Morocco: Sample the high-life in the Atlas mountains

Trek in the Atlas mountains, sleep in the Sahara and enjoy a few dates, all by way of a hot new hideaway - Ruth Metzstein finds that there's no need to rough it in the wilds of Morocco
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The Independent Travel

Inside every one of us is a little mountain goat just waiting to get out. And there's no better place to find him than among the barren and dramatic slopes of Morocco's High Atlas mountains. Spanning the breadth of the country, the range divides the plains that stretch from the coast - where the cities of Marrakesh, Casablanca, Fez and Rabat are to be found - to the wild south, with its staging-post towns, countless kasbahs carved into the scenery and palm groves that give way to the Sahara desert and the border with Algeria.

The High Atlas is home to the tallest mountain in North Africa, Toubkal, which stands at 4,167m. Criss-crossed with trekking routes, and with months of good walking conditions guaranteed, it is possible to trek for hours without meeting anyone but a shepherd or stray sheep.

Our own trek began with a climb through a typical Berber village. Even at 9am in late September, the sun was beating down and the mercury was hitting 30. Struggling along dust tracks between mud houses, past chickens roosting in the dirt and making way for the odd donkey laden with bulging panniers, I realised why local goats feed only on the tufts of grass that dot the hillsides and regretted having had quite such a hearty breakfast. I was soon breaking into a sweat and gasping for breath but our guide, Mbark, showed no sign of slowing. Within minutes we had climbed through the village to a point a couple of hundred feet up.

When we finally stopped to look around - we'd been on the road, or rather the rubble path, for at least 20 minutes - and I felt safe enough to take my eyes off my unsure legs without worrying about losing my footing, I lost my breath again. This time, though, it was because of the view rather than the exertion. Already we were high in the deep-red hills and there was no sign of habitation. Looking up and down the Ourik valley, mountains rose in every direction, fading towards Mount Toubkal, silhouetted as if on a theatre backdrop.

With a vista this captivating, I was unsure what could be gained by progressing. Sitting here for the rest of the day seemed the only sensible thing to do. But Mbark, who had a schedule to keep to and no intention of being diverted from it, was soon chivvying us along.

When we reached a less vertical section of the trek, and I'd regained my power of speech, I felt ready to grill Mbark about our surroundings. What kind of mountains were these anyway? These bushes - were they gorse? Who kept these tracks? Were we the least able trekkers he'd ever had the displeasure of leading?

Mbark, who in typical Moroccan fashion, turned out to speak a dozen languages, couldn't be stumped. This area, he believed, was red sandstone. Juniper bushes accounted for what little foliage there was. We were walking along routes between mountain villages that had been trampled for centuries, long before the tourism trade made them an attraction for hikers. And, yes, possibly, we were rather unsuited to the task ahead.

Slowly, however, we grew accustomed to the heat and the altitude and were soon being drawn along by the ever-changing landscape. The colour of the mountains veered from red to golden, the texture of the ground from dirt to rocks, the views from mountains to dry riverbeds. What we'd thought was scrubland at the beginning of our journey became lush fields as we climbed higher and through stretches where entire mountains appeared to be held up by the roots of a single gnarled tree or bush.

At the peak, in a village of subsistence farmers (quite what they subsist on is far from clear), we stopped for lunch. Mbark produced a hearty tub of rice salad, boiled eggs and bread, while a local man provided a carpet on which we lay in a state of reverie in the shade of the trees. He joined us for lunch while the youngest of his five children scampered up and down a dirt cliff to their home, filling bottles of water and sending instructions for mint tea. We had reached the summit of our journey in every way; it was one of those moments that you want to capture in a box and keep for ever. Even the merciless Mbark was seduced and agreed that a few extra minutes of lazing could do no harm.

Back on the track, the landscape changed once more, the path became narrow and vertiginous. This was of no concern to the children who followed us from the village, eventually plucking up the courage to start a whispering chant of " Bonjour. Stylo? Bonjour. Stylo?" (Morocco was a French protectorate for 50 years of the 20th century and maintains many of its links with France. All children are subsequently still taught French and Arabic.) Having shed what baggage we could for the hike, we had only one pen between us. But this was enough. The four children were delighted by the present and promised to share the pen.

All too quickly our trek was over and we were on the road being ferried back to Kasbah Tamadot. Ninety minutes' drive into the hills from Marrakesh, this is the latest of Richard Branson's resorts, and in the mould of the other properties in his portfolio, a hotel in which any nascent mountain goat - particularly of the more sybaritic breeds - would be happy to find itself.

A vast kasbah and previously the holiday home of an Italian artist and antiques dealer, Tamadot is now a palace of rest, relaxation and pampering. In prime position high on the edge of the Ourika valley between the towns of Imlil and Asni, it is an enclave of calm, kept apart from the chaos of Morocco by imposing gates. Inside is a labyrinth of individually styled rooms and suites, many with their own terrace, luxurious public spaces and plentiful facilities including gym, tennis courts, indoor lap pool, spa and hammam (Turkish bath).

Couples getting away from it all in style read and laze around the huge infinity pool at the centre of the complex. Dozens of tiptoeing minions work in the background ensuring that every desire is satisfied. All that, plus the uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountains and Berber village hugging the opposite slope, not forgetting year-round sun, adds up to the ultimate getting-away-from-it-all experience.

Our room, in the studio the previous owner built for himself, was reached through the extravagantly planted grounds. All the luxury hotel requisites - sumptuous bed, Bose CD player, cordless phones, fluffy robes, a dinner-plate-size shower-head and a bath big enough to take all the water in the river running far below - were there, except a flat-screen television. Tamadot, it explains in the room- service brochure, is a place to escape everything, and that includes CNN. If the need takes you, however, a television can be brought to you, with DVDs of your choice, along with a snack and another cup of mint tea. Phew. Although Tamadot is set up for kicking your feet up, dinner there * * feels like a rather formal, if delicious, experience - great for one or two evenings, but not more. If you want to spend a week here it's good to know that you can slob in front of the box in your robe and baboush slippers.

For those with rather more energy, Tamadot also serves as a base for horse-riding, skiing, trekking (from a six-hour outing into the Atlas Mountains to a challenging three-day ascent of Mount Toubkal) and that other Branson speciality, hot-air ballooning. The Saturday market in nearby Asni offers a delicious taste of local cuisine.

After two days of luxury, it was time to hit the road again - the Sahara beckoned. Climbing into one of Marrakesh's "grand" taxis that leave the city to take excursions, we headed south. By lunchtime, we had been to Iceland, the Campsies, California's wilderness, the Moon, and even Mars - such is the variety and extremity of Morocco's landscapes. It was an extraordinary drive, punctuated only by a pit-stop at a roadside café for a reviving, sugary, mint tea, and a few photo-ops that only served to emphasise the impossibility of capturing the landscape on film. Popping out of the car at Col du Tichka, we were 2,260m up the highest point on the ever-winding road, well below the elevation of the range's peak but already almost 1km above Britain's highest point.

Finally, tired but exhilarated, we were deposited at Hotel Ait Ben Moro, deep in the south of the country on the road out of Ouarzazate. This unprepossessing staging-post town has made a name for itself as Morocco's Hollywood and is home to two massive movie studios where films such as Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia were shot.

Ben Moro, another majestic converted kasbah, couldn't be further removed from Tamadot. Built in the 18th century, this crenellated fortress houses 16 functional rooms within its thick mud-and-straw rendered walls. A delightfully rustic and simple affair, the hotel is staffed by a handful of laid-back locals and the entertainment revolves around nibbling olives while watching the sun set over palm groves from the open-air terrace.

Before settling in, we strolled through the grove of trees heavy with dates, across a vast and bone-dry riverbed to the local sight, the Kasbah Amridil. For 10 dirham (less than £1), we took the spectacularly casual guided tour around this unreconstructed mansion, which offers a glimpse into life from times gone by.

Even after a full day's driving, we were only halfway to our destination, and the rest of the journey was to be completed in one of the legions of Land Rovers that ferry tourists about, on and off the region's narrow and often treacherous roads.

The "road of a thousand kasbahs" from Ouarzazate to the desert-edge town of Zagora is less mountainous but no less striking than the previous day's route over the High Atlas. It's clear why some Moroccans consider the Sahara to begin at Ouarzazate. Rocky terrain stretches to the horizon in all directions, interrupted infrequently by a burst of green signaling an oasis or the last few drops of water left in a riverbed. Expansive date palm groves make for a curious contrast and wherever we pass them, the roadsides are replete with date sellers offering freshly plucked fruit. They look dark, plump and tasty to us but our driver, Ali, dismisses them as second-rate. Tomorrow, he promises, he will find us the best dates in all of Morocco. He does - and they're gone in minutes.

Eventually we reach Zagora and it's time to swap our Land Rover for boats of the desert - magnificent dromedaries - to continue our desert voyage to the dunes of Erg Lihouidi. Contrary to expectation, they don't smell or spit, and after the precarious three-stage rocking - back legs, front legs, a bit more back leg for good measure - we're up and away, heading into the desert proper as the sun begins to set.

The long, noisy drive fades into memory and the only sounds are the gentle padding of our camels' feet through the soft sand and the " zeid, zeid" of our young nomad guides, encouraging our gallant beasts on their route deep into the Sahara.

In the fading light we crossed parched earth and desert-island cliché mounds made up of nothing other than a little heap of sand with a single palm tree poking out the top. Eventually our camels begin to edge their way across proper desert dunes. Even as the light fails, they seem to know exactly where they are going - a group of carpeted nomad tents appears in the sand. It takes time for our eyes to adjust but suddenly we realise we are surrounded by Lawrence of Arabia dunes. Shoes off, we run through the soft, warm sand to the top and lie there in stunned silence gazing at the stars twinkling in the night sky.

Being in the desert didn't mean leaving home comforts behind. Apart from the main tent, essentially an open-air living room, there were four others, each with a double bed, a washing tent with chemical toilet, shower and hand basin; there was even a kitchen tent from which a dinner was produced. It was Morocco's standard three courses - tomato, onion, cucumber and pepper salad to start, followed by tagine and then fresh fruit. But it tasted all the more delicious for the magical setting. The digestif? Lying atop a dune, sinking into what felt like warm cream cheese, chatting, laughing and falling silent in the Saharan night as our nomad companions sang gentle Berber tunes into the warm winds.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Simpson Travel (0845 811 6505; www.simpson-travel.com). Similar packages cost from £1,110 each in November. This includes flights to Marrakesh, transfers, two nights at Riad Jonan, two nights at Kasbah Tamadot, a "walk on the wild side" experience, one night at Kasbah Ait Ben Moro and an overnight desert adventure.

Fly from Heathrow on Royal Air Maroc (020-7307 5800; www.royalairmaroc.com) or Gatwick on Atlas Blue ( www.atlas-blue.com); GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick, Heathrow or Manchester.

STAYING THERE

Kasbah Tamadot, Afni, Marrakesh (0800 716 919; www.virginlimitededition.co.uk/kasbah). Doubles from €315 (£225), including breakfast.

Kasbah Ait Ben Moro, Skoura, Ouarzazate (00 212 44 85 21 16; www.maghrebtourism.com/benmoro). Doubles from 1,000 Dirhams (£62), half board.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Moroccan National Tourist Office (020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.com).

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