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Morocco & Djebel Toubkal

The morning of the 22nd dawned clear once more, and at 7:00 AM we were off toward the top of North Africa. The climbing on Toubkal is not difficult – moderately-steep snow slopes wander through a glacial valley to a col (Tizi’n’Toubkal) at 3,940 meters. From the col, we turned left and ascended scree and rock to the 4,167m/13,751 foot summit of Djebel Toubkal.

Afmo0382 Ahh, the vagaries of life in the technological world. I am not sure what happened, but I attempted to post several dispatches – both text and audio – during my travels in Morocco. But, they somehow evaporated into cyber-space.

So, I’ll give all those who are interested the Cliff notes version of our adventures in Morocco…

We arrived in Marrakech on the 19th of March, and on the 20th my bags finally arrived as well! With all of our gear in hand, Art and I headed through heavy rains to the Kasbah du Toubkal, a marvelous restored kasbah in the village of Imlil, which was our starting point for the climb of Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains and in North Africa.

After a restful night in the Kasbah, we met our local guide, Saiid, in the morning and began our walk up valley from Imlil. While the day was clear, the rains of Marrakech were snow in the Atlas, and about 15 inches of it had fallen…this made the going a bit more difficult, but wonderful nonetheless. The valley winds through craggy peaks and villages like Aroumd, which sports walnut, apple, and fig trees galore. Several hours of walking brought us to Sidi Chamharouch, a small shrine surrounded by waterfalls. Lunch was served there by our amazing cook, Muhammad, and soon enough we were off once more toward the Neltner Refuge at about 10,000 feet.

This refuge is a European style hut, similar to those encountered climbing in the Alps, and was a welcome retreat from the cold night of the High Atlas. We were sharing it with a surprising number of foreign climbers from Germany, Switzerland, England, France, and Spain. Muhammad filled us up once more with a great lamb tajine and we headed off to sleep.

The morning of the 22nd dawned clear once more, and at 7:00 AM we were off toward the top of North Africa. The climbing on Toubkal is not difficult – moderately-steep snow slopes wander through a glacial valley to a col (Tizi’n’Toubkal) at 3,940 meters. From the col, we turned left and ascended scree and rock to the 4,167m/13,751 foot summit of Djebel Toubkal.

(I have to say I was very proud of Art and his climb of Toubkal. Art is a great man and a fun traveling companion. I first met him when my wife, Wende, and I were leading a climb of Kilimanjaro for International Mountain Guides. Art reached the Top of Africa on that trip, and was bitten by the climbing bug. It is always a pleasure to climb with him, and I love helping him reach seemingly unattainable goals.) 

On the summit stands an odd, triangular steel pyramid to which I tied a kata, or Tibetan Buddhist scarf, for my god mother, Helen Rhea, who was recently struck by a stroke. We took a few photos, celebrated our climb, and began the descent back to the refuge. On the 23rd, we returned to Imlil and the Kasbah du Toubkal and then on to Marrakech.

Afmo0309With no definite plans for the rest of the journey, Art and I decided to rent a car and head south to the Sahara, figuring if we were this close to the desert we might as well see it in person. Under sunny skies, we followed the winding roads to Ouarzazate (pronounced war-za-zat) where we stayed at the wonderful Riad Salam, a neat old Moroccan mansion converted into a hotel.

The next day we headed off from Ouarzazate following the Draâ River – Morocco’s longest – as it winds from the slopes of the High Atlas down toward the desert. Amazing groves of palm trees surround villages where figs and other fruit trees abound in this arid region. It is a spectacular drive, and one for which we were happy to have rented a car as we could stop at will for photography and to take in the wights of rural Morocco.

Afmo0725 150 kilometers of good road took us to Zagora, a smallish city where the famed sign Tombouctou – 52 jours (Timbuktu – 52 days) stands, telling people the distance to the famed city…by camel caravan. From Zagora, we continued toward the Sahara to the tiny village of M’hamid, roughly 40 miles from the Moroccan border with Algeria. M’hamid is quite the place: roving bands of touts roam the streets looking for tourist prey, hoping to sell a camel safari, jeep excursion, or any one of a myriad of desert offerings. Armed, however, with our Lonely Planet Morocco guide book, we headed straight to Sahara Services, a company recommended by the authors. We quickly booked a 2-day excursion by jeep to the dunes of Erg Chagaga, some 56 kilometers from M’hamid.

Afmo0491 Our guide, Malout, a wonderful Tuareg man, brought us out through the scraggly desert southeast of M’hamid and eventually to a tiny tented camp nestled between the dunes of Erg Chagaga. We feasted that evening on delectable chicken tajine and couscous, and awoke early the next morning to view a Saharan sunrise from the dunes.

It was a stunning, and very worthwhile, visit to the edge of the Sahara, and one which makes me want to explore more of this region and country. Unfortunately, however, Art and I had flights out of Marrakech in a couple of days, so after sunrise we returned to M’hamid, hopped in our rented Dacia car, and drove once more north toward the Atlas and Marrakech.
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We left ourselves one full day in Marrakech to explore the winding souks of the ancient Medina – or
old city – of Marrakech and buy some souvenirs for our families. We also took time to visit the Djemma al-Fna at night for its famed night market where acrobats, fortune tellers, and snake charmers vie for space with food stalls and beggars. It is quite a scene, and well worth effort.

In all, Morocco was a fabulous adventure, and a country I not only want to return to, but recommend to anyone looking for a new adventure. It is full of friendly, helpful people, awash with vibrant culture, and gives lasting memories to all who visit.

To see more photos of Morocco, please visit my gallery on Flickr.

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