2.5 Adventurous crossing of the High Atlas
Updated: Feb 6
We have been looking forward to this part of our Morocco adventure for a long time. We are children of the mountains and heights, enjoy both the immense views and the fresh mountain air. The High Atlas, which we will now cross, is considered epic in this respect and is of course a must-do, especially for us overlanders. The fact that several sections of our planned route made it onto the list of the most dangerous roads in the world, we knew of course only afterwards, but makes the story all the more adventurous. A short description thereof can be found here or here.
The adventure now begins rather involuntarily at the gates of the Moroccan military barracks just opposite the Gendarmerie Royal, where we were allowed to spend the last night in the care of the security authorities;-). We now return the 20 kilometers that we were allowed to travel last night in the blue light convoy, all alone. Somehow we miss the great attention of last night, but of course we feel safe even without the fanfare.
Today our route leads us once again in a southwesterly direction, initially still parallel along the Atlas massif through numerous small towns, which can be classified from rather unspectacular to totally fascinating. Since we are already on the road early, the light of the still low winter sun is particularly warm and rich in contrast. There is a lot of activity in the small towns and meandering through the hustle and bustle of vehicles and pedestrians soon becomes routine. In Beni Mellal there is a very last pit stop in a Carrefour, as well as at the gas station, where we pay an unbelievable 13.97 Dirham per liter (1.27 CHF). Filling up the tank is more fun again! So we fill our FRAME, as hardly before with provisions and good drinks. Who thinks that there is no pork or alcohol in this muslim country, will be disabused here. That sauerkraut with bacon and a Casablanca beer taste especially good in the High Atlas is something I probably don't need to conceal from anyone. Even the red wines "made in Morocco" are not to be despised. With all these supplies we are now well stocked, because who knows how long we will be stuck in the High Atlas. If need be, we could probably get through several weeks. Thanks to the predicted long fine weather we have in any case no hurry and want to enjoy a lesurely crossing to the fullest.
Shortly after Oulad Embarek we finally turn left. From now on it is uphill. Our Unimog blows itself in a constant speed up the bends over the first pass with destination Bin el Quidane reservoir. The first potential place to spend the night is unfortunately already taken. Frenchmen, who have just returned from Senegal, have made themselves at home there. We exchange a few words about the snow situation in the mountains, because we see white peaks in the distance. They have come up on a different route, but they don't see any problems. Not with a vehicle like ours anyway. We often hear this comment because our FRAME looks so potent. On snow, however, our lugged tires are not the best. We want to avoid snow on these steep mountain roads at all costs.
We leave the Senegal returnees their privacy and go in search of our own little kingdom. After all, today is Christmas Eve and our whole attention belongs to our loved ones at home. Barely five kilometers further along the shore of the reservoir we finally find what we are looking for. We drive down into the lake basin, which is almost dry down to 12%, and believe we have arrived on Mars, not least because of the red earth. Barren wasteland, which is so special that it has a fascinatingly beautiful effect on us. And finally the view of the lake, or rather what is left of it. Soothing silence! Here we want to stay, here is our place for the Christmas days.
Our new home on Mars is quiet, but not completely lonely. Every now and then we see shepherds with their goats and sheep passing by in the distance. This morning our closest neighbor comes to visit us. A small nursery with pine and olive trees is located a few hundred meters above us, on the actual shore of the lake, when the lake is really full. Ismail, a middle-aged Berber introduces himself. He speaks French very well and has moved here to live with his parents after years of living in the big city. He too enjoys this quiet, nature and stress-free existence here at Quidane. He tells us a lot about the life of the Berbers, the reservoir and the High Atlas. The lake was actually full to the brim until 2015. Where we are today, we would have been about 20 meters under water.
We enjoy the holidays even without fairy lights, Christmas hype and gifts. Our gift is this place, like on another planet and the privilege to enjoy it here so comfortably. Of course we are working again on our pictures, videos and blogs. Fortunately we have again a reasonably good internet connection, which allows us to stay in touch with the "other world", the world in the hamster wheel, the world of commerce. Maybe we need this so that we don't completely lose touch with reality and can always appreciate our current reality as well.
Today we are moving on again. With heavy hearts we say goodbye to Mars and our dear neighbor Ismail. We move further south, always between one thousand and two thousand meters of altitude. Once again we pass a small town, we are now in Azilal. Brigitte's SIM card has expired early. We go to this little mountain town in search of recharging it. Fortunately, we always buy two different SIM cards, that is, from different providers. All too often one has a connection and the other doesn't, so we can help each other out with data connection via hotspot and have a guarantee to be connected to the world. So far, this has always worked out great. Besides the SIM Recharge, we also have to buy some bread. We buy two round flat breads (the two finger thick ones!) and a baguette for three Dirham. That's just 30 cents for well over half a kilo of bread. Of course, there is something left over for the begging hands. By the way, begging keeps within limits here in Morocco. Of course, we are begged from time to time, especially when parking, but this is never intrusive or aggressive. We have had no problems with this to date.
After the errands, we finally set off for the mountain. We quickly gain altitude on the still paved road towards the Tizi n' Tirghist. (Tizi = pass). Since I suffer a bit from the altitude, we don't want to go all the way up today. We like to go a little bit slowly up to high altitude. It's not the crossing, but the spending the night at altitude that gives me trouble from time to time. The last night on Mars we were only at a modest 700m above sea level, so today it shouldn't be much more than 2'000 meters. A little after Ait M'Hamed we see a wonderfully snowy Jbel Azourki glistening in the evening sun. This setting fits perfectly. Since we are already just over our 2'000 meter limit, we take the next small turnoff that leads to a stone hut that seems to be abandoned. It doesn't take long until a man and three children sit down in a distance of about 50 meters from our car between the cold uncomfortable stone boulders and observe our vehicle conspicuously inconspicuous. The sun is already very close to the mountain top and it has become noticeably cooler, so I put on some warm clothes and go out to have some conversation with the shy observers.
Two of the children seem to belong to the stone hut, the adult and the third child live a little further down. We can barely communicate with hands and feet. Unfortunately, my Arabic is just as bad as their French. After a while, another adult in a traditional Berber robe joins us. He gives me to understand that we should not stay here. "Not again," I think to myself. He, too, begins to make a phone call. I wonder how such situations were handled when there were no cell phones. He too now wants to see our passports and our mood gradually plummets. We are experiencing a deja vu. It is already dark again when we finally agree to just drive a little closer to the stone hut, where we are no longer so visible from the road. The thing with the alleged insecurity annoys us a little, especially we have never read about it in the Morocco forums. Admittedly, we do not move here on the classical tourist route over the Atlas and foreigners except for the Senegal returnees we have not seen for some time. Nevertheless, we are surprised by the sudden concern for us tourists in this so beautiful and peaceful area. We sleep now thus in the protection of the two children and two dogs beside the stone house, adults we have never seen around this house.
The next morning we still wake up alive. However, one does not sleep quite so well under such circumstances. The beautiful day makes us forget our tiredness quickly. We pass the second Tizi and drive through really very interesting photogenic villages. Again and again we stop to take a picture and often find an opportunity to distribute our sweets or small toys to the curious children. Accordingly, we make slow progress to today's next highlight of our trip, the 2, 914-meter above sea level Tizi n'Ait Imi.
We are now just under 2,000 meters again and shortly after Imelghas we turn left onto a third-class road. Asphalt now frequently alternates with natural roads and there is only limited space for oncoming traffic next to our big ship. But we hardly see more than half a dozen vehicles per day. Except for shepherds with their sheep and goats, we meet no one in this breathtaking area. Shortly after noon we have made it. The Tizi n'Ait Imi is conquered. Both in front of and behind the pass we have a great panorama. There is snow only in the shadow holes between the stones on the north side. We are just enjoying the sun and the view when finally a vehicle with four young Moroccans from the capital ascend the pass. A short photo session with FRAME and off we go again downhill.
At the top of Tizi n'Ait Imi at 2'914 m.a.s.l.
We now drive down the mountain even more slowly than we drove it up. Always in the correct gear, so that the engine brake can do the main work. The hairpin bends are narrow, but just doable for our Unimog without having to tackle them a second time. We are already back at 2'400m above sea level, when we take a steep path, not visible from the road, down into the dry creek bed to our place for the night. Here nobody can see us, here we feel safe, even from the concerned security forces. At night there is no traffic on this route anyway, only early in the morning a shepherd comes to visit us with his donkey, whom I can make incredibly happy with my old winter boots I brought with me.
Today is the royal stage, so to speak. In the old year, we want to get to the top once again. The climb to Tizi n' Ait Hmed, which is just over three thousand meters high and is also called Tizi n' Fougani in our GPS, is once again surprisingly easy. Not least thanks to the superb weather and zero traffic.
The rock formations change once again from steep to rugged, so that an Indian could be expected on each rocky outcrop. Finally, there are only turns upon turns, it is now simply to gain the necessary height. This Tizi is also similar to yesterday's in the way the pass is completely carved into the rocks on the ridge. "Through this hollow alley he must come" one thinks quickly as a Swiss.
And there he stands, our FRAME, as if it were a cinch for him to quickly climb a three-thousand-meter peak. The view here in the High Atlas is simply something special. Have I said that before? Maybe because it is just so overwhelming. And in contrast to the high Alpine passes, there is a silence up here that is almost eerie. How can it be that you can see for an estimated hundred kilometers in all directions without even the slightest sound except perhaps the soft whispering of the wind? Our sensory organs are - unfortunately - no longer used to this.
After a good hour all alone on the pass, we unfortunately already have to think about the descent to prepare for all eventualities. Our goal is to find a suitable campsite on the opposite ridge, which seems rather flat when seen from above. On the map there are small mountain lakes indicated and down in the valley a small river seems to be reflecting in the sunlight. This is indeed the first flowing body of water we have seen since the beginning of the Atlas stage. River courses and mountain streams on the Atlas north side had all dried up, reflecting the nearly empty reservoirs. We still have a half full water tank, but we don't want to miss this opportunity of a flowing body of water. Fresh mountain spring water from the Atlas! You don't get that every day. Arrived at the riverbed, as so often, two dozen helping hands gather around our vehicle. The children come from the nearby village and school is already out. With a few lumps of French from the bigger ones among them, communication works out quite well. Lay out the hose, connect the compressor, flush once please! The children are very happy to assist us in this exercise and we are very happy to have a full fresh water tank again. Of course, they get rewarded for their work. Besides the usual little things, Brigitte once again pulls out the Polaroid to give our helpers a lasting souvenir of this hospitable encounter.
The pitching at the destination finally turns out to be simple. Mountain lakes are but far and wide none in sight. That is, they were here before, but at the moment these are also dried up. The little mountain stream before in the valley was probably really an exception. Hardly we are installed a few hundred meters away from the road, the first shepherd boy comes on attendance. His name is Mohammed and he immediately sits down in front of us and stares at us. It is not always easy to establish a communication. With Mohammed, who seems to speak only Tamazight, the Berber language, the beginning was especially difficult. Over time, we began to teach each other our language. To write, Mohammed simply takes a flat stone and carves the desired characters with a pointed one. In the sand desert they write in the sand, in the stone desert they write in the stone. Actually obvious and yet always fascinating how simple the world can work. In our country, people believe that nothing works without computers. They are probably just two different worlds.
Also the next day Mohammed comes to visit us again. He usually has his sheep "on a very long leash". We only ever get to see them from very far away. As difficult as the beginning with Mohammed was, our relationship becomes more intensive and better already on the second day. He helps me with small jobs on the car and soon we can laugh together about trivial things. On the third day I already miss Mohammed. We delay our onward journey for a few more hours, but Mohammed and his sheep don't show up again today. We weren't sure if he understood yesterday that we were going on today. He seemed to have understood. All the best Mohammed and thanks for the inspiration!
Today is New Year's Eve and we want to say goodbye to this adventurous year after this impressive Atlas crossing in a special place. The nights are still around zero degrees on the more than 2,000 meters altitude on which we have moved in recent days. So now it's down to somewhat warmer climes. After Kalaat M'Gouna we are now moving eastward again between Atlas and Anti-Atlas. The two differ not only in height, but also in color. While the Atlas, with its height of well over 4,000 meters, is crowned by snowy, sparkling white mountain ridges and its rock literally glows in various shades of red, especially in the evening, the much lower Anti-Atlas appears in all variations of beige and gray. No artist could have done this more tastefully. Once again: Chapeaux Nature!
Shortly before Tinghir, we finally take a side road that leads us up to the left onto a plateau. Then we leave the road completely and drive over a kilometer over hill and dale until we arrive where we imagined: In the middle of nowhere with views on all sides. Atlas in the north Anti-Atlas in the south. Fits! Here we like to let the old year go. Let's toast to an even crazier and more adventurous 2023. Good health and Happy New Year!
To summarize our impressions of the High Atlas, we've included a short video here:
Next Blog: 2.6. Sand desert at last