Jbel Toubkal. The highest peak in Morocco. And the highest peak in North Africa. Four thousand, one hundred and sixty-seven metres high. It is also the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains – a group of mountains consisting of the High Atlas (Toubkal is part of this group), the Middle, Anti, Tell and Saharan Atlases, spanning more than fifteen-hundred kilometres across three countries, starting near the Atlantic Coast in Morocco, cutting across Algeria and ending near the east-coast of Tunisia.
Toubkal and its sibling peaks in the High Atlas are snow-capped for a large part of the year. Visible even on the haziest days from Marrakech, the summits showing above low-lying cloud create an almost mythical vision. Rising more than two-thousand metres in many places above the Moroccan lowlands. Below the snow-capped peaks, the mountain is covered in shades of brown and green. On its eastern and south-eastern flanks this continues until it touches the red and gold of the Sahara, clearly visible from the summit. To the west you may see the city of Marrakech. And on a clear day, you may even see the Atlantic Ocean on the distant horizon.
I first climbed Jbel Toubkal in 2011. With Andy. A few years after we had our mishap in the Dolomites which landed him in hospital for three days. We arrived in Imlil by grand taxi and asked the owner of the riad Andy and I stayed in to organise a guide for us. Instead, he offered us a ‘package’… two days hiking in the foothills and two further days to climb Jbel Toubkal. And that’s how I came to meet Hassan. My Arab friend (or ‘mafrin’, as he may spell it) who has been my guide and companion on several subsequent visits.
I sent Hassan a message, asking if he’s available on the 29th and 30th to accompany Barbara and I. A few hours later I get a ‘yes im disponible’ response. I activate my deciphering skills and deduce that the sentence, a mixture of English, minglish, and French means Hassan is available…
Thanks to my not being able to speak either Arab or Berber languages, having limited knowledge of French, and Hassan’s okay, but not perfect English, and wanting a private double room for Barbara and I, I skip trying to explain to Hassan what I need in terms of accommodation and phone the Refuge Les Mouflons directly, and book us in for the night.
Early Tuesday morning.
Dressed and packed, we head to the dining room of the riad we’re staying in. Expecting to find the promised coffee and cake. Everything is still in darkness. No sign of the normally ever-present Jalil. Neither of us are too worried about the lack of coffee and cake, but Barbara is keen to find her water bottle which they were going to fill with hot water for her. We scrounge around in the kitchen and eventually find it on top of a microwave oven. Then, unbolting the heavy front door, we make our way outside to the car park, hoping that we won’t have to start the day with a second surprise and find our car parked in and unable to get out of the car park.
Thankfully, there’s enough space to manoeuvre out, and we set off. Slightly concerned with Hassan’s estimates that the trip from Essaouira to Imlil will take us more than five hours. Fortunately, he’s wrong about the timing and about three and a half hours later we’re in Imlil where a smiling Hassan is waiting for us.
Having missed out on our coffee both Barbara and I are ready for something a bit more substantial than the water we’ve been drinking during our trip. A small breakfast would be good too. Hassan says we should go to his house, a ten-minute walk from where we can leave the car, rather than go to one of the cafés. We happily accept and drive the short distance to where we park the car.
At Hassan’s home, Zhra is waiting for us with a pot of fresh mint tea, pancakes, fresh honey from Hassan’s beehive and a pot of Moroccan coffee. The two older children come and greet us at the front door. I remind Hassan that the last time I saw them the younger one, Aia, was a newborn and Salma was about six years old. In the meantime a third little girl has arrived. Nearly three years old, this little one was sleeping, so we didn’t get the pleasure of meeting her.
After breakfast, we say our goodbyes and make our way back to the car for the short drive to Aroumd, the village at the foot of the valley leading to Jbel Toubkal. Mustafa, our muleteer, is waiting for us at the car park. Snow and ice covers the upper part of the trail. Meaning the mules cannot go the whole way to the refuge. So, Mustafa, the muleteer, will also be our porter, carrying our bag the final couple of kilometres.
Shortly after we set off, we have to produce passports and present these to a police control post. This is new to me. Also, the fact that you can no longer hike in the Atlas mountains without a guide. The new control posts and regulations require trekkers to be accompanied by a guide. The result of two young hikers being murdered by Deash in December 2018. One of the killers was apparently caught thanks to a school-child spotting a man on a bus with an unusually long knife and alerting a local policeman. Catching this one led to the capture and arrest of a terror cell in the Marrakech region.
We set off and soon we’re crossing the floodplain, covered in boulders off all sizes. Despite a lack of privacy I heed to a call of nature. Finding a couple of rocks to hide at least part of my anatomy.
Then we start on the uphill path, through cherry and apple orchards, laid out on the terraced slopes. Apple and cherry-picking season comes when the temperature in the Imlil region has dropped to low single figures. Cold enough for the fruit to be stored in the basements of local houses. No expensive cooling machinery needed here. From here they are shipped to the markets of Marrakech and other big cities. Higher up we come across giant walnut and juniper trees. Hassan points out Jbel Toubkal to Barbara.
Our first stop is at Sidi Chamharouch. I ask Hassan to tell Barbara about the shrine. He explains that many people come here to pray or sacrifice a sheep and ask for happiness or healing. The people who come to pray and leave their offerings at the shrine are not true believers, he says, as true believers in Islam do not pray to rocks. You may as well give your offering away to a rock somewhere else, or touch any rock next to the road and hope that the rock will provide what you ask for, as this shrine is not going to answer your prayers, he adds.
We order tea and fresh orange juice from Hassan’s friend, and head up to the terrace above the ‘café’. A Czech couple joined us on the terrace, and we chat while enjoying our tea and fresh orange juice. Then we set off again, crossing the river before heading uphill on the steepest part of the route, before it changes into a pleasant uphill walk on a gradually rising path hugging the side of the valley, at the head of which are the two stone-built refuges. One of which we’ll spend the night in.
A few kilometres further we come across the first of the two ‘roadside cafés’. In the absolute middle of nowhere. At an altitude of about 2800m. Cold drink bottles are kept cold by water flowing from the mountainside. Oranges are squeezed with an industrial looking press, and the juice caught in perfectly clean glasses. The result a perfect glass of orange juice. By far the most refreshing you can imagine! Everything you consume in this high altitude ‘roadside café’ has been carried many kilometres and hundreds of vertical metres. Either on the back of the young bloke pressing the oranges, or by mules going past to the refuges.
The fact that these two cafés are situated in the middle of nowhere, and the fact that you get freshly squeezed orange juice, with the effort required to make this possible, make these two cafés two of my favourite places in the mountains.
Making a living in these mountains is hard work. And so, to enjoy the view, and support the hard work these entrepreneurs put into making a living, I always make a point of stopping here for a juice or a cold drink. Sometimes I’ll also buy a chocolate or scarf or something else from them. In so doing I hope it helps them to keep the café open, so that I and others can continue to enjoy this unique little ‘roadside café’.
While sitting and enjoying our juice, we’re joined by two Arab hikers from Casablanca. Who had earlier told us that they were impressed that we were going faster than them, even though we were older. I teased them for calling us older, and we all had a laugh together. We sit and chat for a while before Barbara and I set off for the final few kilometres to the refuge.
Snow and ice covers makes the going precarious. But also picturesque. When the path curves around the slope, I spot a photo opportunity and let Hassan and Barbara get ahead, so that I can put them in my picture. It works out even better than I expected… the light is typical of this time of year, with the sun low, and the ground covered in snow. And it’s the clearest I’ve seen this area in all of my trips to Jbel Toubkal, so I make the most of it and take loads of pictures, hoping one or two will be good enough to share.
Refuge les Mouflons
Mohammed, the chef at the refuge, remembers me from previous visits and expresses his pleasure at seeing me again. After depositing our bags in our private double room, Barbara and I make ourselves at home in the dining room where a wood burner is roaring away and providing much needed warmth in the ice cold hut. Hassan and Abdul the hut keeper join us.
When Hassan asks what time we want to start in the morning, Barbara says she’s gone as far as she wants on this trip. Hassan and I say no problem. Or, as Hassan put it, Harry and I have been to the top a few times, so we don’t have to go. Suggesting we all have a late breakfast, then walk down.
I suggested we can have lunch somewhere nearby before we drive back to Essaouira. Hassan offers that he’ll phone Zhra and ask her to make a tajine for us. We gladly accept the offer. Even though it will mean tajine for dinner and tajine for lunch the next day. The chicken tajine we have for dinner, prepared by Mohammed the chef, is one of the best we had to date and one of the many reasons I prefer the Refuge les Mouflons.
After dinner, we sit around for a while, not ready to climb into our icy cold sleeping bags. Hassan and I talk about additional hiking routes we can offer via my walkinwildplaces.com website. I’m particularly interested in his suggestion of a four-day hike through the desert. Then we head to our sleeping bags, and after brushing teeth we crawl into our bags, with most of our clothes still on, to preserve as much heat as possible. Sometime during the night it feels like I’m in a sauna and I shed most of the layers before going back to sleep.
Early Wednesday morning.
I get up at six, and pull my djellaba and shoes on and venture outside hoping to catch the full moon. It’s fffffff-freezing cold. Well into the minus teens. The full moon, though it’s not set, has dropped low enough behind the peaks so that I can’t see it, but left me with a perfectly moonlit peak behind the refuges. I take a picture, and before I turn into an ice block, I dash back indoors and back into my still warm sleeping bag.
When Barbara finally stirs it’s after eight o’clock. I take my towel to have a quick shower (cold), but give up on that idea when I see the notice saying I should contact reception before I do, knowing that they’ll be hiding in their sleeping bags too… I brush teeth, and start packing my bag. Then we head to the breakfast room, depositing our bags downstairs for Mustafa to collect.
Coffee, whitened with milk powder, and some freshly baked bread and jam will keep us going for a few hours until we can dig in to the tajine that Zhra is preparing for us.
Crampons on, we make our way onto the hard snow and ice. Along the way we meet Mustafa who came up from Imlil in the morning to collect our bags. A short while later we come across the mule where it’s grazing, waiting for Mustafa’s return. We stop for coffee when we get to Sidi Chamharouch. As we are about to set off, Mustafa arrives with our bags. We change into our more comfortable approach shoes and without any backpacks, we head down to Aroumd where we pay Mustafa for his services, and then we’re off to Hassan’s for lunch, where we’re welcomed by Zhra and Fatim-Zhra – the little person we did not see yesterday.
Hassan’s house is slowly being transformed. The previous time I had visited here most of the upstairs were bare concrete. Now a lot of it’s tiled with typical Moroccan patterned tiles. He’s building as and when he can afford to. He explains that he wants to build another room on the roof terrace and add another toilet – possibly for guests.
After lunch, it’s time to say thank you and goodbye to our hosts. Hassan joins us down to Imlil, where we say our goodbyes to him before we head back to Essaouira. We’ll be back. And next time Barbara is planning on going to the summit.
Hiking Jbel Toubkal
Jbel Toubkal can be climbed in two days if you’re fit and acclimatised. The first day’s walk to the refuges is an easy 4-5 hours walk with a vertical gain of about 1200m. The climb to the summit the next morning normally starts before sunrise (unless you plan on spending a second night in the hut), and takes about 3-4 hours. The return to the refuge for lunch takes another 3-4 hours. From here you hike back to Imlil – a further 4+ hours. A long but very rewarding day.