Any visit to Marrakech longer than 3 days necessitates a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. If you’re there for a week I would recommend an overnighter so you can enjoy some trekking in this magnificent scenery. May is a good month, before it gets too hot and while there is still snow on the peaks, rendering the views spectacular.
Our terrific hotel Les Deux Tours provides a car with a driver, Abdul who snakes us through the crazy Marrakesh suburban traffic, dodging between motorbikes, bicycles, and people with the agility of a seasoned combatant. Soon we are out of the city heading towards the hazy snowy horizon, past endless water parks and green golf courses. Here we are told foreigners buy houses and locals come to enjoy the cool water. Even in May the city temperature is rising towards 34 C so I can understand the attraction, despite the developments being uniformly hideous. Everything is at least built in the characteristic red plasterwork of the city.
We stop for an oversweet mint tea with a view of a dying Berber village (only 100 inhabitants remain, the rest we assume migrated towards the bigger town down the road.
Later we stop for our first good sighting of the Atlas with a silhouetted Kasbah adding to the photogenic scene. This turns out to belong to Richard Branson and for a small tip we are shown round its sumptuous interior: indoor pool, Indian wall hangings and sculptures, several roomed Berber tents which form the suites and an enormous pool.
We are headed for Imlil, one of two day destinations. Ourika, we are told, is much more touristy despite the guidebooks recommending it. The road is narrow and soon deteriorates into a gravelly track, so no coaches can reach it, a good reason for its lack of popularity.
Approaching Imlil we are stopped by a couple of Policemen, one of whom demand papers, while the other is intrigued by Ross’s GPS watch. A mule stumbles down the slope, bearing a boy and a chair. The chair is offloaded and put in the shade for the policemen’s pleasure.
Imlil is the end of the road. We park the car and refuse the offer of a couple of mules to take us to the Kasbah du Toubkal where we are to have lunch. In fact it’s a short but steep scramble – 20 minutes or so – through the main street, past a few fly-blown fresh and dried fruit stalls, with the ubiquitous Berber carpets decorating the route, and children coming back from school. Noone here likes to be photographed but we manage to sneak in some shots incognito. Every few yards we are offered more mules – La, shukran.
There are a few desultory groups of tourists, some looking serious in proper hiking gear and backpacks, others like us, just out for a look-see. Imlil is obviously the start of some serious trekking as there is professional equipment on offer – crampons, walking sticks, boots and rucksacks.
Finally we reach the imposing doors of the Kasbah – which means fort in Arabic. It was bought in the 1990s by a British tour group and restored from a complete ruin into a charming, old-style hotel, with rooms in the rebuilt tower, a hamman and a marvellous roof-top terrace with views straight onto the highest of all Atlas peaks, the 4167m Toukbal.
We are seated on low stools and feast our eyes on the view and our appetite on salad, a lamb tagine, a chicken couscous and fresh fruit. When the sun goes behind a cloud it is quite chilly – reminder we are in the High Atlas. There are a few other guests – a film crew, some Germans and a group of Canadians. But it seems remarkably quiet compared to the hubbub of Marrakech.
The descent is easy, and soon we are back in the car. It was only when we got down that I realised I had left my trusty Bangkok market hat in the loo! Too far to retrieve it however. On the way back Abdul stops at a roadside stall to buy some new tagine dishes for Ramadan; obviously this must be a good place so we buy a large earthenware couscous dish which I shall be putting to good use this coming weekend!
We loved our day out, and the sight of the trails winding round the hillsides, which looked quite easy, made me wish we’d come for a bit longer. The most testing thing about it was speaking French all day to Abdul!
You could easily base yourself a hotel like the Kasbah du Toubkal and do some excursions from there. There are also cabanes en route if you want to get from A to B. Of course there are companies that arrange this sort of thing, but I’m equally sure it’s possible to arrange it yourself with a bit of pre-planning.