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Sand, songs and solitude on a trek through Morocco's Atlas Mountains

Take it slowly on a mule trek through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and make time for chance encounters along the way, from reviving cups of tea with farmers to poignant conversations with local women.

Published 17 Mar 2022, 10:36 GMT, Updated 4 Apr 2022, 17:14 BST
Ait Bouguemez valley, leading into the M’Goun Valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Ait Bouguemez valley, leading into the M’Goun Valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Photograph by Getty

The air is rich with the scent of ripe figs. Bulbuls are chirping in the walnut trees and Bia Azabi, my Amazigh (Berber) guide, is teaching me a song as we walk. “Wallah henn i koum, wallah henn i ah...” “Why are we singing, Bia?” I ask. “She says she’s singing because she’s happy!” says our interpreter. I’d be happy, too, if I’d been brought up in a beautiful valley like this, full of orchards, roses and wild oleander, and earning a living as a community guide.

Bright-eyed and aged somewhere around 60, Bia hails from the M’Goun Valley, a region in central Morocco so remote it gets just a few, brief paragraphs in my 580-page guidebook. It’s around 200 miles east of Marrakech by road and not far from the most popular hikes in the High Atlas mountains, but it’s relatively little explored. Over the coming days, I’ll be walking with Bia through the valley from village to village on a 35-mile hike. 

Community guide Bia Azabi.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

There are four of us in our party, and we’re all women. This isn’t surprising; I’m on a group tour organised by Intrepid Travel, which claims that 65% of its travellers are female — many of whom prefer female-only tours. On a rural expedition such as ours, the company of women brings both enjoyment and practical advantages. Physically, we’re well matched, and we have acres of common ground to explore. But best of all, visiting this stoutly conservative, rural area as part of a female-only walking group opens doors. 

Already, on our first day, we’ve chatted to local women harvesting olives, tending their vegetable plots, gathering fallen fig leaves to feed to their sheep and washing their clothes in the river. We’ve been welcomed indoors for reviving cups of mint tea, and almonds, and later we’ll be staying the night in a family home. Had there been men among us, relaxed encounters such as these would be different, if not impossible.

Between chats, we stride easily along farmland paths and mule tracks, unencumbered by luggage or supplies — our back-up team (two muleteers, two mules) is handling all that. They, too, are remarkable: Malika Merdoun (one of Morocco’s few female muleteers) is a feisty ally, while Bassou Azabi (his gender forgiven, since he’s Bia’s family) cooks a mean tagine.

Each day, the scenery of this wild valley is extraordinary. Picturesque hamlets hug the rugged contours, with earth-coloured minarets and ruined kasbahs at their heart. Stream-hopping through rocky gorges, we pause every so often to refuel on sweet dates, while Bia reveals snippets of her past: the teenage marriage she hated, the divorce that set her free.

 Lunch with villagers on the multi-day hike.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

On our descent to the village of Rbat M’Aït Ahmed, we pass an area dotted with rocks. “The tiny stones are for babies, buried beside their mothers,” says Bia. Part of the village graveyard, it’s a bitter reminder that until recently many rural women died during childbirth. Better access to healthcare and education have helped turn things around, as have tourism experiences like ours — offering families an extra income as hosts. 

That night, the mood at our homestay is upbeat: our hosts’ daughter is getting married soon, much to the family’s delight. Her mother leads us to a loom. “This is to mark the occasion,” she says, proudly showing off the beginnings of a huge, woollen throw. Our third day of hiking is the toughest, pushing east over ochre-coloured hills to an arid riverbed pocked with caves, where nomadic farmers offer us tea. One of our group, feeling fragile, is helped onto a mule, wrapped in a shawl and led onward.

As Bia cheerfully gathers bundles of wild herbs, I ask her what she thinks the secret to a happy life might be. 

“Family,” she says. “Making time for little things like watching your children eat. They bring such joy and freedom. The freedom to do the things you love. And as we leave our penultimate homestay behind, she leads us in song once more.  “Wallah henn i koum, wallah henn i ah…”

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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