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Hiking the High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Without a shadow of a doubt, our favourite part of the recent trip to Marrakech was a two-day hiking excursion outside of the city in the nearby High Atlas Mountains. It was simply stunning and an experience we won’t forget!

There are a bewildering number of options for hiking trips from Marrakech, ranging from day trips to five-day expeditions. Sadly, we didn’t have time for the latter and all the one-day options seemed to be in very touristy spots, around Ourika or in the Agafay Desert, usually combined with a camel ride and very little actual hiking. I was keen to get off the beaten track and explore a more authentic side of Morocco and the kids were keen for a decent trek. So, we opted for a two-day hike (with Astara Tours) starting in the Imlil valley, up to the Tizi h’Mzik Mountain pass (at a cheeky 2489m!) and down to the Assif Azzaden Valley for the night, before heading up to the Tizi Oudite pass this time and back around to Imlil. Along the way, we’d stop in traditional Berber houses (and since you can only walk to these villages, it felt somewhat more authentic) and stay overnight in a simple guest house. An excellent adveture loved by all.

Day One

We were picked up at 9am on the first day and driven two hours out to the beautiful valley of Imlil nestled in the Western High Atlas Mountains. Here we met our friendly, chatty guide Mustafa and cook Muhammed, along with our mule for the two-day experience; shared some of the ubiquitous mint tea and discussed our route. Then, without further ado, we set off up the mountain with Mustafa reiterating the importance of starting off slowly to allow our bodies to acclimatize to the altitude. Imlil sits at 1740m, which was already almost as high as we’d ever been with the children (the highest point on the Tongariro Crossing was 1886m) and we were to climb to 2489m before lunchtime, in the blaring sunshine. It was hard going. The altitude affected us more than I’d expected, and it felt a little like walking through treacle initially. I’d also seriously overpacked for the hike, having taken with us four rucksacks with a large variety of cold weather gear, which was never needed, just in case the weather set in (must have confused Morocco with Wales!). After a very short while, MrJ and I ended up with all four rucksacks to lug up the mountainside.

Nevertheless, despite the hard start, the scenery was stunning, the air fresh and clear, and with Mustafa joyfully singing us Berber songs, we happily ascended to the Tizi h’Mzik Mountain pass.

The view from the top – pretty impressive!

Thankfully flopping under the shade of a juniper tree, we were presented almost immediately with a delicious lunch of Morocccan salad, freshly baked bread and a mouth-watering lamb tagine, with oranges and pomegranates for dessert (Muhammed had taken a short cut up the mountain with our trusty mule to cook the meal). This is definitely the way to do hiking – not a squashed sandwich in sight! The food on the trip was the best of our holiday – how he rustled up such delectable dishes on the side of a mountain I’ll never know. But I was very grateful for his skills!

Not wanting to waste even a mouthful!

After finishing our lunch and enjoying watching the mule blissfully roll in the sand, we headed off over the other side of the pass, slowly descending to the village of Tizi Oussem (2000m), collecting walnuts en route. We’d offloaded some of the baggage to our dependable mule, which made for an easier second half to the trek (I did feel quite guilty about this but on the plus side, the mules looked very healthy and well looked after).

I love the chats we have on our walks together – hiking provides such a great opportunity to connect with your children, as well as giving you all space for dreaming and reflecting on life. After letting her thoughts wander over the peaks and valleys of the mountains, Bean10 cheerily exclaimed that she’d just thought up a twist for the novel she’s writing. Bean8 on the other hand, chatted with one or the other of us nearly none stop, discussing the merits of all the different sports he could think of, quizzing us on our knowledge and experience in each one, and deciding which one he’d like to try next. All the while, Mustafa warbled on with his Berber music providing an emotive backdrop to our trek.

Finally, after just over an hour of walking, we neared the village of Tizi Oussem, marvelling at the stepped tiers cut into the mountainsides, enabling sufficient food to be grown for the village, and waving at the friendly locals.

Mustafa offered to take us into a traditional Berber house for some mint tea, which we gladly accepted. A simple two-roomed house made of thick mud walls to keep in the heat, with no obvious indoor washing facilities, a simple fireplace for cooking and rabbits running around the floor, it was quite an eye-opener for the Beans. Before our trip, we’d read a book about a farm through the ages from Medieval times to the present day. If I’m being honest, this was like being transported back to the earliest of these times.

The family were extremely friendly offering us walnuts and delicious mint tea (which apparently has to be poured from a very high height to make for a happier, bubblier tea!). Feeling refreshed and somewhat humbled, we set off again for the next village (40mins walk) and our home for the night, Ait Aissa.

Our guest house was simple but clean and warm. We sorted ourselves out, showered and settled down for some mint tea and popcorn with another two lovely guests from the UK, who had done a similar, but longer, hike. It turned out that not only did they work in a town where one of my oldest school friends now lives in West Yorkshire, but he’d also been to the island of Hoga on an Operation Wallacea trip (my dad’s company), just as we had done earlier in the year. It’s a small world! As keen travellers, it was great to chat to them about their voyages past and upcoming whilst we waited for our second delicious tagine meal for the day.

The gite
Our room for the night
The communal space

Fully sated and filled to the brim with chamomile tea to help us sleep, we headed to bed. Sadly, the soporific effects of the tea failed to work its magic and instead caused multiple trips for the entire party of people to the one squat toilet, which, given the squeakiness of the doors, meant that none of us fell to sleep until around 11pm! I thought all that walking – nearly 4 hours in total with an elevation gain of almost 1,000m – would have tired them out, but unfortunately it only served to energise them!

Day Two

Nevertheless, we woke the next morning to the glorious sunrise over the mountains and despite their tiredness, they were keen to start the hike before it got too hot. The morning was beautiful, the air crystal clear and it was hard not to walk up the mountain with a huge grin on your face.

The Beans were so busy playing guess the word (you give the first letter, total number of letters and category, so for example, B3 B3, Landmark would be Big Ben), that we’d reached the summit of our second pass – Tizi Oudite ( 2219m) – before we knew it. It helped that they were chatting to our new-found friends from the guest house en route. However, as much as Bean8 was desperate to follow them down the mountain to chew their ears off, we felt they might want a little bit of peace on their hike, so hung back a little bit to allow them a chance at solitude!

The fragrant juniper trees, which smelled divine

Everyone had adjusted to the altitude by this stage, so hiking felt much easier. So much so that Mustafa had to adapt our route, lengthening it slightly as we were walking so quickly that we’d have reached our original destination well before lunchtime. He was impressed by the children’s hiking ability and said they’d be ready to tackle Mount Toubkal next time. At 4,167m, this is the second tallest mountain in Africa, after Mount Kilimanjaro. One for another trip!

Having passed some pretty little Berber villages during our descent such as Matate and Aguersioual, we finally made our way to a shady spot beside the river close to Imlil, where Muhammed cooked the last of our last tasty meals. We’d hiked for three hours, covering 6.6 miles with 686m of elevation gain.

A gorgeous little dog had followed us all the way from our starting point early in the morning to our final destination on the riverbed (Mustafa told us that he regularly followed walkers and found his own way back home). So exhausted was he though, that he flopped straight down and fell fast asleep throughout the whole lunch period!

Soon after the food, our taxi arrived to take us back to the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. It was the perfect little holiday within a holiday. I would highly recommend the trip and would happily book with Astara Tours again (note that we paid full price for this excursion, so this is my genuine opinion). Mustafa was a happy soul, who kept us entertained and safe at all times, and Muhammed was one of the best chefs I’ve ever encountered. They made a great double act 😊 There were many hugs to be had as we said our goodbyes and sadly tore ourselves away from the tranquillity and majesty of the mountains. We look forward to visiting them again some day soon.

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  1. What a super idea to go on a guided two day trek with an overnight stop.
    Love the moonscape commentary by Bean 10.

  2. Was great to meet you guys. We wouldn’t have minded wandering down the mountain together…although from what I remember you came storming past and off into the distance in the end! Just reading up on New Zealand tips now, hope you are all well!

    1. Really lovely to meet you both too. Yeah, I think we’d been stuck behind the mule for too long on our descent and were keen to stretch the old legs!! We’d hoped to meet up with you at the end to say goodbye, but he took us an odd but very pretty route! Hope you have a wonderful time in New Zealand – the kids were asking to go back there the other day! You’ll have the best time. Definitely do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Any questions, please shout. Take care, Debs

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