These days with online map resources, which can be updated in seconds, the wonderful tome known as the Atlas is becoming a vintage item. My first Atlas was a gift from my mother and I used to love going through the pages, a veritable armchair explorer, with imagination on overdrive. The name the Atlas Mountains have always held a special appeal to me, so it was with delight when I received Nick Thomson’s email of Destinations travel that a 4 x 4 trip to the Atlas was available. I had no hesitation in booking and I proudly boasted on Facebook I was doing a trip to the Atlas in a ladylike manner. Things didn’t quite turn out to plan, but that is the essence of travel, seizing the serendipity when it arrives.
On return from Essaouria, I had made an arrangement with Mbarek my guide to do a trip on my last Monday, to visit the triple waterfall. On Sunday morning, I had been up bright an early, ready for my 4×4 trip, however, I was waiting in reception with a slight sense of foreboding, all other trips had left messages at reception, there had been none reception itself hadn’t been able to get through, my temperamental phone coverage meant I had been unable to make contact to confirm.
As the clock ticked, to my surprise Mbarek came through the door of the hotel. I didn’t recognise him in jeans and jacket. He had come to give me the info about our tour the following day. He too tried to call as did the hotel staff once more, and so I used the emergency international number as my mobile had a tiny signal. Their version was they had left a message for me at reception to say that I was to be moved to Monday, as I was the only one booked for that day. It was the day of the Marrakesh marathon.
I was crestfallen as I explained the situation to Mbarek. Would it be possible to switch days I asked. “Wait”, he said and he took out his mobile, and about 10 minutes later, a bloke arrived in a Peugeot, we made three stops in different parts of the city, where Mbarek came out clutching papers from each one. Finally, we whizzed off again to a long boulevard where a black Renault was sitting.
Switching to the Renault, we set off out of Marrakesh and made our way up into the Atlas Mountains. It was a bit hair raising ;over taking on double and hair pin bends He had suggested a different trip as time had left it too short to get to the triple waterfall. I couldn’t care, there are a lot of valleys in the Atlas. I was out of Marrakesh for the marathon, and he admitted so was he. A couple of photo stops en route and again more hawkers, I now have a bracelet made of camel bones, however when he saw I was getting fed up, he ushered a quick volley and they backed off.
We arrived in the village of Imlil, in view of Toukhal sitting at over 4.000ms, the highest peak in North Africa and of any Arabic speaking country. There was an unsuccessful and very unladylike attempt for me to try a donkey trip. I had to stand on a bridge to mount, I got my foot into the left stirrup but as I tried to get my right leg over the saddle I turned and saw the drop to the river, which was nearly dry, I froze, vertigo kicked in big time. We slowly made our way round the village, on foot up the tracks at the back of the houses. Seeing the expression on the face on a fellow traveller as she came down a steep incline, leaning over the donkey’s head, clutching the reigns with white knuckles I was glad I had chosen to trust my own feet.
With appetites stimulated by the mountain air, we went for lunch on a rooftop restaurant, looking down the valley we had driven up. Ordering the speciality of the house Mountain tagine; made with beef, potatoes, courgettes and carrots. The potatoes had absorbed the flavours and everything melted in your mouth.
We made our way back to the car. On the return journey we took a road through a sandalwood forest, the scent lingering in the early evening air. We stopped at the camel station where I saw two newborn baby camels, mamas not too impressed when I took photos of their calves.
I also saw the camels that had been taking out the tourists being released from their tethers and as the last foot was freed, each one in turn took off to eat; sensing them getting their freedom was lovely. Two nursing mothers waited for their calves to come and feed. I was then introduced to the nomads’ cats; I was treated with feline disdain.
Our final stop was up to the reservoir that serves Marrakesh were we watched the sunset settle over the dam. All now powered by solar energy.
The following morning I arose to Atlas mountain trip number two. I was collected at the appointed time. Five 4x4s were going out, there were 25 of us. About 20 minutes after pick up we all got out of the jeeps to meet the guide Ahmed who was out of the hi-de-hi tour guide school, as he got us to repeat and chant phrases in Arabic in unison. He also fancied himself as a stand up comedian, which did become wearing.
I saw more of the mountains as we crossed through three different valleys; the scenery was magnificent, stark though the deep reds of the soil with the dark green of the trees, accenting each other’s depth of colour. We stopped at a pottery and visited a Berber village for a mint tea demonstration. Lunch was back in the village of Imlil the very same as the day before, We were dropped two minutes from the restaurant a different one; the two visits couldn’t have been more different, though am glad I did both trips as they offered contrasting and complimentary insights. I loved the serendipity that Moroccan magic was serving me.
We had Moroccan salad, which I had learned how to make, vegetable omelette also cooked in a Tagine, the eggs laid on top of the vegetables with the heat letting it set quickly; it was delicious, chicken couscous and fruit for dessert. A final stop at an Argan oil coop but I was well stocked up, arrival back in Marrakesh was before five so I was left to myself for the evening.
I made a trip to the train station near my hotel to visit the hole in the wall for some cash. The station building was magnificent, constructed in light marble, trains departing to Casablanca and Fez, reminding in a delightful way where I was. However, the two dominant eateries were a KFC and McDonalds. That was disappointing after all the satisfying flavoursome food experiences I had had, I didn’t fancy a Mcfalafel or a Mcfondue. Sitting outside in a terrace for artisan ice cream in January was perfect.