The mole said, ‘And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!’
‘By it and with it and on it and in it,’ said the Rat. ‘It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord! the times we’ve had together! Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it’s always got its fun and its excitements. When the floods are on in February, and my cellars and basement are brimming with drink that’s no good to me, and the brown water runs by my best bedroom window; or again when it all drops away and shows patches of mud that smells like plum-cake, and the rushes and weed clog the channels, and I can potter about dry shod over most of the bed of it and find fresh food to eat, and things careless people have dropped out of boats!’
This is a description of a route that takes you up a river, from the town of Argana on Marrakech-Agadir highway up a long river valley in the central High Atlas. Once you hit the end of the valley you have several options, all of which require either crampons or a strong stomach if you’re doing this in winter or early spring.
I don’t know what the river is called. I could google it if I felt like it, but in my journal I call it the Talmakant Valley so that’s the name I’m sticking with. Search ‘Souk sebt Talmakant’ on google earth to find it.
If you want to do this hike yourself, the starting point, Argana is a little tricky to find. It’s just off the main highway connecting Marrakech with Agadir. It’s set on the side of the river which runs up into the Talmakant valley and disappears many miles later into the year-round snows. Your bus driver will drop you right in the middle of the highway; hop the guardrail and cross the river, and Argana will be just around the bend.
But it’s still a long way from the mouth of the valley. See how far off the big mountains are? You’ll have to trust the river, which is hard to do. Rivers can make themselves almost impossible to walk along if they feel like it. “As the river flows” is the opposite of “as the crow flies”. There’s no decisive path, just snippets of one, and when I was there recent flood waters had dropped trees to bar my way left and right. Villagers were industriously hacking these up for firewood.
Things get greener as you continue. The riverbed gets deeper and steeper so that villages have to cling to the sheer edges. I remember being impressed at how the river must be at the root of all the livelihoods and the whole culture of the valley.
The first night I hiked up out of the greenery and set my tent between two Hershey’s kiss-shaped hillocks. The wind was too strong to build a fire so I sheltered behind a rock with a tin of sardines and my book. The bookstore in Agadir had given me the choice of two books in English: Crime and Punishment, and The Wind in the Willows. Where weight is a concern, of course, Russian authors are pretty much ruled out. I now opened up to Chapter 1: The River Bank:
‘[The river is] my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.’
I imagined that the people who lived this valley would talk about rivers much like the Water Rat, if only I could understand them.
“asif ifstan a itsttan”
“fleuve silencieux, fleuve qui engloutit”
“Silent river, engulfing river.”
As I moved up the river, the rock turned from red to grey and the mountains rose many thousands of feet. Little terraces of olive trees lead off into tantalizing little valleys carved by tributaries. These streams were a good source of clean water.
The trees were thick here and offered enough privacy to set up a proper camp with a little fire. But I boiled enough tea water for two just in case someone did stop by.
You should reach the market town of Talmakant on the second day. You can either stick to the river or if you need supplies, take the dirt road which leads high up the hillside to the town center. Don’t bother asking for vanilla extract, none of the shops have any.
I bought enough food here so I would be able to drag my feet over the next few days. I could already tell I would be passing through an unforgettable landscape.
A little over a mile past Talmakant you’ll pass another village, at which point the valley becomes a very narrow gorge for perhaps another mile. You’ll need to cross the river many times. Through a heroic effort I managed to keep my feet dry, but I made very slow time.
At the end of this gorge is the most perfect camping spot on earth. Out of respect, I didn’t take a photo of it, but you’ll know it when you see it. Look for a little grove of olive trees perched halfway up the hillside, around a grassy terrace with irises growing round, above a system of little waterfalls. If you don’t stop here to pitch camp you’re committing a crime as far as I’m concerned.
Just around the corner is the next village. If you cross to the southern side of the river here you can take a detour to the village of Meggount which is down a tributary valley in a lovely setting. I’d had enough of following rivers at this point so I left my pack at a new friend’s house and hiked up to the snow line. The weather was fantastic.
If you do this you can return in the evening to the Perfect Spot to camp for a second night. The next day, three miles up the main river the valley opens out for an impressive view. You are now pretty nearly as deep in the High Atlas as it is possible to get.
The band of green begins to narrow as the rocks stake claim to more ground, then widens again where ancient Africans were enterprising enough to hack irrigation ditches into the slopes. As everything gets steeper, villages find more creative formations in which to plaster themselves to the hillsides. Less plastic garbage is visible in the tangles of jetsam, indicating fewer villages upstream. Still I found a comb stuck in the reeds, which made me happy as I hadn’t been able to find one in the city.
Progress along the riverbank had grown frustrating, so for the first time in several days I climbed up to the dirt piste which connects the villages. Immediately I lost track of where I was. But I stuck with it, climbing up a long ladder of hairpin turns to a hilltop village with some impressive views. This village was called Tamejlouchte if you want a Google Maps reference.
This gave me a first glimpse of the surrounding mountain summits, which are jagged, violent, screaming upward into the thin air. I’d left the Appalachian Orogeny behind me; the High Atlas are young, impetuous, untamed by the blunting forces of nature and time.
I had dinner at the home of a young man who’d been born here, but who now worked in the city. I can’t imagine he made the trip up here to visit very often. Despite the cold and inhospitable environment the villages are no less warm, no less hospitable. I was impressed by how humans wield the power to shape landscape to make it livable. Leaving that village, the last in the valley, felt like stepping out of the airlock of a space station or moon colony.
I knew this would be my last night before the big traverse, so I pressed on well into twilight so I would be well-situated for the following day. But I was careful not to gain more altitude than my sleeping bag could handle.
The walls of the valley were so steep I was hiking in shadow, very deep, very cold. I camped under an old walnut tree. Locals seemed to have gathered every scrap of firewood for miles around, but I scrounged enough for a small fire to brighten the mood and to make bannock for the next day’s breakfast.
I hadn’t expected to see any more people, but at about 9:00 the next morning I met a man and a teenage boy repairing a stone terrace. They didn’t need to ask where I was going; there was only one way to go: up.
“Turn back,” they said, “you’re about to hit ice. You’ll slip and break your neck.”
“I’m just going to look, then I’ll turn around if it looks bad,” I lied.
Why did I lie? Why not turn back? My second rule of travel is to always trust the advice of locals. So what if I’d had my eye on this mountain pass for the last six months — I was no mountaineer, what gave me the right to confidence?
I was asking these questions again few hours later, when I was clinging to a sheet of hardpack snow like a fruit-fly on a white kitchen wall, using a flake of shale to chip footholds in the ice.
Shortly after speaking to the two men I had left the watercourse where it turned sharply to the southeast and turned into a violent set of cataracts. A gravely, profoundly unpleasant ascent provided this view looking back down the way I’d come:
Eventually the river, now just an icy brook, rose more steeply than I was able to scramble, so we met again one last time. You don’t often see real turf in Morocco, and this boggy, evergreen stretch of riverbed at 2500 meters was almost identical to a typical stream in Scotland. I felt at home at once. I took a deep, deep drink from the stream so I could empty my water bottles for a lighter ascent.
This was the final push, but it took me at least four hours. The ice dictated my route: I had no say in the matter. Eventually it was ice everywhere, so I picked up a large tooth-shaped piece of shale and began chipping.
The only things poking through the ice were those thorny shrubs which thrive in the High Atlas. They aren’t the most comfortable things to sit on, but they provided a break from the grip of death, so I chipped my way from bush to bush.
The one time I did lose footing on the ice, I grabbed onto a bush to stop my fall. It saved me a pair of broken legs, but the thorns drove into the skin of my fingers, and you could trace my progress up the final 200 meters by the flecks of blood in the snow.
For the first time in a week I had a glimpse of the world outside the valley:
Whatever the view was worth, it was time to pay the piper with the descent. It was terrible and long, and at the bottom of it all I found myself in the wrong valley entirely. But I was content to be in the greenery again. I’d just completed the hairiest leg of my whole trip (or so I thought) and I’d come through in one piece.
I asked an old man the name of the village, and he helped me find it on my map. I was three valleys over from where I was supposed to be. I sighed, shrugged, and went to have tea at the old man’s house.
The villages on this side had a character of their own compared to the Talmakant region. It felt more like springtime here in the southern watershed of the Atlas. The walnut trees were budding. Tuneful strains of Quranic verses rose from a school down by the river. This is why I love the Atlas. Those who wander here are never lost.