- I had always fancied hiking in the Atlas mountains and, although I normally plan my travel independently, I felt that an organised trip would be the appropriate choice in this somewhat less developed region than what I was used to in Europe, Turkey and the US.
The organisation of the trip was excellent. Everything worked perfectly; one should not underestimate the amount of organisation needed to have our daily walking dovetail so neatly with the mule train carrying our bags and the cook producing three meals a day for us.
The value for money was remarkable, I thought. For £500 (without flights), I had a two-week holiday with, essentially, all accommodation and meals included and with the support of a professional guide, a cook, and between three and five muleteers and their mules.
Apart from an irritating habit of pouring tea from an exaggerated height, our guide was excellent. He was knowledgeable about the birds, mammals and reptiles of the Atlas but, much to my disappointment, had essentially no interest in the butterflies.
The highlight of the trip was summiting Toubkal at 4167 m.
The accommodation was somewhat mixed. The hotel in Marrakesh was very average; I stayed one night in the hotel immediately next door (Hotel Akabar) and, although also not great, I felt it was somewhat better and only £24 a night. (Of course, a Riad would be better still, but then you have to brave the Medina.) Some of the village houses in the Atlas were clearly run with some pride (Aremd, Tizi Oussem) but others (Ouansekra, Aguersioual and Iabassene) were dirty and unsatisfactory. I was aware in advance that I would be staying in some basic accommodation but would never equate basic with dirty, as perhaps our guide tried to do. I have stayed in basic village houses in Turkey and they can be clean and charming. Interestingly, of course, in relatively liberal Turkey the village houses are run mostly by women whereas in rural Morocco one sees only the men. In a couple of places (e.g., Iabassene), we were watched like a hawk by an old man in case we took a bottle of water or had a shower (both usually 10 dirhams extra each) and I felt that his time could have been more usefully employed by him grabbing a cloth and a bucket of hot soapy water and starting to give his establishment a good clean. I feel if Explore and its representatives in Morocco said to (e.g.) the proprietor of the village house in Iabassene "We will not come here again unless you give this place a good clean and then keep it cleaner" then one would soon see improvements. None of the villages houses provided towels (unlike in Turkey); one must bring one's own.
Our trekking started on Monday and by Saturday we were a couple of kilometres from where we had started and about 100 m lower in altitude. Basically, we spent the first six days going round in a circle. I am not saying that I didn't enjoy those first trekking days but I found the lack of a sense of overall direction or progress rather frustrating. The second week was better, as we started to climb towards Toubkal. If I had my time over again, however, I would choose one of the shorter trips, 5 days or a week, and do Toubkal more efficiently.
Our daily lunch breaks ranged from 45 min in duration to 2 h 15 min. I found these to be far too long, especially as we often began to get very cold from sitting around in the shade at high altitude. I do not know why we had to have such long lunch breaks. I would have preferred a later start to the day and more time during the walk itself to stop and take pictures of (e.g.) butterflies. But perhaps there was some reason to do with the work load of the mule train? Overall, I was somewhat bemused by the great emphasis given to food and eating on the trip. I signed up because of my passion for mountains, wildlife and walking - not because of any interest in Moroccan gastronomy!
On some days, I found I was exceedingly bored. I am used to hiking solo, map and compass in hand, making my own decisions, sometimes getting very lost. On this trip, I was told what time I was getting out of bed in the morning, what time I was having breakfast, when we starting walking, etc. All I had to do each day was follow in the footsteps of our guide and this did not provide me with enough mental stimulation. The Atlas mountains are very arid and hence there was not much wildlife around to provide any distraction from the daily trudge.
There were four other people in my group, all male. At the start, I was disappointed by the small size of the group and by the lack of women, although it did make us a very efficient unit after the first couple of days. But a larger, more varied, group would have provided a wider range of social interactions during our two-week trip. To my surprise, my companions were not particularly experienced mountain walkers; indeed, a couple of them had virtually no experience. I did wonder why one would sign up for a two-week trek in the High Atlas if one had never even climbed Scafell Pike or Ingleborough. But, glossing over a few minor hiccups, this lack of experience did not really cause us a problem. Potentially more serious was the fact that a couple of our group had turned up with completely inadequate footwear. Again, would one not take a good look at one's boots before going on a two-week trek in the High Atlas? However, thanks to the application of vast quantities of superglue, we somehow got through the fortnight without our plans having to be disrupted.
The trip notes had warned me that I would be asked to provide about £20 tipping money in advance by our guide. In fact, he asked for £25. Then, at the end of the trip, he said he needed more and we each gave him an additional £7, making £32 in total. My fellow group members then wanted to tip our guide. Personally, I did not want to do this as I considered him to be a "professional", like myself, and "professionals" don't accept tips, in my opinion. However, I was swayed by peer-group pressure, of course. But I was not happy that I ended up paying out nearly 50 quid in tips; a ridiculous amount, I feel, especially in a relatively poor country like Morocco.
Some of the Moroccan and Berber people we met were lovely; others were rude and only interested in our money.
Top tip: take some clothes pegs and a secret stash of loo roll. Oh, and a good book to stave off boredom.
Published on: 14 June 2016