Morocco via Madrid: (Belated) Photos and Notes

A backfill entry, pulling out the narrative from the photos in my Morocco via Madrid – April/May 2010 Flickr set (which I see I must now learn to call an ‘album’).

Phil took some beautiful photos – as he says, I guess there’s something daft about only taking black and white photos on a trip called “Colours of Morocco”.

So, four years late, here are my photos and notes on me, Phil, Madrid, Morocco from April/May 2010, my having escaped from ash cloud internment in Hong Kong 48 hours earlier. We explored Madrid using DK’s Top 10 Madrid and our Moroccan adventures came courtesy of Intrepid Travel’s Colours of Morocco tour.

Friday 23 April 2010: London to Madrid (photos)

Arriving at around 9.30pm at Hotel Agumar, we asked for suggestions on nearby eateries, and ended up in a little local bar on Avenida de la Ciudad de Barcelona serving tapas and raciónes, and served the draft beer in miniature ceramic beer barrels…

Saturday 24 April 2010: Madrid (photos)

Failing to find a local breakfast joint, we made like the Madrileños and strolled around Parque del Retiro (map), emerging into the Prado-zone via the Plaza del Parterre.

Passing by the museum zone, we walked up the Paseo del Prado to the Banco d’Espana, and strolled on towards Sevilla metro stop, having a late breakfast/elevenses in Quedamos en Hontanares. Refreshed, we explored the streets of old Madrid.

Villa-Rosa, near Plaza Santa Ana, Old Madrid
Villa-Rosa, near Plaza Santa Ana, Old Madrid

Our lunchtime beer and tapas, just off the Plaza Mayor, featured patatas bravas, boquerones and beer. Refuelled, we continued strolling as far as the Palacio Real before making tracks back to the hotel.

Sunday 25 April 2010: Madrid to Casablanca (الدار البيضاء) (photos)

Hasta luego, España; Salaam aleikum, al-Maġrib.

EasyJet handled the flights (and the passengers with surplus hand baggage) with aplomb, and we took at taxi to Hôtel Guynemer for the start of our Intrepid: Colours of Morocco tour.

After our welcome briefing and meeting the rest of the group, Mohammed, our local leader, took us to the Restaurant L’Etoile Centrale – very good place to eat: traditional decor and good food.

Monday 26 April 2010: Casablanca (الدار البيضاء)Rabat (الرباط)Meknès (مكناس) (photos)

After breakfast in the Hôtel Guynemer, Mohamed loaded us into taxis and sent us off on our DIY tour of the Hassan II Mosque, home to the world’s tallest minaret (210 m).

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca
Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

After the mosque, we rose to Mohamed’s challenge to sort out our own taxis back to the hotel, then on to catch the train to Rabat. Leaving our bags at a local restaurant, Mohamed took us from Rabat’s Ville Nouvelle to the Medina (thereby sampling the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City: a Shared Heritage).

After an early al fresco lunch on Sandwitch Alam’s cafe roof top, he led us around the medina, into the Kasbah des Oudaïas, culminating in afternoon tea at the inevitable Café Maure. We then had an hour or so to explore under our own steam – we visited the Hassan Tower and the modern Mausoleum of Mohammed V which was followed by a geographically challenged attempt to make our way back to the train station….

After a late evening arrival into Meknès on the train from Rabat, we ate at one of the Rough Guide’s recommended local eateries – Restaurant Marhaba (speciality of the house: roast chicken, as a veggie I opted for the alternative house special: Harira soup, fried buttery potato croquettes and bread, boiled egg optional) – and then slept well at the Hotel Majestic.

Tuesday 27 April 2010: Meknès (مكناس)Volubilis (وليلي‎)Fès (فاس‎) (photos)

A UNESCO World Heritage Site triple whammy today: Historic City of Meknès, the Archaeological Site of Volubilis and the Medina of Fez.

Armed with a map from Mohamed we had a morning to DIY in Meknès. Skipping the hidden splendours of the Versailles of North Africa, we opted to walk from the Ville Nouvelle into the Medina, where we enjoyed a tranquil exploration of the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl and a mooch around the souq and its surrounding streets. The group reunited in the main square to go for the much vaunted camel burger lunch, and then a quick visit to the Bou Inania Merdersa / Madrasa (المدرسة البوعنانية‎) before loading up into our minibus for the drive to Volubilis.

The 'fountain hall' in the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl, Meknes
The “fountain hall”; in the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl, Meknes

Volubilis in rure - looking south from the Capitol
Volubilis in rure – looking south from the Capitol

An hour or so’s drive took us through lovely countryside to the Roman ruins at Volubilis where we had an excellent guided tour in the lovely mid-afternoon sun before continuing on through the rural landscapes to majestic Fez, arriving in the late afternoon/early evening. Having checked into the Hotel Olympic we had time to spare for washing, buying and eating beer and chippies before eating out for dinner a few doors down at the Cafe 24/24.

Wednesday 28 April 2010: Fès (فاس‎) (photos)

We headed out of the Hotel Olympic to find a better value breakfast, and having done a circuit of the central market, settled ourselves at one of the pavement tables outside Crèmerie Skali where we tucked into coffee, honey ‘bread’ and feta ‘bread’, plus freshly made orange juice and melon juice. Very tasty.

Breakfast at Crèmerie Skali, a cafe near the Hotel Olympic, Ville Nouvelle, Fez
Breakfast at Crèmerie Skali

We had a whole day guided tour of Fès, starting with a minibus ride to the Place des Alaouites to admire the frontage of the Royal Palace before motoring on through the Ville Nouvelle to one edge of the Medina of Fez, aka Fes el Bali (فاس البالي‎). Our walking tour of the medina started at the Bab Boujeloud, followed by the Talâa Kebira and then the Medersa / Madrasa Bou Inania – beautiful, I could have spent longer there.

Minaret and a decorative corner of the Bou Inania Madrasa, Fez medina
Minaret and a decorative corner of the Bou Inania Madrasa, Fez medina

Leaving the Bou Inania Madrasa we were guided around the medina some more before leaving and driving out to the Borj Nord for great views out over Fes el Bali, and then onto the Art Naji ceramic workshops where we had a fascinating tour and watched the craftsmen at work on the tiles, chipping out the curved designs from the glaze or creating the intricate zellij table tops – plus the mandatory shopping opportunity.

Back in the medina, we wound around the small streets, making our way to the Dyer’s souk where our guide took us to a leather shop with a great view over the tanneries Chouwara.

The dying vats reminded me of school paint pots, Fez medina
The dying vats reminded me of school paint pots

After a local lunch at the lovely Restaurant Famille Berada – great food and a fantastic character as our host – the “guided tour” focused more on the shopping opportunities…. first up a carpet shop in a traditional Fassi fondouk followed by another fondouk – this time unrestored – which housed a weaving business. Lots of beautiful colours, and a chance to get dressed up in a Moroccan headdress/scarf.

From the fabric fondouks, it was back into the streets and alleyways, via the Mosque and Mausoleum of Sidi Ahmed al-Tijani, the Place el-Nejjarine (Carpenters’ Square), the Nejjarin fountain and fondouk to the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II and on to our final stops in the metalwork/antiques cellar and the beauty/perfume/herbalist shop.

Thursday 29 April 2010: Fès (فاس‎)Midelt (ميدلت‎) (photos)

Back to Crèmerie Skali for our final breakfast in Fez before embarking on day 5 of the tour which saw us leave Fez for the cooler climes of the Middle Atlas mountains, stopping mid morning at swanky Swiss-a-like Ifrane (إفران/يفرن‎) for a leg stretch and shortly after in the cedar forests to admire the cheeky Barbary apes.

Lunch at Melouia was decidedly meaty…. and the view from the restaurant ‘terrasse’ of the swaying, fly feast carcasses of once local goats wasn’t my favourite … Goat tagine for the boys and Maree; tomato, cucumber and olive salad for the girls.

After lunch we motored on towards Midelt, and onwards to our overnight stop at Auberge Jaafar. En route we called in at Kasbah Myriam, a carpet and embroidery workshop run by Franciscan nuns, and as we left, the heavens opened and thunder and lightening began…. which subsequently meant Phil and I opted out of the Berrem village walk.

Auberge Jaafar, with its flower filled courtyards, gardens and swimming pool would have been lovely in warmer weather. My memories are of being cold and of the awkwardness of the ‘traditional dance’ display…..

Friday 30 April 2010: Midelt (ميدلت‎)MerzougaErg Chebbi (عرق الشبي‎) (photos)

Day 6 took us south from Midelt and the Middle Altas to Merzouga and the giant sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. En route we lunched by the beautiful Ziz Gorges and palmerie.

Having stocked up with water at Merzouga and bumped for a good hour across the hamada, we reached ‘the desert’ in the late afternoon. Leaving our main bags at a little used auberge, we were loaded up onto camels and rode out to our berber camp at the base of the Erg Chebbi.

The sandstorm and rain en route weren’t quite what anyone expected, but when the sun was out, the colours were beautiful and the climb up our ‘local sand dune’ gave us some great views …. of other tourist groups on their camel ride out to the not-so-authentic berber camp (more of an Alton Towers ‘experience’ than an actual opportunity to camp with berber nomads).

Cute cats though.

Saturday 01 May 2010: Erg Chebbi (عرق الشبي‎)MerzougaTodra Gorge ( مضيق تودغا‌‎) (photos)

Day 7 started early, with a pre dawn wake up call from Mohamed so that we could climb back up our local giant sand dune to watch the sun rise. I made do with a lower altitude ridge, and watched the various camp camels being readied for the return trip.

Early morning, Erg Chebbi
Early morning, Erg Chebbi

Back at Auberge Salama we had a smashing breakfast (but no washing permitted) then it was back across the hamada to Merzouga and the road to Rissani, Erfoud, Tinejdad, Tinerhir (تنغير‎) until we reached our final destination, Todra Gorge.

A long day in the minibus.

The drive through the Tafilalt (تافيلالت‎) was broken up with stops to admire an ancient looking water irrigation system (Moroccan khettaras are from the same family as the qanāts of Iran and the karez of Turpan), lunch at a roadside restaurant somewhere on the N10 and to buy (expensive) beers just outside Tinerhir.

At Tinerhir we turned off the main roads and started winding up towards Todra Gorge, and the High Atlas mountains. Two nights at the Maison d’hote Taborihte was a real treat, although again the weather wasn’t really warm enough to enjoy the pool and sun loungers to the full.

Sunday 02 May 2010: Todra Gorge ( مضيق تودغا‌‎) (photos)

We had a whole day based at the Maison d’hote Taborihte, and (all bar Phil) we opted to spend the morning on a half day guided trek through Todra Gorge and up into the mountains, on a circuit that culminated back in the valley for a traditional berber lunch at the Kasbah Restaurant Dar Ahlam…. and then a lazy afternoon back at base.

Todra Gorge itself is a bit of a let down – two hotels nestled at the base and big roadworks make it a ‘busy’ rather than tranquil place. Once through the gorge however you’re out in the rocky ranges and dry river valleys of the lower reaches of the High Atlas mountains. Lovely. En route we stopped for mint tea with some real berber nomads, at their high summer camp.

Monday 03 May 2010: Todra Gorge ( مضيق تودغا‌‎)Ouarzazate (ورزازات‎)Aït Benhaddou (آيت بن حدّو‎) (photos)

Day 9 ….

Leaving the lovely Maison d’hote Taborihte, we drove back along the Todra valley through the Tinerhir palmeries to the town where we visited Association Ighir, which teaches and employs local handicapped people, selling the crafts they make at the centre, and then on to a leisurely lunch stop at Morocco’s “Hollywood”, Ouarzazate. A short drive brought us to the village of Aït Benhaddou, home to another of Morocco’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the fantastic fortified ksar of Aït Benhaddou. A definite highlight of the trip for me.

The ksar of Aït Benhaddou - the view from the roof terrace of La Fibule d'Or
The ksar of Aït Benhaddou – the view from the roof terrace of La Fibule d’Or

The day ended with a cookery demonstration (couscous and tagine, what else?) by the marvellous Mr “Action” Houssain and then a delicious dinner (albeit couscous and tagine!) at our lovely maison d’hôtes, La Fibule d’Or.

Tuesday 04 May 2010: Aït Benhaddou (آيت بن حدّو‎)Tizi n’Tichka Pass (2260m) – Imlil – Aremd / Aroumd / Around (photos)

Up early on day 10, for a smashing breakfast on the roof terrace of La Fibule D’Or, making the most of that marvellous view out over the Mellah river and Aït Benhaddou.

Another day of driving, but this time up into the High Atlas mountains and over the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, zig zagging back down and on through villages and farmland climbing back up towards Imlil and the beautiful Toubkal National Park.

En route we lunched at the cafe restaurant Ard Assalam – a great location, but the food wasn’t nearly as good as the view from the terrace.

Reds and green - looking down from another viewpoint on the road down from the Tizi-n-Tichka pass
Reds and greens – looking down from another viewpoint on the road down from the Tizi-n-Tichka pass

Late April/May was a perfect time to visit the High Atlas mountains… beautifully green with wild flower jewels in the fields. The photos of the poppies in particular do not do justice to the scenery – bucolic bliss.

Glorious poppies in the fields of the High Atlas
Glorious poppies in the fields of the High Atlas

The road stops at Imlil, and lovely 45 minute walk up into the mountains brought us to the hill top village of Aremd, where we spent two nights in the simple, friendly family run Gite Atlas Toubkal. A sunny afternoon to stroll around the backstreets of the village with its beautiful views up the valley towards the snow capped peaks, then dinner at the gite.

Looking up at Aremd and Mount Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) on the walk from Imlil to Aremd
Looking up at Aremd and Mount Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) on the walk from Imlil to Aremd

Wednesday 05 May 2010: Aremd / Aroumd / Around – Essaouira (الصويرة‎) (photos)

Most of the night and this morning I spent in the loo, courtesy of yesterday’s lunch. So I opted out of the walk up the valley to the shrine of Sidi Chammharouch (2350 m / 7710 ft).

After lunch we left Aremd walking back to Imlil where we loaded up into the minibus for a long, long, long day’s drive to Essaouira via Marrakesh, swopping the lovely mountains of the High Atlas for the fresh sea air of the coast. It was just the long hot journey in between that was tedious, even with the stop at the women’s cooperative which produces argan oil, and has goats in trees. Hence only 2 photos.

Our Essaouira base was the lovely Riad Dar el Qdima – a tranquil haven just off one of the main streets in the Medina. A cliché, but true! We had a light and airy roof top room, and the Riad was one of the best places we stayed in for the whole trip. I’d go back.

Thursday 06 May 2010: Essaouira (الصويرة‎) (photos)

We had the whole of day 12 in Essaouira, starting with a guided tour of the old town, taking in the harbour, the kasbah, the medina and the mellah – all before lunch.

Arched window and Gazelle bike, Essaouira
Arched window and Gazelle bike, Essaouira

Left to our own devices for the rest of the day, Phil and I lunched at the delightful La Découverte and then continued to mooch around today’s tick on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list: the Medina of Essaouira (formerly Mogador). We managed to cover a lot of ground whilst avoiding any shopping, and the UK General Election.

We did find time for an espresso and ice cream, de riguer at Gelateria Dolce Freddo on Place Prince Moulay el Hassan.

For dinner we eventually settled on tasty pizza and giant fruit juice in a trendy-and-empty pizza place next to La Découverte. The veggie/vegan places in the Rough Guide had been deserted and looked too earnest. And by chance we bumped into Gavin, Anna and Thomas en route who were escaping the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.

Friday 07 May 2010: Essaouira (الصويرة‎)Marrakesh (مراكش‎) (photos)

We had more time to mooch around Essaouira on day 13, catching an afternoon Supratours coach to Marrakech. We spent the morning soaking up the sun on the roof terrace and pottering around the medina, lunching at one of the open air cafe restaurants in the Jewellers’ Souk.

The journey back towards Marrakech was better than the one out, and having checked into to the tired-looking Hotel du Pacha (warning: Moroccan music!) in Guéliz, Mohamed walked us into the old city, and dinner at one of the food stalls in the Djema el Fna (ساحة جامع الفناء): Chez Maslouhi.

Chez Maslouhi - our first Djemaa el Fna food stall experience, Marrakech
Chez Maslouhi – our first Djemaa el Fna food stall experience, Marrakech

Saturday 08 May 2010: Marrakesh (مراكش‎) (photos)

Day 14, and our last full day of Intrepid’s Colours of Morocco trip, was free to DIY… so Phil and I headed out along Avenue Mohammed V back towards the Medina of Marrakesh, the last of Morocco’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites that we visited.

Our first stop were the much-lauded Saadian tombs, but we were rather underwhelmed by that experience. With hindsight I think we were both a bit tired by this stage, and we’d been more impressed by our architecture and the souk experiences elsewhere. Cute cats though.

Arches at the Saadian tombs, Marrakech
Arches at the Saadian tombs, Marrakech

Next, we made our way back to the Djema el Fna and into the souk. Emerging, as planned, at Place de la Kissaria, we decided against visiting any more monuments, and instead explored the streets of the northern medina. Never exactly sure where we were, we had a lovely time!

After a late and delightfully leisurely lunch at the Elite Café on Place du 16 novembre back in Guéliz, we walked on to the Majorelle Garden (حديقة ماجوريل‎). Not quite what we’d expected – but a pleasant spot to read for a while, once we’d found a bench.

Our final dinner was back in the Djemaa el Fna, followed by beers in the hotel courtyard.

Sunday 09 May 2010: Marrakesh (مراكش‎) – London (no photos)

We flagged down an early morning taxi on Avenue Mohammed V getting to the smart Menara International Airport well in time for our 8am check in on easyJet flight 8894 which took us back to London Gatwick, then the train back into central London. Home sweet home.

Mt Toubkal Winter Climb: photos and notes

Photos and notes from my February half term holiday: the Mt Toubkal Winter Climb courtesy of Exodus*. A fun introduction to crampons and ice axe, walking and climbing(ish) amidst beautiful snowscapes and fantastic scenery in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco.

Sunday 16 February 2014: LondonMarrakech (مراكش‎) (photos)

Easy EasyJet flight 8895 from LGW to RAK, landing in Marrakech around 8pm. Chatty (once we moved into French) minibus driver providing the (free) transfer to the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers in Guéliz.

The excellent Mohammed, our local guide/leader for the week, intercepted me at reception and ran me through the plan for tomorrow. Decided to settle into room 104 rather than catch up with the others already out dining nearby. Unpacked my rucksack, packed my kit bag. Wondered if I was overreaching myself with a high altitude winter climb, graded as “Tough” by Exodus…

Monday 17 February 2014: Marrakech (مراكش‎)Imlil (1740 m / 5708 ft) – Aremd / Aroumd (1920 m / 6300 ft) (photos)

After making the most of the buffet breakfast at the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers and meeting the rest of the group, I spent the morning exploring the Medina with Max – walking there and back along Avenue Mohammed V, experimenting with Sony Cyber Shot camera settings at the Koutoubia Mosque (جامع الكتبية‎) and – forewarned by Will – keeping our bearings in the souk with the aid of Max’s compass.

All aboard our minibus a little after 1.30pm, and a 2 hour drive in the drizzle to Imlil via Asni (أسني‎) – home to a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to a yellow Fisherman’s Friend, incongruously clad in bright yellow oilskins and sou’wester.

At Imlil we donned our own waterproofs and daypacks and set up along the familiar (to me) track to Aremd, arriving at the Hotel Aremd just after 4.30pm. Low cloud, gloomy – no sight of the High Atlas mountains, let alone Toubkal.

Rooms sorted, we rendezvoused in the wood fire warmed lounge for mint tea and biscuits, a briefing from Mohammed, and – a little later – tasty tagine for dinner.

Tuesday 18 February 2014: Aremd / Aroumd (1920 m / 6300 ft) – Sidi Chammharouch (2350 m / 7710 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) (photos)

Tuesday dawned grey and gloomy, but with the occasional bit of snowy mountain breaking through the cloud. During breakfast Mohammed handed out our crampons, ice axes and avalanche transceivers, and then once our kitbags were loaded onto donkeys we said farewell to the Hotel Aremd and set off into the gloom.

A stony path led alongside the floodplain, where villagers sift sand for the Marrakeshi housing boom – there was a flash flood down valley in August 1995, which accounts for the stones and boulders that cover the valley floor. Lots of the rocks have light/dark coloured flecks embedded in them – I’ve not seen that before. I’ve brought one back as my souvenir stone.

We crossed the floodplain to a hillside that’s home to walnut groves and stone walled enclosures, and started climbing. A pause at a quiet cafe where the path turned south east, then on between iced juniper trees and frozen grass to the shrine of Sidi Chammharouch (2350 m / 7710 ft). After a (10DH a glass) mint tea refreshment stop while our kit bags transferred from donkeys to porters, we crossed the snow line and started climbing up the valley of the Assif n’Isouhouanem n’Ouagounss.

Occasional glimpses of blue sky taunted us, but as the snowfields solidified and the stream disappeared under ice and snow down in the valley below, the clouds overhead grew heavier and greyer, and as it turned out, full of snow. The trip grew more ominous when our path crossed with a group of stretcher-bearing porters carrying a trekker wrapped in green. Thankfully not dead (my initial thought), but clearly in pain – he’d twisted / broken his leg. I don’t think any of us envied his journey back to the road head at Imlil.

Arriving at the Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10 522 ft) a little after 1.30pm, we settled into our dorm (I think it was Biiguinnoussene 4002m (yes, named after a local peak)) and then rendezvoused in the dining room for lunch – the first of many excellent meals provided by Hussein-the-cook, featuring super-tasty shakshuka, a mountain of salad, olives, rice, bread and plenty of refills from the tea urn (aka a pump action thermos).

Our afternoon was earmarked for ice axe and crampon training. Once we’d been shown how to lace up/on our crampons, walking techniques were quite straightforward but when it came to practising self arrests using our ice axes the sticky snow made it tricky to simulate a steep slope slide (and let’s say that I didn’t excel at the head first technique!). So when it started to snow in earnest everyone seemed happy to head back indoors.

What remained of the day disappeared into afternoon tea (with biscuits and the sweet/savoury mélange we christened – possibly somewhat inappropriately – “dog biscuits”), dinner (soup, couscous, pineapple chunks), a briefing from Mohammed on tomorrow’s Toubkal ascent then bed. The refuge’s wood burning fires and stoves making the rooms nice and cosy – although the stairways, halls and downstairs bathrooms remained frrrrrreezing in comparison. Outside the snow continued to fall….

Wednesday 19 February 2014: Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) – Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) (4167 m / 13671 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) (photos)

An early rise and shine at the Neltner Refuge – 5.53am alarm, breakfast back down in the dining room at 6.30am ish, donning waterproofs, boots, then outside for crampon lacing and ice axe wrangling (and photos) and we were ready and raring to go on our Mt Toubkal ascent by 7.15am. Beautiful clear blue skies, pristine snow and very cold. We’d had feather patterned ice on the inside of our dorm window this morning.

After a bit of stopping and starting we found our pace, with Hussein-the-guide leading the way and Mohammed bringing up the rear, and eventually splitting into two groups. Strong winds en route brought the temperature down further and whipped up the snow – beautiful but occasionally painful. You needed to keep moving. My ears got very cold (hence the scarf-as-headscarf look in the photos). Towards the top of the valley, the morning sun caught up with us, providing a touch of warmth but making the snowscape very bright. Time to don the Julbo sunglasses (another image element I’d rather be without!).

Just after 11am we reached the head of the valley – Tizi’n’Toubkal (3940 m / 12926 ft) – and were rewarded with a magical view east of misty blue ridges and, somewhere beyond that, the Sahara. Looking behind us we could see the valley we’d climbed through, to the north the path up to the peak – the metal pyramid on top making it easy to identify. A very photogenic stop, and Hussein found us a sheltered spot for a bit of a breather before the final push up and round to the very top of Toubkal.

We summited at 11.45am or there abouts, and once we’d caught our breaths it was time for celebratory snaps, sweets and mélange courtesy of Hussein. Tara, Liz, Denyse and Mohammed arrived about half an hour later accompanied by another group who were carrying skis on their packs, planning to a ski descent. Now that’s what I call nuts (but then again, I don’t ski….). More photos, plus bread and cheese triangles to celebrate. Beautiful panoramic views under blue skies – who could ask for more?

A speedy descent – due to a combination of taking a more direct path down and gravity, plus the lure of lunch back at the refuge. The wind had dropped and it got hot clad in accumulated thermals. I’d settled on Uniqlo polo neck base layer, M&S thermal top, Mountain Kingdoms fleece, plus my Goretex jacket on top; for bottoms, Icebreaker thermal leggings, Gelert trousers, Tibetan waterproof trews (admittedly a little on the short side) plus gaiters – a lower half look reminiscent of Little Lord Fauntleroy. As I’d absent-mindedly done yesterday’s crampon training in my Salomon hiking boots (Women’s Sector Mid GTX), I’d worn them again today – my new Scarpas didn’t get a look in on this trip. My Mountain Equipment Women’s Randonee Mitts were invaluable, as were (Hazel’s – thank you…) trekking poles.

We were back at the refuge around 3.30pm, and by 4 o’clock were feasting on a late lunch of pasta, lentils, carrots, peas, cucumber/tomato/red onion/sweetcorn salad, bread and olives, accompanied by lots of tea and rounded off with the zingyest clementines I’ve ever tasted – it’s citrus season, and these are fully ripened, fresh fruit.

As the wood stove warmed the dining room, afternoon tea followed at 5.30pm – paratha-y pancakes drizzled with honey – followed by dinner at 7pm. Bed followed not long after (and a good night’s sleep, partly due to escaping last night’s condensation drips).

A fantastic day.

PS It looks like we did the South Col / Cwm (Irhzer n’Ikhibi Janoub) route.

Thursday 20 February 2014: Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) – Tizi n’Ouagane (3735 m / 12254 ft) – Ouanoukrim (Timesguida summit – 4089 m / 13415 ft) – Tizi n’Ouagane (3735 m / 12254 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) (photos)

Another early morning and our Ouanoukrim (جبل عون الكريم) ascent day dawned clear and bright, providing similar conditions to yesterday but with a lot less wind chill. With Liz and Denyse deciding to stay at base, and Canadians Darren and Brandon joining us together with their guide, Hussein led the way to the head of the valley of the Assif n’Isouhouanem n’Ouagounss.

We set off c. 7.15am in the blue morning moonlight and with only a couple of stops en route we arrived at the Tizi n’Ouagane (3735 m / 12254 ft) about 2 hours later, the sunshine catching up with us just ahead of the pass. Crampons off, time for lots of photos of and from the pass – back along the way we’d walked and south down the Assif Asserdoune n’Irhzifene (thank you Cordee map).

After last night’s briefing I’d almost decided to forgo the scramble along the ridge (and thus the peak) – memories of Crib Goch last a long time. But, after a breather at the pass I decided to give it a go – the drops didn’t look too sheer and it was a calm, still morning, plus there was plenty of encouragement coming my way. Probably not the most elegant half hour of my life, but a very rewarding one (albeit roped up to Hussein for one short section).

On the far side of the scramble, we traversed south up and along the Ouanoukrim plateau, crossing sections of snow and scree to emerge at the Timesguida summit at about 11.15am – handily a cairn picks out the ‘peak’ amidst all the rocks. Superb 360° views – north east to Mt Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) and east the mountains of the Tifnoute, south towards the Anti-Atlas (الأطلس الصغير‎) and west towards the Plateau Tazarhart / Tazaghart and the mountains of the Adrar Iwzag-ner.

Ouanoukrim summiters - on a total high
Ouanoukrim summiters – on a total high

After sustenance (mélange, bread and cheese triangles) and photos, it was time to descend (~11.40am). Hazel’s poles came into their own as we hot footed it back over the snowy mountainsides sans crampons. Contrary to expectation, the climb back down to the col was no harder than the scramble up – long legs came in handy – and we were back at the pass by 12.45pm ish. Over the next hour or so we enjoyed a lovely snowy route down from the pass (albeit overheating again), Denyse, Tara and Rob waving us back into the Neltner Refuge from their roof top sun trap just after 2pm.

After another tasty late lunch we headed up and out onto the roof to catch some sun (and to watch the Explore guide ski down the valley opposite) until it disappeared behind Biiguinnoussene and cast us into much colder shadow. Settled back into the snug of the dining room, afternoon tea materialised at 5pm and featured Berber coffee and popcorn – only for Hussein to surpass himself by serving up fresh chips (and fritters – courgette and aubergine – steamed veggies, salad, bread…) for dinner followed by more zingy clementines.

After the (always awkward) working out of the tip, Max and Arif led the way on an impromptu night time photography session, capturing stars plus planets and probably satellites in the High Atlas setting. Liz’s nautical knowledge wowed us all – no need to the Night Sky app for us!

A relatively late night, snuggling into my North Face Superlight sleeping bag around 9pm.

My favourite day of the three, I think.

Friday 21 February 2014: Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10 522 ft) – Tizi n’Ouanoums (3684 m / 12087 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10 522 ft) – Sidi Chammharouch (2350 m / 7710 ft) – Aremd / Aroumd (1920 m / 6300 ft) – Imlil (1740 m / 5708 ft) – Marrakech (مراكش‎) (photos)

A long day, but with an extra half hour in bed before the watch/phone alarms went off. This morning’s objective was Tizi n’Ouanoums (3684 m / 12087 ft) from where, the trip notes promised, we would “look down the steep southerly face to the emerald green of the Lac D’Ifni below” – hmmmmm.

The first part of our route followed in yesterday’s footsteps (literally at times) half way up the Assif n’Isouhouanem n’Ouagounss before turning due east and straight up a very steep snow slope. After a few hundred metres of side steeping ascent and a welcome breather under a bare rock buttress with magical views back down into and across the valley, a short zig zag along a scree lined path brought us out at the pass (~9.25am).

We could just about distinguish the waters of the western-most tip of the lake, but the view down was outshone by those out over mountain ridges beyond and Mt Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) to the north.

Over photos of the views, album cover poses, push ups and collected Grivel yellow crampons Jagged Edges was born – and then (~10am) it was time to head back downhill to the Neltner Refuge, encountering an Eastern European couple en route who thought they were on the Toubkal path …. uh oh.

Back at the refuge by 11am, we had an early lunch (~11.20am!), then a final sort out of daypack, kitbag and layers before setting off around 12.30pm back down the valley, feeling slightly sad. Crampons on, crampons off, crampons on, crampons off.

Back at the shrine at Sidi Chammharouch (~2.50pm) as we enjoyed another glass of mint tea at the cafe Chammharouch (and used their loo to de-layer discretely) our kit was transferred from porters to donkeys which then ferried our bags plus crampons and ice axes back to Aremd. We continued our descent in the sunshine – a striking difference to the weather during our outbound walk in only a few days previously.

Having said farewell to Hussein-the-cook at Aremd (~4.20pm) we said a fond farewell to Hussein-the-guide at the top end of Imlil, rendezvousing with our minibus at the other side of town around 5pm.

A beautiful sunset over the High Atlas mountains, a stork, a flock of egrets, a Tachograph traffic fine and a count down to hot showers marked our journey back to Marrakech (مراكش‎), and we drew up outside the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers a little after 7pm.

Rendezvousing clean, fresh and fragrant an hour later we walked a few doors down Rue Loubane to Chez Joel at the Hotel Le Caspien where I feasted on pizza, frites and other non-Moroccan fayre washed down with beer (1 bottle of Casablanca, 1 large draught mug of Flag), serenaded by a Mark Knopfler sound-a-like.

Saturday 22 February 2014: Marrakech (مراكش‎) (photos)

Despite the relatively late night on Friday, I was awake early which allowed for a very leisurely breakfast with several forays over to the various sections of the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers‘s breakfast buffet offering.

As arranged, a little after 10am Mohammed took Liz and I to a local hammam (although strictly speaking I think I’d call the Centre de Beauté Saint Tropez a Beauty Parlour) where we indulged in an hour or so’s worth of Hammam – Gommage – Massage, emerging clean, relaxed and a few layers of skin lighter – well worth the 280DH.

At 1.30pm, most of us headed off on the optional afternoon guided tour of the old city, starting with a taxi ride (Tara, Rob and I in one, everyone else – including well-padded Marrakeshi guide Mohammed – sardine-like in another) to the Palais Bahia. I could have spent a lot longer wandering around the beautifully restored rooms and the quiet courtyard garden.

We followed Mohammed into the alleyways of the souk on to the Musée Dar Si Saïd, which doubles up as the Museum of Moroccan Arts – more beautifully restored rooms housing some lovely arts and crafts (quelle surprise I liked the embroidery, and the English description of the “Zellige of Wall“, in particular what it takes to get the yellow enamel).

The tour of the souk featured a visit to a cooperative shop, just round the corner from a bakery where traditional loaves were being kneaded and baked in cavernous ovens – at 1DH a piece, hot off the paddles, the loaves were a big hit after the shopping extravaganza.

The food theme continued as Mohammed led us through the carpet souk to the open air slave souk, picking up Marrakeshi macaroons and freshly made savoury pancakes en route, before finishing up amidst the freshly squeezed fruit juice and fruit & nut stalls of the Djemaa el-Fna (ساحة جامع الفناء). Mohammed bade us farewell as the sun slowly sank behind the minaret of the Kouboubia Mosque (جامع الكتبية‎) …. where, prompted by a couple of local time lapse photographers, pillar jumping ensued.

After photos in the mosque gardens, we made our way to the Hotel Islane‘s rooftop terrace restaurant for our final group meal. A smashing starlit location with a beautiful view out over the mosque and the sunset skyline back towards the High Atlas mountains.

Armed up with ice cream / sorbet cones we walked back up Avenue Mohammed V to Guéliz and bed.

Sunday 23 February 2014: Marrakech (مراكش‎) – London (photos)

Departure day, and another early morning, so I packed and then headed down to sit by the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers‘s pool to catch up on my diary over breakfast.

I joined Liz, Denyse and Ian on a speedy visit to the Jardin Marjorelle (which I enjoyed a lot more than on my last visit – the new Berber Museum was small but beautifully formed) before returning to the hotel for the midday check out.

There followed a series of farewells as the group slowly dispersed until only Liz, Ian and I were left. A late lunch at the Grand Café de la Poste accompanied by a bottle of Le Ferme Gris rosé between three was a good way to end our time in Morocco.

A delayed departure for EasyJet’s evening flight EZY8896 meant a late landing back in London Gatwick and a late night / early morning journey via Victoria and the N11 night bus, eventually getting home a bit after 2am – time for 5 hours sleep before Monday morning at LW beckoned.

The end of a smashing trip. Active Treks Morocco come highly recommended.

* 28 March 2014 Update: Well, that’s a first – Exodus have asked me to remove my links back to their website as they’re having trouble with their Google rankings due to “unnatural links” pointing to their website. Here’s the unlinked URL for the trip:

Mt Toubkal Winter Climb: Magic

My Mt Toubkal Winter Climb courtesy of Exodus was fab – a really great group, varied but we gelled, and a fantastic local team led by Mohammed (cue Canadian drawl: “Mo – haaam – ed”) supported by Hussein-the-guide and Hussein-the-cook.

After a cloudy/cool Monday morning in Marrakech and travelling on to Imlil and Aremd, Tuesday was similarly overcast and the High Atlas stayed shrouded in cloud. We arrived at the Neltner refuge under gun grey skies, and the snow that started to fall during our afternoon’s crampon and ice axe training continued on into the night…..

…. which meant that our Toubkal / جبل توبقال‎ (4167 m / 13671 ft), Ouanoukrim (Timesguida summit, 4089 m / 13415 ft) and Tizi n’Ouanoums (3684 m / 12087 ft) climbs were over (relatively) fresh snow and under blue skies – beautiful. A cold wind for Toubkal, but hardly a breath for the other two. Crampons (almost) all the way, and although we carried ice axes no one needed to use them. I have to say I don’t think I would have been very successful at self arresting….. I surprised myself with the Ouanoukrim scramble section – maybe I’ve left the Crib Goch fear behind.

All in all, a fantastic three days: venimus, vidimus, vicimus.

Mt Toubkal, Morocco
Mt Toubkal, Morocco

Back in Marrakech / مراكش‎ on Friday evening we had a lovely meal at Chez Joel a few steps along the Rue Loubane from our hotel Les Trois Palmiers. On Saturday morning, Liz and I indulged in an hour or so’s worth of Hammam – Gommage – Massage, before most of us headed off on an afternoon guided tour of the old city…. winding up in the Djemaa el-Fna / ساحة جامع الفناء as the sun slowly sank behind the minaret of the Kouboubia Mosque / جامع الكتبية‎ …. pillar jumping ensued, prompted by a couple of local time lapse photographers.

Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech, Morocco (DSC04474_small portrait.jpeg)
Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech, Morocco

Sunday was departure day, so after a whistle stop visit to the Jardin Marjorelle in the morning, the group slowly dispersed until only Liz, Ian and I were left. A late lunch at the Grand Café de la Poste accompanied by a bottle of Le Ferme Gris rosé between three was a good way to end the trip.

EasyJet‘ s evening flight back to London Gatwick landed just before midnight, which made for a late night / early morning journey via Victoria and the N11 night bus, eventually getting home a bit after 2am – time for 5 hours sleep before Monday morning at LW beckoned.

So, team Jagged Edges – thank you!

Photos and notes will follow.

Mt Toubkal Winter Climb: a week to go

The preparations for my Mt Toubkal Winter Climb are underway!


A couple of weeks ago I went looking for info about the Refuge du Toubkal / Neltner Refuge (3209 m / 10528 ft), which is our base during the ascents of Jebels Toubkal (4167 m / 13671 ft) and Ouanoukrim (4089 m / 13415 ft), and I chanced upon the somewhat swankier Kasbah du Toubkal… which has a weather forecast courtesy of new-to-me for Jebel Toubkal…. and the forecast temperatures were so low (-14, -16) that I wondered for a minute if they were in F not C. It made me realise I have no idea what the actual temperatures were every night in Nepal on the treks there. Not that I was ever cold. Thankfully it’s looking a bit warmer now (everything’s relative!):

I’ve made a note of the website – operated by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, it’s far better than others I’ve used. Here are their forecast pages for:


For both of this year’s trips (Val’s going to be taking us to do a bit of snow/ice walking/climbing in the Cordillera Blanca this summer) I’ll need mountain boots that take a C1 crampon. Having got my head around the boot/crampon terminology, and recommendations from Val to go for either the Scarpa Manta or La Sportiva Manaslu – for flexibility/comfort and for being (relatively) lightweight – when I saw a pair of Ladies Mantas in size 39 in the January sale at Cotswold online I pounced. When they arrived, they turned out to be definitely on the small side, so I headed over to their Leyden St store to see what they had to offer in exchange. But as the man in Cotswold told me “there’s not much demand for women’s mountaineering boots in London”. And thus the saga/quest commenced.

He was able to track down a pair of size 40s at their South Cerney store, and so I exchanged my 39s for the size 40s which would be delivered home. Perfect… until that afternoon I had an email from the South Cerney store telling me that there had been a stock/computer error and they didn’t in fact have a pair of size 40s! Top marks to Cotswold for customer service and effort though.

So, deciding I needed to try a pair of size 40s short shrift (and to find an alternative if the Mantas were to prove elusive) I headed over to Snow & Rock in Covent Garden. More excellent service: they had two pairs of size 40s but they proved too small … Inevitably they didn’t have a size 41 in stock but were able to order me the last pair left in the UK, from their Liverpool shop. They gave me top tips on how to check that the boots fit properly too. The boots arrived a week ago, and fit fine in terms of length but I do feel like I’m walking around in sci fi “gravity boots” they’re that big.

In Hereford last weekend I discovered that Trekkit don’t stock ladies mountain boots either, again because there is no demand for them (which was a surprise). Their superb boot adviser did measure my feet (turns out that in boot-world I’m size 7 1/2 in old money!) and advised using insoles to ensure a good fit for my Mantas. Again the guidance was that there should be a finger/thumb width of space between your toes and the toe of the boot. Stand on your boot insoles to check this out.

I’m looking forward to the trip, with a tinge of apprehension. As always, the holiday sneaks up on you. The plan is to pack next Saturday but I’ll work out how much cash I’ll need before then and let the bank know so that I don’t have any repeat of last summer’s Peruvian Sol shenanigans. Hazel’s even lent me her walking poles…..

Where Next: Mt Toubkal, Morocco

Destination: Mt Toubkal and the High Atlas mountains, Morocco.

When: February 2014 – my next half term is only a couple of months away.

Why: To visit some more high, snowy mountains, this time in North Africa (a combination which sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise).

How: A solo trip this time, and Exodus’ Mt Toubkal Winter Climb ( *) provides the opportunity to try my hand (and balance) at non-technical winter trekking involving crampons and ice-axe as we climb North Africa’s two highest peaks – Mt Toubkal / جبل توبقال‎ (4167m / 13671ft) and Jebel Ouanakrim‘s Timzguida summit (4089m / 13415ft).

Plus I’ll get to see Marrakech / مراكش‎, Imlil and Aremd / Arroumd at a different time of year from 2010’s Colours of Morocco trip.

EasyJet is providing the London Gatwick-Marrakech flights.

* 28 March 2014 Update: Well, that’s a first – Exodus have asked me to remove my links back to their website as they’re having trouble with their Google rankings due to “unnatural links” pointing to their website. Hence the unlinked URL for the trip page.