Summer expedition to Morocco

At the end of Term 6, a team of Year 10 and 11 students embarked on an international expedition, aiming to climb the tallest mountain in the High Atlas Mountains and indeed North Africa, Jbel Toubkal (4167m). They would spend two weeks in Morocco, completing voluntary work and trekking in the mountains to the South of Marrakesh. The expedition was intended to develop key skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership as well as independence and travelling skills. 

Many of the team would be making their first footsteps into North Africa. Going from a drizzly day in Bristol to the blistering heat of Marrakesh took everyone by surprise as they stepped out of the aeroplane. The team organised themselves into roles such as leader, accountant and those responsible for accommodation, food and for transport and security. The food team's first job was to navigate the streets of Marrakesh at night to find a restaurant for twenty hungry, hot and tired people!

After a night in Marrakesh, we boarded a bus and began winding our way up and out on dusty mountain roads, climbing ever higher into the High Atlas. After spending a night in Oukaimeden, the team began a short trek to the next destination. Gaining a high mountain pass (Tizi n’ Ou Addi 2920m), the team were afforded stunning views, before descending down treacherous paths to the isolated village of Tacheddirt, where they would complete project work.

The project was organised in close connection with the village elders, who told the team what was most needed in the village. Once the job was decided and materials were collected, the team organised themselves into work groups. They were asked to assist in the construction of two new paths, connecting the lower and older part of the village, with the newer road. This would allow vehicles to deliver supplies from the market more easily, particularly in the harsh winters.

The work was physical, often moving heavy rocks and buckets of cement along long lines that snaked up steep hills and slopes. A typical day would start early, have a long pause for lunch before finishing up in time for the sunset and dinner. Regular refreshments came in the form of glasses of mint tea, biscuits, figs and dates brought by the locals. 

The team relaxed in the evening by watching the goats and sheep come in from the hills, or playing football with the competitive locals. The clear mountain air allowed for some unforgettable star gazing, watching shooting stars and satellites dance across the sky. 

Everyone ate very well at all times during the expedition. The team cooks, Omar and Abdul kept us fed with amazing traditional food. Every meal ended with the tea ritual, where gratitude and respect were shown by how high your tea was poured from. Eating, talking and laughing whilst surrounded by incredible mountain views was an incredible experience.

Whilst on project the team interacted with the locals; learning the local Amazigh language, visiting local homes, meeting and talking to young people about their lives, getting henna designs or witnessing local customs for the preparation of meat. They were given an amazing and real perspective on life in this small and remote village. In particular, speaking to Habiba, who studies in Marrakesh, about making the long journey to go to school. She spoke of how tradition and poor access means difficult decisions about education and family must be made.  

The project was finished with both paths being completed and ready for use. There was a ceremony with music, dancing and singing from the local workers before the team gave their thanks and said their goodbyes to the Tacheddirt elders. 

Next, began the long trek to base camp. This would take three days to complete, with an acclimatisation phase to adjust to trekking at altitude. Leaving Tacheddirt, the team moved over high passes and into deep glacial valleys in the heat of the sun to the village of Aroumd, south of the town of Imlil. This was to be the start of the trek, as they climbed up to the refuge at the foot of Jbel Toubkal. The terrain became increasingly more arid and the climbing was difficult as the air thinned. 

In order to adjust to the altitude, they walked up to a high pass at Tizi n'Ouanoums (3660m). This gave them a chance to experience the team work, communication and efforts that would be involved in the ascent of Toubkal. 

The team were camping at the foot of the steep ascent up to the summit of Toubkal. They were pitched in simple tents, and ate together under a shelter. All water was brought up from a small river of snowmelt water. The rough and dry ground did not make for a comfortable night of sleeping, and felt like a long way from the Biblins campsite in the Wye Valley where they had trained.  The conditions were tough and the team soon longed for the comforts of Aroumd and Tacheddirt! 

But soon it came to the team's ascent. With bags and equipment ready, they woke early, getting ready to leave early in the morning before the sun could make walking tricky. With the light of head torches to help pick out sure footing, they crept out of camp whilst the mountains around were shrouded in darkness. A tricky and sustained scramble gave way to a more gradual, but equally challenging bald scree path. As the sun begin to add glorious colour to the slopes around, the team slowly pulled their way out from under the summit.

Counting every metre of height climbed, and singing their way up, they finally caught sight of the summit cairn. With North Africa stretching out before them, they reached the top in cloudless skies. A phenomenal effort from the team who dug incredibly deep at times to reach the top. 

After a snack of figs, nuts and dates they picked their way down the slope to base camp and took a day's rest to recover. Many team members were rightly exhausted and camp was particularly quiet. With one final day of trekking, they made their way back to the lush greenery of Aroumd and the comforts of the gite. Saying goodbye to the support team who had taken great care of them during the trek, they packed up for Marrakesh. 

Walking slowly back to civilization was a surreal experience, and the air conditioning and music in the bus, a guilty pleasure. One final meal watching the sun set over Marrakesh allowed the team to reflect and say thank you to guides Mohammed and Aziz. Both men were experienced and incredibly knowledgeable. They had a great passion for not only safely exploring the mountains, but also sharing their Amazigh culture. They made the team feel comfortable and gave great learning opportunities during the expedition. 

With bags packed and the last of the dirhams spent at the airport, the team boarded the flight home and set off back to St Katherine’s. Bleary eyed and tired from the expedition (and also the 4am arrival time) they were reunited with their families and ready for the summer holidays.

A massive congratulations to the whole team. Everyone of you showed moments of sheer brilliance and character at different points. Whether it was excellent leadership, amazing sense of humour, slowly coming out of your shell or trying new things (e.g. soup!), you all did yourselves proud. You should be very proud of all your efforts and reflect on what an amazing experience you had! 

A massive thank you to Mr Hake and Miss McInerney who supported the team, keeping them safe and sound. These trips cannot run without staff who are willing to give up time away from their families to offer these opportunities to students. Thank you to the admin team, Mrs Crompton and Mr Francis-Black who have supported the organisation of the expedition. Our thanks also go to Matt Woodfield, the technical leader for the trip and the team at True Adventure who provided round the clock technical and logistical support whilst on expedition. And thank you to the parents and families of the team, who encouraged and supported them as they prepared to take part in the expedition.

Mr Hodgson, Outdoor Education Lead