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How two weeks in Morocco changed how I think about travel

Kathryn Bennett was offered the chance to join 4 4000m Peaks of Morocco, a two-week trekking journey through the High Atlas Mountains. At first... Read more
How two weeks in Morocco changed how I think about travel

Kathryn Bennett was offered the chance to join 4 4000m Peaks of Morocco, a two-week trekking journey through the High Atlas Mountains. At first she was a little sceptical - she'd never been on a group guided adventure before. In this account, she explains how this unique journey has changed her mind about what adventure means, and why. 

We first hear it from the top of the pass; a cacophony floating on the wind. As we descend into the sprawling mouth of the valley, winding down a twisting trail, there’s a clatter of indistinguishable voices emanating from the cluster of flat-roofed villages far below. The group turns to one another, guessing its origin – is it a playground? Some kind of match? The noise reaches a jubilant crescendo, and before we can ask our guide Omar turns to answer. “It’s a wedding,” he says. “The bride has arrived.”

This was the first day of our two-week journey through the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. Over the next week, we’d cross along the backbone of the Atlas, before spending a week around Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in northern Africa - and bag ourselves four of the High Atlas 4000m peaks along the way. I joined this trek in the summer of 2018, my first year working at KE Adventure Travel, and it was my first small group adventure. I wasn't sure what to expect, because if I'm honest, there was a reason I'd never been on one before. I work at KE because I'm passionate about travel, adventure and exploring everything the world has to offer, but when I joined, my idea of adventure was completely D-I-Y. My last few holidays include planning a mini-expedition in Siberia, hunting down rivers to kayak in Tirol, and cycling from Berlin to Hamburg in a week. I didn’t think a guided adventure was for me.

Of course, that same sense of adventure meant there was no chance I was turning down the opportunity to visit Morocco and explore the High Atlas Mountains, so I immediately said yes, and I’m so glad I did. From that first day in the mountains, it’s opened my eyes to another side of travel and changed the way I think about it – here are a few reasons from my journey to explain why.


Ironically, I feel like anyone with a vague sense of which way up you hold a map could probably have followed our route through the Atlas. The trails are clear, well-defined paths which flow from village to village – I could probably retrace the whole trail even now. The difference is that picking up a map, I would never have been able to plan such an incredible journey. Over the two weeks, we saw two different sides to the Atlas; the first week was a beautiful tour of a side of the mountains, and rural Moroccan life, that few tourists will see. Throughout that week we didn’t see any other travellers – aside from one lone trekker who was clearly something of a lone wolf.

The second week, we entered a more popular region, the spectacular cradle of mountains surrounding the Neltner Refuge to take on 3 summits in 3 days. The difference was striking – although a week spent around Toubkal alone would have made for an incredible adventure, the feeling of having trekked a less beaten path made it more special. The place I felt this most was on top of Bouguinoussen, our final 4000er. It subtly stands opposite Toubkal, which means that as you reach its rocky summit, you can spy groups taking on Morocco’s highest peak opposite, ants crawling up the face of the mountain. Don’t get me wrong - I loved our day summiting Toubkal, chatting to other groups with a sense of camaraderie to reach its famous pyramid on top, but the scramble to the top of Bouginoussen felt special with the mountain to ourselves, the only group visible on an imposing ridgeline. For the first time, fewer pictures were taken on the summit, and we sat and savoured the feeling of having achieved something special

Making our way through remote mountain villages

Early starts in the Atlas were completely worth it


It felt like a privilege to follow in the footsteps of our guide and porters through these hills. On our very first day, we stopped in Tacheddirte, the highest village in the Atlas mountains and where most of our team of porters was from. We sat on a stone terrace in a gite, looking down the valley towards Imlil, sipped on our first batch of mint tea, and immediately felt welcome in these completely alien mountains.

For me, trekking the Atlas was the first time I’d walked on paths not forged by persistent British hillwalkers, or the well-marked trails of the USA national parks. Here the trails that felt like such a challenge for us were a daily commute for many of the people who dwell in the high mountain villages. We’d be standing triumphantly on top of a pass, only to see a grandmother and her wards casually walk by, heading to the next village to buy goods or see relatives. Another night, after making camp for the night at a village called Labessene, we were witness to the hive of activity that occurs at dusk. A village sleepy with the daytime heat of summer came alive; a waterfall began to run, glowing in the evening sun as it irrigated the terraces, and children and women came out to tend to crops.

I felt like we’d been granted a special pass to see these unique moments and use these paths, led by a team born in the very mountains we were trekking through. Our guide, Omar, was from Imlil, the largest village in the Atlas and starting point for many Toubkal treks, and walking through the town at the end of the trek with him was hilarious; we felt like we’d arrived with a minor celebrity, as local traders and shop owners waved and shouted their welcome home. Quiet and unassuming, Omar was a testament to how not all exceptional leaders need to be loud. He took us on journey both of culture and adventure, bouncing along difficult scrambling sections to help the group like the most athletic mountain goat you’ve ever seen one moment, and giving us insights into Berber culture the next. He also had a killer sense of humour; one of my favourite moments was sat at dinner one evening, where the team asked him how many times he’d been up Toubkal. He frowned, and cautiously stated “This….this will be my second time…” before breaking out into a wide, Cheshire cat grin.

We later found it would actually be his 286th.

Our guide Omar at the top of our first pass


Moroccan culture was completely new to me; this was my first visit even to the continent of Africa, or a predominately Islamic country. Jetting into Marrakech, a mere four-hour flight from Manchester, I was immediately enthralled by its red walls and pink-tinted buildings, alien to anything I’d seen before. When I arrived back in the city two weeks later, I felt like I knew something special most travellers didn’t, as local cooperative owners attempted to explain culture of the mountain Berbers to me. Little did they know, I’d already passed through the mountains they spoke of. I’d learnt about the transhumant shepherds who cross from valley to valley throughout the summer and seen the huts planted into the side of cliffs where they stay. I’d learnt about village life, how remote settlements are changing as the modern world progresses. I’d even learnt that the preferred term for what we in the west have named ‘Berber’ is actually Amazigh, which, as Omar proudly stated, means ‘free people’. We also picked up a little of the language; from shouting ‘azul’ (hello) to villagers we passed, to the groups’ personal favourite, the sing-song word ‘timinziwin’, which means goodnight and was said fondly each evening before retiring to our tents.

Passing by huts made by shepherds for the summer


Not only was this my first guided experience, but the first time I’d joined a group adventure as a solo traveller. I loved getting to know my group and the variety of people brought together by this single goal. Mike, a qualified Mountain Leader, gave me sterling advice on the Scottish hills; Adam, our youngest, was just about to go to university, and our discussions about nerd culture and childhood cartoons we’d both watched definitely got us through some of the longer days. Markus from Finland taught me snippets of his language, and Jenny, much more well-travelled than I, told me stories from around the world. Margaret, Mike’s wife, felt like a family friend within a few days and was such an inspiration with her unwavering enthusiasm - I’ve even had the pleasure of catching up with her here in the Lake District. We also shared our trip with fellow travellers from France, Thierry, Corinne, Gerard and Andre. Margaret, our resident linguist, helped us all communicate, and we got to communicate more over the two weeks, despite the language barrier. Meeting so many different people from so many different walks of life, brought together by the same passion for adventure and travel, was an absolute joy.

The group at the top of Toubkal - the summits are optional so some of the group opted out for some of them, but everyone was committed to summiting the highest peak in Morocco together.

Margaret and I on the summit of Bouguinoussen, an epic climb!


Admittedly, I’m a massive foodie, so I was particularly enamoured by this - but my fellow trekkers, who were a well-travelled bunch, said this was some of the best food they’d had on trek. Ali, our chef, in my mind is quite simply a genius. No matter where we were, he and his team conjured Moroccan delicacies each night for dinner out of a tent and from two simple stoves; fresh, fragrant and bursting with flavour. We soon learnt that tagine is actually the name for the conical lid and dish in which recipes are cooked, and Omar would sweep in each night and announce “tagine again – always tagine!” with his now trademark grin, familiar of western cuisine’s misuse of the word. We had a beautiful variety; dishes included couscous with the most delectable slow-cooked vegetables, succulent tangy lemon chicken, a tender beef stew which would melt in your mouth. The porters even managed to transport dozens of eggs to 2500m and produced a gorgeous baked stew of eggs and potato. After summiting Toubkal, we were presented with a typical ‘wedding’ feast to celebrate; couscous tossed with sugar, cinnamon and crunchy peanuts served with a perfectly crispy and soft baked chicken. Lunches were an incredible treat too, Moroccan salads which were a kaleidoscope of colour, carefully chopped, with tinned fish and a plate of much-needed carbs, saffron pasta or lentils. For snacks, there’d be biscuits, pancakes, or – my favourite – a delectable doughy fried pastry which reminded me of a New Orleans beignet, satisfyingly both sweet and savoury and exactly what you needed after climbing 4000m peaks.

A sample of our vibrant lunches, painstakingly chopped fresh each day - and there's even dressing

On our fourth night camping, a delectable flatbread was produced - Omar explained it was cooked fresh on this fire outside of camp.


I’m an adventurous soul, but I’m definitely not the most hardcore out there, and I’m not a peak bagger. I think anyone fit and able to walk long days in UK hills will love this trip, but it definitely felt like an achievement at the end, and never something I would have done on my own. Being in a guided group, with a team to spur you on, made this challenge so much easier. I can’t decide which my favourite peak was – it’s a tie between Adrar D’Nern, and Bouguinoussen. The latter I’ve already told you about, but the former felt equally special. It was our first one, and the first time I’d gone above 4000m. It was also the most remote, a rugged pinnacle surrounded by a valley of gorgeous red sands. At the summit, we could see how far we’d come, and the mountains spilling out south into the plains of Jebel Sirwa. Wild and beautiful, I’ll always remember the comforting solitude of standing at the top of this rare peak, being in a place few other trekkers will have stood.

Red sands descending from Adrar d'Nern - the scree was so loose we could plunge our feet in and ski down the mountain.


I started this trek sceptical about group adventure and left with my mind completely changed. I’ll always still chase the sense of achievement from exploring on my own, and I’ve got my eye on learning at least one language so I feel I can get to the heart of a country myself too. But being shown such a different culture by those who live there, with a group of travellers who share your goal, is something I want to experience again. Sometimes it's the journeys we didn't expect to take which end up being the most important - this was one of them for me.  With that in mind, these are the adventures I’ve got my eye on next….

The Druk Path Trek in Bhutan. I love the sound of this utterly unique country, where the beauty of the Himalaya is far from the only draw. I'm told by those in the office who've been that the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and the culture is outrageously fascinating, from their national philosophy of wealth measured by happiness to their many different gods - including one revered for his 'flaming thunderbolt of wisdom' which protects against evil and promotes fertility... The Druk Path trek seems like the perfect chance to experience what Bhutan is famous for in just 12 days of adventure.

Secret Trails of the Tribal Heartland in Vietnam. I see bloggers in South East Asia all the time on Instagram, and think - I really don't want to just go, eat some pho, snap some photos and leave. This adventure takes you into rural North Vietnam to spend time with local villages and rural hill tribes, staying in homestays along the way. I've no idea how I'd create this for myself and reckon it'd be an incredible small group adventure.

Walking Wild Tuscany in Italy. Now I know this doesn't sound very 'out there' - but hear me out. This is a week based in the Apennine range in Garfagnana,  a range which is supposed to be absolutely beautiful, with plenty of decent walking to be had. The bit which entices me is the fact you stay on an organic farm, with sun-kissed fresh produce to be had each night. It's a grade 5 adventure, which means you'll pack in bags of exciting days of walking, but also get to taste the authentic cuisine of the region too. Regardless of how exhausted you are at the end of the day - it'll be there waiting for you, with some local wine and the chance to relax and get to know your fellow walkers. 

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