toubkal 1997

Sun, Aug 24, 2008

Having a rummage through some old scans and information, I came across our honeymoon trip to Morocco, where we climbed Jbel Toubkal, in the Atlas mountains of Morocco and at 4176m (13,670ft) the highest mountain in North Africa. We just did it ourselves, with some help from Marrakech Express, a now defunct Glasgow booking service for Morocco, for the first night’s accommodation. We flew Glasgow to Casablanca, then jumped on the train to Marrakech, where the hotel had no record of us but were most helpful when we mentioned we were on honeymoon. We then spent a day in the souks of Marrakech, a totally new experience for us and utterly fascinating. After that, we jumped in a taxi at the Bab er-Rob, where we started getting some hassle as I kept getting out of the taxi to check on the gear in the boot as a lot of people were arguing round the taxi and looking in the boot. It was getting a bit hairy at one point, until the driver jumped in and we sped off with a full compliment of about 5 or 6 I think. As we sped along the dusty roads, the chap next to us leaned across and said “I know, Aaamish Braown”! I knew then that we were among different people and heading for the mountains. I remember the taxi ride to Ansi was an experience. Very loud Asian music blaring from the stereo as we sped up narrow roads overlooking deep gorges.

Djemaa El Fna Marrakech

The manic hassle of the souks was replaced by the mountain Berber people, who were amazingly friendy, with the chap we met in the taxi inviting us to his house. Well, we took him up on his offer and he whisked us past the mayhem of trinket sellers at the main road end at Asni. He sat us in the wee cafe and we shared mint tea, a staple of the region and sweet as sweet can be. I can’t remember how we got to his house, which was along the dirt road to Imlil and his kids smashed nuts on the ground for us to eat, while we sat and chatted on the flat roof, with the cows in the room below snorting and smelling of the outdoors. The family really were very friendly indeed. We bade farewell and walked up the dirt road to Imlil, the little village at the end of the navigable motor road. Apparently it’s now been tarmaced but back then it was just a wide dirt road.

We stayed the night in the CAF hut (I think it was owned by the French Alpine club) and were the only people there. Cockroaches and disgusting toilets with a raging torrent of a burn running past the back door is all I remember. However, we had some visitors arrive in the evening, a Sufi family from England who were looking for a new place to set up their group. They’d grown tired of British prejudices and had just come across Iran in a landrover, where they had been split up by the police, with the father having to stay and make his way out later. It all sounded a fascinating adventure. They were fantastic people to know and I sort of envied the kids their world tour. We agreed to meet up in Marrakech after we’d climbed Toubkal.


From Imlil the track went up into the mountains, passing the dusty village of Aroumd and up a smaller path, through the biggest concentration of ladybirds I’ve ever seen. I still haven’t seen as many since. At Aroumd, a gaggle of kids waited by the river with a couple of donkeys, offering to take walkers across for a few Diram. We availed ourselves of their service and they were most keen to get their hands on painkiller tablets for some reason, more so than money, so I gave them a handful from our first aid kit.

Just when you think you’re in the middle of nowhere, you come across Sidi Chamharouch, where some people appeared out of the rocks with refreshments and I bought a scarf for my head, to combat the fierce heat. In fact, I was also carrying 7 litres of bottled water, as well as the tent and food for two days. No lightweight backpacking back then! I knew from the Alps and Pyrenees that water would be a problem, as would airborne faeces, so I came prepared.

Eventually we reached the Neltner Hut and pitched the tent across the burn and downstream from it. We had Dawn’s old Saunder’s mountain tent, a one man lightweight marvel, so we nipped up to the hut to cook our dinner, paying a nominal fee to the guides who were in residence. Each had an Alpenstock, a long wooden shafted ice axe, about 4 feet long with a metal pick and adze and the standard method of travel was by donkey. Their clothes were normal street clothes, jackets and trousers you’d see in the souks of Marrakech and some wore street shoes. The odd guide had a goretex jacket which I think they’d been given by previous clients. They weren’t too happy that we were climbing without a guide but I assured them I’d been to the Alps without a guide. Their concern was, on the face of it, for our safety but the real reason was the fees. There really wasn’t much tourist work in the area in those days and we felt we weren’t that welcome at the hut, even after paying to use the table, where we cooked our dinner on our stove.

Camp on Toubkal

The Neltner hut was darkly wood panelled inside and it reminded me a bit of the CIC hut. Really nice indeed but the environs were the usual altitudinous mess of dirt and airborne faeces from the latrine. I’d first encountered this abomination in the Pyrenees, where the wind carries the dried up faeces from the latrines and distributes it liberally around the vicinity. Add to this the searing heat and air thick with dust and you get the picture. We finished our meal and headed back to the tent and our 7 litres of clean bottled water!

I don’t really remember much about the climb the next day, except that there was some soft snow and lots and lots of rubble and scree and I really felt the altitude, struggling higher up, while Dawn just ran up. Altitude affects everyone differently and I had been fine in the Alps after accustomising but I felt I was doing “no bad” considering we’d come straight up from Marrakech. I remember the last bit to the summit was a dog leg that took us under the top, along the top of some rubbly slabs, far out to the left, above some impressive drops, before heading back right to the curious structure on the summit. It was very hazy although we did mange some views over the Sahara and the nearer mountains looked just like Scotland, with snow patches and bare rock, a bit like the Cuillin in winter.

Dawn on the summit of Toubkal

I can’t remember anything of the descent now and I think we just packed up the tent and walked back to Imlil and spent the night in the CAF hut. The next day, we sat with the locals in the square, waiting for the bus to arrive, to take us down the road to Asni. Sitting under the shade of some trees, the sun beat down on the dirt road and everyone just lolled around, relaxing in the heat. Suddenly a small truck trundled into the square and as there was a mad rush for the open back, I presumed this was the bus. I quickly asked a local, in French, whether this was indeed the bus and he shouted a confirmation over his shoulder as he ran like mad for the back! Dawn jumped in, then I scrambled over the side and reached down to pull a wee kid up to join his family next to us. By the time the truck pulled out of the square it was standing room only on the flatbed back and I told Dawn not to lick her lips as we gathered speed out of Imlil and clouds of dust came up from the dirt road and deposited a fine red mist over everyone. This was travelling. It was fantastic. Jabbering with the locals in French in the back of the truck, bumping and swaying down the dirt road, along the side of a ravine. We sped past a coach parked at the side of the road, disgorging its contents of cleanly attired tourists straight onto a row of tables set upĀ  to sell trinkets. I think I remember them staring at the two of us, crammed in to the back of a carreering truck full of dusty locals, grinning like cheshire cats!

Ansi was utter mayhem again and we jumped off the truck straight into a taxi, where we were assailed by trinket sellers, shoving bracelets and beads through the window, shouting in French to buy and looking rather nasty when we politely declined. I was glad the taxi made a sharp exit. The calm and peacefulness of the mountains and the Berber hospitality was then replaced with the mayhem and stress of Marrakech, although we stayed in the Hotel Ali, which was a great wee place with views onto Djemaa el fna, and the camel tajine was superb. I remember sitting in the warm heat of the evening, as the sun set and the drums started beating out desert rythms in the square. There were camels parked up for the night outside the city walls and everyone was streaming into the square, which came alive with dancers, drummers, story tellers, food stalls, hawkers, beggars and a thousand different denizens of the desert lands. I’ll never forget that experience of north Africa. Looking back on it, sort of in pipe and slippers mode, I don’t remember seeing any police in Marrakech. None at all. I think that’s why I remember those hot desert nights of culture and wonder so fondly. The melee was composed of exotic people who spoke only Arabic and French and were representatives of cultures that stretched back to the dawn of civilisation. It truly was a special time.

Our last night in Marrakech was spent with the Sufi family we’d met in Imlil. They had a wee caravan on the edge of the town and we all crammed in for a spicy and aromatic meal cooked by his stunningly beautiful wife. In the heat of the evening, we watched the sun sink in a fiery ball over the desert and the drums in the square started up. A myriad stars appeared above us and a dog howled in the darkness. We talked long into the night about the state of the world and where it was headed. They’d liked Iran but it was too risky to stay there so they were continuing their landrover travels, educating the kids as they went, all the while looking out for the perfect place to start their new group.

We spent our last night in Morocco in Casablanca, taking the train there from Marrakech, a clean and plush air conditioned service that slowed down on the outskirts to negotiate families living on the tracks. There was filth and litter everywhere and people living in cardboard cities inches from the mainline tracks out of Casablanca. I felt uncomfortable in the air conditioned train, crawling slowly by these unfortunates, presumably looking for a better life in the big city. Whereas in Marrakech and the mountain districts people were at one with their environment, on the railway tracks whole families were eking out an existance far from their home towns and villages. I later learned in the hotel in Casablanca that the young folk of Morocco were endeavouring to mimc their European counterparts, eschewing their cultural roots and traditions in the rush for coke and jeans. It wasn’t helped by the ruler at the time who was pro-European and who I think had banned the overt growing of beards in public in the cities and anyone who hassled the tourists on the beaches was liable to be arrested. I thought it was a terrible shame that such a rich and vibrant culture should want to follow in the footsteps of a throw-away and vacuous society such as ours. As we wandered round the souks of Marrakech, I found a shop with an astronomy book full of interesting symbols and text but it was all in Arabic. I wish now I’d bought it and learned Arabic, to unlock the secrets of such a cultural gem.

All too soon we were taking off from the grass grown runway at Casablanca. When we told our climbing club friends that we were honeymooning in Morocco, organising everything ourselves and climbing Toubkal into the bargain, they all said the same thing, along the lines of being abducted etc. Although it was a hassle with the “Berber Markets”, which was code for carpet seller shops and nothing to do with Berbers, we hired the oldest guide in Marrakech to take us round the souks when we returned from Toubkal. On our first day in the souk we’d followed a kid to his “Berber Market” and ended up being hard-sold a carpet, which I payed for with travellers’ cheques. A slick salesman spread carpet after carpet before us, in a dimly lit upstairs shop. He’d previously taken us onto the roof and given us the tourist nonsense about his love of English football clubs and that he’d give me some camels for my new wife. Not very inspiring and a bit sinister during the enforced carpet viewing downstairs. I bought one just to get out of there. Apart from the near-scene at the Bab er-Rob, the only other time we had hassle was when I ran across the road in Marrakech to get a bottle of water, only 5 mins but when I got back Dawn was surrounded by local men, all asking questions and wanting to marry her and all that. The place had been empty 5 mins previously, so I don’t know where they had been hiding. We respected the local customs, covering up and not going into the mosques, although I wish I’d asked permission, as they looked interesting places, not just for religion but for education too.

Looking back, I think we were there at a special time, after the hippy invasion of the 70s and before the European influenced cultural changes. There’s a new mega-hotel in Imlil now, the Kasbah du Toubkal and the dirt road from Asni is now smooth tarmac. I wonder if the local kids still offer to take walkers across the river at Aroumd for a handful of sweets? I wonder if the ladybirds are still there? I’ve been around a bit now and mountains are mountains, no matter where you go. There are majestic peaks of naked rock and shining snowfields. Mountains that take you higher than the zone of human survival. Crowded mountains and quiet mountains on the edge of deserts. But I’ll never forget the minute we walked into the souk in Marrakech. We were literally three hours from Glasgow by plane and train. Three hours. The smells were mesmerising, shafts of dusty sunlight streamed across the facades of dimly lit, open fronted workshops, within which, children hammered out tin on anvils. There were animals and people everywhere and no-one spoke a word of English. I had to fall back on my rusty French and just marvelled at the Arabic accents of the thronging crowds. Here I was, three hours from my home, in a world I’d never even dreamed of. We were on the edge of the desert, the edge of a vast mountain chain, on the edge of wonder.

(some of) the pics