At just over an hour away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, The Atlas Mountains transport you into another world with breathtaking views, tranquil surroundings and the undeniably friendly Berber hospitality.
At the tail end of last year, I was whisked away to Marrakesh as a guest of the Moroccan Tourist Board to experience what this North African country has to offer. It was my first time visiting Morocco and with the country only being a 4 hour direct flight away from Glasgow, it was a no brainer location to escape the freezing temperatures.
With a jam-packed itinerary mapping out our 4 day adventure, one stood out the most for me- The Atlas Mountains. I had heard about these mountains in the past from my father. He had previously visited Marrakech with work but was unable to visit them at the time. The downfall? A walk in the mountains, me? The panic set in. How big a walk would this be? Would I be able to cope? I’m not fit in the slightest. It’s going to be a challenge!
With equal excitement and dread, the group all bundled into our mini van for the 90 minute trip watching the bright lights of Marrakech fade away before being met with desert, cacti and Berbers along the road side with their mules and carts.
We were heading for Imlil Village, 1,740 metres above sea level. Imlil Village is the main starting point for any trek on the Atlas Mountains. A quaint little village, local Berbers are accustomed to tourists from all over the world congregating in the village. Previously, the villages main source of income was agriculture but over the years, tourism has overtaken this.
Eventually raring to go after a quick bathroom break (get ready to squat!), we started our trek. I wasn’t sure how far we were walking but after 10 minutes up hill, my legs were feeling the burn. Not a good start Michelle!
You can then imagine my delight when our host Faical announced that we’d be getting mules up part of the way to our main destination, Kasbah du Toubkal. The Kasbah is set on a hilltop in the Toubkal National Park below the towering flanks of Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa.
Me? On a mule?
Then the dread started again with a vengeance. How on earth could a little mule possibly carry me? I’m not exactly the lightest person in the world. Would the mule be okay? The mountain path in front of my eyes was steep and I knew there would be no way I could possibly walk all of it. So in keeping with my surroundings and being assured the mule would be okay, I jumped on board (as delicately as possible!).
Local Berber men guided our mules, instructed us on the best way to sit and hold onto the mule before we made our ascent. I tried not to show my absolute fear at seeing the sheer cliff drop barely a meter to my side but inside I was screaming. All the way. It was enthralling and petrifying at the same time. I was actually on a mule, in Morocco, climbing a mountain. I still can’t believe it.
With my broken Arabic, I was communicating with my Berber muleteer as best I could. Asking questions like his name, how old he was, how old the mule was and how long he had been a guide for.
Then panic… I started falling off the mule as he climbed an extremely steep part of the mountain. Screaming, the guides saved me by pushing me back onto the mule, readjusting my position and holding onto me the rest of the way. Panic over. I wasn’t going to fall over the cliff. I wonder how many people have over the years though? I’m just glad it wasn’t me!
After my little “accident”, I strangely became more relaxed. The worst had happened & I wasn’t injured. A short while later, we stopped for some much-needed Moroccan tea. My new addiction. It was also a welcome relief for my legs as they were starting to cramp. Mental note to start going to the gym.
We said our goodbyes to our trusty mules and muleteers. My mule was rather hungry as he kept munching grass on the way up the mountain. We were obviously well matched! It was time to go it alone (okay, we did have one local guide, Mohammed) and walk the rest of the way to Kasbah du Toubkal, a good 45 minute walk away.
The views while walking were breathtaking.
I was in awe of the natural beauty I was surrounded with. I took my time soaking everything around me up, taking photographs and having much-needed breathing breaks. It was either the altitude or my unfitness which meant I needed to stop frequently to try regulate my breathing- probably the latter.
Mohammed, our guide, stayed beside me the majority of the way and I took that opportunity to ask him about the locals and the village. We met Berber men, women and children on our walk, all with a huge smile on their faces. I made a point to always smile and greet them with Salam Alykum (Peace be upon you) as they walked past.
Berber Village Life
Upon asking Mohammed about children, education and the village, he informed me that the village is part of a local village association. A 5% surcharge is added to all bills at the Kasbah. This reliable income enables villagers to build, develop, create and assist others.
10 years ago, Imlil Village was catastrophically flooded and the income has helped reinforce flood protection. Boarding houses in Asni, 15km from Imlil, were built to provide accommodation so that local children could attend secondary school. Modern apprenticeships designed so children could learn a valuable trade before finding jobs and hardship funds were created for families in need. Inspirational!
We eventually reached Kasbah du Toubkal where we were having a traditional Berber lunch. We were greeted with a traditional Berber welcome of having our hands washed in rose water before being shown to the terrace. The unobstructed views of our surroundings were exquisite. With the sun hitting our faces, we were all given straw hats to wear while dining in the terrace, a lovely simple touch.
As we sat down, we enjoyed a feast of Berber bread which are freshly made on site (the taste and smell is divine!), local olive oil, salad and of course, the main attraction of meat and vegetable tagines. Naturally, all washed down with some Moroccan Tea.
Enjoying lunch in the sun, with sensational panoramic views all around me made all my previous fears about this trek disappear. Soon it was time to leave and as we descended back to Imlil Village with ease, I soaked up as much atmosphere as I could.
An unforgettable experience
It was by far the most memorable part of my trip to Marrakech and would definitely recommend visiting the Atlas Mountains if you’re ever in Morocco. No matter your physical ability or age, it is a location you could never forget.