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Despite its status as one of the world’s most coveted travel destinations, Morocco is a great keeper of secrets. Sure, there’s the cities brimming with Moorish architecture, souks filled with exotic trinkets and desert landscapes of austere beauty, but not far from the mayhem (and occasional madness) of Marrakech lies an area of great serenity and authenticity. Journeying with a small Intrepid Travel group to Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains for a few days of high-gear active adventures complemented by slices of low-gear village life is a welcome change from the relentless traffic and urban hum of the dusty, Red City.
Upon arrival, it appears that Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains could be almost anywhere on the planet, and the number of Hollywood movies filmed here are a testament to how otherworldly this place is. The ever-changing scenery and diversity of terrain is like taking a ramble from continent to continent. Like a good action stunt man or movie double, the High Atlas does well to deceive on screen. Viewers watching Martin Scorsese’s Kundun would not have known the Tibet they were watching was actually Morocco and when the wildflowers are in bloom, the valleys take on an alpine glow so European you’d swear you were in
the Swiss Alps.
After a half day mountain biking challenge (and challenge it was!), we settle into the traditional village of Aroumd with our home stay accommodation acting as a comfy base for the next few days. Aroumd is very beautiful and bountiful, with trees bearing oranges, walnuts and cherries adding splashes of natural colour to this place where the Berber people have lived for centuries. Men dressed in traditional gowns with pointed hoods give Aroumd a medieval feel. Upon first look, this appears to be a place where nature and humanity manages to strike a fine balance, but it’s the nine hour-long hike on day two that allows a more complete, deep immersion into the mysteries of this magnetic corner of the earth.
Setting out early in the day, the path we walk is an evolving canvas of terrain with everything from dusty dirt track to tiny pebbles, green grassland and ancient stairs fashioned from boulders passing under our feet. Traversing icy rivers cooled by melting snow from high above, bubbling brooks and rickety wooden bridges, we are assisted by the supreme knowledge of our local guide and host, Hassan who seems to know every bend in the path, boulder and tree intimately. His genuine enthusiasm for his homeland is endearing, while his wild sense of humour adds comic relief to the steeper climbs that seem to have no end.
Along the way we stop for mint tea at his sister’s house, witness local goat herders on the move and encounter a few small groups of serious hikers attempting to ascend to the snowy summit of North Africa’s highest peak looming above, Mount Toubkal. Hiking as a snug group of five enables all of us to have our own personal journey. Stumbling across wild horses nonchalantly grazing in a field and masses of black crows staring eerily like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds – these are stirring moments of simple yet profound beauty that may have been lost if travelling in a large group.
Stopping for lunch at a scenic pass, we are met by our guide’s brother who has travelled here by donkey to prepare us a lunch my stomach will never forget. Aromatic beef kefta tagine, organic oranges dusted with cinnamon, olives spiked with chilli, just-baked bread with freshly churned butter and of course, Morocco’s hallmark – a steaming pot of sweet, mint tea sends us into a blissful, high altitude food coma. Not long after lunch, a dense, fast-moving fog descends on us, the temperature drops and we rug up together for a post-lunch nap perched on the edge of a cliff.
After a somewhat daring descent down valleys of steep scree, we return to our home stay where an endearingly cheeky toddler takes my hand to help me hobble up the stairs. Is my pain and fatigue that obvious? Either way, my weary bones are grateful for the assistance, even if it came in the form of a plucky three year-old. We spend the night sharing stories of our lives back home over more incredible food provided by our irreplaceable hosts. Bedtime hits at the children’s hour of around 8 o’clock. We are so tired we can barely keep our eyes open, so we collapse into our cosy, shared room and fall into the type of contented sleep that comes after a day of intense, physical exertion.
The following day, we wake to the stirring sounds of the call to prayer echoing over the mountains and valleys. It’s a beautiful way to start the day, infinitely better than a sterile hotel wake up call. After a breakfast of zesty orange pancakes dripping in local honey, we head off on a light hike to the tomb and shrine of a local saint frequented by women wishing for help with healing and fertility. The mystical nature of this site both draws people in and repels others (dependent on belief system) but the hike is a rewarding one regardless of the end game and there is something special about spending time in a sacred place that offers hope and meaning to so many. Passing through more villages, it’s also a good chance to gain insight into the local way of life. From what I gather, eating organic food is second nature, it’s not something sought out in supermarkets or found on a packaging label – it just is. Time spent with family is not scheduled or sandwiched in between commitments – it’s a given. And spending time in the arms of nature is a foregone conclusion – because you live under the shadow of North Africa’s highest peak. Of this, I am unashamedly envious.
In the world of travel, there seems to be a disproportionate amount of time dedicated to the arrivals, the meeting of a new destination, friend or culture. But there’s something to be said for the departures, for your exit is the sum of your travel experiences. Leaving Aroumd was one of the hardest travel goodbyes of my life, for how do you even begin to thank a place and people that have given you so much? In a few days, we were showered with genuine care, warm smiles, honest food, golden sunshine and innumerable other blessings. I walk away with a renewed commitment to living as simply as possible, as I’ve now seen it done willingly without much sacrifice or fanfare.
Getting there: Emirates flies to Casablanca via Dubai from $2,000 ex-Melbourne, with Royal Air Maroc providing regular connecting flights to Marrakech. www.emirates.com
Or do as suggested by our columnist on page 20 and turn it into a journey by exploring alternative transport.
Visas: Australian and New Zealand passport holders are not required to pre-arrange a visa for stays less than three months. Ensure your passport has at least 6 months validity.
When to go: Due to the high altitude, the weather in the High Atlas Mountains can be unpredictable. Expect very cold weather with snowfall during winter (November to March) and mild yet sunny summers. Hiking is best done during optimal conditions in spring and summer (February to October).
Carbon offset: According to Climate Friendly, return flights from Melbourne to Marrakech creates about 8.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which costs $200.65 to offset.
More info: Jo travelled with Intrepid Travel on the ‘Active Morocco’ trip. As winner of the 2011 Tourism for Tomorrow Award, Intrepid trips are carbon offset by Cleaner Climate. www.intrepidtravel.com