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Saved by the Mule

I almost wanted to kiss that mule. Altitude sickness is not something I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing before, and the sensation of wanting to vomit my entire insides up over the side of the mountain, whilst feeling my heart beat so quickly I felt like I’d just completed a 10k is not very nice. I was only an hour into the start of a four-day trek across the High Atlas mountains in Morocco, and already the trip was not going well.

Having only been married for a year, my husband Andy and I (ok, it was mostly me) thought that it would be a great idea to do a charity trek together. We settled on the High Atlas range because we’d never been to Africa, plus it was the shortest one. Living in Suffolk as we do, although there is an abundance of beautiful coastal walks and scenery, there is a distinct lack of any type of hill at all, let alone one resembling a mountain. So our training was somewhat restricted to endurance walks and a weekend away in the Cotswolds, after which having climbed one hill I had to lay down for half an hour to regain consciousness. Things were not looking good for our imminent trip.

Still, all kitted out in our new kit we arrived at the airport and met up with the rest of our group who, as it turned out, all seemed to be seasoned trekkers with several previous ones under their belt. As they exchanged stories about ‘Kili’ and ‘Base camp’, Andy and I eyed each other nervously. Arriving in Marrakech about 11pm on the Thursday night, we barely had time for a quick meal at the hotel and get to know you session with the others before bed as we were up at 5.30am.

On Friday after breakfast, we were driven a couple of hours in the High Atlas mountains to the village of Imlil, and after stocking up on water we we were off. The climb started straight away and as it was so hot (30 degrees – even at 9am), and steep, it was very difficult from the start. An hour into this I realised I was having a heart attack – or at least an altitude attack. It was at this point I realised that I was an absolute fool for having taken this trek on. My poor husband, who I’d had to convince to do this in the first place, was now having to look after me. Abdellah, our guide, plied me with water and made me rest but it was no good, I couldn’t continue. We waited a while longer, then with Andy’s and Abdellah’s help I managed another half an hour, but just as I was about to give up a miracle appeared. Over the horizon came a mule. They were supposed to be carrying our luggage but the wondrous Abdellah had managed to summon one from another party. Thankfully and not at all gracefully I heaved myself onto the animal and let him take the strain. <!–page–>

Let the mule take the strain

At first I felt alternately like Mary on the donkey, and the Queen of the desert, being carried regally while the other poor saps carried on trekking in the arduous heat. However, after four hours of being carried by the poor creature over large rocks and slippery scree, I soon realised that this was not – ouch – at all – oow – comfortable. In fact I resembled someone on a bucking bronco. I also felt my heart in my mouth a few times when we passed another group on the tiny impasses and the mule balanced precariously on the edge of the precipice. But we made it in one piece to our accommodation for the night, the Neltner Refuge, surrounded by stunning scenery.

After a wonderful hot meal, plenty of drink and meeting a few of the residents at the Refuge, we all crashed onto our beds, bunkbeds in dormitories, with five in each bed meant we soon got to know each other! It was an early night for us due to the 4am start the next day to climb ‘the big one’, although we made time to admire the millions of bright stars in the African sky. I spotted two shooting stars, which is quite common in that part of the world. I was still feeling ill, and due to the fact that the Refuge was 3,000 metres above sea level, we were all out of breath just climbing the stairs to our bedroom as we hadn’t fully adjusted to the altitude.<!–page–>

Saturday was the day of the ascent. Unfortunately I was feeling even worse and was still being sick, so I was forbidden from going any higher. I sadly waved them off, feeling gutted. This was after all the whole reason we had come to Africa, to climb Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. But I knew that I wouldn’t have made it, especially still feeling wretched as I did.

The summit

It took the rest of the group 10 hours to reach the summit and back, going to a height of 4,100m. They had to trek across rocks and through snow, pass steep glaciers and scramble down across scree. One woman sprained her ankle and one man actually fell down the mountain, and continued tumbling until one of the lightning-quick guides sprinted after him and caught him. Everyone was glad that they had completed the challenge though. Dinner was a raucous affair, with everyone in high spirits after having reached the summit. People were utterly exhausted though, for a lot of them it had been a personal battle, with a few wanting to turn back halfway. Andy found himself overcome with altitude sickness halfway up too, and then realised how I had been suffering. But a few energy bars, water and rest allowed him to continue. Another early night was in order as, yet again we had an early start.

On Sunday we were up at 5am again for the descent back to the start. I was determined to trek this part as I was feeling better and it was all downhill anyway. The rest of the group were brilliant and really encouraged me. It was actually almost as hard navigating our way down the treacherous slopes as it had been going up. There was no altitude worries but it was still baking hot, and one false step on the slippery scree meant tumbling down and landing hard on your behind. We passed hundreds of wild mountain goats on the way, who were skipping along vertical rock faces. We also took  the opportunity for several photos. We stopped at the sacred village of Sidi Charamouch for refreshments and had to refuse the stall traders’ offers of ‘cheap, beautiful jewellery’. We admired the famous white rock mosque, a place of pilgrimage for the sick as it is said that the spirits here heal sickness. One of group, Afsah, was a Muslim and was allowed to enter to pay homage, but the rest of us weren’t. After sunning ourselves on some rocks by a waterfall we continued on. Six hours later we had finished and we were all jubilant. We took the bus back to the 48 degree heat of Marrakech, where we had a quick but heavenly shower before going out to the souks, where we had fun bartering for jewellery and trinkets, and were constantly being persuaded to buy rugs and other goods. We then visited Djemaa el Fna, the main square. We stayed here until evening, when it came alive with musicians and snake charmers.

Returning to the hotel for a meal, some of ventured out again to the square to sample some Marrakech nightlife. After a few drinks, we discovered it was too expensive to visit the discos though, and took a leisurely horse and carriage ride back to the hotel – after bartering about the price and walking away at least five times – to enjoy drinks on the rooftop. Our magical time in Morocco had come to an end. I’m determined to do another trek though, this time without the mules.

Natasha Reed is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in features about travel, weddings and women’s lifestyle issues. Her website is

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