The High Atlas Mountains of Morocco
Just a short hop from Europe, Morocco's High Atlas mountains have stunning and wild trekking at altitudes up to 4000m. Hamish Brown tells us about wo routes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco: the ascent of Jbel Tazekka (Tazzeka) 1980m, the high point of the glorious cedar forests of north-east Morocco, and the traverse of Jbel bou Naceur 3326m, Moussa ou Salah 3172m and Jbel bou Iblane 3081m, the dominant mountains of north-east Morocco.
Jbel Tazekka (Tazzeka) 1980m
A fine, easy walk to the high point of the glorious cedar forests of north-east Morocco.
The Middle Atlas sees far fewer mountain visitors than elsewhere, a reflection I’m sure of the lure of the big, whereas much of the area offers indescribably beautiful hills covered in cedar forest, the Cedrus atlanticum. Jbel Tazekka is isolated enough for cedars to have evolved here that are regarded as a subspecies. The area is a national park.
Meknes and Fes, two of Morocco’s imperial cities (the others are Rabat and Marrakech) lie not far away from the Tazekka rump of the Middle Atlas, and to the north, with a narrow gap between, lie the Rif Mountains. The Arab invasion came through the ‘Taza Gap’ in the seventh century, a unique chink in the mountains that form a battlement around Morocco. It was from Taza we began our end-to-end Atlas trek, which finished on the Atlantic coast at Tamri, and Jbel Tazekka was the first hill climbed on the trip. I’ve been back since. The end of March visit gave the best display of flowers – including gagea, romulea, miniature daffodils, pansies and ranunculus. Ground churned up is a sign of wild boar in the area.
The N6 major road (motorway to be built) – and railway – from Fes to Oujda (on the Algerian border) goes through the Taza Gap, and from it a loop road climbs southwards to the Tazekka heights, a fine 75km day’s motoring circuit if nothing else. There are worked cork oak forests lower down, pleasant falls and a vast cave complex that can be descended (all described in The Mountains Look on Marrakech also by Hamish Brown), but the pull for me was always Jbel Tazekka. On the last visit we were staying in rooms and tents at a farm near the Friouato cave and simply drove along the road circuit until below Tazekka. This road goes past the holiday camp of Bab bou Idir, descends to a dip (Bab Taka, 1450m, where the road to Rbat-el-Khayr heads south), then climbs again. The piste up Tazekka breaks off just 1km on from this junction.
The piste is a forestry/mast-servicing track that wends up the hill, through mixed woodland with an unusual oak (where they are reintroducing red deer), and then leads across a grassy neck and up a final thrust of conical hill covered in magnificent cedars. Just picking footpaths up through these trees is a joy – a scented coolness. The trees go right to the top of Jbel Tazekka, but there are glimpses dizzily down to the Taza Gap, hazy mountains away to the north, and the snowy Iblane/Naceur heights to the south. The track to the summit is about 8km. The actual piste and what’s shown on 100 disagree; just keep to the piste as far as the cedars.
A day-walk from the nearest motorable road, which could even be completed in a day from Fes. Camping nearby or using local accommodation as described is a better option – enjoy the magnificently different area. About 7km and 500m of ascent from the road.
Travel to start
Using public transport one would have to find a shared taxi up from Taza – with an opportunist return. An easy but scenic drive in hired transport or self-drive car hire from Fes.
Not needed. A park visitor centre at Bab bou Idir is worth a visit, situated by the maison forestière.
100: Taza (but really a road map and the description given would suffice).
This route, together with Route 2 are from The High Atlas by Hamish Brown.
Jbel bou Naceur 3326m, Moussa ou Salah 3172m and Jbel bou Iblane 3081m
The dominant mountains of north-east Morocco are seldom visited, so offer greater rewards for relatively easy access
In February 1990 two of us set off to ‘beat the bounds’ of Morocco, so to speak, travelling south by bus from Agadir to Bouizakarne, then east to Tata, Foum Zguid, Ouarzazate, Ar-Rachidia and Figuig, then north to Oujda and west to Taza and Fes. (Advice: take a cushion.) Particularly on the Oujda–Fes stretch, when we’d gone by train, we were aware of snowy sweeps of mountain many miles off to port. They were even visible from Fes rooftops. What could they be? Eventually we realised they were the long crests of Jbel bou Iblane and Jbel bou Naceur. Two years later (May 1992) we set off to find and climb them – ‘we’ were the GTAM (Great Traverse of the Atlas Mountains) trio of Charles, Ali and myself, plus another friend.
We travelled by Land Rover hired from Marrakech via Kasba Tadla to reach Midelt. We passed a forgotten hotel night, but had a memorable meal in a small restaurant, Fes, the sort of eatery one bends routes to take in (grilled quinces once). Next day it was down the bleak Oued Melwiya (Moulouya) road – the only big river heading for the Mediterranean – and, at Outat Oulad el Hajj, onto a piste towards the mountains. The piste ran out, and some cross-country sport was needed to reach the village of Tirnest. Peyron was our guide for this trip and indispensable. (Tirnest will certainly have a good piste by now.)
Outsiders had rarely come to the village, and the headman was far too scared to help us without authorisation. To stop us he said there were no mules, so we simply packed our rucksacks and set off to backpack at 14.00. That horrified them. On our heads be it. We put in 5 hours of sweaty labour to round into the Taouchguelt (Tawchgelt) glen, whose head was Bou Naceur, leaving a mere Ben Nevis equivalent to climb next day. Water was scarce, but we followed a donkey for an hour to a source. A shepherd made tea for us, and we gave him surplus vegetables (from now on we fought every ounce of the way) before a night that produced a saturating dew.
The first brew went on at 05.00. On our second hour the slope reared up. We followed a gully next to the main one, which entailed some scrambling on rock rough as the Cuillin of Rum. There were bumps galore in the snowy waste once up, so there was something of a tour to be sure of the highest, given 3326m. There were great views over to Iblane, and Tinesmet village, our next objective, lay in a green spot among the greys and browns. We felt the altitude a bit and Ali had a touch of snow blindness. We then, perforce, had a high bivvy, melting snow for water.
We had thought of adding 3128m Adrar n’ Siouane (Gaberal), another distinctive neighbour, but baled off and headed for the oasis of Tinesmet, where we were given marvellous hospitality in a house and the promise of a mule for the donkey work ahead. Westing led us over minor tizis to reach a piste which dropped from the final Tizi ou Mial to the village of Beni Smint. In the middle of nowhere we were caught up by a man in a city suit, carrying a briefcase – a school inspector on tour. In his city shoes he happily ran down screes. We had a delectable bivvy (three-quarters moon) above the village. The headman came for coffee and to get our details. A good piste led on, and flanks Iblane, and we eventually made a high bivvy in weather doubtful enough that the two muleteers built parallel walls, wove grass ropes and supported the panniers across the gap to make a shelter. There were storms all round, but we were just gently rained on.
We had a second breakfast on reaching the tizi between Moussa and the western Iblane crest (Tizi n’ Tzirouch), left our rucksacks and drifted up to Moussa ou Salah, at 3172m the highest summit of the region. There’s an odd crater, and snow still lingered. We hurried down to our sacks as people had suddenly appeared. Shaly slopes led up to a first 3103m bump – according to Peyron – which would make it the highest top of this north-east end of long, undulating Jbel bou Iblane. We went on to 3081m to make sure, but by this time we were surrounded by black clouds trailing rain and grumbling thunder. Lightning is a great booster of pace. We skeltered off fast, fine scree runs and snow runnels helping.
We hit the piste on this flank by the Tizi Ouaouesra (Wawesra) and headed for our rendezvous with the mule at the cedar forest Taffert ‘refuge’. They, off the Tizi Bouzabel at the south-west end of Iblane, arrived just as we did. Our end was in our beginning. The guardian needed authorisation to accommodate us and the caïd’s office was an hour’s motoring away. He relented in the end. The place was as spooky as the hotel in The Shining. But dry. Next day a camionette took us down to Birtam Tam and a taxi into Fes. QED. A typical ‘raid’.
This has forever remained one of my happiest memories of Atlas trekking. Just going, with minimal pre-knowledge, the fun of discovery, decisions to make, and taking the consequences. By the time we came this way again on GTAM95 there was a caïd’s office under Bou Iblane and roads were being upgraded for surfacing. Today you could just drive up from the north, even Fes, and do Moussa ou Salah as a day-walk, and something similar from the south-east for Bou Naceur. But take Ali, find a mule, and make something of it. You’re not likely to meet any other trekkers.
Remote, seldom visited, so a real commitment. Repeating our trek would be worth the effort, and Ali would be happy to organise this. Iblane lies above a road from the N so is the easier peak – could be done in a day from Fes.
Travel to start
Easy now for Iblane and the N side with tarmac roads up from Birtam Tam (N6) to Taffert or from Taza and Merhraoua to below the mountain. Hiring from Fes. Hiring from Midelt possible for Tirnest and Bou Naceur. Moussa ou Salah tackled from the Bled Tiserouine (c1990m) gives the easiest ascent (c1185m), either direct or by the Tizi n’ Tzirouch, to SW. Allow 3hrs. Bou Naceur, with 2000m of ascent from Tirnest, is best done in two days, ascending as described.
Local assistance If making a trek, then mules and organising with a guide would be advisable. Simply ‘bagging’ the hills could be done using shared public transport, but timings would be open-ended.
100: Missour (only for El Hajj–Tirnest access), Berkine, Ribat al Khayr.
This route, together with Route 1, is from The High Atlas by Hamish Brown.
The Mountains Look on Marrakech by Hamish Brown touches on Iblane; Michael Peyron: Great Atlas Traverse, Morocco Vol 2 is the main source.
Hamish M Brown is a professional writer lecturer and photographer specialising in mountain, outdoor and travel topics, topography, prehistoric sites, historical interests and travel worldwide. He has written or edited over 20 books, ranging from poem (his own and anthologies) and short stories, well- researched and illustrated guidebooks, to narratives on major expeditions (Munros in a single trip, the Groat's End Walk, Atlas end- to- end). He has also appeared on radio and TV.View Articles and Books by Hamish Brown