Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Seven-Day Hike in Morocco's Middle Atlas Mountains, from Azrou to Khenifra

The Middle Atlas mountains are Morocco's green lung, thanks to the many sources, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Several of the country’s main rivers originate in this area. Covered with impressive cedar forests, wide green plains, and home to thousands of barbary macaques, the Middle Atlas is perfect for hiking.

This guide describes a hiking trip that I did together with two friends in October 2013. None of us were trained hikers, but we were all able to carry a 16 kg backpack for about 20 km each day on sometimes steep terrain. So although it is a beginners trip, you should have a good physical condition.

The itinerary of the trip on Google maps is available here.

Some pointers before we take off:

The best months for this trip are March-May and September-November. In Summer time, it is very warm in this inland area, while during the winter snow and freezing temperatures are not uncommon in the mountains.

In Morocco, road signs only exist on paved roads. Paths in particular are not indicated at all. As a result you often find yourself in the middle of a slope or plain while the path underneath your feet suddenly doesn’t really look like a path anymore. Local people usually know how the path continues, but for outsiders it can be hard to follow its course.

Official detail maps of the region are only available at the Agence Nationale de la Conservation Foncière, du Cadastre et de le Cartographie (ANCFCC) in Rabat. It can take a while and some effort to get the maps you want. We managed to obtain copies of 1970 detail maps, which were still quite accurate, not to mention the roads that are new or were paved since. Another option is to use Google Maps, which has quite good relief maps.

Food and mineral water can be found in any village. Every village we came across had several hanout (grocery stores). As we do not pass a village every day during this trip, you should bring enough food and water with you.

Wild camping is pretty easy and safe in Morocco. However, if you are near a village, it is always a good idea to ask a villager for advice. This way, you know you are welcome and can avoid putting your tent on a “wrong” spot. Moreover, villagers know the place and can give you some good advice concerning the most beautiful spots.

Day 1: getting in Azrou and going to Ain Toumliline (+ 450m, distance: 4,8 km)

You can go to Azrou from either Fez or Meknes by bus or by taxi collectif. It takes a few hours to get there.

Note: take enough food and water with you for the first days. The first time we'll see a village again is at the end of the third day. There are some sources where you can get water, such as Aïn Toumliline, were the water should be drinkable. But better to be safe than sorry, so be sure to bring water purification tablets.

The first hike is a short but steep one. You will climb about 450 meters. The starting point is at Place du Centre in Azrou's city center. Climb along the main road and take the second street on the right, towards Hôtel Panorama. Pass alongside the hotel following the paved road. Where the paved road turns left again, keep a right and take the path between the two houses. Follow the path for 1500 meters, until it rejoins the paved road.

Aïn Toumliline source
Follow the paved road. After the first left-turn, you can see a building behind the trees at your left. It's a former monastery, that was used in the movie Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux). If you keep following the paved road, you will see a U-turn at your right and see a walled terrain in front of you. This is where the source Aïn Toumliline originates. If you're already sweating by now you can freshen yourself up at the source.

For the last part of your first day hike, climb alongside the dried up riverbed behind the source. Turn right and follow the three-less corridor between the forests. Just after you have reached the highest point, take a look in the forest at the left. You will find some excellent camping spots. When we woke up there the next day, we saw a troop of macaques.
Our camping spot

Day 2: through the cedar forests to Lac Afennourir (almost flat, 17,5 km)

Day 2 takes us through some planes and cedar forests to the Afennourir Lake, that is protected by the Ramsar Convention. Here you will find a wide variety of birds.

Continue to follow the three-less corridor between the forest. After a few hundred meters, you will find a paved road at your left side. This is the low-traffic Route Touristique des Cèdres. A mere five cars passed us by during the course of an entire day.

barbary macaques
Inside the cedar forests
The Route Touristique des Cèdres crosses a plain for a good 4.7 km, after which it enters a huge cedar forest, where you have a good chance to see wild barbary macaques. Be quiet and listen carefully and you might be able to spot them.

After 7 km, and having crossed several small open spaces inside the forest, the road leaves the forest behind once again. Two km further ahead on the plane, you will arrive at an intersection. Turn right and leave the paved road behind you. Follow the non-paved road for 3,8 km up to Afennourir Lake.

Afennourir Lake
Note: there is no village or possibility to stock up on fresh water or supplies near the lake. You will have to bring enough food and water with you.

Note: The lake is not suited for swimming. Further ahead on our hike, we will go to lakes where you can swim.

Day 3: to Aïn Leuh (+125m, -425m, distance: 11,5 km)

Follow the unpaved road next to the Afennourir Lake, and turn right leading you into the hills. You are now crossing a sparse cedar forest, that grows into a densely wooded forest.

After 3 km of forest, you will end up on a plain. After 1 km the paved road will bring you to an intersection. Take the road on your right, that will lead you into the forest. After 3,3 km you will arrive in the village of Assamane. Cross the village by going to the left at the second intersection and follow the road into the village for about 300 meters. From the center of the village, take the path that goes to the West for 600 meters. You will arrive at the paved P7215 road. This is not the nicest road to hike and there might be quite some traffic, but it is the easiest way to get to our destination for the day. Follow this road to the West for 1,2 km, until you arrive at an intersection with another paved road going from North to South. Turn left, southwards for 2 km. You are now in the center of Aïn Leuh.

Indicated as a tiny village on our 1970's map, Aïn Leuh has grown steadily over the last decades, and you will easily find supplies such as food and water in the village's hanout.

Post office of Aïn Leuh
Camping spots can be found at the outskirts of the village. It is recommended to ask the villagers for advice, in order not to disturb anyone. While arriving in the village we ran into Hassan, who operates a guesthouse called Gite Montana in the village. Son of an American mother, Hassan speaks English fluently and will be eager to help you. We ate tajine at his guesthouse and afterwords, Hassan showed us an excellent place to camp, from where we had an overview of the village.

Day 4: to Zawyat Ifrane (+50 m, -400 m, distance: 18 km)

The main road going South
From Aïn Leuh, follow the main road to the South. About 500 meters after the football field, the road takes two U-turns, first to the right, then to the left. Continue to follow the paved road.

Fragile sand rocks
About 800 meters after the second U-turn, where the paved road turns left, go straight ahead, leaving the paved road. There are two paths very near to each other. Be careful to take the correct one. Do not take the path at the right that goes down. Instead, take the leftmost one, that goes into the forest and climbs along the slope of the hill. After about 2 km, you will see a formation of fragile sand rocks on your left. After 800 meters, the path joins the paved road again.

Zawyat Ifrane and it's plateau
Follow the paved road for 3,6 km. 200 meters after the road turns left, there is an intersection with a unpaved road at the right going South-West. Follow this road for 4 km. You are crossing a corridor of empty land in-between the forests. You will pass a lonely three at one point. The road is quite tricky at some times, as there are a few unclear intersections. Always go straight forward, and never turn left. Continue to follow the road as it goes into the forest and zig-zags down the valley. After 5,5 km, you see a plateau in front of you with waterfalls falling from it. The village of Zawayt Ifrane is at the feet of the plateau. Follow the road and it will guide you to the village. You can leave the road before the telephone pole and turn right to take a shortcut and get in the village faster.
Main waterfall in Zawyat Ifrane

Note: several hanout are located in the village. You can easily get food and water. There is also a guesthouse. Ask villagers where you can put your tent. We asked Hamid, the president of the local honey cooperative. He let us stay in a field right in front of the main waterfall. A lovely place, if you don't mind the noise of the water falling down.


Day 5: to Wiwane (+500 m, distance: 19 km)

Zawyat Ifrane
From Zawyat Ifrane, take the path to the east that runs along the plateau. Turn right when you can in order to get on top of the plateau. Follow the creeks in order to get to the source. Just 50 meters east of the source, you will find a path that climbs the mountain south of the plateau. Take this path and climb along with it to the top. This will be a steep hike and at times it might become difficult to keep track of the path, but keep in mind that the goal is to cross the top of the mountain. 

Heading towards the source Source Climbing the mountain, with the plateau in the background

Once you are at the top, you can see the bare plain at the other side. At your right, you will see an unpaved road. Go to this road and follow it. There is not a lot of traffic. We were here the day of the Eid Lkbir, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and all day long there wasn’t a single car that passed us by.

Intermittent lake
After 1,7 km, the road will lead us into a forest for about 500 meters. Afterwards, you will cross a plain on a two kilometer long turn to the East. Pay attention to the farms that you see at the outskirt of the forest. These people live without running water or electricity. One farmer family hailed us welcome from a distance and invited us for tea. Follow the road and after 3,5 km, there is an intermittent lake at your right. 1,4 km further, along the road enters the forest again for 1,5 km and starts turning northwards after a while. Eventually, the road will rejoin the paved road again. Follow this paved road to the South for 3,5 km and you will arrive at Wiwane Lake.

Note: there are two hanout nearby, both on the main paved road. One is at the point where the road turns west, away from the lake, the other one is a few kilometers further down the road. The village of Wiwane also has two guesthouses. Although there are a few lakes, nobody seems to use them to go for a swim.

Day 6: to the sources of the Oum Rbia (14 km)

Tea houses along the sources
Sources of the Oum Rbia
The Oum Rbia, Morocco's biggest river, originates in the Middle Atlas. To get to the sources from Wiwane, you just need to follow the paved road for 14 km. It is quite a boring track and there are no forests offering shelter. There is more traffic than we were used to the last days so be careful. You can hitchhike to get to the sources quicker.

The sources are quite touristic. Have some tea in of the many cafes. You can easily get food and water.

Day 7: to Kenitra or to Aguelmame Azigza (22 km)

From the sources of the Oum Rbia, there are two options. Either you return to city life by going to Khenifra, or you prolong your stay in the mountains and go to Aguelmame Azizga, a lake where you can finally have a swim. In the second case, Khenifra will be your stop for the day after.

Portugese bridge in Khenifra
To go to Khenifra, first hitchhike to M'rirt or take a taxi if you can. From M'rirt you can take a bus or taxi to Khenifra. You should be warned that Khenifra is a boring town. Besides an old Portugese bridge and a carpet souk, there is nothing to do. If it is not too late, try to go immediately to the less boring Beni Mellal.

Note:  Khenifra should not be confused with Kenitra, a coastal city close to Rabat

Lahcen's house
Lahcen's berber tent in front of the lake
For Aguelmame Azigza, take the paved road at your left when you come from the sources of the Oum Rbia. Follow the road for 22 km to get to the Azigza lake. You can try to hitchhike if you don't want to walk. There are no villages or shops on the road. At the North-Western side of the lake, there is the house of Lahcen, the only place where you will find something to eat close to the lake. Lahcen has a berber tent where you can sleep, drink tea or have a meal. The lake is perfect for swimming.

From Aguelmame Azigza you will have to hitchhike to Khenifra as there is no public transport around. The best chances to hitchhike are in the early morning or late afternoon.

Thanks to Nicolas and Sarah for their photo's and contribution