One of the great benefits of working in Morocco is the opportunity to explore (and re-discover) places that I once frequented but might not have visited in awhile. One of these places is the remote Central Atlas of Morocco – the home of Mount (Jbel) Mgoun, the Mgoun Massif, and the Ait Bougmez Valley. It’s by far one of my most favorite places to visit in the whole country – a magical land untouched by modernization where nomadic populations and sparse villages are scattered by wind-cut mountains, harsh winters, and snowmelt springs that feed the south of the country to Klaat Mgouna and the Dades Valley with much needed water.
On this expedition, I had the pleasure of traveling with three clients from the East Coast of the States: Deborah, her son Ben, and Marc, her husband. Their goal when contacting us at Journey Beyond Travel was to get off the beaten path, trek to the point of happy exhaustion, and experience the culture and landscape simultaneously. Along for the trek was Journey Beyond Travel’s own office fixture, Van Go (a sturdy North African dog with a nice balance of shepherd and slougi – a type of greyhound, mix). Her love of walking, exploring, and adventure are infectious, so I thought she’d make a good companion to all of us on this mountain adventure. Based on our previous hikes (none multi-day), I was sure she could put up with the long hours on rough terrain. I wasn’t sure of her ability to summit the 4068 meters of Mgoun given the altitude, but I wanted to believe that Mgoun hadn’t felt the paw prints of a trusty canine in its history – so it was worth a shot.
The trek before us commenced with an eight-hour drive from Fez to Azilal. Once past this region, I wasn’t sure of the best course to our starting point in the Ait Bougmez Valley. Somehow I had read the map (perhaps wrongly) that took me into the heart of the mountains on gravel and dirt back roads with 500-meter drops on each side. Stopping to ask local inhabitants if I was on the right course got me more than one sideways glance, but enough insight to know that I should carry on. The adventure had truly begun.
Van Go was a bit nervous and irritated by the time we arrived at the trek’s starting point even though she had survived the long drive by surrendering herself into what we call ‘puppy-stasis,’ an uncanny ability to go into a trance for long journeys in the backseat of our small 4×4 – her head bobbing to the nooks, crannies, and craters of the Moroccan roads. Deborah and her family were waiting with a smile when we arrived at the starting point, eager to begin their holiday in the distant hills. It would take four muleteers and their steeds, our main guide Mohammed, our head cook Mohamed and plenty of supplies (tents, toilet, bags, mats, cookware, and everything in between since we – or I – had no intention of roughing it) to ensure the trek went as planned. All was fine as the sun jumped along the distant snow-spotted peaks. The first night’s camp was on a mini plateau made noticeable by a small Azib, or shepherd’s hut, that gave a breathtaking vista of the peaks and surrounding grassy fields important for the local Berber (Tamazert) population’s animal feed.
Van Go’s spirits were high as we worked our way up the peak of Aghouri late the next morning and descended that afternoon into camp. The first day’s walk totaled six steady hours. This next camp area sits at 2900 meters and the tactile chill of the place even with summer just around the corner was significant. The wind combined with this cold made us all happy to find the caretaker of the refuge (akin to a base camp lodge) ready for visitors – his concrete structure offering a respite from the howling winds that could turn this place into a desert in another 1000 years. After dinner, sleep came fast as the caretaker shook his head in joyful disbelief that a dog would not only have it’s own sleeping bag and mat, but that it would sleep the whole night beside me without commotion. A grunt from Van Go indicated it was lights out.
The day to Summit Mgoun came early as we begun our walk at 7 o’clock AM. With a solid nine to ten hours of trekking before us, Van Go’s temperament had changed; she was tired. She gave a few whimpers as she looked back on the lodge – a Lot fleeing Sodom moment for us all. A few thorns in her sandpapery paws from the shrubby landscape didn’t help matters at all. A bit of coddling, some Second-Skin blister glue, and a quick treat helped to sway her to continue in our direction. The irritating shrubs gave way to gray, slate-like rock that would continue up to the summit. Patches of snow offered the landscape some diversity and Van Go a diversion as she happily ran, dove, and dug her snout into the melt for cool refreshment.
After nearly six hours, the peak of Mgoun loomed in the distance and all we had to do was maintain our steady pace set out by Mohammed who knew that we’d have to reach the peak by two o’clock PM in order to avoid strong winds and the chance of changeable, dangerous weather. I wasn’t exactly sure how Van Go would handle the altitude at 4,000 meters, but her being born and living at 2,000 meters helped in her acclimatizing. With a few stops to catch our breaths and a will to succeed, we marched on to the beat of a determined hound, happy to accompany her newfound pack to one of Morocco’s highest peaks.
The final stretch wasn’t harsh, but offered us a rewarding vista of the entire Central Atlas range below. Patches of greenery and puffy clouds above, and no other humans in sight were the worthy rewards. At the summit, we cheered, snapped photos, and ensured that Van Go was doing well. She wanted to sleep and I had to hold her head up for our Kodak moment. We made our way down from the biting cold and haphazard wind that lifted sizeable pebbles off of the ground, spun them in a mini tornado, and scattered them to and fro off of the peak.
Down the scree-infested inner-side of Mgoun, we slid in our shoes (as if skiing) down over 1000 meters to the inner-caldera of the Mgoun Massif. After a quick bite to eat, as well as some rest in the sun, we continued onward to our camp where a large dinner and smiling Berber companions congratulated us making us feel that this stark land was now apart of our souls too.
About this Walk:
If you are interested in an adventure like this, this particular walk of four nights and five days in this section of the Mgoun National Park is a good choice. It offers trekkers a nice balance of scenery, inspiring panoramas, and the chance to summit Jbel Mgoun. At 100 meters below Jbel Toubkal, it is twice as hard to climb and ten times less crowded than it’s sister park, Toubkal National Park, just south of Marrakesh. For more information, we personally invite you to contact us to discuss your Morocco trip and possible trekking options that you may enjoy. Don’t forget you can download our trekking packet as well.