Every time I’m hiking up a mountain, I wish I hadn’t bothered, but then every time I stand at the top of a mountain peak I’ve just scrambled up, I tend to feel a little less angry with myself and a small but perceptible sense of satisfaction ebbs inside me alongside a substantial feeling of relief. Morocco’s highest peak, Mt Toubkal stands at 4,167m, significantly lower than Mt Kilimanjaro yet still over three times higher than the UK’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. The Toubkal climb had originally been planned as a warm-up just before attempting Russia’s Mt Elbrus in the summer of 2020, however two years of pandemania followed by war has put paid to any hiking in Russia. Nevertheless, I needed little excuse to return to Morocco, climbing a relatively easy mountain appeared a good idea, and the Mrs wanted to ride a camel in the desert. The hike started around 11am, trekking slowly upwards through a meandering valley and depositing us at a remarkably comfortable refuge for the night parked at around 3,100m. Back on the trail at 4am after a hideous attempt at sleeping we dragged our sorry arses slowly but surely up the final 1,000m of loose stone and gravel, each breath containing slightly less oxygen as we climbed higher. Altitude plays its tricks according to the person and usually I can cope up to 5,000m before it starts to wipe me out, but with no time to acclimatise on this trek and maybe a little unfit, I certainly began to feel a little strained. Arriving at the peak around 7.30am we had achieved our goal of climbing 2,435m and 14.2km since the following morning. Never have I stood at the top of a mountain and been happy to sit down and have a sandwich, usually it’s blowing a gale, freezing cold, raining, or all three. Toubkal, was borderline warm thanks to the rare stillness of the air and the spectacular views rounded off the feeling of achievement that we all bathed in, not that it was to last as it was soon time to turn around and do it all in reverse. It was gone 5pm by the time we crawled into the village of Imlil, completing the 28km round trip in around 30 hours and unable to feel any sensation in my calves. It may not be record-breaking but for a hike on vacation it will do me just fine!
From Imlil we began a long road trip towards the Algerian border and the first signs of the Saharan desert. I had done this before on a visit to Morocco but was happy to do it all again after such fond memories of the first time, but if anything, it was the perfect lesson of why you should never go back to anything in life. Morocco is a stunning country with stunning people and stunning food. It’s the perfect introduction to an Arabic country and shatters any preconceptions a wary traveller may arrive with, and this is largely down to the fact it is so damn tourist friendly which is both advantageous and a little disappointing. Everywhere we stopped for food or tea we were met with a herd of tourist vans and their cargo, set menus were laid out and delicious food was presented in a timely fashion. Simply put, it’s a bubble. We visited Ait Benhaddou, a village dating back centuries which blew me away the first time I visited, but on my return I realised it was just an old village lucky enough to have been chosen as a site for shooting movies and therefore restored, and finally turned into a tourist attraction bristling with shops selling tat and tourists complaining its too hot, in June, in Northern Africa. The Todgha Gorges tells a similar story, a natural beauty of sheer red rock rising up to 160m high yet most tourists are shepherded through a very short section before being whisked off to either the desert or back to Marrakesh. To be fair, we were on a tight schedule and had little time to explore, but I feel the same applied to the majority of visitors.
A camel ride out into the desert and an overnight stay is always the highlight of any trip, but again my distant memories of a small group, an empty desert and sleeping under the stars was about to be replaced with something much different. Albeit that was during the cold season but now, to my horror, as we peaked a sand dune, we found ourselves facing an oasis of luxury ensuite tents and our luggage waiting for us after being transferred by Land Cruiser. As I get older I learn to embrace such luxury with slightly less disdain, yet my stubbornness is unable to hide the disappointment of being swept up with a tide of expectation driven by tourist demands in place of authenticity. They had Wifi. Flat screens and Netflix are surely only a step away. Put it this way, I didn’t spend 90 minutes sat on a grumpy, uncomfortable camel to watch yet another cloudy sunset, to be able to walk into a tent and flick on a light switch. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but with that kind of ending I may as well have cruised over with the luggage! What’s worse is that to coincide with sunset, we didn’t set off until 6.30pm, dinner was at 9pm, followed by drumming and dancing until about 11pm, sunrise at 6am (it was cloudy!), breakfast, back on the camels and all over by 8am. Therefore I had a comfy double bed in the middle of the desert that I barely got to sleep in. What’s the point!? It’s a lot of time, energy and resources when a sleeping bag and a campfire will do.
I may grumble, but ultimately Morocco is a wonderful place to visit and this tour was largely about hiking Toubkal and introducing my good lady to something completely new (she loved it). But, before signing off on good vibes I have one final rant to unleash. The Jardin Majorelle. What a load of rubbish. Apparently one of the top places to visit in Marrakesh, it is nothing more than an Insta-tourist haven, rammed full of people spending more time looking at their phones and themselves than their surroundings. If you’re smart you can avoid the horrendous queue to the unspectacular attraction by walking past the line of sweating selfie-addicts and purchasing a multi-ticket at the museum next-door (with no queue). This ticket, only a few dollars more than a single garden ticket provides access to a couple of small museums, one about some fashion icon, another about Berber history. It also allows you direct access to the Insta-garden without the need to queue. The sham to round off the sham of shams was that everything in the museums was written in French and only French, not just because it is one of Morocco’s languages but largely I suspect because it was funded by a museum in France. Yes, yes, arrogant Englishman alert but…. I would have been less offended if they had bothered to at least have Arabic translations. One of the palaces we visited in old town had half the people, cost half as much, was twice as big and provided info in a selection of languages. Talking of which, old town in Marrakesh is simply wonderful; both terrifying and magical at the same time. Narrow streets almost force you into stores and if that fails, a moped weaving through all the pedestrians will do the trick. However the shopkeepers rarely jump out at you and one can wonder the streets largely unmolested. No doubt, if you invite a conversation you are sure to depart a store with something you never dreamt of needing, but that’s ok, so long as I can walk the streets in relative peace. Around the main square is full of tourist tat but as with the whole country, dare to stray and you will find yourself immersed/lost in a delightful street full of herbs and spices or metal and woodwork shops. Doorways look abandoned and long forgotten but step through one and you may be greeted by a stunning riad, mosque, home, or fancy restaurant with a dog perched on a chair at the table alongside its owner. This is Morocco, undoubtedly an excellent tourist destination yet still able to retain its authenticity, especially should one wish to explore without the aid of a smartphone.
Check out the tour here.