The geological development of the Atlas Mountain formation was marked by a massive continental collision between the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula and the European plate, and it is not a continuous chain of mountains but a series of ranges separated by wide plateaus. The Atlas System extends some 2,500km across north-western Africa, spanning Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, creating a striking, sometimes harsh barrier between the arid Sahara and Morocco’s milder coastal climate. The middle and the most impressive of these ranges, with an average elevation of around 3000m, is called the High-Atlas. It begins close to the Atlantic in Agadir and runs in a jagged line northeast through the centre of the country encompassing some of the region’s most authentic pockets of culture as well as offering some of its best opportunities for cycling and hiking. Capped with snow throughout the winter months and cloaked with wildflowers through the summer, the rocky plateaus and lush valleys of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains provide a striking backdrop to outdoor adventures.
Marrakesh, the Moroccan Kingdom’s 4th largest City is the closest port of entry to the western part of the High-Atlas. This former imperial city in Western Morocco, is a major economic centre and home to mosques, palaces, and gardens. The medina is a densely packed, walled medieval city dating to the Berber Empire, with maze-like alleys where thriving souks (marketplaces) sell traditional textiles, pottery, and jewellery. A symbol of the city, and visible for miles, is the Moorish minaret of 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque.
In the lower countryside, the housing follows a similar principle, with a lack of large windows on the exterior clay or mud brick walls providing protection from the weather. Rooms open into the central atrium space which may allow a small garden with an orange or lemon tree. Some of the walls of the riads are adorned with tadelakt plaster and zellige tiles, usually with Arabic calligraphy of quotes from the Quran.
The language of Morocco is a somewhat complicated matter. Classical Arabic may be the official language of Morocco, however, most Moroccans speak a Darija dialect. This differs significantly from modern standard Arabic and doesn’t have an awful lot in common ground with the various indigenous Berber languages which are widespread. However, Berber speakers can’t always communicate effectively if they speak different Berber dialects. In the tourist cities French is pretty common as it is regarded as Marrakech’s ‘main unofficial language’ since it is spoken by seemingly every merchant, taxi driver and kid.
Departing Marrakech with its amalgam of ancient preserved heritage and modern structures, a wide, well designed highway soon narrows to a simple country road once it reaches the foothills of the Atlas. Dusty jeep tracks lined by date palms, olive orchards, and walnut trees lead up into the wider lower valleys. Advancing further into higher areas, these dirt roads narrow to steep paths where broad russet slopes are dotted with scrubby pines, lacy cedars, and spiky juniper bushes. Beyond the tree line, it’s only some shrubs that grow between the barren rocks while the peaks gleam with snow even in the warmer months. The diverse terrain is split with canyons and ravines and many of the remote areas can only be reached on rocky horse trails.
The Berbers are the original inhabitants of these vast mountains and their civilization reaches back more than eight millennia. This ancient culture is known for being particularly warm and welcoming to visitors as can be experienced when welcomed into a home for a cup of steamy Moroccan mint tea (nicknamed ‘le whiskey Berbere’). The Berbers make a sustainable living from agriculture, farming, and herding livestock; using age-old techniques to live in the fertile valleys between the forbidding slopes. Because their lives are so closely tied to the mountains,
Life in the scattered mountain villages along the slopes seems very laid back. The modern world has had little impact on the villages that cling to the rocky slopes. Their traditional flat-roofed homes surrounding the distinct square-shaped mosque minarets are made from packed natural stone and plastered with mud, and seem to have grown from the mountains themselves. The flat rooves are often used to dry crops like maize and walnuts.
In the steppe zone of the High-Atlas, where precipitation is low, the locals must husband water resources and use ingenious techniques to the semi-arid lands into fertile valleys.
The Berbers’ main modes of transport on the stony routes connecting the valleys are still horses and donkeys. Watching a bunch of foreign cyclists in their colourful outfits and helmets pedalling on their turf gave rise to sceptical glances by the elders while the kids, by nature,
were more inquisitive.
The close proximity of Africa’s 3rd tallest peak prompted a side trip to hike the 13-hour round trip from the village of ‘Imlil’ at 1750m to the soaring summit of Mt. Toubkal at 4166m. The struggle up the steep final 600m of icy snow was rewarded with a breath-taking 360-degree vista of crags and valleys retreating into the distance.