Trailblazer guidebooks provide practical information on specific routes in less accessible parts of the world.
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Moroccan Atlas - the Trekking Guide

Moroccan Atlas - the Trekking Guide

Minimum impact trekking

Contents | Introduction | Minimum impact trekking | Planning your trip | Marrakech | Using this guide | Sample trek: Toubkal circular trek | Moroccan Atlas Trekking Routes

The need for minimum impact trekking

The Atlas Mountains, which Pliny the Elder claimed in the first century AD to have attracted more legends than any other mountains in Africa, are these days proving successful in attracting increasing numbers of trekkers. Yet by the very act of visiting these mountains and their communities, we bring about change to the very thing which we came to admire. Unfortunately, unless we take great care, this change will often be for the worse. It is important, therefore, that we make every effort to minimise our impact by considering how our actions and decisions might affect the physical environment of the Atlas Mountains, the people who live amongst them and their economy.
    As yet, environmental pressure groups within Morocco remain unsubstantial and no comprehensive environmental guidelines have been written for the Atlas trekker. The guidelines below have been devised with the help of the British Mountaineering Council’s Mountain Tourism Codes and the Himalayan Tourist Code published by the charity Tourism Concern (1 Cornhill, London, EC3V 3ND; tel 020 7666 3095; 


  • Waste management  Don’t pollute the Atlas with waste. All waste has some consequence. Each trekker should play his or her part in disposing of waste or removing it from the mountains.
  •  Minimise group size  The bigger the group, the more damaging its impact.
  •  Minimise supplies  Don’t carry more supplies than you really need.
  •  Educate others  With diplomacy and tact, encourage others in your group, including locals, to help manage waste properly.
  •  Burnable waste  Food, paper, card and wood waste can be burnt. Carry this waste with you until you have need of a fire.
  •  Toxic and non-burnable waste  Metals, plastics, foams, batteries, petrol, paraffin, methylated spirits, oil and medical waste should be carried out of the mountains unless local people can benefit from these things and are interested in relieving you of them.
  •  Human waste  This should be buried in pits dug downhill of camps and water sources. Don’t relieve yourself within 20m (70ft) of a water source. Burn toilet paper.
  •  Remove packaging  Get rid of excess packaging before setting off for the mountains. This will also help you to reduce the size and weight of your pack.
  •  Don’t ignore others’ waste  Make the effort to clean up any other waste which you find on your trek, especially waste created by other trekkers.
  • Limit deforestation Some local Berbers are guilty of contributing to deforestation but that’s no reason for visitors to add to the problem.
  • Avoid open fires Only make a fire when you really need the warmth. Some locals will choose to build fires since it is part of traditional life to do so, but you should at least encourage use of dead wood. Better still, encourage your group to make the most of heat generated by your paraffin burners during cooking and lanterns after night fall.
  • Avoid asking for boiled water for drinking There are better, more efficient methods of purifying water (See Water purification systems box p40).
  • Order food at the same time as others and keep it simple Complicated orders cause problems for remote Atlas cafés which might use fuel inefficiently in order to meet your demands. Ordering a variety of dishes multiplies fuel consumption.
  • Avoid demanding hot water for showers at irregular times.
  • Keep water clean This is crucial. Simple ‘green’ routines will prevent water contamination which might lead to serious problems for others further downstream.
  • Human waste See opposite.
  • Washing Fill a bucket or bowl if using soap or shampoo and dispose of the dirty water at least 20m (70ft) away from the water source. Use biodegradable products and use them sparingly. Protect plants The effect of your removing one mountain flower might appear to be minimal but the Atlas is a fragile environment which will not tolerate large-scale tampering with its flora.
  • Don’t pick flowers.
  • Don’t take cuttings Never remove cuttings, seeds or roots from plants.
  • Avoid trampling plants Watch where you walk. Avoid erosion Take care not to add to erosion any further than you can possibly help.
  • Stay on the trail Where possible, follow existing trails; the very act of creating new paths or shortcuts accelerates erosion, especially on mountain sides.
  • Respect fields and crops Pay particular attention when walking near fields and crops to make sure you don’t damage either the produce or any irrigation system which, while not immediately obvious, might have been built around the field’s boundaries.

ECONOMIC CONSIDERATIONS Half-naked children run to stare at the strange sight of people who use plates, knives, and forks – things quite unknown in their brown tents – and the men and boys find the whole affair so interesting that they form a circle about the encampment, and squat in solemn silence, not missing a single movement of these Unbelievers. John Finnemore, Peeps at Many Lands: Morocco, 1908 Use local services Think about where the money you spend will go. Where possible, inject what you’ve set aside for your holiday directly into the local economy. l Use guides, cooks and muleteers Consider employing a local guide, cook and muleteer rather than joining a trek organised by an international tour operator. There are several very good reasons for doing this (see p23). l Gîtes, refuges and local homes Staying in gîtes or refuges rather than camping is one way to invest some money into the Atlas economy. Also, consider offers of hospitality in the homes of locals (see p27). l Provisions Buy in Morocco rather than bringing supplies from home; buy at your trailhead rather than in Marrakech. Pay fair prices Remember to keep costs in perspective. Most Atlas Berbers are poor people who live hard lives working in an unforgiving land. Pay a fair price for the goods and services they offer. Haggle for gifts and trinkets – it’s the Berber way – but accept standard prices for food, guides, muleteers and accommodation (see Budgeting and costs p35). l Don’t pay too little Paying less than the standard price is exploitative and will create difficulties for tourists who follow you. l Don’t pay too much Paying too much creates dependency, promotes an inflationary cycle and sets a precedent for future visitors. It might also create resentment in the locality as the beneficiaries of your generosity may become envied by others. Worse still, you will effectively devalue other traditional work which does not attract tourists’ money and risk destabilising the local economy, even distorting social values. l Tips Tipping is normally expected (see p94) but avoid over-tipping for the same reasons as you should avoid overpaying. Give your tip separately from the payment. Maintain good relations Never let business negotiations lead to ill feeling. Be friendly and respectful. l Avoid losing your temper Keep calm when negotiating. Berbers often become very animated when conducting business but are rarely rude. CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS If you find them worshipping a donkey, bring him grass. Traditional proverb Within reason and unless contrary to our own moral code, we should always show respect towards the culture of our hosts. Photograph with sensitivity Though the women we now saw before us were by no means shy, and could make use of their charms with all the consummate skill of a French woman, we soon got tired of trying to keep up conversation. We hastened to take some photos of them, no easy task, for they thought it a terrible sin to have their portraits taken. Joseph Thomson, Travels in the Atlas and Southern Morocco, 1889 It’s all too easy to snap away without realising that our interest might appear voyeuristic, rude or even dangerous. Remember that, to many Muslims, to pose for a photograph is to give something away (see p47). l Ask first Never take a photograph of a person or their property without asking permission. Many believe that their souls are captured along with their image in the taking of a photograph (which will not prevent others from expecting payment!) l Send photographs Many Berbers in the more remote Atlas villages will never have seen a photograph of themselves. If you photograph someone, ask whether they would like to be sent a copy; this is a good way to give thanks for their kindness. If you offer to send a photo, make sure that you do it. The reliability of the postal service in remote areas may, of course, present a problem. It is worth asking your guide and others if they have access to email. Respect holy places Extreme sensitivity should be shown towards holy people and places. (See Travelling in a Muslim country, p97). Avoid giving to beggars You will be pestered with demands for sweets, medicines, pens and money but you should not relent. It is a central tenet of Islam to give charity (zakat) and obligatory for those who have the means to do so. However, as outsiders, we cannot easily distinguish between the genuinely needy and those who might try to take advantage of our naïvety. Worse, to encourage begging from Westerners fosters a dependent attitude which, in the long run, can be very damaging to the local culture and economy. To offer constructive help, it would be best to contact a village leader who will apply your gift to where it is most useful. Respect local customs Pay particular attention when in a public place, visiting a home, eating and drinking or negotiating with local people. (See Travelling in a Muslim country, p97). Avoid playing doctor But as all Europeans are supposed not only to know something of medicine and to carry drugs about with them on all occasions, the afflicted fairly besieged me … R B Cunninghame Graham, Mogreb-el-Acksa, 1898 At least once on your trek, you can expect to be approached by a villager seeking a cure for a headache. However, avoid handing out medicines as this, too, can create a dependency culture and is even potentially harmful. As with charity, it would be better to donate any spare medical supplies to someone in a position of authority, such as a village leader, than to offer treatment to someone whose illness you do not understand. Avoid flaunting wealth No matter how poor you might be by Western standards, to an Atlas Berber you are wealthy. Flaunting wealth is insulting and chips away at local pride. It also creates the impression that Westerners have money to give away and does nothing to help future visitors to form equal relationships based upon mutual respect and understanding. Ask questions You will learn more and foster better relationships with people if you are genuinely interested in their way of life. Don’t expect special privileges You are one of many thousands who visit the Atlas Mountains. Never expect special treatment because you are from the West or because you are relatively rich. Paint a realistic picture of the West and encourage local pride Tell the people you meet what you enjoy about the Atlas Mountains and what you respect about their way of life. Answer questions about the West in a balanced way. If you are asked what you earn, explain that the very high cost of living in the West makes your income rather less impressive than it might at first appear to be. A good example is to explain the cost of your mortgage or rent at home or make other comparisons to which they can relate. Avoid making ‘home from home’ Engage in the local way of life and enjoy it. The opportunity to experience a different culture is, after all, one of the very good reasons for choosing to trek in the Atlas Mountains. If you attempt to create a ‘home from home’ in your trekking party, you might almost not have come to Morocco. Avoid making promises you can’t or won’t keep If you offer to do something for someone, do it. This is particularly pertinent with regard to photographs which you might offer to send (see p111). It’s easy to forget promises when you get home, but failing to follow them through can breed resentment and ill-feeling and make it harder for future trekkers to form positive relationships with local people. Keep your sense of humour Trekking can be hard and uncomfortable and cultural differences might prove frustrating, especially where there are language barriers. Humour will help everyone. You will notice that Berbers are an exuberant people who enjoy music, jokes and stories. Join in.


Moroccan Atlas - the Trekking Guide


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