The road from Azilal to Ait Bougmez has only been tarmacked for two years. Mustapha fears for the future of the valley in which he was born. In modern Morocco surfaced roads often herald the beginning of the end for traditional villages. Many of the communities in the Toubkal region (the mountain area most accessible from the tourist Mecca of Marrakech) sadly reflect this trend. Here, revenue from tourism has given villagers the means to put to one side cheap but effective traditional building materials such as adobe and stone, and to instead embrace unsightly and ecologically-unfriendly alternatives such as concrete. There is a false perception that modern materials and methods are always superior, and, often more importantly, villagers are keen to build new structures that show off their new-found wealth to their neighbours. The unsustainability of such change becomes apparent when these regions find their scarred landscape less of a draw for foreign visitors in search of character and authenticity; local income from tourism starts to plummet as a result.
Arriving in Ait Bougmez, I empathise with Mustapha. It’s a place with almost a fairytale beauty; a broad flat-bottomed valley of fruit orchards and wheat fields, of mud-brick houses and weather-beaten kasbahs which have been built out of the very ground on which they stand. The 14-kilometre long valley is home to numerous villages, many almost indistinguishable against a backdrop of towering sand-coloured mountains of bare rock. The surrounding mountains are my reason for coming to this isolated spot. I have come to climb Ighil M’goun, which, at 4,068 metres, is the second highest peak in Morocco; it represents a more remote and difficult ascent than the over-trekked Mount Toubkal some 70 kilometres south of Marrakech.
Mustapha shows me into his house, a typically simple rural dwelling. It’s an adobe (earth) house with metre-thick walls and a labyrinthine quality about its interior. One room houses two sheep, a goat and a handful of chickens; another is full to the rafters with apples. A long curved passageway leads to a sparsely furnished but beautifully proportioned guest room. The whole house is perfection in its simplicity; a world away from the over-complications of modern Moroccan city architecture.
Mustapha shrugs off my praise. It’s not the Moroccan way to lavish compliments on one’s host, so I don’t persist. After a fine home-cooked meal with the family, it’s bed time. I sensed I was going to need my beauty sleep for the days ahead.
Six in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Our two mules, Samira and her poor nameless companion, have arrived and are being loaded up by our muleteer Mohamed. Behind him the sun strikes the valley floor. The effect is stunning as its rays penetrate the thin film of mist lingering around Mustapha’s apple orchards and the wheat fields in the distance. Today’s hike was to take us through the valley on what many trekkers have dubbed “the tea trail”, through one of the many water-filled canyons, and up on to a high plateau perched at 2,500 metres. Our starting point is at 1,850 metres.
True to form, the tea trail yielded numerous house visits. I had heard talk of the legendary hospitality of the Berber people (Morocco’s original mountain inhabitants) and on this showing, I had no reason to doubt these claims. At one house, the owner sent his four-year-old son tearing across the fields to intercept us. He was wearing a tiny brown djellaba (cloak) and looked like a figurine from the film, Star Wars. Later, his father served me a mint tea heavily charged with sugar; what chemistry students would describe as a saturated solution. It did not surprise me that the man had long since lost all his teeth. Mustapha informed me that he recently invested in a new set which he keeps in the pocket of his djellaba.
Finally we start climbing out of the lush valley. It emerges that Mustapha, who was trained at the only mountain guide training college in Morocco, handily placed in Tabant, the main village and administrative centre in the valley, is something of a rebel, his wild hair meeting with disapproval and suspicion by strangers. It seems the valley isn’t quite ready for his European-style outlook. He admits to being a Berber black sheep, thrives on the freedom offered him by his unusually liberal family.
Mohamed the muleteer, however, is an altogether different kettle of fish. He is reserved, traditional and comes from a poor family. Mustapha points out that many of the foods his mules are carrying for the trek are so alien to him that they might as well have fallen from outer space. In addition, Mohamed is surprised to learn that jam and processed cheese are now widely available in stores across the valley.
As we walk under deep blue skies I find that I’m talking incessantly, so keen am I to find out more about my guide, his taciturn sidekick and their homeland. As we begin our ascent out of the valley, Mustapha cuts me off in mid-flow and points silently skyward as a Peregrine Falcon soars overhead. The climb becomes gradually steeper; we walk in silence to our wilderness camp site for the night. As dusk approaches, the temperature drops like a stone. Mohamed prepares a superb lamb tajine (Moroccan stew) and we bed down for a cold night.
The morning of day two of our four-day hike takes us up a canyon to a 3,200-metre pass. Mustapha’s full of beans, excited to point out evidence of wildlife we have missed out on during the night. Assorted piles of animal excrement indicate the nocturnal presence of jackals, foxes and wild cats. However, somebody appears to have poured molten lead into my boots overnight so Mustapha’s guide to mountain feces is not my primary concern. I’m worried about the three passes up ahead, all of them over 3,000 metres. To save time we cram a five-day trek into four days; today’s walk is one normally undertaken in two days. The first two passes we accomplish without too much difficulty, but the third follows a brutal descent and my knees are shot to pieces. The last climb takes longer than expected; I hobble into camp just before sun down. We are camped on a mini-plateau perched 800 metres above a plunging valley. To the north we can see for miles, whilst our view to the south is dominated by the dark ridge of Ighil M’Goun; tonight it looks every bit as sinister as its strange name suggests.
To make a safe, climatically unimpaired ascent of M’Goun, we have to leave camp at three o’clock in the morning. We wear head torches but on this occasion, the full moon lights our way. Walking in the dark under an inky, star-filled sky, we can clearly make out the topography that surrounds us. Giant mountains lie all around and there’s nobody but us. It’s three hours before the sun emerges, and even longer before we can feel any benefit from it as we climb in shade the steep-sided valley and crater to the summit.
We’ve entered a moonscape of scree and odd-shaped rock formations: the wind is howling straight at us, the valley seems to be acting as a natural wind tunnel. Patches of snow start to appear. As the air gets thinner, my head starts to pound. The last section of 45-degree loose scree takes an aeon to accomplish, but it’s worth it. The crater hits the ridge at right angles. The views to the south have been obscured for the entire ascent. Arriving on the ridge, the deep south of Morocco opens out ahead of us. Layer upon layer of blue-tinted mountains stretch out as far as the eye can see. We are looking from the ceiling of one of the world’s great mountain ranges towards the world’s greatest desert. Our horizon marks the beginning of the dunes of the mighty Sahara, a nothingness that continues southwards for nearly 2,000 kilometres.
We head north-eastwards along the ridge to complete the last hundred metres or so to the official summit, indicated by a pile of stones. I thank Mustapha for bringing me to this magnificent place. I take a sip of near frozen water from my water bottle. I think how nice it would be to paraglide the two and a half thousand metres back down to the valley, arriving in time for a nice hot tajine lunch. I don't dwell on this impossibility; we set off back down, knees jarring all the way.
The author is owner of the adventure tour company Epic Morocco.