The fear of being awoken at 5am by the boat’s over-zealous cleaning staff didn’t come to pass, and we comfortably snoozed through till eight. Tangier appeared through a sandy smudge over the water just as we passed Gibraltar, and we docked there an hour or so later.
Our plans for this town were threadbare, so we made our way to the American Legation, which TripAdvisor had advised us was the number one thing to do here.
This bizarrely old European style building nestles in amongst the cobbled hills overlooking the old port and is a small oasis of Georgian order surrounded by white and yellow plaster walls and under a terracotta roof. It was a good way to waste an hour, but a bit tricky to be too enthused by.
James and I stole a drink at one of the small beachside restaurants. It took three attempts for our waiter to suspend disbelief and that really did want to order a mint tea before food.
My first Moroccan tagine was excellent – chunky, fatty lamb cutlets swimming in spiced onions and prunes. James’ chicken and cous cous looked dry. We drank our Moroccan tea, the amberish mint infusion which comes loaded with a heart attack full of sugar.
Our transport that evening was a sleeper carriage on the overnight train from Tangier to Marrakech. Our “railway hotel” had a porter with a cap that gave him the look of the bellhop in Grand Budapest Hotel. We left at a minute to midnight, and immediately settled into the orange bunks of our couchette. The train stop-started its nighttime journey through the pitch black Moroccan countryside.
At around 8am the conductor tapped on the frames of the bunks to wake us, and sliding back the cabin door revealed the huge the dusty pastel pink landscape outside. We chugged into Marrakech, and jumped into the back of a local taxi.
We needed to get to Imlil, a small mountain village, two hours in a grand taxi (where you buy a seat and wait until all he other seats have been filled). The taxi rank contains row upon row of old beat-up Mercs painted in pale yellow, although the prevailing colour is – like everything else here – the soft coating of pink Moroccan dust. Shortly after we departed our driver exclaimed something then handed us a small cast metal bar with a hole in the end. We worked out we’d need to open and close the windows, the original handles long since gone.
The purpose of the trip was to get into the Atlas Mountains, and ultimately, to scale our way up the craggy peak of Mt. Toubkal (4,176m). This is the highest mountain in North Africa and the summit can be reached in two days.
We began our walk through the rocky orchards and shale-lined valley and started climbing up through the small villages and sandy pathways until the route reached the foot of the mountains and rose steadily over seven or so miles, gaining around a kilometre in altitude. We set off relatively late, and the sun was hot on our heads as we ascended the stony track, dodging the occasional dozy pack mule or local.
We stopped for food. Lunch was flat bread, and as I took the third bite into mine I noticed a familiar tang… I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but after a couple of more mouthfuls it became apparent that James had stuffed it in pretty close to his wash kit. Shaving foam, although spreadable, is my least favourite sandwich filling.
By early afternoon it became apparent that the passing mules and I were not getting on. A terribly apologetic Berber tried to console me when one of his decided to crush me against a rock.
We arrived at the refuge at 3700m in the early evening. This alpine-style ‘hut’ is palatial in dimensions, yet inside almost completely dark inside for the whole day. The electricity and lighting is turned on for three hours in the evening after the sun sets. We sat for a hearty evening meal with a bundle of French, German and Austrians and wolfed through bowls of hot soup and cascading piles of cheese and tomato spaghetti.
At 6am we rose. The hut was pitch black. We met an American called Ben at the breakfast table, and we agreed to climb the remainder of the mountain with him.
By 7am we were ready and wrapped up; we started the ascent. From the back of the refuge the valley rises in two main peaks, and we scaled the boulders to the left hand side of the pass – rapidly rising through mounds of rocky skree – and passing a number of groups who had set off a little before us.
The high altitude thins the air here, and with each step higher new energy is needed to take in enough oxygen. Only once before have I been to this height, in the Himalayas, and I suffered from the sickness: headaches, dizziness and shortness of breath. This time I fared much better, perhaps due to a better breathing technique, however I was really pleased to avoid my once troublesome asthma and avoided the need of an inhaler for the entire journey – there and back.
By this time of year the caps of the Atlas ranges have no snow, but the biting wind races across the skree in unpredictable, frozen bursts. Ice lays on the ground in places, and the overall temperature with windchill was around 2 degrees.
At midway, we started to pass some early starters already returning from the summit. Soon after we reached the middle of the two peaks at the top of the valley, and for the first time our view was expanded; the world fell away below our feet and spanned out like a pale blue sheet over the rippling earth below us.
We made a final push. The path wound back and forth, eventually flattening out and atop it a large triangular structure marked the spot; the top.
There were photos and hand shaking all round, and it was time to go back down.
The descent was less fun. The sharp drops between steps jarred at our legs, and the skree slipped away as you stood on it. By the time of our return to the refuge, my knees were like jelly and our progress had slowed the whole time. We slunk into the chairs of the hut’s dark hall and devoured another tagine.
The return journey was hard underfoot – but nourished by food, or initial pace was fast. James endured a knee injury and we slowed again as the path continued to descend harshly. We shared a mint tea at a settlement at the foot of the valley. Ben needed to return to Marrakesh, and so we agreed to share a grand taxi back from Imlil.