Our final day in Morocco took us out of Marrakech’s grand city walls and into the wild Atlas Mountains. We rode camels through sparse rural villages, stopped for lunch at a beautifully hand-crafted riad and trekked around rocky peaks hung with fog.
It was the day of our holiday for which I’d been most excited, but also that which would take me furthest out of my comfort zone: our camel ride/mountain trek day trip with Atlas and Sahara Tours. We were to put our lives entirely in the hands of strangers we’d never met, trusting them to keep us safe during potentially risky activities in a wild and remote environment, with none of the Western safety nets to which we were accustomed. It would also be my first time riding any animal larger than a pony!
Our driver arrived at Riad Cherrata promptly after we’d finished breakfast and took us to his 4×4 parked outside. It was then a long drive from Marrakech into the beginnings of the Atlas mountain range, throughout which our driver made some polite conversation and pointed out a few sights; he mostly had the radio on. As we drove further out, the sparse buildings began to be replaced by sheep flocks, and the flat terrain to undulate. Soon we were driving through the beginnings of the Atlas mountains, gazing out of the car’s windows at the impressive peaks above and the valleys below us.
Meeting our camels
Eventually the wheels of our 4×4 ground to a stop, apparently in the middle of nowhere. To the left lay a wide expanse of sandy dirt, scattered with hardy grasses and puddles; to the right sat a small brick building with no front wall, the utilitarian chairs and tables inside exposed to the elements. It was here our driver led us, inviting us to take a seat while he went to get us some mint tea. The toilet was upstairs, he said — what we found at the top of the stairs was the building’s roof, upon which stood a ramshackle shed hiding a kind of plastic floor panel around a rancid hole. Using it is the closest I’ve ever felt to being Bear Grylls.
Back downstairs, we drank mint tea with our driver while waiting for our ‘guide’ to turn up. Eventually he did, and after shaking hands with us he went to order breakfast: a saucepan filled with a kind of Moroccan-spiced ratatouille and eggs, accompanied by bread with which to scoop it up. Unfortunately we were too full from our breakfast at the riad to accept his invitation to share it.
After breakfast our guide led us back outside, past the 4×4 and to a pair of camels stood on the dirt behind it. A mixture of excitement and nerves bubbled up inside me as I ascended a set of metal steps up to a camel’s back — my seat, comprising piled up mats slung over the camel’s hump, was very high up. Swinging one leg over and grabbing onto the rigid handle at the saddle’s front, I noticed that my perch didn’t seem very secure, nor square on the camel’s back…
A ride to remember
Another man who was the camels’ owner pulled at a rope attached to my steed and we were off, Steve’s following behind with its nose attached to my camel’s side. I watched with apprehension and held on tightly as the man began to lead us over some very uneven terrain that I doubted the camels would manage — over rocks, down small ditches and even through fast-flowing streams — feeling adrenaline rush through me as my seat lurched forward, back and to each side. It felt a real possibility that I may slide off, and a little part of me thrilled at that danger.
It was only when we reached the even ground beyond that I could un-tense my muscles and begin to fully enjoy the ride. My body relaxed into the swaying rhythm of the camel’s plodding walk; my fear of falling turned to exaltation as I marveled at my wonderful new perspective on the world. We began by lumbering down a pebbled road, surrounded on each side by rising banks of rocky earth, green grass and bushy trees. This grass grew sparser as we continued, eventually giving way to wide expanses of orange-red earth scattered with spiny bushes and cacti. It was a landscape like nothing I’d ever seen before, beautiful in its rugged wildness. Gazing down upon these sights from high atop my gently swaying steed — the silence of nature in my ears and the breeze in my hair — was one of the best experiences of my life.
Over the next few hours, we plodded past wide, dry fields of olive trees and other crops; swathes of cacti we ducked to avoid; and eventually, windswept villages of simple stone houses. Families stood watching our approach from outside their hilltop houses, the children waving excitedly — huge smiles spreading across their faces when we waved back. But generally these villages were still and quiet, the roads empty except for a few boys on bikes and adults going about their business.
Our enchanting journey eventually came to an end when we caught back up with our driver and the 4×4. He suggested we tip the camel owner (we gave him 40Dh) and let us take a few more photos with the camels before we got back in the vehicle to be driven to the next part of our adventure.
Lunch by the fire
Over the next half-hour or so we and our guide were driven higher into the mountains, where the cooling and thinning air was thick with fog and drizzle. When the 4×4 parked and we were invited to step outside, I was shocked by the chilling wind and rain that hit us. My anticipation for our upcoming hike, in our wholly insufficient clothing, began to dim. My spirits lifted immediately, however, upon seeing where we’d be eating lunch: a traditionally styled riad sitting picturesquely halfway up between the mountains, looking over a wide expanse of smaller peaks and river gorges. Even better, it had ‘proper’ toilets! This was Riad Jnane Imlil, owned by the man from Atlas and Sahara Tours who’d arranged our day named Mustapha.
Having left our muddy shoes outside and stepped into the slippers provided, we were led through to a beautiful lounge room, made incredibly snug by cushioned sofas and a glowing fireplace. You can imagine the joy and relief we felt upon seeing this glorious scene, the warmth from the fire beginning to thaw our frozen hands. We greeted Mustapha and gratefully accepted his offer to sit by the fire. The gleaming silver tray he then brought us, holding a steaming pot of mint tea and a plate of sweet biscuits, completed the experience perfectly. I don’t think I’ve ever felt cosier.
Sufficiently defrosted, we next moved to sit on the sofa facing the table so that we could take our lunch. As with most things in Marrakech, this was a beautifully presented and extremely bounteous spread: far more than we could possibly eat. First we were brought a large basket of bread, a massive bowl of rice salad, a plate each of tasty lentils, small bowls of olives and vegetables, and a selection of spice pots. This would have filled us easily, but knowing it was only the starter we tried not to eat too much of it.
Next came a huge beef tagine, overflowing with soft vegetables and hefty chunks of beef. We ate what we could and I was glad afterwards that I still had room for dessert, which was roasted bananas dusted with cocoa powder. The banana and chocolate melted together in the mouth, making every mouthful heavenly. I vowed to start making the same myself once back in England.
A tour of Riad Jnane Imlil
As we were getting ready to leave, Mustapha came to get our payment and also to lend us warm and waterproof jackets — a very kind gesture for which we were incredibly grateful. He then asked to show us the rest of the riad, which he told us he’d finished designing from the ground up only recently. We gladly obliged, though not without some surprise at the unexpected request.
Mustapha took us to another lounge upstairs and several bedrooms, pointing out pieces of furniture and decor and explaining the full story behind each: the traditional techniques used and the history behind them, the person who made it and the efforts he took to get it. He was obviously using this as an advertising opportunity for his new business venture, but in fairness it was interesting to learn about the hand-crafting traditions and effort that went into everything. By the end of the tour, having seen the passion and work Mustapha had put into his creation, we were both earnestly hoping that he would succeed in it.
The final thing Mustapha showed us was the riad’s roof terrace. which boasted magnificent views of the dramatic mountain range around and below us. He kindly offered to take a photo of us up there before taking us back downstairs and handing us back over to our guide for the final part of our adventure.
Up into the mountains
Wrapped up warmly in our borrowed jackets, we set off following our guide away from the riad and up a rocky ascent. Thankfully the rain had reduced to a very light spitting and the jackets did a great job of keeping us warm and dry. Our guide walked quite far ahead of us for most of the trek, just close enough so that he stayed within sight. I felt that our constant stopping to take photos probably made us quite annoying to lead, but fortunately that didn’t stop him from offering to take a photo of us at one point.
The walk was muddy, rocky and steep enough to feel adventurous, but not challenging. I managed it easily despite not being especially fit (exercise is a consequence of my day-to-day activities, never a cause). It took us through shallow streams, under stacked-rock archways and over a long, slightly precarious wooden bridge.
For the second time that day, I found myself in a landscape completely alien to me; this one jagged, largely barren and overwhelmingly grey, on account of both the stony, scree-covered terrain and the foggy, overcast sky. Decrepit-looking houses of various materials and condition balanced haphazardly on the slopes, some seemingly piled upon each other in clusters while others stood bravely alone. Skeletal trees, spiky bushes and colossal weather-worn boulders, some of them daubed in graffiti, littered the landscape.
It might not sound like the prettiest scenery, but it was powerfully affecting. The towering shards of rock, knarled foliage and torrents of water gushing far beneath us were dramatic enough, but it was the ‘bad weather’ that really made the scene. The billowing clouds swirling around the peak of Toubkal above us and the fog shrouding the deep valleys below created a palpable, almost mystical atmosphere that transported my mind to the wild, twisted hinterlands of fairytales. In its ugliness, it was breathtakingly beautiful.
Back to civilisation
Our walk wasn’t completely devoid of other life: at one point we passed a lonely shop whose keeper managed to persuade Steve to buy a scarf; at another we squeezed past a tradesman leading a colourfully adorned, heavily loaded donkey.
Reaching the end of our trek, we ducked out of the rain underneath a porch to await our driver. After a few minutes (during which we had to refuse a man trying to sell us necklaces) the 4×4 turned up and we clambered in, gratefully returning our coats to our guide who stayed put.
I think we slept some of the journey back, and it wasn’t long before we were back in Marrakech and outside our riad. Tipping and thanking our driver, we went inside and returned to our room to warm up. Exhausted and ravenous, but not yet ready for dinner, we made the poor decision to polish off the chocolate chip brioche that Riad Cherrata’s owner, Valerie, had given us that morning to ‘keep us going’ on our trip. It was just too delicious to resist!
Our ‘posh’ last meal
A couple of hours later we’d decided to finish our holiday with a ‘nice’ dinner at one of the city’s poshest restaurants, Pepe Nero. I made a booking on the website but, after not hearing anything back for a while, decided to book over the phone. I was told on the phone that the restaurant was fully booked, but shortly afterwards received an email confirming the success of our online booking.
Having looked at the restaurant’s location on Tripadvisor, we knew perfectly well how to find it and walked there with no problems, except for one detail. When we were almost at the door, a man began chasing after us calling, “Monsieur! Monsieur!” Being used to hassle of this kind by now, we ignored his protestations and walked on — not realising that it was his job to ‘guide’ us to the entrance. An experience both unnerving and very awkward…
The restaurant’s interior was very pretty, centred around a tiled courtyard canopied by foliage and with a rose-petal-filled fountain in its middle. We were given a table in the corner and brought amuse bouches resembling falafels topped with cherry tomatoes. For the first time in our holiday there was alcohol on the menu, so I ordered a glass of Moroccan wine to accompany a lamb couscous. Steve also had lamb, but served in a more sophisticated European style. Both dishes were nicely cooked but unfortunately, thanks to our brioche binge earlier, we were not hungry enough to eat it all. We enjoyed what we could before returning to our riad; but only after waiting ages for the bill.
Despite an imperfect final meal — our cheaper meals at less pretentious restaurants had been more enjoyable — our last day in Morocco had undoubtedly been the best. Escaping the city with Atlas and Sahara Tours had been simultaneously the most relaxing and exhilarating experience of our entire holiday; we’d found ourselves far more comfortable out in the wilderness with these few kind Berbers, than inside the city among thousands of Marrakech locals and tourists. Which is why my most important advice for anyone going to the amazing city of Marrakech — after the obligatory warnings to avoid con men, mopeds and food poisoning, of course — is to get out of Marrakech!
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2014. All rights reserved.