California to Marrakech
In case you were wondering, Africa is a very long way from California. It amazes me what type of world travel is possible now, that would have been unthinkable years ago. We left on a Friday evening and arrived in Marrakech, Morocco mid-day Sunday, after flying from Sacramento to Atlanta, Atlanta to Paris, Paris to Casablanca, and Casablanca to Marrakech. We decided to spend the night in Marrakech before starting the climb of Jbel Toubkal the next day so we chose "Dar les Cignones" or "House of Storks" to stay at. In Marrakech, there are many restored "riads" or "dars" which are like a bed and breakfast -- very traditional Moroccan. The chatty cab driver knew right where to go to get to our riad which is a good thing because Marrakech is a gigantic labyrinth and a bit crazy!
From the rooftop terrace of Dar les Cignones, you can see the storks nesting in the old royal castle across the street. The contrast between the crazy hub-bub of the outside and the serene fountains of the inside of the riad was stark. We were immediately greeted by a warm and welcoming woman with fresh towels scented like orange blossom, cookies, and the omnipresent sweet mint tea.
We had dinner with our friend Jen in the courtyard with candles and Moroccoan wine -- a rose actually. It was magical. I ate the monkfish tagine, Moroccan salad and bread. Anxious about the next day, I took some Ambian to get myself to go to sleep. Ahhhh!
Marrakech to Imlil
Unfortunately, the company we'd hired to pick us up in Marrakech and transport us up to Imlil, the start of our approach, forgot about us. With the help of the staff at the riad, we made it clear we were waiting for them and to please hurry up! They finally picked us up and we traveled by truck through Ansi and then to Imlil. The driver was very proud that he had once driven Jimmy Carter to Asni although he got Jimmy Carter and Jim Carey mixed up. I think it was actually Jimmy Carter he drove.
Once we arrived in Imlil via a sinuous road that was a bit washed out in places, there was gathering, negotiating (not on our part -- between our guide, the muleteer, and the others -- we weren't really sure what was going on) and a little bit of explaining. Everyone spoke either Berber or Arabic it seemed except for our guide who spoke English. Many folks were able to speak French also, which helped since it seemed to be the only language we had in common at times.
Finally, they took our small duffle bag with extra clothes, snacks, toiletries, etc and loaded it on to a mule and we took off, leaving the hustle and bustle of Imlil behind.
Imlil to the Neltner Refuge
As we began our trek up to the Refuge we passed old mountain villages, tucked away into the hills and built using homemade cement made out of the same dirt surrounding them, making the villages disappear into the steep banks. All the locals were friendly and, of course, trying to sell us something.
We also munched on raisins, dates and nuts along the way. We started to warm up with our guide Abdul, finding out more about where he lived, his family, and how we all shared a passion for the mountains -- whether in California or in Africa. I noticed that many of the locals wear bright blue garmets, especially headscarves. It must be the trend.
At one small hut there was a man selling peanut brittle, sesame brittle, and linseed brittle. I'd never seen linseed brittle before. Craig bought some.
We crossed the streams and rivers several times on the way up to the refuge; often we were treated with gorgeous waterfalls along the way. All crossings were easy and uneventful when we were there, in late May. There were simple bridges constructed across in some places.
We stopped for lunch at the Chamharouch shrine and of course, were immediately served sweet mint tea. The genuine hospitality and overall good-natured Berber never ceased to amaze me.
The mules wore brightly covered and (I'm sure) hand-woven saddles -- very impressive. Each mule had plastic or canvas "buckets" on either side of them to haul equipment, bags, and food.
Lunch consisted of a steaming hot "omelet" with green peppers and a traditional Moroccan salad. Since pork is not allowed as a part of the Muslim faith, chicken sausages, like the ones pictured here, are very popular.
Mountain goats dotted the landscape for the last hour and a half to the refuge. They cacophony of baying kept us on our toes, always looking for the goats and what they were so talkative about. We saw one man headed down with a tiny baby goat wrapped up in his jacket.
We finally reached the Neltner Refuge at around 5pm. As Craig crossed the snow field leading the refuge, the clouds closed in in the valley below us.
The refuges were enormous -- much more substantial than I had pictured. They were basic inside, just bunks, a simple kitchen with benches and tables, a sitting area, etc. As soon as we arrived, our cook (who spoke only Berber, Arabic, and French served us delicious cookies with (of course) sweet mint tea. My system appeared to be adjusting to Moroccan food satisfactorily. There was quite a bit of snow present, more than I was expecting. Inside the refuge where a conglomerate of English, Italian, French, and Moroccan people, all speaking different languages. Our guide Abdul told us that it would take 3-4 hours to summit the next morning and that after lunch at the refuge again, we'd be hiking all the way back down and spending the night in a tiny Berber village.
Dinner was fantastic: Berber soup with a few lentils, beef tagine, and verbena tea for dessert. The verbena tea was supposed to help us sleep but it seemed to make us pee all night. Oh well!
Neltner Refuge to the Top
I didn't sleep well at all the night before we left for the top of Jbel Toubkal. On top of the "verbena tea pee" it got really warm in the sleeping bunks at the refuge -- I hadn't realized how heated the place was. I also had a runny nose all night. Regardless, we rose at 5:40 am, had a quick breakfast of mostly bread and cheese, and started out.
I'm not sure if it was lack of sleep, altitude, new Moroccan foods at war in my stomach, or just general exhaustion but I felt pretty sick to my stomach all morning long. I didn't feel strong hiking up at all and was trying to be particularly careful climbing through the frozen snowfields without an axe.
We watched as the sun rose timidly in the valley below us, crossing various snow and scree fields.
We summited at about 10am and then headed back down. I still felt sick to my stomach but I did start to feel a little better. By the time we stopped at the refuge, the cook had prepared lunch for us: Moroccan salad, lentils, some sort of fish balls, tuna, and bread. I couldn't eat too much even though I was hungry. What I really wanted was a nap!
Descent to Armed
On the way back down, the clouds decided to "let loose" and it started snowing lightly. The snow wasn't so bad but when we got low enough that the snow turned to rain, things started to get wet. We rescued our gore-tex jackets from the bags the mule had and continued down to the Chamharouch shrine. By the time we reached the shrine, we'd be walking for perhaps 10 hours and my knees were starting to feel it. Craig and Abdul suggested that I try riding the mule so we could move a bit faster. At first I thought this was a silly idea but then I thought "what the heck" -- maybe it'd be fun! It was -- and I really got to know the mule commands. "Harrra" to make him go: "shhhhhht" to make him stop. They are very obedient.
I was so tired that I was tempted to sleep through dinner until Craig poked me and said the magic words: "BERBER SOUP." We both fell in love with this new concoction and that's what got me up for dinner. The rest of dinner was couscous with chicken, carrots, fava beans, potatoes, etc. and for dessert, oranges with spices on top. The final "call to prayer" played in the nearby mosque (one of five per day) and it reminded me of a haunting, penetrating, mysterious chant, telling me it was time to close my eyes.
Below is the two-room Berber Guest House that we stayed at in the tiny village of Armed: (Craig is standing on the rooftop terrace)
To the right is the inside of the Berber house:
And our final Berber breakfast with Abdul which included Berber pancakes, jellies and jams, butter, juice, etc. Unfortunately this meal, for whatever reason, ended up making me extremely sick about 12 hours later.
Back to Imlil and Asni
I slept better in the Berber house but the 4:45 am "call to prayer" did wake me up. In the morning I found it almost soothing in an odd sort of way. After breakfast we took off, hiking down out of the tiny mountain village via a rocky trail through a lush part of the valley -- crops, walnut trees and cherry trees were everywhere.
We stopped at a cooperative where there were women making argon oil on the way back to Imlil. We learned that there are two kinds of argon oil: the kind you cook with and the kind you use in topical lotions and soaps. The way you extract the oil starts off the same way but the methods diverge during the process. Evidently argon trees only grow in a specific band between the flats of Marrakech and the Atlas mountains. We bought some argon oil and soaps from the women at the coop.
Finally, after an exhausting trip we retreated to the "Kasbah Tamadot" (which means "soft breeze" in Berber), met our friends Jen and Helena, and relaxed in luxury. Unfortunately I spend the afternoon and evening sleeping on the bathroom floor, quite ill.
Final Stay in Marrakech
Slowly, slowly, I came back to life. We traveled with friends Jen and Helena back to Marrakech and ended up staying in different riad, called Riad el Ouarda. It was a quaint, 300+ year old building that had been restored with blue and white paint, wood, plaster work, and a beautiful but very cold pool in the central courtyard with candles lit up everywhere. The vegetable couscous and pigeon appetizers looked good but I could only eat white rice.
No trip to Marrakech would be complete without a trip to the frenzied Jamaa el Fna square complete with food stalls, fresh orange juice stalls, snake charmers, acrobats, fortune tellers, monkey handlers, black magic items, story tellers, etc etc etc. Just north of Jemaa el Fna there was a sea of seemingly endless "souks" -- covered labyrinths of shops selling linens, custom tailored clothing, blacksmith and metal works, leather goods, hand-crafted wood items, spices, pottery, tea pots and glasses, trinkets, etc etc etc. Sensory overload!
After a final dinner at the Riad el Ouarda, my stomach was finally getting back on track -- just in time to go home. We spent one more night in Casablanca (mostly because our flight left so early from Casablanca that we had no choice) and then made the 30+ hour journey back to California after a fabulous (except for the stomach) adventure.
Good bye Africa!