Adventures in the Atlas Mountains

Trip Start Mar 07, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Friday, March 27, 2009

Leaving Fez meant that this is our first long day in the truck. After a stunning drive through the semi desert region of the Atlas Mountains we arrived at an expansive valley with a large river running through it. When I first set eyes on the area I thought what a good camp site. It was now 3.30pm and the decision was made to set up camp for the night. I thought it was time to be hard core and sleep outside under the stars. Lene was the only other person stupid enough to brave the possible zero degree temperatures, so we were the only ones.

Lene, Martin, Gwynne and I all took a full cup of alcohol with us on a walk down to the nearby river. We made attempts to cross the fast flowing stream and stay dry. I think I was the only one who succeeded. Martin wears his socks and sandals everywhere and he got them wet, Lene just walked straight through and her boots got wet and Gwynne took her boots and socks off and slowly walked through, actually very slowly walked through. Once on the other side we walked in the direction of the nearby mountains with no set plan, only to consume the alcohol, well, all that was not spilled while crossing the river.

After dinner everybody went to bed very early. Most were sleeping by 7pm. The cold might have had a bit to do with it, in fact at this point I was wondering if sleeping under the stars was a good idea, I was very cold and I was wearing all of my cold weather clothing and still struggling with the cold. By 8pm it was about 10 degrees. By the early hours of the morning it was 4 degrees. The coldest part of the night was the entering of the sleeping bag. The stars were not that impressive but sleeping out was great and it's been a long time since I've done it.


The following day we spent a full day driving through the spectacular Atlas Mountains to a small village at the base of Todra Gorge. The Atlas Mountains still have a substantial amount of winter snow on the peaks. Most of the western side of the mountains that we travel through are caught in a rain shadow from the coast and its quite dry, semi desert. The further south we travel the more plant life that becomes visible. How they manage to feed goats and sheep in this area is amazing.

By late afternoon we arrive at the small village at the base of Todra Gorge and Abdullah, a local Berber introduces us to his family. We are staying with him and his family tonight, sleeping on the rooftop terrace of their house. Abdullah spoke quite good English and introduces us to his family.   The introductions take place over a traditional Mint tea in a living room that is draped with traditional Berber carpets. The room also appears to be the weaving room as there is a carpet making machine in one corner with a half completed woven carpet there. Abdullah's   mother arrives with the mint tea for everybody. As is tradition in this part of the world I accept 3 small cups of tea and refuse the fourth, they offer the fourth cup but it is polite to refuse. They also offer some salted nuts. These nuts were easily the nicest nuts I have ever had in my life. They are a cross between salted nuts and beer nuts. I will find them somewhere and buy them.

At about 7pm the night starts with copious amounts of alcohol and the mood among the group is very jovial. Everybody is very chatty and in a good mood in anticipation of a traditionally cooked Berber meal of Lamb Tajine, Chicken Tajine and Vegetable Tajine with a large serving of Cuscus.  By 10pm the majority of the group are quite intoxicated and still in anticipation of the meal. At 11pm the meal arrives and some people are too drunk to enjoy the meal. A majority of the tired members of the group retire to bed following their last mouthful of the wholesome meal. While I was contemplating being one of the sleepy ones I stay up in anticipation of the Berber drum display that Abdullah and his brother promised after the meal. They bring a small and medium sized bongo drum into the room. They show great coordination that the average natural white man lacks. I did give it a go but I could not quite replicate their musical talents. But by 12.30am I could not keep my eyes open any longer and I retire to the rooftop bed. Another night under the stars.  

After a late night last night there were a few sore heads in the morning. The last of the party animals arrived back at the rooftop bedroom at about 3.30am. They were greeted by the chorus of snoring which appeared to swap between one side of the rooftop terrace to the other at irregular intervals. At least I am now aware of the snorers and I'm able to position my sleeping arrangements so I avoid them.

We took a short drive up and through Todra Gorge with the truck. I'm sure that in years gone by it would have been a strategic place of interest. Any Army or bandit could easily set up camp in the area and subdue any unlucky soles that were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its a very narrow red walled sheer cliff wall, that rises about 300 meters on either side and is only about 25 metres wide in some areas.

The plan this morning was to take a half day walk over the top of Todra Gorge past some Nomadic Berber campsites. Abdullah's younger brother is our guide for the walk over the top of the gorge. Not all of the group decide to take the hike. Those who stayed up late chose to stay in the bottom of the gorge and pretend that they were interested in the area. I think they all found a quiet place to have a sleep. Our Berber guide led us up a long gully that rose almost 500m above our starting point. While the track was not too steep there was very little respite from the constant grind of the uphill slog.

At the top of the saddle we observed a family of nomads that set out a temporary hut. It appears that they sleep underground. There were small excavated caves that look like they are their sleeping quarters. The hardest thing about their existence was the lack of water. They would have to haul all the water in from the valley below.

By the afternoon the rain had well and truly set in for the day as we travel to the movie set at Ait-Ben-Haddur. Apparently this place has been used in several movies including Gladiator. As we pull up in the town entrance the rain temporarily stops. There was a muddy track that took us all down to a normally dry river. Due to the rain it was just above ankle depth. Some of the enterprising locals had bought their donkeys to the river in an attempt to extort the tourists by charging 10 dirham ($1) to cross without getting their feet wet. Not much takers from our group, Tamara was the only one. I chose to take the boots off and walk across. The water was quite cold and by the end of the 50m crossing I was glad to get the shoes and socks on. Only about 10 people from the group choose to visit the site, not sure why.

Within 15 minutes of the getting to the site the rain started to fall. Considering that there was not all that much to see I choose to head back to the relative dryness of the truck. There was not that much to see at the site, a bit of a disappointment really. Also, it was a Friday the holly day in the Muslim world. For us it would be Sunday.

The steady rain made the idea of bush camping a bit difficult for some people. The planned campsite also had some issues with access. I'm sure the idea of getting the truck bogged made the decision to stay in a hotel a bit easier. The whole group set up there sleeping bags in the living room area of the hotel, instead of the rooms. Our turn again to cook......
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