In the shadow of Mount Toubkal

The most challenging part of my travels around Morocco was the homestay with a Berber family, who live tucked away in the middle of the High Atlas Mountains. 

Most of the group had bailed, put off by the thought of a tough uphill hike at altitude, followed by basic overnight living arrangements during an icy Moroccan winter.  Instead, they headed for the creature comforts of a 4-star hotel in Marrakech, but I was determined to give it my best shot.  Authentic adventures in a foreign country aren’t designed to be comfortable, but they are very real.  So real that at the highest point for the day – 2 260m above sea level – my feet felt like blocks of ice.

My wiser travelling companions paid 100 Dirhams to hire a mule in Imlil (below) rather than hike, but I forged ahead (with my camera bag on my back!!) on foot.  For a while two other mule handlers hung around as I battled uphill, hopeful I would change my mind , but they gave up halfway and disappeared.  Short of breath from the thin air and sweltering under the 4 layers I was wearing to stave off the cold, I resembled a puffing beetroot, but I made it to the Gite* on foot, stripping off a few layers of clothing along the way.

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The tiny village of Imlil is the centre of mountain tourism in Morocco, a base for those wanting to summit Mount Toubkal, which is the highest mountain in Morocco and North Africa. In Imlil you can hire virtually anything associated with snow and the mountain.

But we were headed for Aremd near the ski resort, which looked delightful covered in a sprinkling of snow.

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And then the end was in sight where the dirt road stopped.  It really was one of the most arduous things I have done, but I’m glad I persevered.  I survived the walk into the hills and then the cold by piling blankets on. It was in fact the bed that was the bigger killer – two bases on top of one another rather than a base and mattress. The hardest night’s sleep ever ever 🙂 🙂  Little wonder that none of us showered the next morning and couldn’t wait to get to Essaouira on the coast for some warmer weather and some seafood – without couscous 🙂

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* guesthouse

Aït Benhaddou

As an unabashed Game of Thrones fan, I had been itching to photograph the earthen clay architecture of Ait Benhaddou, the famous Kasbah town along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, which has also formed the backdrop of blockbuster greats such as Gladiator, Alexander, The Sheltering Sky and Black Hawk Down.

But even without the impressive CV, tucked away in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas mountains in Ouarzazate, the movie capital of Morocco, Ait Benhaddou is gorgeous.  The russet clay houses huddle together within the defensive walls which are reinforced by corner towers, and are a striking example of the architecture of southern Morocco and days of yore.  Interestingly, eight families still live within the city walls.

But first the snake man who holds court about 5km from the most famous and photographed ksar in the Ounila Valley, who makes a living posing for tourists adorned by snakes.  He was most upset because I didn’t pay to photograph him. The truth is I’d left my bag on the bus otherwise I would have.  That aside though, only minutes before a travelling companion had very generously lined the snake man’s Djellaba pockets with Dirhams, moved in close and handed me his iPhone to capture the encounter. My photos were basically an extension of that photo op, but the snake man unleashed a vitriolic stream of Arabic in my direction as I boarded the bus.  Tourists, I knew by now, are fair game at every possible opportunity.

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From a rooftop terrace overlooking Yunkai * (Ait Benhaddou in real life), it’s easy to fall in love with everything about this picturesque place and while it was remarkably cold, the snow on the High Atlas Mountains added to the charm.

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And then we crossed the river on stepping stones, entered the city walls and climbed to the citidel atop, where the sweeping views were equally breathtaking.

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*   Yunkai is the smallest of the three cities in Slaver’s Bay in Game of Thrones.  Scenes from Pentos, the biggest of the Free Cities, were also filmed in Ait Benhaddou.

 

Postcards from the Todra Valley

Captured in the Todra Gorge, a canyon in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco and in El Khorbat, an ancient fortified village in the valley.

In the Gorge, massive, sweeping cliffs surround small family allotments filled with birdsong and fig, pomegranate, olive and almond trees, alfa alfa and vegetables. Nearby the women were washing clothes in the river while goats nimbly scaled the cliffs overhead. Lunch was broad-bean soup and Berber pizza – a flatbread with mince filling which made for a very different Christmas Day:-)

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It was icy in the Gorge in the mornings. With three tour groups staying in the hotel at the same time, they did good business selling bottles of red wine to the tourists in the evenings and some of my travelling companions were noticeably absent from breakfast first thing in the morning.  Even those that were always ravenous ones.

One morning we took a two-hour walk in the date Palmeries along the river so no surprises that there were dates for breakfast.

By then we were halfway through our travels around Morocco and most of the group couldn’t face another Tagine or more couscous. The fresh orange in the morning was still very welcome though and the coffee is quite good wherever you go In Morocco. Consequently the other South Africans hijacked one of the hotel kitchens and the smell of Durban curry filled the air:-) 🙂