and, taking local advice, we hired a guide for a day looking around the main tourist sights, including a tour of the famous indoor souks (or souqs!). We would strongly recommend this if you want to optimise your time and avoid being pestered by touts. Hotel Ali suggested a guide called Redouan Adib, call him before you go (phone number 00212 61 24 02 71) if you want to see Marrakech without the hassle. The photos in the slide show give a reasonable image of our quick run around Marrakech, but lasting impressions are of a city that is working hard to modernise and improve things for the growing population, with a fascinating mix of the old and the new and where donkey carts in from the desert mix with buses, beat-up taxis and luxury limousines.
Next day, we were up early and asked Hotel Ali to hire us a ‘grands taxi’ to take us up to Taroudant for the start of our trek. This was a smart move, we avoided having to go to the bus station at 0530, we were delivered door-to-door and it was cheaper than the bus!. The Marrakech/Taroudant trip covers a fair bit of ground (click here to see a map of Morocco) and gives a reasonable insight into the way that people live, outside of the main towns. Most of the countryside is arid and semi-desert, with orchards and farms wherever access to water is possible.
In the central part of the trip, the road climbs steadily upwards, ultimately crossing the Tizi’n’test pass at an altitude of 2100 metres. Since some of the peaks visible from the summit of the pass would figure largely in the views that we would see during the trek, we spent a little time trying to orientate ourselves with the scenery, before pushing on down to Taroudant and our first meeting with Ali, the man who was to be our guide and mentor in all things to do with the High Atlas and the Berber people.
Arriving in Taroudant, we were struck by the faded French colonial grandeur (the French were there from 1920 to 1956) of some of the old buildings and we were impressed by the state of preservation of the old city wall, which seems to be virtually intact (visions of the Foreign Legion, and ‘Beau Geste’ heroics). Our destination for the next two nights was the Taroudant Hotel, a comfortable medium-price place that was mid-way through a rebuilding and redecorating programme. At the hotel, we made our first acquaintance with Ali and he was immediately helpful in trying to locate Maurice’ baggage, which had not arrived in Marrakech before we left.
The next day was free (Ali was organising provisions and mules for the trek), so we organised a taxi to take us out into the desert, to an oasis called Tiout. We recommend this short diversion to anyone spending time in Taroudant, the oasis is a good example of people making the desert flower and the range of fruits, corn, pulses and other crops grown there is extraordinary, click here to see a youtube slideshow of Taroudant and Tiout. Next day, a two-hour Land Rover trip took us up dirt roads (called ‘pistes’ in Morocco), to the jumping-off point for the trek proper. This is Ali’s home territory, he lived in this area until he was 12 (then lived in Casablanca) and he seems to know most of the villagers and local people. We waited out the hottest part of the day, drinking mint tea (‘berber whisky’) in the house of a local ‘Mr Big’ and watching the mules and muleteers sort out the huge amount of stores and provisions. Later, when the hottest part of the day was over, we walked up to the village of Taghmout at the foot of the Tizi n’ targa and the beginning of the real walking.
The digital images, mainly by Maurice and Frank, convey the flavour of the trek more than any words could convey, suffice to say that the walking was relatively easy, not technical or exposed in any real sense, no scary suspension bridges or river crossings. The route mainly follows mule tracks, (the only real way of moving materials around in the high Atlas) and passes through Berber villages and pastures that are almost completely unaffected by modern technology or development. However, it was noticeable that the Moroccan government is pushing ahead with the construction of ‘pistes’ into many of the valleys, and it is only a question of time before the remote nature of ‘The Wonder Walk’ will change for ever (if you want to do it, do it NOW).
For us, the two principal areas to consider were the heat (we were there end July, meant we had to filter and drink 4 litres of water/day, each) and the rough nature of some of the campsites. In the book referred to, Hamish paints a glowing picture of the campsites which is almost certainly conditional on the time of year: earlier = greener. In our case, the crossing was without drama of any sort (other than the dramatic scenery!) and the culmination of the trek was an ascent of Djebel Toubkal, an early (5 a.m.) start but an easy walk from the Neltner Refuge (3200 metres). The hut is large and fully equipped, sleeps lots of people in alpine-style bunks and has hot showers, etc.
Originally, Ali wanted to camp near the river below the hut, but our opinion was that the water was so polluted by the large numbers of campers that camping would be unwise and Ali was quite happy to move the mules and mess-tent up to the refuge, where we slept (!) for the night. After our Toubkal ascent, we were back at the refuge by lunch-time so decided to make a day of it, by pushing on down the valley to our final quarters in Imlil.
HELP! This article is one of the most frequently visited pages on the site. Please use the comments box to update me if you have done this walk in more recent times, especially if Ali is still active and you have his contact details. I will happily revise this article to include your comments and photos.