Travel

01.22.14

On Foot in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

There's nothing like a remote trek through Morocco to help you find freedom and peace of mind…especially when the day ends with Berber whiskey and a delicious lamb tagine.

It had taken the camels and their black-turbaned Berber herders four long days to walk from the Sahara. When we met them, the dromedaries’ panniers were being loaded with everything we needed for a three-day hike in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains: blankets, wicker stools, water drums and—bliss—an endless supply of Moroccan pastries.

Our guide, Mouha, glanced up at the trail that disappeared far into the ochre uplands. “Time to start walking,” he said. “Yella! Let’s go!”

The sun was lowering over the peak of Jebel M’goun and a two-hour hike still lay between our camp, a lamb tagine, and us. So, I followed this fleet of the desert along an old mule path, out of the Valley of Ikamdoulen and up into the M’goun massif.

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Camp on the Tatarart pastures, High Atlas mountains, Morocco. (Joanna Eede)

The M’goun massif lies between Morocco’s central plateau and the dunes of the Sahara desert. It is a far cry from the high-energy souks of Marrakesh and from the well-trodden hikes of Jebel Toubkal, the country’s highest mountain. M’goun, by contrast, is empty. This is the place to come for enormous skies and towering rocky bluffs, for Berber nomads, walnut groves, and a soaring sense of freedom. M’goun is wild, remote country where wolves still roam the mountain ridges and vultures drop bones on the flanks.

In Marrakech, I had met up with Vanessa from Natural High, a wilderness travel company that specializes in inspiring journeys away from the crowds, and which has joined forces with Mouha to create this remote trek. We made a five-hour drive south across Morocco’s central plateau, an almost Biblical landscape of verdant oases and fruit-tree groves, wadis lined with date palms and dark red kasbahs, some with soaring minarets, others crumbling like giant termite mounds.

We stopped for lunch near Ouazazarte—a town at the crossroads of old caravan routes that is now the film capital of Morocco—and, from there, we turned east, bumping through villages of boxy pisé houses with blue doors and wrought ironwork windows. We headed for the Valley of Roses, where Damask roses have been grown for hundreds of years. (It is thought pilgrims originally brought them to this area from Mecca.) This is where we would begin our trek.

There was something rather theatrical—surreal even—about walking into camp accompanied by a camel caravan later that evening. Mouha’s advance crew—Brahim, Brahim, and Lhoucine—had already pitched our white tents for us on the Tatarart pastures, a sweep of high ground strewn with broom tussocks where Berbers graze their sheep in the summer months. They greeted us with a glass of sugared mint tea, called a “Berber whisky”, poured from high above out of a silver teapot.  The aeration is important for developing the flavor.

“Even better, we experienced their [the Berbers] country just as they have done for centuries: on foot, freely and slowly.”

“We say a cup of mint tea without bubbles is like a djellaba without a hood,” said Mouha.

Camels can only carry so much, so our A-framed tents were simple, stylish and comfortable: a mattress, warm blankets, hot water in an old-fashioned wash-stand, and a bathroom tent with a chemical loo and shower.

As the sky turned lilac, we sat at a low circular table and looked out over the palm groves of Skoura. Somehow, at 9,000 feet above sea level, our cook, Brahim, had created a delicious tagine with fresh vegetables. For three days, in fact, he produced nutritious Moroccan dishes that always began with harira, a tomato and lentil soup, and ended with fruit from the Atlantic coast.

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Slimane makes a fire with artemesia wood. (Joanna Eede)

Later, I fell asleep to the sound of Lhoucine gently coaxing his camel and faint ululating from a distant stone cottage. Then came the still, thick silence found only in the middle of nowhere. Just before dawn, I woke to hear Mouha quietly reciting the night prayer.

The following morning, I realized I’d found the perfect formula for shedding the stresses of city life: waking to Moroccan mountains flooded with golden light and breakfasting on Berber pancakes, fresh orange juice, and sweet almond pastries dripping with honey. And nothing on the day’s agenda but walking and talking in a beautiful place.

The Berbers—or Imazighen, meaning “free men,” as they call themselves—are the indigenous people of North Africa. A proud, semi-nomadic group, they have successfully resisted invading forces for thousands of years. Some, like the Ait Atta nomads, still migrate throughout the year. The Ait Atta’s ancestral land is the desert plains of the Jebel Sagrho, and they say their love for their homeland is akin to a horse tethered to the Sagrho by a long rope; however far from the plains they wander, they always return.

Mouha, our charming guide, is from the Ait Atta and was born in a black goat-hair tent in the Saharan dunes. As we walked that morning, he told us about the cycles of his life as a child.  In the summer, when the Saharan heat became unbearable, his family would move their goatherds to the foot of M‘Goun; when winter arrived they would walk south to the Jebel Saghro. Some Ait Atta have now settled in villages—Mouha’s grandfather was one, though he likened a static life to a jail sentence—but others are unable to quit the nomadic life they have always known.

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Slimane and his mule on lower slopes of Jebel M’goun. (Joanna Eede)

“They love the freedom too much,” Mouha explained. “You could offer them money and a house in Marrakech, and they still wouldn’t go.”

Mouha was a mine of information, telling us about the properties of plants, interpreting bird calls, and showing us a stone pen the Ait Atta had built under an overhanging crag. This was where they corralled their livestock at night, and where the warm smell of animals still lingered.

Life seemed pretty perfect that day: cobalt blue sky, loosened limbs, wheeling eagles, and a whirling-dervish mind stilled by the meditative rhythm of walking. We were only a three-hour flight from London, and yet we were tracing the steps of nomads who had been walking these paths since the 14th century.

As we moved deeper into the empty mountains, I felt a lightness and a sense of freedom that I thought I’d left behind in childhood. We had a lot of ground to cover, but there was no rush. Mouha repeated his Berber mantra at times, “People in a hurry are already dead.” Alex Edwards, Founder of Natural High, agrees with this slow-burn philosophy. “Time expands on a trip like this,” he told me. “As you walk, you remember how to savor the present moment. It’s something many of us have forgotten to do in our daily lives, and it’s deeply good for the soul.”

To reach our next camp we followed the Amskar river that rushes in a series of cascades through a gorge bordered by cinnamon cliffs. Mouha told us that we were among only a handful of Europeans to have ever walked through the canyon. After an unplanned, and slightly hairy, scramble up a slope crumbling with sandstone shale, we arrived on a sweep of grassland at the foot of Jebel M’goun.

As the crickets chirped and the camels settled on their leathery knees for the night, we helped Brahim make Aghroum-n-Tikinte—a traditional flatbread—on the fire. The last rays of sun gleamed rose-red on the snow in M’goun’s gullies, and I recalled Winston Churchill’s words to Franklin Roosevelt during a WWII summit in Casablanca: “I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.”

Later, when the night sky curved wide over the mountains, I felt reassured by the strong cradle of rock around us, the sleeping camels, and the low chatter of the Berber crew. There was no one else around; it was as beautiful and as remote a place as I’ve known.

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Lime-green barley terrace of lower valley, M’goun massif, High Atlas mountains, Morocco. (Joanna Eede)

It’s not easy to commit the colors of the High Atlas to memory. As we walked down into the Valley of Roses the following day, I tried hard to capture its palette: the reds and coppers of the arid upper slopes, the greys and mineral greens of the shadowy lower folds. The landscape at lower altitude was no less beautiful: lime-green barley terraces and apple orchards with frothy white blossoms contrasted with the desolate mountainsides.

It was our third day walking, and still we had met no other tourists. We came across men in loose djellabas riding tiny donkeys, and others scything by hand, leaving piles of barley under olive trees. We exchanged greetings with a father-and-son team planting potatoes, and nomadic women with kohl-lined eyes and blue velvet dresses driving their animals up from the Sahara. Mouha talked about the generosity and solidarity of Berber communities. “In the mountains, if you need some cumin or potatoes, you just knock on a door,” he said. We walked through shady villages where children plied us for pens before running after us, giggling and curious.  They watched us from a distance as we dozed on kilim rugs after lunch.

Dusty paths lined with flickering orange lanterns led us to our final camp, a slice of dramatic Arabian luxury. Our large black-and-white Caidale tents were pitched above a fast-flowing river alive with croaking frogs. Each tent had silver mirrors and proper beds with cotton sheets, which were perfect for collapsing into after we had joined our Berber friends in song and dance around the fire, while they beat out a tempo on goat-skin drums.

In the morning the camels walked on, and all too soon we were in Marrakech, back in the world of speedy boarding. It had been an immense privilege to gain an insight into the cyclical ways of life of a generous people who still live in tight communities and intimately know their lands. Even better, we experienced their country just as they have done for centuries: on foot, freely and slowly.

“Morocco to me was a revelation,” wrote Churchill decades ago. I wonder, now, if he’d been to M’goun.