The Englishman who went up a hill and found another bloody hill.
Todgha Gorge is a stifling, beautiful tourist trap just a few kilometres upstream of Tinghir on the river that bears the same name. Here the river has cut a swathe through the land a thousand meters at its widest and a mere three at its narrowest.
The cliff walls, or wadi, tower over you to a neck-straining height of more than 150 metres. Unfortunately the orange limestone isn’t the only thing bound to cause neck pain, turn up after eight in the morning and the tourists will have already begun to swarm.I headed out early one morning specifically to avoid the milling masses and had been doing well. The local Berbers were setting out their stalls, quite literally in fact, and colourful, over-priced scarves fluttered in the cool breeze. A small flock of what are perhaps pigeons fly past, dwarfed by the sheer scale of their environment.
My plan to grab a quick photo of the abandoned hotel, devoid of milling tourists in gaudily coloured down-feather jackets.
Alas my hopes, much like the kitchen of the Hotel Yasmina, were soon shattered as I rounded the corner to find camera-wielding simpletons approaching me at a jog.
Failing to break pace even whilst their shutters clicked furiously, what they were running from one can only guess. I’d like to think it was their conscious.
In possibly the most exterme example so far of my new obsession, Moroccan civic planning, The Yasmina had by all accounts been one of the most popular hotels in the area. That is until a boulder the size of a small house decided pay a late night visit from the rather precarious overhang above.
Fear not, the building is currently undergoing repairs. The boulder has vanished and the hotel will soon be perfectly set for an wholly predictable repeat in the near future.
Thankfully the tourists are easy to escape by simply taking one of the myriad, old mountain paths to the top of the gorge. You won’t find many tourists which ever route you take due to two simple facts; the area is deceptively large and the trails are more bracing than waking up in a freezing room with no power and an even colder shower.
If I had known what lay ahead when we set out at ten that morning this article would be half the length and finished much, much sooner. But instead I found myself scrambling up routes only fit for the mountain goats that dot the distant cliffs like aphids.
Even though I will not be trying it again in a hurry, I’ll happily recommend a trip to the top irrespective of how much of a ball-ache the walk, stumble or frantic scramble to get there is. Give it three hours each way and a litre of water and you should be laughing, albeit maniacally.
At least the scenery is stunning, the obvious comparison being to that of the scree-lined table landforms so familiar from western films and tv. The path of spring meltwater is visible even during the dry seasons, demarcated by gullies of rock whitewashed by calcium carbonate deposited over the span of centuries.
Around two thirds of the way to the summit plateau look very closely and you’ll begin to notice small dwellings built into the rock-face. Closer inspection shows they currently only house the wandering livestock but in times past they would have provided shelter for the local shepherds and travellers attempting to cross the range.
The scree-strewn plateau is anything but flat, in reality it’s just another rolling hill to conquer or be conquered by. I chose discretion, the part better and easier part of valour. Not that it matters because here, amongst the rocks, the view is simply incredible.
The path of the Togdhe as it emerges from the canyon is obvious as the desert becomes an oasis of palms, olive groves and alfalfa paddocks. Supposedly the finest oasis in southern Morocco it cuts a vivid green scar as far as the horizon through an otherwise ruddy and featureless expanse.
From a distance, across the plateau, you may notice large piles of a light yellow soil, these are the tailings of modern mining operations to extract quartz and other minerals for the tourist trade. Yet again, they might not be here but their influence is.
Mines dot the surface in a line above the rich mineral seams below and the workers build crude stone shelters in order to work for days on end.
It is undoubtably tough work with minimal reward which begs the question; why would anyone choose such backbreaking labour in a country that is currently building the worlds largest solar farm?
But that is a question for another day.
In case you’re wondering the route back down, when you account for the scree, is even harder. I chose a scramble down the water courses – better a short, painful fall than a long, terminal slide.
Back on firm ground and even more firmly in the tourist snare I was ravenous. But still not hungry enough to pay tourist prices for tourist dishes. Luckily in the penultimate shack before you’ll find Chez Kinni.
The ramshackle little bamboo lean-to with its cardboard packaging walls and palm frond roof is a refuge of real, Moroccan hospitality. The food is as simple and honest as it is honestly priced.
What’s more the owner, Kinni Abdelouahed, is a host whose talents extend far further than fantastic chick-pea soup. After a tour of his modest kitchen he was proud to speak of his qualifications and achievements.
‘In 2013 I was fastest man to climb Jebel Tubkal,’ he told me. ‘I know all mountains, all people here. If you need anything, I help you.’
In spite of my natural disposition, I believe him.