The Middle Atlas

Mid001Driving north out of the desert, the land begins to subtly change. Sand gives way to pebbles, pebbles to rocks to scarcely occupied fields and into hills that rise steeply and suddenly you are in the mountains. The Middle Atlas is starkly different to what we have seen in Southern Morocco. At first it is the volume of greenery, verdant fields of crops in lush soil, then come the extensive forests of cedar, rising from every available surface on each side of the mountain road. The temperature drops rapidly as we drive into the forests and clouds are thickening, clinging to the mountain tops.

Mid002As we near Azrou, the cloud is low and thick water droplets begin to fall. Through the cloud we can see an occasional village, each looking more like it belongs in Europe than Morocco. This is why they call the area Moroccan Switzerland. When we enter Azrou the transition is complete, the homes are 2-3 stories with white walls and heavily slanted red tiled rooves. The wealth is astounding, and it appears that most of the homes are unoccupied. Our driver Barhou explains that Azrou has many homes owned by wealthy people from Rabat and Casablanca that they use during the snow season and summer. We pull into our hotel a short time later with the view almost completely whitewashed.

When we woke the next day, the cloud was lifting, and we made our way to the nearby Cedar Forest to walk a while. When we arrived at the park a local supplied us with a hand drawn map estimating the route through the forest, he also pointed out a trail marker to help us navigate. We walked the short length of trail to the first marker, then looked for the next and continued on what looked like a path. It turned out it wasn’t a path at all, just a natural flow up the mountain and the marker we thought we saw just a rock. So, we decided to follow the hand drawn map as best we could and see if we could find any of the waypoints (two valleys with a creek running through that met in the middle) described. The map was not particularly helpful for navigating, but at least it gave us a bearing to aim towards and the walk turned into a ramble through the forest.

Mid005-01The ramble was excellent. It had been quite a while since I had walked in a forest without designated trails and choosing the right path up and down valleys was excellent. There had been snow recently, and there was ice pack in many shaded spots along the way. Where the sun shone through the trees the Earth steamed, the trees, so green after the desert, slowly shed their ice drop by drop. The beauty of it all was enhanced by the silence. Only a few minutes from the first marker we lost any human noises aside from our boots crunching in ice, or crunching fallen leaves, and the occasional bird call.

We came to a road and followed it a short way before again entering the forest. Throughout this section we heard the occasional rustling in the trees without seeing the cause. Shortly thereafter the sounds of civilisation interrupted our reverie and we saw a Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus), indigenous to the area, descend from a tree a make its way toward a fence. Within minutes we saw dozens of macaque and emerged to a tourist spot where they feed the local population. What surprised me most about visiting this area is that most people drive to this point to play with the macaques, and don’t take the time to wander the surrounding forest and enjoy its wonderful beauty.




Unmarked Hike in a Cedar Forest, Morocco

Mid008-1After our walk, we drove through the surrounding area including Ifrane and found the whole experience to be quite bizarre. It was as though we were no longer anywhere in Morocco. The streets were lined with luxury European style buildings belonging more to the Swiss Alps than any Arab or African culture.  We then drove North to Meknes for lunch and onward to Volubilis, an excavated city that had been occupied by Phoenicians, Carthaginians and later Romans.

Volubilis is an UNESCO site administered by the Moroccan Government, with a 10MAD entry fee. The city is quite large and has some excellent constructs and some excellent signage (mostly in Arabic and French, but some in English). We wandered the city for close to two hours admiring the ruin and views of the nearby town of Moulay-Idriss, which is in the shape of a camel. If you come to the North of Morocco, I heartily recommend a visit. The opening line of UNESCO’s description of this site is “Volubilis is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the empire.”



Mid011 Mid012


That night we stayed in Fez, one step closer to the end of our Moroccan journey.


Mid015Other Experiences in Morocco:

Marrakech to Imil
The Route of a Thousand Kasbahs
A Walk in the Dades Gorge
A Night at Erg Chebbi, the Sahara
Northern Morocco and Gouffre du Friouato


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