This ‘Big WOW’! is slightly different than simply one place. The Atlas Mountains are long spread and varying.
Firstly, the total energy of travel and hospitality in Morocco varies a massive deal from North to South -Mt. Toubkal could be seen as the ‘divide’. Once you start in, with the north, things will get much more intense. Consider this before arriving.
We arrived, starting into the south and it’s emptiest and most isolated at the border of Western Sahara, then the whole energy was so destroyed with the overtly, unsympathetic toutes and prices of the north (gauged towards Europeans).
Everything started to really set in, that it was ALL about the Benjiz. Embrace the south, love the south, and take everything you can from it. A remarkable spot, nough said.
Anti-Atlas -and Tafraoute
The Anti Atlas is a superb region of eroded land and unending boulder problems for a veteran climber, where few actually try to reach, and therefore empty of tourists. The place is gorgeous, all around and all the way to the top of the furry, green high valleys. You can easily get to the top of this valley and likely find a nice family to kick it with a while.
Down at ground level, the air is hot and hard to come by; temperatures mid-day (it was May for me) were upwards of mid-forties Celsius. So yea. It gets friggin hot (and dry).
A Belgian, Jean Verame, in 1984, went to Tafraoute and painted clusters of boulders with pink, blue, green, white and red. He added colour to a very dry, arid and undeveloped area. The contrast of colour is extremely provoking, while the destruction of nature as it stands forces one to defy his art and feel as if its more of an unnatural act to a mother’s personal touch.
We eventually found a place for around six bucks each (my girl and I). The way from the southern coast is slightly confusing, long and drawn out. Roads weave and there lacks a direct route, but it’s totally worth the extra effort (and hitching is very much possible -with time).
From the green valleys, all the way up, it’s a long 13 hour day -twice. Considering the tourism, it’s certainly not a route that takes a professional, but the times outside of summer will be slightly more challenging for the amount of snow through the high face’s centre. It will take more than fake crocs (which I had on) to cross this thick, hardened, 40-75 m. traverse. And if you are like me, and decide to do it in nothing more than secure flip flops, likely you’ll have to venture this portion bare foot (as I did).
The journey starts at Imlil Village for most (after searching found a simple room for 5 bucks each) and to be honest there are so many more opportunities in the High Atlas and regional Atlas mountains, especially if you want to escape the toursits. But this hike is still a challenge -and great at the top of 4100 m.
In two days you hike nearly 3000 m and back down again (6000 m around), to Imlil. Accommodation is pretty steep if you don’t have a tent (at base camp), which we did and used, and the food is not super cheap either at the ‘base camp’, but it can be done very cheap regardless. There is certainly no need of a guide or anything else.
It’s a wonderful hike, though lacking in green; it is a very alpine area, the emptiness of growth is somehow riddling to my instincts being from Canada. It was hard to cope with. Regardless, it was a memorable push, to the top and though we missed reaching the peak of this sub-continent with the rest of the hikers, early in the day, we still made it long before nightfall.
For some reason, we seemed to be in a hurry to rush down the mountain, and some anxiety had come about with my lady friend from the very insecure passing-traverse that we had to do alone, heading up the face, firstly, in the wrong direction.
My lady friend became very, very angry with me and instead of letting the calm slow-in, I figured the best thing to do was let her cool off alone while we continued our ascent. I was wrong. And didn’t realize that, eventhough it might have been in my comfort zone, it may not have been in hers.
Quickly, we rushed back down, and at the ‘base camp’ I started to get the headaches that I recognized from the Himalayas as altitude ‘sickness’. The headaches started in melodically, then they became very hard drums banging against my skull. Take your time heading back down. You are changing altitude very fast, and if you are sensitive to it all, like me unfortunately, take my advice.
Plenty of orange juice on the way, and plenty of company to chat it up with if you wish. There are heaps of little nooks to stop and chill and relax and nap in the shade. It doesn’t have to be an aggressive push. Take it in, and embrace your surroundings. Simmer your anxieties of the modern world with the few running, little, waterfalls across the valley from you. And if you’re like me try not to focus on the idea of going to them, instead of where you are at the moment I.e enjoy your present even if it’s not so different than all the others around you.
The Sahara -and Merzouga
Again, the party is ruined by bureaucratic jackasses, as you will not be crossing borders to Algeria any time soon, sadly. This was, for us, the first experience we had from the vultures of toute ‘salesman’, crazy Morocco. In the other parts of the south, few people every bothered to even notice us, while here, we were certainly marked -and nearly alone in May.
You will first pass Ouarzazate, and the film quarter of Morocco, and a huge gorge known for its climbing (rentals are very steep!); from there it’s straight into the eastern Sahara region. The area we fell into, it was absolutely gorgeous as far as sand dunes are concerned, but the guesthouses were everywhere, with pool facilities and it just ripped the whole natural experience out of my heart.
The rising temperatures that this place sees on a regular basis between May and September, you will be so fucking thankful there are pools around, actually!
It’s an extraordinary place, but there is little for food, and the eating in your guesthouse, or the ones around it, will not be cheap -it’s a pretty desolate area after all. Try to pack ahead if you can. Bring some goods and cook for yourself. This will help. (if you’re on a backpackers budget I mean).
The camel experience, in my opinion, is certainly not worth it (unless you got training for a solo mission). The heat at this point was so excruciating -and could be quite dangerous if its not winter- that it was hard to walk a hundred meters let alone spending days in the desert on someone else’s camel, with a couple of guides taking you in circles around an area, millions of others have tramped upon already.
It’s an unbelievable site, these high dunes, and the vastness of sand; you can almost appreciate, and truely taste this insanely massive and sprawled and powerful desert; it’s just a crying shame ya can’t stroll across the border to Algeria. Meanwhile, stead of sweating that, at night, the endless stars will steal your attention a while, and won’t mistake it for anything but evening’s highest grace.
A unique experience, these varying landscapes; from the ancient, crumbling boulders of the Anti-Atlas sprawled across anti-valley; to the high summits, and rugged, alpine perimeter of Toubkal; and then all the way down to the dirt floor, to the unending dunes of the Sahara. A journey of ambitious weight.
And all of it on a simple, every day, 20 dollar a day budget -or less.