Morocco’s cold shoulder: Climbing Jebel Toubkal

Instruct a man, you instruct an individual. Instruct a woman, you instruct a nation. (Moroccan proverb)

Checking into Morocco: The trip to Morocco didn’t get off too well when my flight from Munich was delayed the evening before leaving me with only two or three hours of sleep between repacking and a 6am flight from Stansted. It did work out in the end and Ryanair’s service levels didn’t fail to remind that you should not use them unless there is really no alternative. The flight was smooth and we landed a bit ahead of time leaving just the border to clear. Easier said than done. All foreigners have to fill a landing card, but there was zero pens available. So put a smile on and borrow one. Took me 20min in total (good I wasn’t in a rush I guess). Next stop was my rental car. At €50 for the two days plus petrol it seemed a good choice. Avoids having to go the center to get a lift for same or more fare in some dodgy old car. Especially on the way back the additional flexibility should come handy. The funny thing was first that you have to return the car with a quarter of the tank full and secondly cars needs to be clean in and outside. Given the state of the roads to Imlil (base village for Toubkal hikers) this means I need to get a car wash sorted prior to return or just pay some €12 for them to do it (I am certain that this add-on is a firm part of their profit margin ;o).

Getting to Imlil: With data on my BT mobile priced at £5/mb (!) I had little desire to use google maps or any data for that matter. So normal navigation by asking actual people (that don’t speak English all that well) was on the menu. Unusual these days. The signposts were close to useless due to lack of signs or them being all in Arabic. However, a petrol warden drew me a simple map that worked spot on. The 75-80km from Marrakech airport to Imlil to me about 90mins and allowed for a start at 1.15pm.

Hiking up to ‘Refuge du Toubkal‘: I had some bread first given I hadn’t had a proper meal since my Schnitzel at Munich airport last night and got water. Off we go and this time not with a crazy heavy bag, but say 15kg (the new camera & go pro & batteries adding back some of the saved weight from new equipment). Overall it required a moderate 4h 45min total to hike up ~1,500m over 10km distance to reach the refuge at 3,207m. This time I arrived at 6pm and hence before sunset. Many of the people I passed on the way would arrive 2h later or I didn’t see them at all (one English couple/friends I asked if they had torches given their speed would mean they finish in darkness and can end in tears).

The weather looked initially worse than back in December as it was snowing in Imlil already (1,740m altitude). However, not as much gusty wind and no comparison to the rain/snow storm last time. Views were limited to say the least given the precipitation. Most importantly though given the again tight timetable of two days, the forecasts were for fine weather Tuesday am and only little new snow (vs 25cm last time). Next bigger snow is only expected Wednesday pm (10-15cm). It was very cold though closer to the refuge (-10 degrees?) and even my ice climbing gloves didn’t cut the mustard. Good to have mitts as back-up though I will try the Muntain Hardwear ice climbing gloves to start.

Recharging batteries at the refuge: After check-in and some hot tea, I had to rest for a good hour to recoup strength. Been a long day. After a solid dinner (chicken, potato, carrots, soup, bread, tea) it was time to prepare for tomorrow (about 2.2km distance in steep upwards terrrain including just under 1,000m altitude gain to the summit at 4,167m). Breakfast at 6.30am. Not early enough for sunrise, but before the snow gets warm. Most importantly … I hope my watch will fix the navigation aspect this time (having failed miserably once before). The Toubkal route was the first thing I programmed when I got my Suunto Ambit Peak 3 recently.

One tip – don’t forget your passport: A Dutch / Moroccan couple left their passports in their Imlil hotel when they decided to go hiking at short notice. She had to get her mum to confirm passport details or be refused to stay at the refuge. That’s pretty stupid of the refuge people to say the least. You are a refuge for a reason and sending unprepared hikers back down in darkness is only asking for trouble. Not really an issue for international travellers, but be warned still.

Reaching North Africa’s highest peak: After a brief breakfast I set out at 7am. I think only the english bloke who also stayed in my room left earlier (5.30ish). This time I took the correct valley up and since it was daylight already it was hard to miss. Soon after me five Italian ski mountaineers followed suit as well as a British  group of three hikers. The snowfall hadn’t been too bad though there was some trail-breaking required on the less frozen parts of the route. Here the Italians on their ski’s had a much faster pace. Weather wise there were some clear patches early on, but soon clouds arrived, wind set in and temperatures dropped well below zero (eventually I had to put on my mitts). The route is pretty much a straight line up te valley until you reach the ridge, which you follow for anothwr 30mins to the summit. My pace was relatively moderate, but steady and I reached the top at 11.30am after 4,5h for the 1,000m altitude gain. Mission accomplished! Both the Italians and the English team beat me to it, but that’s not important (they went to bed after while I felt in strong condition to push all the way down). Thinner air was a headwind while physical fitness was rock solid. After an uneventful 30mins at the summit (for there was little to see unfortunately) and a few refreshments, I made my way back down and reached the refuge 13.45. Parts of the way down you can actually slide on your bum and I once more appreciated the GPS on my Suunto that gave confidence even when visibility dropped to 5-10m.

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Get me out of here! My desire to spend more time at the refuge (I had considered lunch) dropped significantly when I realised that ‘someone’ had opened the two dry bags I left behind (probably the same guy that charged me €2 for one cup of tea!). Nothing was missing (I took my money with me), but it’s just sad. I did let the guys know that this not cool, but the response only I got was that i should have put my stuff in (their) locker. Very helpful. This and the rip-off culture of Marrakesh really leave a bad image of Morocco (I have been advised since that outside Marrakesh its much better). By 2pm I was back on the trail, which remained largely snow-covered and new snow kept on coming. Without a single stop (apart from a few conversations with hikers heading up) it took 3h back to the car in Imlil.

Lost in Marrakesh: Driving the 80km back were uneventful. Life got a little trickier when I drove into the city center without a map or clue (still without mobile data). I found a parking space near the great square and took it gladly (€7/night were a rip-off, but I didn’t care after 10hours hiking and two hours driving today). Then quickly across the bazar and into the medina (old town) to hopefully find the Cafe Arabic that firstly sells a much desired cold beer (otherwise really hard to come by) and secondly has decent wi-fi. The latter was important as I still needed a place to sleep (it was 8.30pm by now). The issue is to find your way round the medina. Not even google maps works here. After trying my luck alone I ended up tipping a guy to get me there. Within 30mins I had my beer, spaghetti carbonara, booked a great hostel nearby and had caught up with events. Prices in this cafe are very much like home (i.e. expensive), food quality very average and the guests almost exclusively expats and tourists. But its nice and a welcome refuge from the craze of the buzzing markets. From there the maze continued and I needed one more guy to get me to the hostel (I paid him €4 to do so … so pretty much like an ‘Uber’ minimum fare (£5 in London) or a 15min taxi ride to the airport (MAD40) … but he wasnt happy still!).

Quality time at Equity Point Hostel: I checked in around 9pm. The value deal was for €9/night including breakfast. Respect though I would miss breakfast that is only served 8am to 10am. As most places in the old town, the building looks rather shabby from the outside. Once you get in, you’ll find plenty of space, a pool, a roof top and a bar (even showing Champions league with City beating Monaco 5:3 & selling drinks). The best thing about hostels is that you usually meet people and equity point didn’t let me down. After a quick shower I met 4 of my 6 room mates in the bar. On one hand two brothers from New Zealand (not that I would have guessed, Nico and Deniro?). Nico is an engineer involved in the new Tottenham stadium (to make some money for the next travel I gathered) and the other a lawyer who is about to start a 6mth job with HSBC in Hong Kong. They had managed to get hold of two local coats from €35 each today and now blended in well into the streets of Marrakesh. On the other there were two French girls who are teachers as I understood and just spent 3 weeks working in Southern Morocco (Clo & Julie). Over a few bottles of wine we touched probably on every main topic there is. Politics (in Europe, US and even NZ), refugees, religion, backgrounds (the brothers have been travelling a lot over the years), favorite travel destinations, socialism vs capitalism, Australian binge drinking and aggression, global warming, London’s drug culture  (list not exhaustive by any means!) …  you name it! One of the brothers had trekked to Everest base camp in January this year and so we had a good amount of chat on mountains and Nepal too. Loved every moment and really hope our paths’ will cross again!

The three arabic words I picked up …

‘BsaHa’ – cheers / May god give you health

‘Jamal’ = Camel

‘Djellaba’ – Traditional Berber robe (what the two kiwi’s wear in the picture)

Key takeaways: Visit this place in central turkey (I forget the name Clo ;o), Brasil (Julie lived there for a year also teaching i believe), New Orleans (best nightlife ever according to Nico), don’t work for Australian farmers (they rip you off apparently though farm work doubles the length of your stay I learned), take a solar charger to Nepal and buy a local SIM.

After six hours sleep and an actually painless transfer to the airport (I even had time to get the car washed … out of principle) it was time to say good-bye. I guess I have to come back to see the ‘other Morocco’ one day.


(‘wadaeaan’ – goodbye)