Morocco (2016)

Hiking around Imlil

We travel to Imlil in the Atlas mountain range to hike through a number of Berber villages on a couple of mountainsides.

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Today, the first foray outside of Marrakech was on the programme: a trip to Imlil, in the Atlas mountain range south of Marrakech. After a solid breakfast, we hopped onto the bus for the two-hour journey and were therefore quite surprised when Geert had the bus park at a gas station after only ten minutes, and had us get out. We followed him onto a large open field, and up a small mound of earth, whereupon he remarked finely that slipping in the sand might very well kill us.

Geert remarked drily that stumbling here might very well be fatal

As it turned out, the mound had been raised around a hole in the ground. And not just a simple hole, but a sort of shaft down into the dankest depths of Morocco (for the Star Wars-nerds among us: basically a real-life sarlacc pit). This was a so-called khettara; the ground water level is higher in the mountains and by digging a tunnel deep underground that cuts into it, you can channel the water down to the lower plains to irrigate the fields. In order to construct such a tunnel, you need to dig or drill shafts at certain intervals to bring the ground up. And as we turned to face the mountains, we did indeed see one of these human molehills every so often, forming a line of miles in length towards the mountains. After doing a quick headcount, we returned to the bus to continue on to Imlil.

After a bit of a drive, the contours of the Atlas mountains started to slowly emerge from the mists. Soon after, we found ourselves on twisting roads along the mountainsides as the bus steadily started climbing up to Imlil, at an altitude of about 1750m. After a series of beautiful sights across mountain valleys and onto mountain tops, the bus drove into Imlil and we alighted at the hotel/restaurant of Mohamed, a man already known to several members of the group, who had stayed there several years ago on a hiking trek. On an idyllic terrace, we were heartily welcomed with refreshing drinks by Mohamed, who turned out to be a very friendly man. After being refreshed and having stretched our legs, we left for a lovely picknick location nearby, where we were served a wonderful rice and vegetable dish on a large picknick mat.

Panoramic view across the mountain valley. The group follows a mountain path.

A Mountain Hike

A good lunch turned out to be rather necessary, for directly after we embarked on quite a hike through the mountains, along a number of Berber villages built against the mountain sides. Especially the first part of the hike along and across a rocky riverbed made us regret listening to Geert’s pre-travel advice to not bring heavy hiking boots along. Being on basic shoes meant that this part of the route was a bit of a challenge, as was the firm climb that immediately followed it. Although the temperature was very pleasant due to the height and a slight breeze, the sun was burning mercilessly in a pretty much clear blue sky (very occasionally a small cloud bumped into a mountain top), and soon everyone was sweating and panting. The view, when you were not too busy looking at the sometimes very narrow pathways, was entirely worth it, however—as were the villages, where children stared at us intently, sometimes greeting us very timidly, sometimes very cheerfully. It probably does not happen that you have a bunch of tourists marching through your mountain village. Although we did see a number of hotels, a bike rental service and an advertisement for hiking tours in Imlil, so the area does seem to become more touristic.

After about an hour and a half, we arrived at the crossroads of a relatively large road (sand, wide enough to accommodate a vehicle), where the choice was laid before us to follow Geert down an easy route towards Imlil, or to carry on with Mohamed further up the mountains, although that would include a somewhat steeper descent later on. About half the group decided to head back towards Imlil, including Martin, for whom the damage to his vestibular system started to become rather noticeable on the winding rocky paths. Vonne and I wanted to see more of course, so we followed Mohamed along the rapidly ascending road. We finally arrived at a viewpoint at a 2025m altitude, offering a spectacular view across two valleys and a number of clay-clad villages.

The path down led around the mountain, and at one point suddenly passed the shop of a carpet salesmen, who made a good attempt at selling us some carpets (“maybe nice for your wife at home?”), which made us wonder 1) why he thought it a good idea to start up a carpet shop there, given the limited nature of passersby on a mountainside and the fact that these villages must have all the carpets they need at some point, and 2) if he really thought that a group of tired trekkers were really going to get a few carpets, toss them over the shoulder and carry them back home to the Netherlands. So we moved on, uncarpeted, and after a few steep descents with a lot of rocks and loose gravel, we managed to find our way back to Imlil and the terrace where the first half of the group was enjoying the shade and drinks.

Panoramic view across the mountain valley from a high platform for an electricity pole.

Most lasting impression of the hike was that it very clearly demonstrated the adage of “water is life”. Did you find yourself in a grey and brown landscape of rocks a bit higher up on the mountain, just a small path downwards you were suddenly in the shade of a beautiful orchard, or between the waving grass underneath a hedge, all because there was a very small irrigation channel dug along the road. It is really evident that irrigation plays a hugely important role in Morocco: if it is not because of all the charts and graphs in Geert’s textbook, it is because there are channels, gutters and small streams leading water everywhere.

After a short break to rest and to say goodbye to Mohamed, we returned to the bus. Back to Marrakech for the last meal and night in Hotel De Foucauld for now: tomorrow, the caravan moves on to the Middle Atlas, to Azrou!

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