Written by Olivia Gunning-Bennani
The Atlantic is washing behind us; we’re headed south. Away from the jostle and clatter of Casablanca, Morocco’s economic pulse, towards the Atlas Mountains, serrated, white-hatted, and the most impenetrable of borders.
It’s our first family trek, so we thought we’d be ambitious. Our son has just turned three and loves donkeys, so we figure we’ll be just fine in the High Atlas Mountains. Driving south from Casablanca, the temperature swells. From nowhere, the white peaks of the Atlas Mountains rise above the horizon, up and over Marrakech. We head on, into Berber heartland and Morocco’s ancient core.
The diminutive town of Imlil, slotted neatly at the toes of Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, is our setting-off point. It’s also home to the rather splendid Kasbah du Toubkal, renovated into a resplendent eco lodge. The walls are of traditional crimson, turrets rise sporadically from flat roofs, and our three-year-old instantly proclaims that it is “a proper castle”, which is quite understandable. “Shall we delay our trek for a day?” I nudge my husband. He sighs. Then smiles. “I think that’s only right.”
The Kasbah, rebuilt from a flaking ruin over 18 years ago, upholds some staunch community-preserving values, employing from the region, and using provincial produce and local recipes to create a delectable menu. Indeed, one night could so easily have become a second or third had our three-year-old not known that a mule was booked for the next morning, fostering the idea that he was the knight who would sit astride it. He spent the afternoon searching the blossom-scented gardens for knightly steeds and grass for his mule while we ‘supervised’ him from our Berber sofas, the ice-crowned mountains belying sublime temperatures beneath the Atlas sun.
It’s 9am, our intended departure hour, but we’ve just sat down to crispy Moroccan msmen (crepes) with honey. Which is fine, since local time-keeping is as flexible as our three-year-old’s play-dough. Bundling child onto mule an hour later, we are off across the Atlas slopes, in our brand-spanking-new walking boots. Our guide Hammou, who’s wearing plastic sandals, leads our hoofed taxi and us. Our destination is the hamlet Tacheddirt, about five hours away at a steady walk along a rough trail.
“This track’s new,” Hammou informs us. “We only got it a few years back. Before then we climbed up and down the slopes.” We gaze aghast. The inclines are steep and bare, littered with parched, spiky trees and dry stones, which defy any hope of gripping. Of course Hammou and his mule are totally undeterred, adept at scaling terrifying gradients without a second thought, as all Atlas-dwellers do, beneath back-bending loads, from cradle to grave.
“Look! Doggies!” squeaks child-knight. “With babies!” His animal vocabulary is a little defective. We look up to see a flock of Atlas goats, black and white, lean and satin-haired, skipping across a petrifying slant. They are followed by a cloaked shepherd who must be 80 years old. His step is slow, deliberate. “Why doesn’t he take the track instead? Couldn’t he slip and break his neck.” I question, rather unenlightened. “Him? Slip?” Hammou laughs. “He’ll never fall. He’s been doing this his whole life! It’s quicker to go directly over the hill.”
The sun beats and chars. Being a useless mother, I’ve forgotten the child’s hat, which is uniquely my responsibility, according to my husband. But we have Hammou. And Hammou has a cotton scarf. To our son’s utter delight, and our relief, he wraps it around little one’s head, twisting it into a genuine (albeit oversized) turban – the best sun-cheater on earth.
After two-and-a-half hours of walking, non-stop, we reach what Hammou says is about mid-point. It’s a ridge that turns us away from Imlil, now invisible, and towards the descent leading to Tacheddirt. An anonymous stone shelter greets us, shading from the ferocious Atlas sun. From this secret lookout post, our son plants himself at the window as self-designated watchman. There are a few empty glass soda bottles on the floor left by passers-by. We sit a while with water and almonds, looking out of the small window at the dark mountain faces.
Dirt track aside, little has changed in the way of life here, where summer heat sears and metres of winter snow block villagers in for months. Yet in spite of the inhospitable conditions, the lower hills are sparkly green with vegetation, thanks to traditional terracing techniques, simple water channelling, and seasonal planting. This allows Berber farmers to produce what they need while keeping the soil rich. The results are quite diverse – think almonds, pomegranates, olives, plenty of vegetables, and cereals.
“Look!” squeals our son again. “Grannies!” And sure enough a band of toothless, smiling old ladies approach, (sorry mum if you’re reading this) bent over at least 45°, with vast bundles of sticks on their backs. They wear long robes and tights. And the essential plastic sandals. Their mule slogs faithfully with them, stopping for a moment before receiving a stick-whip to its bottom, accompanied by a resounding “Irrrrra! Irrrrra!” Exchanging a few words with Hammou and “salaams” with us, they trudge on. Like us, they’re village-bound, but will evidently arrive some time before.
We plod on, tired now and slower, unlike the unflagging Hammou, who hasn’t sat down since we left. The road descends, winding back on itself; down into chilly mountain shadows and out again into the blistering African sun. Our three-year-old knight has been lulled to sleep upon our stoic mule.
At last, we near Tacheddirt. We scrabble down dusty paths and into the village, which only got electricity in the past decade. The flat-topped houses are earthen, merging with the dusty slopes. Our trusty mule deposits us at the village’s recently spruced-up auberge, where we install ourselves on a terrace overlooking the lifeline river at the valley’s bed. Rewarded with mint tea and biscuits, we congratulate ourselves on our hike – aware of complaining muscles. Our son, who’s barely walked a step in hours, tears across the wide valley veranda for an hour.
Dusk arrives. Crooned to by chickens, peeped at by pleasantly unkempt children, we attack the most glorious dish known to humankind: a Berber omelette, full of caramelised onions and tomatoes served steaming in a tagine. We mop up the lot with village bread the shape and size of a car wheel. Our sleep, of course, is synchronised with the sun’s.
We’re up with the birds and all the other animals that live, literally, in Tacheddirt – think cows and goats grunting through uneven passages – and it’s back through the magnificent valleys, despite tender limbs. The Kasbah du Toubkal seems even more palatial on our return, probably because we get to reward ourselves with a proper hammam.
Tea at Darr Imlil
A glass of tea on the hillside terrace at Darr Imlil is no less than a sublime experience. If you’re lucky, Hussein Bouthich will ceremonially prepare and serve it. It’s quite a ritual. “First, put green tea leaves into the pot, swill with hot water and throw the water out. This cleans the leaves,” Hussein explains. “Add more hot water, simmer the tea on the stove, then throw in lots of mint and sugar on top.” He mixes the steaming tea, pouring from a height, throwing it back into the pot to mix it. “My mother, father, and my uncle all taught me how to make tea properly,” Hussein recounts. “We’re a Berber family. The elders teach the young.”
While in the region, it’s worth visiting the ancient shrine, or Marabou, of Sidi Chamrouch, Toubkal’s own patron saint (holy man). It’s located in the village of Sidi Chamrouch, at an altitude of about 2,000 m. Some say that he cured sterility as well as rheumatism and praise his treatment of the spirit. Others say that he treated mental illness, and sufferers had to spend a certain amount of time in his village in order to experience the full effect of his sacred gift. Muslims tribes from Morocco make a pilgrimage to honour him annually.
By the numbers
The Atlas Mountains are separated into three ranges: the Middle, High and Anti Atlas. The original population is Berber, although Amazigh is the generally preferred term. The Amazigh people of Morocco predate the Arabs, who invaded in the late 7th century.
Mount Toubkal’s height in metres. That makes it the tallest of the Atlas Mountains and North Africa’s highest peak. The mountain range extends over 2,000 kilometres, beginning in the south of Morocco near Agadir, stretching up to Tunis.
The number of fruit trees the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) aims to plant. The campaign began in 2003 and has already seen the planting of almost 500,000 trees, benefiting 36,000 locals. They hope their goal will be reached over the next year.