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A Travelette Rocks The Kasbah
As a side trip from Marrakech, I headed into the Atlas Mountains. After an #active hike up to the mountain where I was met with a gorgeous view of the surrounding area, I got the chance to get a taste of local #culture and people. I really enjoyed getting out of busy Marrakech and seeing a different side of #Morocco.
Marrakech is a lot hotter than I remembered. That might be due to the fact that I was last here in November or that David Beckham is in town to celebrate his 40th birthday. Either way it is almost unbearable, even for me, the heat lover par excellence. So I am very grateful that Jose from Mountain Voyage has invited me to spend the night at Kasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains in the Imlil Valley, an hour and a half drive from Marrakech.
In case your geography is as bad as mine, Jbel Toubkal is the highest peak of Northern Africa with 4,160 m and shows snowy peaks all year long. In case you are a film buff, you will have come across it, albeit in disguise, in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. Its Tibet scenes were filmed here in 1997 back when the valley was still without electricity. Not only Nepalese extras, actors and two yaks had to be carried up the hill for authenticity, but also all the generators needed to make a full-fledged feature film.
The Imlil Valley consists of seven villages, all lush, green and fresh. As soon as I get out of the car I can feel the effects of David Beckham/Marrakech wearing off. I don’t even mind that my hike is starting a little earlier as I had planned as you have to walk from the Kasbah’s office in Imlil to get to the lodge.
Kasbah du Toubkal is a luxurious mountain lodge and a community program all in one. The land was bought in 1989 by Mike McHugo and local mountain guide Hajj Maurice and they refurbished the original buildings of the kasbah slowly and sustainably.
The lodge is run entirely by locals and is known for its Berber hospitality. The staff is not only the friendliest, but also like to share stories about their mountains and villages I am visiting.
Over the years, other community programs like a school for girls was brought to life as well as the improvement of working conditions for mules. While those two programs are obviously vastly different from each other, they are both handled with the same sensibility to local customs.
The school is run by women only and girls are given the chance to stay in their very own boarding houses in order to cut down the commute and offer the possibility of a safe home away from home. Mules lives are improved by watering stations along the longer hiking trails as well as better payment for their owners. In addition, sharp fishing lines are substituted with woven halters that are made out of recycled rope by women in the area and add to their comfort when taking overweight luggage or passengers up the mountain.
After all, there are only two ways to get to the Kasbah from Imlil: by foot or by mule. I am not given the option and neither is my suitcase as there are no mules available upon arrival and so my lovely guide is doing the honors. While I feel bad, I am already huffing and puffing, and there is no chance for me to drag my luggage and myself up there. Luckily, for both of us, the walk is short, I tip him well and swear to never travel to the mountains again with a Rimowa.
On top, the view is oh-so worth the effort and I am greeted in traditional Berber style: dates, cold almond milk, and some orange blossom scented water for my hands. After that, it is time for lunch on the rooftop overlooking the slopes and the mountain and I feel like I have stepped into The Sound of Music. While there is no music, the call to prayer makes up for it and at once I feel calm and oddly at home.
My suite comes with its own patio to enjoy the view further, leather slippers, and a water bottle for the hike – their water comes from a well fresh off the mountain and a tap is right in front of my doorstep. Recycling is big at the Kasbah du Toubkal so while there are some canned soft drinks in my fridge, water is only offered in filtered pitchers.
Filled bottle and hiking shoes ready, I set off with my personal guide Abdullah to explore the mountainside and villages around the Kasbah. The trek is easy enough and the views make up for the few steep hills we have to climb. We are far enough from the snowy peaks and from steamy Marrakech so the temperatures are perfect for a leisurely hike. If you are keen for more, there is always the Jbel Toubkal that can be climbed or its slopes to be explored on skies during the winter months. For only 10 dirhams for a day’s pass, it sounds like a great bargain to me and sounds so enticing that I almost vow to finally learn how to ski.
After an hour of up and down we are back in the valley and faced with a river to cross. Easier said than done and so we quickly borrow two mules from their friendly owner as one does when stuck in Imlil.
Girls, if you ever think about getting on a mule without a knight to help you up or a stool, do not attempt to do it in skinny jeans. Even when they have a lot of stretch it is impossible to look graceful when climbing up the back of an impatient animal. Somehow I manage and the mules get us safely and with dry feet to the other side where we continue our walk.
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Now it is through the village with narrow and windy streets. All houses, some still built out of traditional mud, are neatly numbered for the mailman and of course, there is an internet cafe. We opt to stop for tea at a roadside stall.
The kind owner puts a cup in my hand and yes if I want a real Berber carpet with my tea that can be arranged too. While I’m grateful for the opportunity, I politely decline and rather listen to Abdullah who offers me quite a few goats for my hand in marriage. I tell him about an imaginary boyfriend and declare that if his goats ain’t cashmere, we don't have a deal. He laughs and we walk on, I think he knows not to count on me.
Back at the Kasbah I get to soak my tired muscles in their very own hammam. Unfortunately, I have to do my own scrubbing but in return I have the little steamy room all to myself for half an hour of warm bliss. I wrap myself in one of the traditional robes that are provided in my room and declare it perfect time for a sundowner. Only, the Kasbah and all its staff are Muslim so there is no alcohol for sale out of respect. While missing out on a good source of income, Mike and Hajj deemed it an important part of keeping it a truly local experience. You are, however, allowed to bring your own beer and wine and they will gladly provide opener and glasses.
Without this first-hand knowledge, I have to stay a teetotaler over dinner of soup, lamb tagine and stewed apples from the village. I don’t mind very much as my bed is calling me after a day of fresh mountain air and practicing my muleteer skills. I sleep soundly and not even the call to Fajr can wake me here as it usually does in the city.
The next morning after breakfast I make my way back down to Imlil. This time I have a mule and a muleteer and while the mule needs a little encouragement every once in a while, it seems happy enough to ‘help’ with my luggage. My driver is waiting for me at the bottom and I am whisked through the serpentine road back to Marrakech. I make my way through the crumbling roads to my riad and wonder why the city feels not as oppressively hot and busy anymore. I am not sure if it is me or Marrakech, but I seem to have brought a breath of fresh air from Jbel Toubkal. What a difference a day makes, a day of echoes in the mountains and hills that are alive with music.
Disclaimer: I got invited by Mountain Voyage to spend the night in one of their junior suites and they organized a private transport from and to Marrakech for me. If you are on a smaller budget there are public buses to Imlil and dorm rooms are also available in the Kasbah. Note that you need to be reasonably fit to get up there and mules are not always available.