Morocco: Hiking Jebel el Kelaa in the Rif Mountains

VICTORY!

After hiking the enjoyable, but well trodden path to Akchour Waterfall, Danny and I were hungry to find another challenge from our base in Chefchaouen. We’d heard tales of many wild and wonderful hikes throughout the Rif Mountains. From quick day trips to marijuana farms in the surrounding hills, to week long pilgrimages relying on the kindness of locals to put you up in their homes as you trek from village to village.

In the end we decided to aim for the summit of Jebel el Kelaa. This much-maligned mountain trail was once featured as a day hike in a popular , but adventure-seeking tourists found the directions too confusing to follow. Thus, online travel forums are littered with reports of people losing their way and going home disappointed, having failed to reach the summit. The hike has since been removed from the guidebook.

Leaving the Medina
Leaving the Medina

However, the trail still exists and with a little online research we found instructions and photographic directions on the fantastic Uneven Tenor website.

So with directions saved as screenshots on our phones and the thermometer tipping 30C, we set out to try and reach the summit of Jebel el Kelaa.

We climbed the stairs to the upper edge of the medina, stopping en route to pick up water, snacks, bread and soft goats cheese, a local delicacy we’d grown quite fond of.

Several early rising market traders tried half heartedly to sell us leather goods.

“La shukran (no thank you), we have a mountain to climb” we responded.

“I have the perfect shoes for climbing mountains” came their replies, as they pulled leather sandals out of leather bags to show us.

It was good to get out of town.

The outer walls of Chefchaouen Medina
The outer walls of Chefchaouen Medina

We stepped outside the medina and everything felt different. The walls were no longer bright blue, but the colour of sand. The blue theme remained, however, in the form of a huge cloudless sky; something that can often be forgotten about on the narrow winding streets of the medina.

Getting off to a typically bad start (see: Akchour hike) we took an immediate wrong turn and wasted a good half an hour faffing around looking at the directions and photos on our phones, holding up the images trying to match them to our surroundings.

Eventually we realised that we’d gone further along the route than we thought we had, skipped several steps in the directions and needlessly walked half a mile around the perimeter of the medina.
Oh well; this is clearly the way we do things. We have a hiccup at the very beginning of our adventures – this focuses the mind and means that we are razor sharp and on the very top of our game for the rest of the journey. Don’t worry about it.

An onlooker eyes us suspiciously
An onlooker eyes us suspiciously

Certain of our route now, we headed up a cactus lined path leading away from the city towards the mountains. The trail became very steep, very quickly and as the day around us grew hotter, visible waves of heat rose up causing the cacti to dance in front of us.
The hike was steep and exposed. At times, we had to crawl into small spaces under large rocks for a momentary escape from the sun. Wild dogs watched us from behind bushes as we walked steadily uphill. We’d been told to carry rocks incase the dogs got nasty but the only one that came anywhere near us was a cute puppy who we ended up petting and playing with.

It was challenging hike that made Akchour look like a stroll across Disneyland. The trail got so thin at times with an almost sheer drop off to our right, forcing us to cling onto rocks on our left as we walked.

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Other times the ground leveled out and the trail disappeared entirely. We just had to walk upwards hoping to find it again. We always did, thankfully.

Both of us had been wondering whether we’d see any of the marijuana plants we’d heard so much about. Suspicious looking green plants would appear in the distance and we’d rush over for a look only to realise it was an overgrown clump of grass (grass grass, not grass).

After a while we forgot about the marijuana until after a couple more hours of sweaty walking we stopped still and came to the realisation that the huge fields surrounding us were not grassy meadows as we had thought, but huge expanses of the Rif Mountains’ famous herbal export.

The Rif Mountains are famous for marijuana production
The Rif Mountains are famous for marijuana production

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There were a vast number of plants, especially considering marijuana is technically still illegal in Morocco. They were clearly beautifully cared for,  a vivid green carpet stretching far into the distance.

We noticed a couple of farmhouses dotted around so we were careful not to linger too closely or for too long by the plants. The last thing we needed was a run in with an angry hashish farmer.

The trail goes right through the middle of the Marijuana fields, passing closely to a farmhouse. We walked by a spring where some girls were sitting in the shade of a tree washing clothes. We gave them a wave as we passed and they giggled at us.

‘Stupid sweaty pale idiots walking up a great big mountain on a day like this.’

Eventually the green plants disappeared and were replaced by prickly, scratchy low-lying bushes. The trail wound through these bushes and was difficult to follow at times. This no longer mattered as we could now clearly see the peak of Jebel el Kelaa. It was obvious where we needed to go.

The view down the valley back towards Chefchaouen
The view down the valley back towards Chefchaouen

The directions we were using describe the final scramble as a ‘choose your own adventure’ and they aren’t wrong. Before the final push we took cover in a small patch of shade underneath a large rock to eat our goats cheese sandwiches. I’d hidden 2 cans of coke at the bottom of my bag, hoping they would remain cool out of the sun. They weren’t hot, which was good enough.

The shady spot was small, dirty and uncomfortable and we bumped elbows as we constructed our sandwiches. Not quite the victorious picnic we had imagined but the thought of eating in the heat on the exposed summit was too much.

After lunch we walked around trying to figure out the best route to the summit. Of course, on the other side of the rock we found a large shaded ledge; perfect to sit on with amazing views down into the valley below… such is life.

Our roomy picnic spot
Our roomy picnic spot

We shook off this annoyance and headed for the summit. I don’t know if there was an official trail anymore but we certainly couldn’t find it. Instead, we just headed up any way we could, using those scratchy bushes to heave ourselves up the last few steep metres of the ascent.
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I found out later that like me, Danny had had doubts that we’d make it. We found countless reports online of failed attempts and the oppressive heat didn’t help our case. But we persevered and after a gruelling four-hour climb we emerged onto the summit.

It was a special feeling made even more so by the magnificent view from the top. The valley on the other side of the mountain was filled with low clouds. It looked as if someone had emptied a giant Mr Whippy machine into the valley, and there we stood on top of the flake. (To be honest it was so hot, Danny was starting to look like a Calippo, too.)

VICTORY!
VICTORY!

We messed around taking photographs and videos on the summit for half an hour. I got a really cool time-lapse of the Mr. Whippy flowing through the valley.

On the way down we bumped into the owner of one of the marijuana farms and his family. I think he might have been dipping into his own supplies. When we refused his kind offer to come into his house for some tea and ‘samples’ he laughed maniacally and said “I understand, you prefer the cocaine!” while his three sons (I’m assuming they were his sons) stared at us like they wanted to kill us.

Laughing awkwardly, we shuffled away and picked up the pace. We took a slightly different route on the way down, making use of a 4×4 track that was several miles longer but much easier to navigate. It took us 3 hours to get back to Chefchaouen.

Along the track we bumped into a goat herder with a large tribe of goats. A few stragglers at the back took a fancy to Danny and I and followed us down the road. We turned around and did a little herding of our own, clapping our hands and shoeing them back towards the herder.
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Things had clearly been going too smoothly on the descent so Danny decided we should take a shortcut through a pine forest, cutting off a large hairpin of road. What he didn’t realise was that this forest was on such a deceptively steep decline that we practically rolled the last mile into Chefchaouen, bouncing off of the trunks of pine trees as we went.

We arrived in town bruised, bloodied and battered but in great spirits. The same market traders who tried selling us shoes on the way out of town congratulated us on our feat before desperately trying to get us to buy leather goods again.

I politely declined and ducked into the nearest convenience store to buy the closest thing I could find to a Mr. Whippy.

I made a video of our trip to Morocco, including lots of footage from Jebel el Kelaa. Click here to check it out.

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2 comments

    1. They more than helped. We’d have been screwed without them!

      I loved it so much I’m heading back to Morocco this winter to summit Toubkal. It will be my first mountain above 4000m. Can’t wait.

      Really enjoying reading your blog, it’s a cool and unique concept, keep at it! 🙂

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