This summer, I was lucky enough to accompany 26 girls from St Helen’s School on their Gold Duke of Edinburgh Expedition which this year, took them to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. 32 bleary-eyed Brits made their way from London to Marrakech in the early hours of the morning, to begin what turned out to be a real adventure and an exhilarating challenge for all.
The group were greeted by 40 degree heat upon landing in Marrakech, and as we made our way to our riad within the walls of the ancient medina, we began to see our first glimpses of North African life. Our riad provided welcome relief from the heat of city, away from the hustle and bustle in a cool side street, and this was an excellent base for our time in Marrakech. We were treated to 2 excellent meals on our first day in Morocco, and had a chance to explore the famous Jamaa el-Fna square and the labyrinth of souks and stalls for which the city is so famous.
We left Marrakech to complete the first section of our itinerary; a worthwhile community project in the Atlas Mountains. We stayed in a Berber community, and learnt so much about their fascinating way of life- I think some were quite surprised by how different it was to the fast-paced, technology-filled lifestyle we’re used to in the UK! The group learnt how to cook traditional foods such as bread, cous cous, and tagine, and mastered the art of making, and pouring, Moroccan tea. We also collected grass and foliage for the animals and some of us even milked a cow- there were a few squirms and squeals at that point, myself included!
The other part of the community project was more physical: this was a real ‘hands-on’ activity helping the local people to build a path to allow them transport food, water, animals and countless other objects up and down the mountain side. It was hard work and meant getting your hands dirty (much to some of the girls’ dismay!) but everyone soon got stuck in and by the end of the project the team had created a path to be proud of. The locals were thrilled and it was a great opportunity to interact with the community and learn more about their way of life.
We moved onwards to the next stage of the expedition: the Gold DofE Qualifying trek. Whilst there were certainly a few nerves about trekking in this new country, everyone was very excited to get walking and explore more of this beautiful region on foot. Our journey began in Tacheddirt just before sunrise, overlooking the whole valley. From here 4 teams set out on their first day of trekking, navigating their way to checkpoints, over rivers, through rivers and over passes.
The next 4 days continued in a similar vein, but each with its own unique challenges and every day’s landscape as breathtakingly beautiful as the next. When the teams made it to Toubkal Base Camp on their final day of trekking, they were all smiling from ear-to-ear. It had been a real challenge and despite a few blisters, aches and pains, everyone was thrilled to have made it and excited by the prospect of taking on the Toubkal Ascent the following day.
Our ascent of Mount Toubkal began by the light of our head-torches, but as we slowly wound our way up the side of the mountain, the sun began to rise, casting beautiful colours and shadows onto the rocks around us. It took us nearly 4 and a half hours, with plenty of water stops and photo opportunities, but we all made it to the top and were rewarded with the most spectacular view. From 4,167m, we had a full panoramic view of the entire mountain range and could just see a few tiny toy-towns nestled at the bottom of the vast valleys. What better way to end an amazing adventure in Morocco, than at the top of North Africa’s highest mountain!
The team enjoyed one last evening in Marrakech- just enough time for a bit of bartering in the souks and a celebratory dinner- before heading home after what many of them described as ‘the best school trip ever’.
Would you like to take on this challenge with your school?