At 5.50am precisely, I am woken by the cow downstairs. My bedroom is just above hers and so her strident calls for milking are my alarm clock. I live in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco in a small village called Imlil; my little house is part of an Amazigh (Berber) family compound. There are around 25 of us in all and our houses are carved out of the rock of the mountains behind us, looking out onto a shared yard with a scattering of chickens.
I feel part of the family now, happy to nip into a neighbour’s house to borrow an onion, drink a glass of tea, or break the fast during Ramadan. This year, I made two chocolate cakes for Eid breakfast (one for the men and one for the women) and they were so well received that I think I’ve created a new tradition. That warmth of hospitality and easy affection is one of the reasons I’ve stayed for so long, but what drew me here originally was the magnificent heights of the country’s famed peaks.
Both the mountains and the welcome are waiting for visitors, too. When my good friends Harriet and Will and their two girls, Martha and Georgia, came to stay, we took off for three days camping and trekking.
One of the great advantages about camping in the Atlas is that most of the paths are created by goats, and are therefore mule-friendly. This means you don’t have to carry all your own food and equipment (and, an added bonus, you have soft ears to stroke at the end of the walk). We met our two under the shade of some walnut trees beside a stream opposite the path for our first climb.
Our guide, Rachid Imerhane, made sure we were all sun-creamed and hatted up and we set off on a long ascent up a dirt road. A flock of choughs flapped above us in the bright blue sky as we zigzagged up the mountain. Our views were all jagged peaks punctuated with tall pines as we wound up past Matat, a very typical Amazigh village of one-storey clay buildings baked hard by the sun. The windows have handmade wrought-iron grills and are painted with a border of white. “Do you know why?” Rachid asks us and, when we all shake our heads, answers for us: “It is so the ants can’t enter the house in summer. The white becomes very hot, and they can’t cross it with their bare feet.”
We reach a level camping spot just below the pass. Our muleteers have gone ahead to set up camp – when we arrive, the mules are eating happily under the juniper trees and we are met with tea and hot popcorn. That night we share a tajine under the stars, eating the traditional way, where you use your bread as a fork and scoop the steaming hot chicken and veg from the communal, pointy-lidded pot. The two things you need to know about eating tajine politely are to use your right hand and to stick to your lane – no dipping your bread into someone else’s section of the dish. After supper, Rachid and the muleteers get the drums out as we sit warming our feet at the campfire (the nights are cold even in summer).
Our next day’s hike takes us over the pass and down the mountain. On this side, it is the most extraordinary deep shade of red. We are heading to Azib Tamsoult and, when we are down in the bottom of the valley, the red gives way to green as we walk through fields and orchards. Water is life and a river runs through this area. We wade up and over the rocks and under small waterfalls while keeping an eye out for fat frogs.
We clamber up the black, spiky rocks to a barren clearance near the water. The peaks are high and dramatic, and directly behind our camp is an azeeb – a traditional shepherd’s enclosure. As dusk falls, we hear the sound of goats’ hooves and their bleating as the shepherd brings them in for the night. The enclosure is made of mountain boulders and reinforced with the thorny wood from the bushes that grow everywhere, known as Berber barbed wire.
In the morning, I get up early for a quick wash in the stream. It is freezing but invigorating, setting me up for our final pass. This one is our steepest climb yet and we are all glad of walking poles.
Tizi Mizik pass is at 2,300m (visualise Snowdon and Ben Nevis piled on top of each other) and we self-congratulate vigorously when we get to it. An enterprising man called Mohammed is up there selling freshly squeezed orange juice and we gulp it down, feeding the peel to our mules.
Below us, Imlil is laid out invitingly. We start our descent, looking forward to hot showers and comfortable beds, which will feel like the most indulgent of luxuries after our efforts in the high peaks of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
Most major airlines fly into Marrakech from the UK. Imlil is a 90-minute drive from there; transport can be arranged by your guide or your hotel and costs around £30-£50.
Trips can be tailor-made for you by the licensed guides’ office, who also arrange all your equipment, food and mules. Guides are all first-aid trained, speak great English (and a host of other languages) and are extremely knowledgeable and good fun.
The best times of year to hike are spring and autumn (we went in August and it was still great).
It’s important to take layers as, while the sun is very strong, it gets cold at night. Society in the mountains is very traditional and the women dress modestly, so bare shoulders and short shorts are best avoided; men are advised not to go shirtless or wear vests.
More from Alice and life in the Atlas can be found at alicemorrison.co.uk
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