Walking in the Atlas mountains: A short break that’s long on experience

It’s hard to think of anywhere as close to Ireland that is as culturally different as Morocco

Mules carrying the luggage during a trekking tour through Morocco

Mules carrying the luggage during a trekking tour through Morocco

 

The moment I realised that I should have read the brochure for the walking holiday and not just looked at the astonishingly beautiful pictures was on day two of our trip to Morocco, and our first day in the Atlas Mountains.

After a night in chaotic Marrakesh, the walk began in Oukaimeden, an easy 90-minute road trip from the city. In November the air was crisp and there was a dusting of snow around us. The narrow trail was easy to spot; although navigation was never going to be an issue, because we were travelling with a specialist walking holiday company and the package included a guide and a mule to carry our gear.

Hours later, under a blue sky and surrounded by snow-topped mountains so majestic it was hard not to stop every minute and simply wonder at them, we were near the top of the first pass, gingerly walking on a narrow shale path fringed with ice on either side, and a rather sheer drop. The steady ascent took us to Tizi nou Adi (2,960m), with spectacular views out over the High Atlas Mountains, our lungs complaining and calves starting to twitch.

Drinking mint tea on the terrace of the Auberge Aremd as the sun disappeared felt like just rewards for a hard day’s walking

Somehow I had managed to read our itinerary before starting out without taking in the numbers; we would be walking at some serious altitudes. The descent to the Berber village of Tacheddirt (2,300m), where we were to stay the night in a very basic (and very cold) B&B, took us past verdant terraces planted with walnuts and cherry trees. In every village in the valley – tiny settlements of the most basic houses built into the slopes – there is one foodstuff that each village never buys, as they grow their own and then trade with their neighbours.

The following day, with a six-hour walk (that took eight) ahead of us, we started early. We made our way further into the valley, before beginning another continuous zig-zag ascent mostly on narrow mule trails and stony paths. Wider roads led to Tizi n’Tamatert (2,279m), before the path turned down again into the valley towards the village of Aremd, this time along a trail fringed with pine trees with goats meandering by our side.

This stretch was busy with serious-looking walkers; Aremd is located on the main trail to Toubkal, the greatest challenge in the Atlas. It would be way beyond my non-climber fitness level and expertise, so thankfully it was not on our itinerary. Drinking mint tea on the terrace of the Auberge Aremd as the sun disappeared, with views across the valley and Toubkal towering above, felt like just rewards for a hard day’s walking.

Challenging

It’s hard to think of another destination that is such a short flight from Dublin but so intensely culturally different than Morocco. The unexpected disappointment for us on the walk was the food in the bed and breakfasts. We had tagines on both nights, which we expected to be richly flavoured and spicy, but were as exotic as overcooked Irish stew. Breakfast was instant coffee and those foil-covered cheese triangles last seen a school lunchbox.

It was also challenging to be in a society where women are invisible; the guides, shop assistants and waitstaff we encountered along the route were all male.

On day three we had a half-day’s walk – a gentle descent on a good trail with stunning views down into the lush Mizane valley to our pick-up point for the journey back to Marrakesh. On the outskirts of Imlil village I took a photo of the narrow street ahead, not noticing there was a man walking with a mule along the edge of road. “Photograph, photograph,” he scowled at me, his hand out for some money. The hustle snapped us out of our heady-with-clean-air, mountainy reverie, and prepared us for a return to the city where tourists face hassle in almost every transaction.

In a restaurant over lunch, a young German student travelling alone was still upset over an incident at Djemaa El Fna, the chaotic square where European tourists are often viewed as a soft target for scams. The previous night, her first in the city, she had taken a photo of a group of buskers. Three of the musicians pursued her and wouldn’t leave her alone until she had given them some money; feeling frightened she ended up giving them 100 dirhams (about €10) each.

But two things made me keen to go back to Marrakesh after the beautifully serene Atlas walking experience: the promise of a visit to a traditional hammam, for a leave-your-dignity-at-the-door scrub down with black soap and a deep tissue massage for my aching calves; and a leisurely trip to the Mirabelle gardens, one of the city’s highlights located outside the walls of the medina. Restored by Yves St Laurent, they are now open to the public and offer a beautiful oasis of calm.

Bernice Harrison was a guest of Walks Worldwide (walksworldwide.com), which offers a five-day short break taking in Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains from £329pp based on two sharing, including four nights’ B&B, two lunches and two evening dinners, and an experienced English-speaking guide.

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