Sunday, May 3, 2009

A little late on the update I'm sorry, but here's a brief synopsis of our time in the Atlas Mountains. On Tuesday we left for Imlil, a small Berber town in the High Atlas, at 1700m above sea level. Imlil is a popular town for tourists who are hoping to climb Jebel Toubkal, north Africa's highest peak (at over 4000m its the second highest in Africa, after Kilimanjaro I believe).

Opposites Attract
A land of contrasts. Start barren lanscapes juxtapose with lush green agriculture near Imlil.

Imlil is about two and a half hours from Marrakech. The most popular mode of transport for a trip like this is via Grand Taxi. The concept was totally foreign for us, apart from reading about it in Lonely Planet. We caught a Petit Taxi to an area where most of the Grand Taxi's congregate, and set about finding a car and driver heading to Imlil. After negotiating a rate per seat, we then waited for the other seats in the taxi to fill. Meanwhile our taxi driver shouts out "Imlil! Imlil!" to any arriving tourists that might be looking for a ride. Most taxis are Mercedes and at least 25years old, in varying states of disrepair. One taxi which left was push started by the occupants. Clearly there is no warrant of fitness in Morocco! Generally they put more passengers than there are seats into a taxi, so by the time we left, we had 6 passengers and a driver in a 5 seat Mercedes.

We were fortunate to meet a couple from India (who are living in the Netherlands), Krishna and Reena, who were also going to Imlil. The 4 of us sat crammed in the back seat, sans seat belts while the driver ripped up dodgy mountain roads and played chicken with oncoming traffic. At one stage an oncoming vehicle got so close it actually clipped the drivers wing mirror.

This Berber man is standing atop his mud-brick house, no doubt surveying his barley crop after a day's work in the field.

Krishna and Reena had very similar plans and timeframe as us, so upon arriving, we decided to pool our spending power and negotiate a trek and accommodation. Krishna's bargaining skills must have saved us a couple of hundred Dirham! A Berber gentleman called Lhassan arranged a mule to carry our gear up the hill to our Auberge, and for a guide to visit us that night to discuss the next days trek.

Imlil, Morocco
Imlil, taken from a pass some 700m above the valley floor.

Imlil is typical of the Berber villages we would see in the days following, with the exception of a paved road all the way in. While the region is very desolate, the Berber people have engineered terraces and water races, and the terraces are vibrant green with cherry trees, walnut trees and barley.

Berber Village, High Atlas, Morocco
Typical display of Berber mudbrick buildings. Every winter, more collapse and slide down the hill.

In the morning we met our guide, Mustafa, and our mule and muleteer (the mule didn't have a name, and we still don't know the name of the muleteer), and we began the arduous 700m ascent of a pass (a 'Tizi' in Arabic) above Imlil. With temperatures only mildly cooler than in Imlil, we stopped for a much needed break at the top. By this stage, Dani's bowels were beginning to cause some drama.

A land of contrast - High Atlas, Morocco

Descending the other side, we got spectacular views of more Berber villages and as far as the expansive plains that run out towards Marrakech and the sea. After four hours of walking, we stopped high in a valley above some villages where several streams run off the still snow covered peaks. Mustafa and our muleteer made us some lunch, and we dipped our feet in the freezing waters of the stream. Dani was feeling very unwell by this time, and unable to eat, she was losing energy rapidly for the three hour descent to the Berber Village where we would spend the night.

High Atlas, near Imlil, Morocco
High in the Atlas, we continued to walk up to a waterfall pictured center.

Berber Village, High Atlas, Morocco

During our descent, we traversed numerous Berber Villages. Only the later ones had road access, the rest being only accessible by foot and mule. Berber families have lots of children, so we got many curious kids coming up to us saying hello in bad french (Bijoux! instead on Bonjour - followed by "Stilo?" - asking to be given a pen). Around 5pm in the evening we arrived at the Berber Gite to sleep for the night. Although very basic, it was very well received as we were all feeling suitably shattered. Poor Dani had to deal with the turkish toilet while her sickness took hold. We powered into a plate of biscuits and mint tea, followed up by dinner of yet another Tajine. I think we've both eaten enough Tajine to last us a while!

Berber Boys - High Atlas, Morocco

Berber Boys - High Atlas, Morocco
Berber kids on a dusty trail at sunset.

Our guide - Mustafa
Our guide, Mustafa, and Dani.

Day two began with an easier ascent that the day before, and in less than two hours we were over the top. Descending again through more villages, we stopped at a Berber house for mint tea and some bread, oil and butter. We gifted the Berber man some dried fruit and nuts to say thank you for inviting us into his home.

Krishna chillin' out.

Reena pouring mint tea
Reena pouring mint-tea after our first days walking.

Mint Tea Tradition

It was miraculous that Dani had even made it this far - after walking nearly 20kms over two days without any food, she was desperately short on energy. The final descent to the valley floor was difficult, so we decided to get Dani back to the Auberge in a car for the last 4kms to Imlil.

Despite our accomodation being very basic, it was well received after walking all day.

We returned to Marrakech in style - a Grand Taxi split between four! We said our goodbyes to Reena and Krishna in the Djeema el Fna in Marrakech. We hope we will be able to see them in the future - Netherlands, India, New Zealand? Somewhere!


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