High Atlas, Morocco – Winter Wonderland (16.01.13)
I have always been drawn to the Atlas Mountains. Whatever the season it feels like a brand new experience every time I return.
Slicing across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia the Atlas Mountains are populated by Berber people whose customs and lifestyle embrace the dramatic landscape. The 2,500 km range stretches like a Kasbah rampart between the Sahara sands to the south, and the fertile Europe-bound plains to the north. It rises up like a huge rugged wall from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Mediterranean in the east.
I have always particularly loved the High Atlas regions, especially the area near the range’s highest peak Toubkal. Standing at 4,167 metres Mt Toubkal peers over some of the most exciting mountain landscapes, with busy hamlets giving way to huge swathes of open valley and distance palmeries. The landscape is as harsh, varied and dramatic as the seasonal weather conditions bright, fierce and icy.
Whether trekking or enjoying a period of relaxation, visitors to the Toubkal National Park area will have their stay dominated by seasonal weather. Although cool at night in the high altitude regions, the desert sun can feel like a furnace in the summer and distant relative in the winter. Spring and autumnal are the most seasons, while Atlas winters can compete with the harshest of the world’s mountain ranges.
A strong weather front can bring a dramatic change with plunging temperatures and inaccessible pathways at the blink of an eye. Strangely, I have always felt more drawn to the Atlas Mountains in winter. A combination of harsh African mountain life and traditional seasonal weather bring things into closer contact. The snow-dusted terracing and small villages, peering out from swirling blue clouds, give the region an ‘up in the gods’ ambiance – not least as the local people’s pointed hoodies distinctly resembles an Obi Wan Kenobi outfit, straight out of Star Wars. Huddled against a chill evening wind, shepherds drive their animals back down to their villages with a quick step and lightsaber-like sticks.
The earth coloured villages, with flat roofed houses and circular animal compounds, cling to the often steep mountains, surrounded by centuries-old terracing and well-irrigated gardens. It is a joy to share the high routes with horses, donkeys, sheep and goats and the welcome of the Berber people is often warmer even than their much needed winter fires.
And you hardly ever see another tourist.