Mountain walking: The complete guide to the Moroccan Atlas Mountains

High above Morocco, the sun-scorched homeland of the ancient Berbers is where trekkers come to experience weird geology in a warm climate. And if scaling peaks at 4,000 metres is beyond you, take a more leisurely 4WD tour, or head for the sensual, sumptuous delights of Marrakesh and simply indulge yourself


Where are the Atlas mountains?

Where are the Atlas mountains?

Morocco, mainly. The Atlas mountains stretch for 1,200 miles from the Atlantic port of Agadir to the Tunisian capital, Tunis. But Morocco is, arguably, where the Atlas range is at its most interesting. Within Morocco, the Atlas is divided into several parallel ranges - the Anti, Middle and High Atlas. Of these, the High Atlas attracts most visitors, many of whom come to climb Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 4,167m.

What can you do there?

All the usual mountain activities are on offer in the Atlas but be prepared for them to be Moroccan-style. Don't expect to find the sort of tourist infrastructure you find in the Alps, or even the Pyrenees.

Trekking is the main draw, with thousands of French, Spanish and British walkers visiting each year. Weird geology, warm weather and a colourful local population make the Atlas one of the world's great trekking environments. Guides and pack mules can be hired cheaply and easily at all major trail- heads. Finding maps and accommodation, however, can be a little more difficult.The four main trekking areas are Toubkal, M'goun, Sirwa and Sahro. Each is very different. Toubkal is the highest and most easily reached from Marrakesh. M'goun is lush and densely populated. Sirwa and Sahro are lower, hotter and more isolated.

First-time trekkers in the Atlas will be surprised by how few fellow walkers they'll meet; trekking is still in its early days here and the range is far from crowded. Arranging an independent trek is fairly straightforward but a number of British-based tour operators also offer comprehensive trekking packages. There are also 4WD tours available for those who want to see the mountains without a work-out.

Not all visitors are trekkers. Many people visit simply to see the mountains or to enjoy the peace. Horse-riding, mountain-biking and climbing are easy to organise and twitchers flock to this important haven for birdlife, too. Look out for the rare Moussier's Redstart, endemic to Morocco and Algeria, the Bearded Vulture, Bonelli's Eagle and the Barbary Falcon.

Where exactly should I go?

The Atlas may be one of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges but specific "attractions" are scarce. Trekkers hoping to scale Jbel Toubkal need to get to Imlil, the start point. Tabant is the trail-head for the M'goun region. The Sirwa area is most easily reached from Taliouine, while Sahro should be tackled from N'Kob.

Of the many beautiful and ancient Berber villages in the Atlas, Megdaz, in the M'goun area, is perhaps the best. Imilchil is well worth visiting for its annual Berber wedding festival (usually held in September). The mosque at Tin Mal and the kasbahs at Telouet and Ait Ben Haddou are other popular highlights, and Ouirgane is the best base from which to explore the Atlas without roughing it. Here you will find La Roseraie, one of the very few top-class hotels in the area.

What about the people?

In general, the Arabs dominate the cities while the Berbers occupy the mountains. There is some tension between the two ethnographic groups, who have different origins, outlooks, language and even appearances.

Berbers are famed for their generous hospitality to strangers. It is quite common to be invited to share tea and bread with a local family, or even to stay overnight. They are also, however, equally well-known for the passion and violence with which they have defended their independence and beliefs. Like many mountain peoples, Berbers are often extremely fit. Trekking guides and mule-drivers cover vast distances quickly without the trekking gear Westerners might would consider essential.

The traditional dress for Berber men, still worn today, is a brown or dark-blue, full-length smock. Women wear colourful, highly-decorated dresses with distinctive headscarves and bright sandals.

Berber women carry out a good deal of hard work in the fields and the home, and the men appear to do rather little. You will see elderly Berber women struggle past groups of chatting men with vast sacks of crops on their backs. The world of business, however, is almost exclusively male. Businessmen and merchants sling a small leather satchel across their chests to signify their position.

What are the Berber villages like?

Sun-scorched terraced villages hug the mountainsides throughout the Atlas. They tend to be small and simple in form, but distinctive in architecture. The dominant types of Berber building are the kasbah, ksar and agadir.

Kasbahs are generally square, fortified structures, made from compacted mud. Some kasbahs are enormous, like the one at Ait Ben Haddou near Ouarzazate, while some are large enough for just a few families. The ksar is a larger structure, a self-contained village surrounded by a high, even wall. One entrance leads to a central alley, from which a labyrinth of houses, mosques and wells stretches to the external walls. Agadirs are large, fortified communal granaries, which would protect stored food from marauders and provide a place of refuge for women and children during times of war. You can see one of the most complete at Tabant in the M'goun area.

Is the food good?

Contrary to what you might expect, yes. Moroccan cuisine reflects the country's history; it's a blend of Berber dishes, Arab spices, Spanish ingredients, desert staples and, more recently, French interference.

The Berber influence is best tasted in couscous and tagines. It's impossible to visit Morocco without getting acquainted with these ubiquitous dishes. Couscous is a classic Moroccan dish. Semolina is steamed in the top part of a two-tier couscoussier while a meat or vegetable stew cooks slowly underneath. After several hours, the two are combined. The word tagine refers to the earthenware pot in which the meal (a delicious meat or vegetable stew with spices) is cooked.

Soups, particularly harira (chickpeas, lamb, tomatoes and spices), are common starters and pastilla (pigeon pie) and brochettes (kebabs) are popular main dishes. Harissa (chilli and garlic sauce) is commonly used to add flavour.One interesting Atlas speciality is a m'choui, a whole lamb roasted slowly in a sealed clay oven. This Berber treat is usually reserved for weddings or feasts so, if you are offered one, consider it a great kindness. Traditionally, the most succulent parts of the lamb will be offered to the guests first; this could mean the eyes or even the testicles. Refusal will offend. More worldly-wise Berbers will have encountered Western reluctance to eat steaming lamb's gonads before but, if not, there's no way out.

Larger trekking groups in the Atlas might consider employing a cook. With just a gas stove and a couple of pans, these highly-skilled mountain people can rustle up tasty, three-course meals.

Is Marrakesh in the Atlas?

Marrakesh is the gateway to the Atlas and you will probably pass through it on your way to the mountains. It is a great, exotic city and one that deserves a few days to explore.

Arriving in Marrakesh is an almost overwhelming experience; the combined assault of sounds, smells and sights will have your senses reeling. Djemaa al-Fna, the city's central square and its cultural pulse, is where the assault is at its most intense. Snake-charmers, storytellers, street dentists and Berber drummers compete for attention with frenzied enthusiasm. There is no sight quite like it in the Arab world.

Marrakesh, the Red City, has another great draw: its low-rise sprawl of red-pink buildings that appear to have grown out of the ground then baked solid in the scorching African sun. It's difficult to see where one house stops and another starts. Indeed, the souks and narrow streets of the old Medina form a beguiling labyrinth. And all this is framed by the peaks of the High Atlas.

The city is a mix of ancient and modern: in the east, the walled Medina suggests time has made limited progress. The streets, architecture and souks appear to have changed little over centuries. Only television aerials and the constant roar of taxis and scooters hint that the third millennium has arrived.To the west of the Medina is the Ville Nouvelle, or new city, in which modern blocks of apartments and businesses were built during the years of the French Protectorate.

This is still a deeply religious city. Calls to prayer boom from the tops of mosques and Koutoubia, the 220ft-tall minaret that dominates the skyline, is closed to non-Muslims.

For Atlas visitors, Marrakesh is, above all, a base camp. Here you will find supplies, advice, and telephones . More importantly, perhaps, Marrakesh will be ready to welcome you back from the mountains with a warm shower, an extravagant dinner and a smooth, cold drink.

Which tour operators go to the Atlas?

Most adventure-orientated travel firms and many other larger mainstream tour operators. A two-week High Atlas traverse trekking holiday will cost from £ 350, without international flights. Prices increase, depending on the level of comfort offered and the itinerary. Trekkers might try: Acacia Expeditions (020-7706 4700, acacia-africa.com); Discover Ltd (01883 744392, discover.ltd.uk) Far Frontiers (01985 850926); Guerba Expeditions (01373 826611, guerba.co.uk); Marrakesh Express (0141-332 1991, marrakesh-express.co.uk); Naturetrek (01962 733051, naturetrek.co.uk); Sherpa Expeditions (020-8577 2717, sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk); Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007, travelbag-adventures.co.uk); Walks Worldwide (01332 230883, walks-ww.co.uk); or Worldwide Journeys & Expeditions (020-7381 8638, worldwide-journeys.com).

Other companies with interesting Atlas itineraries include Abercrombie & Kent (020 7730 9600, abercrombiekent.co.uk); British Airways Holidays (0870 242 4249, baholidays.co.uk); Headwater (01606 813333, headwater.com); and the fair-trade travel company Tribes (01728 685971, tribes.co.uk).

What if I'd rather go independently?

If you arrange your own trek, you should expect to pay £ 15 per day for a guide and £ 5 per day for a mule and mule-driver. Lodges will cost no more than £ 2 a night so, if there are a few of you, it can work out much cheaper to trek independently.

Morocco can be reached by air, road or rail. Marrakesh is the place to get to for the Atlas mountains. From Marrakesh, buses and taxis connect with Imlil, Azilal and Ouarzazate, which in turn offer transport to many of the more accessible parts of the range.

Air travel remains the most efficient way to reach Marrakesh. Prices are relatively inexpensive and flight-times from Europe are short. Marrakesh is served by GB Airways (0345-222111), operating British Airways aircraft, with fares from £ 275. The flight time is approximately three and a half hours but might include a stop in Gibraltar. Alternatively, flights to Casablanca start at £ 230, so it can be slightly cheaper to fly to Casablanca and take the train to Marrakesh (around £ 5). Otherwise try Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361), Air France (0845-0845 111) via Paris or Iberia (020-7830 0011) via Madrid to Marrakesh.

Coaches and cars can get to Morocco by crossing on a ferry from Algeciras in southern Spain to Tangier. For ferry tickets, contact Sea-France Southern Ferries (020-7491 4968). Eurolines (01582 404511) runs coaches from London to Marrakesh via Casablanca. The journey takes at least 36 hours, leaving London Victoria coach station on a Friday evening and arriving in Morocco on the following Sunday morning. At £ 225 from London, it's not good value; you might as well fly.

Train services, like coaches, offer questionable value to British travellers. It is possible to travel by train from London Waterloo to Algeciras, where the ferry crosses to Tangier. But the journey costs more than £ 300 from London and takes at least 24 hours, including stops. If you feel like taking your time getting from Britain to Morocco, however, an Inter-rail pass represents reasonable value. A two-zone card (£ 209 for travellers under 26, £ 279 for anyone older) lasts one calendar month and allows almost unlimited rail travel in Europe and Morocco. For details, contact European Rail (020-7387 0444) in London.

When should I go?

In Marrakesh, summers are very hot and dry, with temperatures of up to 40C, while winter sees the temperatures hover around 20C. The Atlas can be trekked all year, although winters are cold and snowy and the highest peaks, including Jbel Toubkal, can be under snow from November through to June.Altitude usually prevents summer temperatures from becoming unbearable, but it gets uncomfortably hot in the valleys. Spring is a good time to visit; some snow remains to make trekking more comfortable underfoot, but the days and nights are relatively warm, dry and pleasant.

How can I find out more?

Contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office (020-7437 0073) Second Floor, 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE. From May, Trekking in the Moroccan Atlas, by Richard Knight, will be available (Trailblazer Publications, £ 10.99), or the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet Morocco guides have limited sections on the Atlas.

Evil eye

The Berbers are a superstitious crowd. You will find they take care to avert the harmful force of the "Evil Eye" in almost everything they do and believe that the "Evil Eye" is a powerful and damaging spirit that they must do everything to fight. Many Berbers carry the symbol of the hand of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet, on necklaces. The hand is believed to have special powers that are the equivalent of poking a finger in the "Evil Eye".

Make your own m'choui

Select and wash 3.5kg of mutton (shoulder and ribs). Blend saffron, cumin, paprika, salt and butter, and rub the mixture over the meat. Place part of the mixture under the skin of the shoulder. Cook in an oven, with the fleshy side facing down, for two hours. Add a glass of water and pour the cooked juices over the meat occasionally. Turn the meat and continue cooking until very tender. Leave for 30 minutes, then serve with cumin and salt. (Serves eight).

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