Travel

Morocco’s Best National Park Boasts Waterfalls and the Highest Peak in North Africa

Plus green valleys, Berber villages, and lots of mint tea, all close to Marrakech.

intotheworldmap/Shutterstock
intotheworldmap/Shutterstock
intotheworldmap/Shutterstock

Morocco might bring to mind gorgeous buildings influenced by Arab, African, and European cultures. Or you might think of expertly spiced tagine and mint tea poured from ornate antique silver teapots, which are at the centre of human connection here. And if you’re lucky enough to have experienced them, you’ll probably imagine the stellar landscapes, like those found at Toubkal National Park.

Just 1.5 hours from bustling Marrakech lies complete polarity to the city’s chaotic, pulsing vibe of the night markets and opulently tiled riads. Only 43 miles south of the urban metropolis is some of the most visually stunning hiking on the African continent, thanks to North Africa’s highest mountain, Toubkal. Rising to 13,671 feet and surrounded by quaint traditional Berber villages, the majestic views welcome you into the tranquil valleys of the High Atlas Mountains.

Maleo Photography/Shutterstock
Maleo Photography/Shutterstock
Maleo Photography/Shutterstock

Toubkal is Morocco’s first national park. It was established in 1942 to protect not only the rich forests of holm oaks, cedars, and junipers, but also the many vulnerable and endangered species that call it home, like the Bearded Vulture, the Barbary Sheep, and the Magot Monkey. Toubkal may be the tallest summit within the national park boundaries, but there are several other summits with heights towering over 12,000 feet, offering options from the simplest cruisy hike to a picnic at a waterfall to rigorous multi-day hikes to summit peaks.

While Morocco is statistically a safe country to travel in and is filled with welcoming locals, that doesn’t mean it’s always the easiest country to navigate as a foreigner-especially if you don’t speak any Arabic, Berber, French, or Spanish. But that shouldn’t deter you from exploring Toubkal. Here’s all the basic info you need to fully enjoy the crisp mountain air, hilly plateaus, and deep valleys carved by translucent waters.

Ralf Liebhold/Shutterstock
Ralf Liebhold/Shutterstock
Ralf Liebhold/Shutterstock

Best time of year to visit Morocco’s Toubkal National Park

While Toubkal National Park is open year-round, if you want warmer temps and the green foliage of the forests, the best time to visit is from May to October. The cold season lasts from January to late April and make no mistake, it can get frigidly cold. That means snow and sometimes a lot of it. Also to note when planning any trip to Morocco is Ramadan, which is practiced by almost all locals. During the month of fasting, which starts towards the end of March, Muslims are prohibited from drinking, eating, and smoking from sunrise to sunset. During this time, travellers are also encouraged to avoid eating and drinking in public out of respect for the local culture.

Lukas Bischoff Photograph/Shutterstock
Lukas Bischoff Photograph/Shutterstock
Lukas Bischoff Photograph/Shutterstock

How to get to Toubkal

Toubkal Park is accessible from the Ourika Valley. If you aren’t travelling with a rental car, you can take a shared taxi from Marrakech to Imlil (a charming and lively rural village located at the end of the Mizane Valley that’s the main base for Toubkal visits). These rides take around an hour and a half. The shared taxis leave from a small market just a few blocks south of the Bab-er-Rob. (Note: Bus 35 from the Medina goes there, but it’s probably easier to get a direct ride from a metered taxi in town.) Some online guides say that you have to change transport at Asni, but that’s no longer true. If you have a rental car and want to make a stop, Asni is a good option to fuel up on roadside tagine, and it has a busy Saturday souk. Once you are inside the park, you can only get around on foot or on the back of a mule.

Ondrej Bucek/Shutterstock
Ondrej Bucek/Shutterstock
Ondrej Bucek/Shutterstock

Hike a couple hours or two days to the top

In the town of Imlil, there is a mountain guide agency right next to the parking lot where the taxis park. Here, a bunch of locals will most likely approach you, eagerly wanting to guide you to the refuges or to sell you a map. You don’t need a map-they are expensive and the info is not always the most accurate. General advice is to not go with the first person who approaches you; instead, take your time to find a qualified guide you like (you can even hire a porter if you want someone to carry equipment and food supplies higher into the mountains). All official guides have a professional card issued by the Ministry of Tourism, so you can ask to see that.

While Toubkal is a mountain peak, it is much more of a moderate hike than a technical climb. To ascend to the summit requires two days, although you can choose to not summit and make it a day hike.

Lukas Hodon/Shutterstock
Lukas Hodon/Shutterstock
Lukas Hodon/Shutterstock

From Imlil, visitors first hike about five or six hours to basecamp, which is at around 10,000 feet, and then spend the night resting at one of the refuges there. Early the next day is when most start the real climb of the journey, about three hours uphill, ending in sweeping views of the Atlas Mountains, if the weather allows. To get back down to basecamp takes about two or three hours, but most climbers prefer to keep walking and get a well-deserved sleep at a guesthouse in Imlil (which adds an extra four or five hour walk from basecamp).

The North Circuit is a more challenging route and only recommended for more experienced climbers. It takes about 4.5 hours longer, but comes with the quirky bonus of getting to see the remains of a crashed airplane.

If none of this sounds like your type of adventure, the Tamadote Green Circuit is a shorter option (less than four miles, so around two hours). This one will take you through shaded forest and you can picnic under the trees with incredible views.

dyablox/Shutterstock
dyablox/Shutterstock
dyablox/Shutterstock

Make time for petroglyphs and waterfalls

There’s an open-air petroglyph site just at the entrance to Oukaimede, with 5,000-year-old images depicting wild animals, domestic animals, weapons, warriors, and scenes from hunting expeditions and battles. Locals will probably wander over to you when you arrive, offering to show you around for a small tip. Though a guide isn’t necessary (you can look for the small stakes that mark the location of the most important carvings), for the few dirham it would cost you, the locals would really appreciate your support and you can get insights on the history of the region that you wouldn’t get on your own.

There are also two notable waterfalls to visit, Cascades d’Irhoulidene and Imlil Cascades. Cascades d’Irhoulidene tumbles down a cliff for more than 65 feet above the Azib Tamsoult refuge. It’s a full-day hike from Imlil and is often used as an acclimation day en route to climbing Toubkal.

The hike to Imlil Cascades is a shorter one that takes just a couple of hours. The path is rough and uphill to the falls, but meanders through walnut groves along the irrigation channels that keep this valley so lush. The falls themselves are gorgeous with numerous drops, and you can work your way up and down the multiple plunge pools. Nearby there are vendors selling refreshing orange juice or, of course, the ever-present Moroccan mint tea.

Ondrej Bucek/Shutterstock
Ondrej Bucek/Shutterstock
Ondrej Bucek/Shutterstock

Where to stay and other important logistics

There are many huts at the Toubkal National Park to rest or spend the night, but to avoid any last-minute surprises, you should book ahead. You can find more information about the available accommodations on the Toubkal National Park official site. Like a lot of information in Morocco, it’s in French, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to use Google Translate.

In 2018, there was an accident on the mountain. Since then, the local authorities at the Toubkal Park established many more rigid security measures to make sure all climbers are safe. No one can begin their ascent of Mount Toubkal after 3 pm. Tents are not allowed, as you have to spend the night at an authorized place and be accompanied by a qualified local guide.

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Cathy Brown splits her time between travelling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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