Cristian

Cristian

With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I own and manage Sun Trails.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021 13:55

Dar Ahlam - the house of dreams

wild camping 2

Are you planning your honeymoon in Morocco ? Or wish to experience sensations you never experienced when staying in a hotel before ?

Then, this is the place. But let's start with the beginning. 19 years ago, a man had a dream. He had fallen in love with Morocco and aspired to create a place where his guests would stay, yet as remote an experience from a hotel as possible. Having previously worked with actors and film- sets, he dreamt of a place that would shun away from all the flaws afflicting a typical guest- ouse and instead create a world of emotions, magic, where there is no limits as to how much you can surprise your guests. Thus Dar Ahlam, the House of Dreams, was born. From the opening, it set new heights, established itself as one of the most exclusive addresses in Morocco and continues to inspire those of us that believe that traveling is much hmore than a brick- and- mortar, 9 to 5 affair. Meals, experiences and room settings are constantly reinvented, which renders irrelevant the question when is it best to visit Morocco. Over the years, a few of Sun Trails' guests stayed here while on a private tour - not only the exclusivity comes with a price tag, but one needs time and a certain mindset to enjoy the unique concept. We also wanted to ask more pertinent questions such as how different will traveling be in a world post- travel bans and Covid restrictions or how can tourism empower local communities. To answer these questions and demystify some of Dar Ahlam's charm ( only just... ), we had the pleasure to interview Thierry Teyssier, the man with the dream.

Jardin dhiver 7 

Sun Trails: You opened Dar Ahlam in 2002. Back then, there wasn't much happening outside Marrakech and Fes in terms of luxury and original properties. Why Skoura and would you do it differently now, that 20 years have gone by ?

Thierry Teyssier: Absolutely not. I would do it again the same way. Although 20 years ago Marrakech was paradise compared to today and you had 40- 50 guest- houses open ( as opposed to more than 2000 in 2021), with beautiful villas in the Palmgrove and riads in the medina, the Palmgrove nowadays is not a palm grove anymore, but just a large condominium.

ST: Why not Tafraoute, Taroudant, Meknes or somewhere else rather than Skoura ?

TT: I wanted to be in the middle of nature. I wasn't particularly stuck on Skoura, but people around me told me about it. Fint ( Oasis of Fint) was more known, but since Skoura was on the way to Dades Gorges and Roses Valley, they said: 'You should go and have a look'. It turns out one day in mid- April, I was scouting for locations not far away and so we decided to go and look and when I arrived on site, it was very beautiful: all the plants were in bloom, the water was gurgling in the seguias, the sun was setting, birds singing in the trees - it was really paradise. So I told myself: It has to be here !

ST: I can relate to that in the way that I had passed by Skoura a few times on the way to the desert and wondered from my bus window what hides behind the palm trees. The day I found out, I realized how much I had missed.

TT: It's true. Nobody used to stop. I think with the opening of Dar Ahlam, many people started to enquire about Skoura, even when not staying with us. And that lead to many other guest houses sprouting around the palm grove. I'm very proud to have been part of it.

Dîner à lherboristerie

ST: What would you have done differently, now that 20 years have gone by ? Added more rooms, removed a few ? What exactly ?

TT: I would have created smaller houses and I would have created an itinerary throughout the nearby villages. Something to include the local communities so that they understand the impact of tourism. So instead of the Dar Ahlam we have today, spread on a few hectares inside the palmgrove of Skoura, have several smaller units spread over a wider area, for there are so many stunning little villages here in the south of Morocco that people should tour. Like we do with the Memory Road ( further south) but adapt it to the villages close to the High Atlas.

ST: So, sort of focus more on itinerant experiences rather than all in one site ?

TT: Absolutely.

ST: So your house offers 14 rooms, 7 in the kasbah and 7 around the garden. You employ a staff of around 100, which speaks volumes about the attention to the detail. Did you have this in mind before starting the project or is it something that imposed itself once the property was open ?

TT: We didn't have any numbers in mind. You see, we start with the guest. I know I wanted to offer special experiences, different set- ups, sceneries so you, the guest, can live a special moment. With that in mind, we then had to decide how many staff have to be involved so we can deliver on that promise. There are also restrictions from outside, on which we have no control. Some flights arrive in Ouarzazate at 1H30 AM, so guests would arrive around 2 AM at the guest house. Other flights leave at 7 AM which means guests will have to leave here around 5 AM. All this implies that we have no choice but to offer a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week service. So several shifts, hence the large numbers of our staff.

Argan

ST: How does your previous experience in event planning relate to what you want to offer at Dar Ahlam ?

TT: Well, I have a background in working with actors, so the mises- en- scene are important to me. It wasn't like I thought: 'I'm going to change the world of hospitality' or be 20 years in advance on everyone else. You know, I have 4 kids and I used to travel with them when they were little. Four kids are a nightmare, for the staff and for the other guests. So, along my travels, I used to write down what I disliked in terms of service and how much I detest hospitality protocols . I then tried to find solutions for these issues. The problem is hoteliers stay focused on their own organizational problems instead of being at your service. Put the traveller first. Start with that. Look, I think check in at 4 PM is not acceptable. If you arrive at 5 AM in a location, and you want your bedroom, they'll tell you: 'Oh, you should have booked an extra night'. That's nonsense.

ST: So, you mean, perhaps reverting to the old meaning of word 'hospitality' and not come at it from an industry point of view.

TT: Yes.

ST: When you describe Dar Ahlam, it says somewhere: 'No one is around' What do you mean ? There is literally no one around or actually there is someone, but you'll only see them when you need them ?

TT: That is partly true. What I meant is that we do our utmost for you to share privacy and where you are, there are no other guests around. We don't have any 'public spaces' here, like bars, restaurants, etc. You come stay with us on a Morocco with children holiday. You can also be on a Morocco honeymoon or a romantic getaway. You'll always be guaranteed privacy. I want every guest to enjoy an exclusive moment here, with us.

ST: Is it easy to mitigate all these different guests and personalities, especially at busy periods ?

TT: Well, that's what we are good at. We have so many choices around here. Look, you can stay with us for 2 weeks and never have lunch or dinner in the same spot or the same recipes.

ST: 'Modern comforts and necessary technologies' Would you care to comment on that ?

TT: When you come to the south of Morocco, in the middle of nowhere, you need to have the minimum: hot showers, air conditioning, heating, heated pool, high speed internet. We have 4 different contracts with internet providers to make sure you get the best connection available in Morocco.

OndineSimon un dîner sous les étoiles

ST: What can you sample from the palm grove of Skoura and how 'organic' is that ?

TT: For the last 20 years we had our own orchard, without no chemicals to help plants grow. We also have two other orchards outside the guesthouse, to complement that. Moreover, we collaborate with local producers. Every single morning, you can go inside the kitchen and see the team, mostly local women taking to the orchard with the chef and deciding on the spot what lunch that day will consist of. Just one example, your green salad in your starter dish will be plucked just one hour before lunch. You can't imagine how fresh that tastes. One of our former chefs has retired recently. We paid him 6 months wage just to stay at home, his home and work on his garden so he can produce veggies for us that we then bought off him.

ST: Dar Ahlam was branded a hotel that will 'change your life'. Do you think that still holds true nowadays, post travel bans and restrictions ?

TT: Yes, more than ever. Because you need to reconnect with real roots. Travel, post- pandemic, will rebecome essential. It will also be different. It's not going to be sipping a cocktail by a pool, or any other such trifle you can have anywhere in the world. Here at Dar Ahlam, you are connected with local people and enjoy real experiences. A couple of Americans that left this morning, told us that during the pandemic they started to enjoy traveling to more hidden, off- the- beaten- places and that Dar Ahlam was just that.

ST: Yes, well, it's always tricky as to where you do you stop 'innovating' and where do you start minding about the local community and how your actions impact on the local ecosystem. It's a fine balance.

TT: It's true. At Dar Ahlam, we try and be mindful of that. When we hire our staff, we try and spread out evenly, thus we employ only one person per family, to make sure that as many families as possible can benefit. We invested in a water recycling system so we can save water and not use more than we need. We started to work with a glass recycling plant in Marrakech. We work with local women cooperatives. We have two main issues in Skoura: trash recycling and water management. Then it's also about changing mentalities: growing water melons in water- scarce regions is nothing short of a catastrophe. Add to that less rain in the last 10 years. We need to try and adapt and find solutions.

Pressoir 1

ST: Your guesthouse has inspired many other around Morocco, in the sense of offering more experiences, creating surprises and cherishing memories. Morocco also has the advantage of the year- round good weather and such a diverse landscape.

TT: It's true and that's where I think things are headed for in hospitality. And you don't have to give it the luxury coating. It can be simple, yet powerful.

ST: Well, I think you are right. On our private Morocco tours, I'm often worried about the details but sometimes guests are moved by small things. They could be in a great location in the middle of nowhere, having a snack with canned tuna and La Vache Qui Rit cheese and for them it would be the highlight of their trip.

TT: ( Laughs) Well, with us we change LVQR with fresh goat cheese and herbs complemented with freshly baked bread, but the experience is the same. And that's the DNA for the years to come.

ST: What can guests expect from the cuisine of Dar Ahlam ?

TT: I like the chefs to rotate because I want to train my team and second of all, sometimes simplicity is the hardest to achieve. Look, if you spend 10 days in Morocco, tagine every day couscous every day... stop it. I just want a green salad and fresh veggies, but not cooked into a tagine with heaps of oil. I've been here continuously for 6 months and the first person to suggest to me a vegetarian tagine, I'll probably kill him. We are constantly improving. For instance, you can have a tomato salad, but instead of a dressing you will have a Savora mustard ice cream on top. So the ice cream becomes the dressing. That's one of the examples of what we like to do here. We do certainly serve meat, we are not limiting ourselves to vegetarian. We also have a great fish supplier from Marrakech and so you can sample some choice fish dishes here. We innovate, but always using local produce. The only exception to that is chocolate. That one we need to import, there's no way around it. We also produce our own in- house spice mix, that you can sprinkle ready- made on your fresh vegetables.

Pressoir 2

ST: How do you justify the price which is north of 1000 euros per night, to stay at Dar Ahlam ?

TT: Well, we don't sell bedrooms here. And to stay just one night, it doesn't make sense. If you consider us merely a hotel, I'd say don't stay here. You will be disappointed. I prefer you go to a nearby guest house. Some people have this idea of staying at Dar Ahlam on their way to the desert, to break down the distance. If you arrive here at 5 PM and leave next morning after breakfast, you'll completely miss what this place is about. So, you know what ? Don't stay here ! We don't sell nights here. We sell an exclusive moment. Regarding the price, it is true that rates may seem high, but compare this to some top hotels in Marrakech and you will see that you may come out more expensive there, because they only sell you the room. Add the meals and drinks, add the guided tours, add the private transport, the airport transfers and it's going come out a lot more in the end. More than with Dar Ahlam.

ST: For me it's the surprise factor. Having my next meal in the middle of some sumptuous gorges, with no one else around, with perhaps a bottle of wine and private waiter is something you can't put a price on.

TT: 100 percent correct. And my goal is to keep things as secretive as possible. Of course, we've been around for 20 years and we had quite a few magazine covers, but ideally I'd like to keep it intimate. A tip you give your best friends. I would hate to have to refuse booking requests. To have a full house most of the time. Simple address, very sophisticated in details, but not for everyone. I prefer you as a travel agent to send us guests twice a year, but the right kind of guests. And we decided to stop offering bookings of just one night. Even 2 nights is short if you think about it, but it's really a minimum.

Dîner au Hammam

ST: You decided years ago to set up an ephemeral luxury desert camp close to Foum Zguid, not too far from the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Why not Erg Chebbi, where most of the Morocco luxury camps are located ?

TT: Because there is no one there, next to the dry Iriki Lake. We don't operate a permanent camp. There will be only you, by yourself. We don't want to be next to one hundred other camps. Some time ago, another camp arrived next to us and so we moved further away.

ST: Can you talk about the DAEM and 700.000 heures projects ?

TT: Well, instead of the usual green washing and saying 'we are going to help the community', in the south of Morocco we decided to go all in and do something together with the whole community. We're going to rent rooms in the village, it's an abandoned village, it's a partnership with the association Les Gardiens de la Mémoire of David and Salima and the village and we will sponsor refurbishing public houses, so that the ancient village can return to life. For every single dirham given to a family we will also give one to the association, so that even those villagers that don't own a house can benefit from this project. We will organize workshops and work with the local women. We will need palm trees. The local maalems will be in charge of the work. A team to rebuild the village, one to work the wood, one to clean the palm grove, we'll also try and create something sustainable in terms of small scale agriculture. The purpose is to get as much of the community as possible involved. We'll also have spaces for children inside the old village. There will be no electricity, no water pipes, we'll try out traditional ways, low- tech.

ST: If you are talking about Tiskmoudine, I will be there in a few days and can't wait to see the progress of the work.

TT: Yes, it is Tiskmoudine and of course, I encourage you to go and see for yourself, but keep in mind it's a work in progress and we hope to see it finished in September.

OndineSimon la forge

ST: How can we, as actors of tourism, make a difference in the local community, spurring cultural exchange, without commodifying the local ways and also making sure that local communities don't grow to rely only on tourism as a source of income ?

TT: Well, presently, given the pandemic and the travel restrictions, it's quite hard for them because they don't have much to live on. What we are doing is a trial and error, so even if we make mistakes, we'll amend them. The best part is that since the funds go to the association of the village, they get to decide what to do with them. Do we want to have an ambulance ? Do we want to pay the bills for the poorest families in the village ? Our interests are aligned. And if one party doesn't play fair, the effects will be felt immediately. And having Global Heritage Fund onboard will also help with the redistribution.

ST: What probably will make a big difference is transparency. If, as you say, the effect of not following through is immediately visible, it will act as a deterrent and will hopefully stoke local people to make the best of this collaboration.

TT: Indeed.

ST: How did your vision about your projects changed with the pandemic and the Morocco travel bans ?

Déjeuner dans une vieille casbah 1

TT: Well, we've got some delays with our 700.000 hours project but our travel club is working as scheduled and very demanded. We are focused more on Europe and Morocco, particularly the project in Tiskmoudine. We have our portfolio of faithful guests and they will follow us wherever we open new initiatives.

ST: What is the location you feel most fond of in Morocco and what is the most essential aspect of traveling ?

TT: In Morocco, it's got to be the south of Morocco. This impression of being in a different country every few hours. The local communities and cultures. From Guelmine, Tata, Akka. Tafraoute, perhaps too, but a little too touristy.  The most important part to travel is meeting people within their own culture. That's what tourism industry missed on and damaged many parts of the world. First, one needs to empower the local people to understand what they have as a heritage, as a culture. Second, you need to explain to the guest what they are going to witness and how they will interact with the area. Three, you need to connect them. Traveling is not about the destination, but opening your eyes on the world and its magic. When one travels, he should spend the least time inside his room. What is there to discover next to the swimming pool ?

ST: Thank you Thierry. Thank you, Stephanie.

Une tente berbère dans le jardin

© Sun Trails 2021. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

 

 

Tuesday, 02 March 2021 12:05

Trekking in Morocco 15 things to know

 plateau de tazarart break on the trek

Trekking in Morocco: when, how, where, for how long and other such essentials.

With 16 years of in- country living, the best part about Morocco and hiking around it must be the wilderness, the untamed nature of its topography. Virtually devoid of well signalled routes, camping areas, mountain gites or via ferratas, the traveler is besotted by the virginal aspect of a terrain instilling the feeling of treading where few, if any, have treaded before. For let's face it: Don't we all relish the feeling of exploring, of having pioneered a certain route ? Then, there is another cachet, perhaps intertwined with the previous, which is a certain way of life that has so far endured over centuries: whether in the Sahara desert or on the steep slopes of the Atlas, where your path will cross that of shepherds and mountain dwellers. They will most likely invite you for a tea, glad to cross trails with other souls amidst these otherwise remote realms, in spite of any language barriers. Hamlets stuck in time where water mills still grind the grains into flour, where horses graze freely by the brook or the mules still trot over the wheat stalks lying strewn across the stone- build threshing plot. And hospitality, above all, natural, spontaneous, instinctive.

amtoudi natural pools

When to trek in Morocco ?

Morocco travel restrictions will eventually ease up and wane completely by summer 2021. In spite of what some deem 'the best time of year to visit Morocco', there is no such thing. Even more so when it comes to hiking in Morocco. Visiting Morocco and trekking in Morocco can be done all year round. As a rule of thumb, from November to March you are likely to encounter snow over an average altitude of 2000 meters high. And, except for few aficionados, trekking in snow is not fun, to not mention the additional issues: special gear, thermal sleeping bags, reinforced tents, etc.

( Disclaimer: all below photos were taken by us ( Sun Trails team) during our various treks over the past 5 years )

gite at 3000 meters altitude high atlasTazarart refuge, May 2017

The seasons: in winter ( November to March), the Anti Atlas is ideal for trekking and in particular the region east of Guelmin, with an average elevation between 1000 and 1800 meters in altitude. How would you like to stumble upon milennia- old engravings depicting archers or ostrichs ? In other countries, the spot would be safeguarded. Not in Morocco. The landscape is austere, to say the least, yet the trekker is rewarded with lush uncanny palm groves and oases, materializing  when one has almost given up hope, sun- blinded after hours of desert trekking. Temperatures can be chilly at night, expect 7 to 12 degrees Celsius and comfortable day time ( 20- 25 Celsius). In the winter, in the High Atlas you will find snow above 2000 meters high. The Sagho range ( between the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas) with its shards of dark stone pointing out skywards, is also a great choice in the season, but temperatures might be somewhat cooler. In case you wish to blend Sahara dunes and mountain trekking, Jebel Bani, a 400 km long ridge bordering the Sahara, averages 600 meters in altitude.

tizi moussem and snowy peaks  High Atlas mountains view, December 2020

From March to November, focus on the High Atlas, the Middle Atlas and the Riff mountains. Temperatures will not rise over 27- 30 Celsius as long as you will keep over 1800 meters altitude. The Toubkal peak is best approached during this time of year, but it is also the period that sees most tourists. If you wish to climb up to 4000 meters high without the crowds, there are other options available ( minimum over 2 days) in the area, also with a base around Imlil. Yet wilder landscapes are to be found around Mgoun peak, with a base in Skoura's palm grove. From there, ascend to 3000 meters high and stumble across lost- in- time villages, where life hasn't changed that much as centuries passed by.

amtoudi natural pools

Anti Atlas natural pools, January 2021

How many days you need for a Morocco trek ?

First of all, we should define what we exactly mean by trekking. Trekking, per our definition, is at least a half a day endeavour, over hilly terrain ( not necessarily hardcore) requiring a minimum level of fitness and/ or endurance. Walking around a village on one of the many stops along your private Morocco tour, doesn't qualify as trekking as per the intentions of this article. In Morocco, we'd recommend anywhere between 2 and 6 days of continuous trekking. 2 days is a minimum to immerse oneself in the local culture. It would prove rather strenuous to go for more than 6 days without regular hot showers, proper mattress and all the rest of comforts of a modern lifestyle. Also, remember to make responsible choices. In May 2018, on our trek up to Tazarart plateau, one of us almost didn't make it back. Almost. Over the course of one day we hiked from 3000 to 4000 and descended from 4000 to 1500 meters. In general, you should keep to maximum 1000 meters of altitude difference a day. Also keep in mind that the closer you get to 4000 meters, the likelier the altitude sickness will kick in. If you've never experienced that altitude, don't just assume things will go well by default. 

waterfalls roulidane high atlas in december

Roulidane waterfalls, December 2021

Where to trek in Morocco ?

Depending on what you'd like to encounter in terms of landscapes and local experiences, you are spoiled for choices. If you wish to avoid the crowds, keep away from Imlil and Toubkal. Todra gorges and Dades gorges are also very popular with groups of tourists making their way from the Sahara to Marrakech or the opposite. Riff Mountains can get very crowded during summer holidays as Moroccans favor Chefchaouen and Tangier for their holidays.  For more ideas, have a look at some of the treks we've completed over the last few years. Most of the starting locations that can be accessed by car: Imlil ( from Marrakech), Tafraoute ( from Agadir), Skoura ( from Ouarzazate), Tamanart Valley ( from Tafraoute), Chefchaouen ( from Tangier) and that's where you should aim to arrange for meeting your local guide.

high atlas wedding procession

High Atlas mountains wedding procession, May 2018

How to travel to Morocco ?

If you travel from Australia, Asia or the US, flights direct into Casablanca are available. Once travel restrictions are off, most likely later in 2021, Marrakech and to a lesser extent, Agadir, are very well connected to the main airports in Europe ( especially Italy, Spain and France) but also the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, etc. with low cost and mainstream carriers. These cities are also the two best positioned sites in terms of logistics, as both of them offer multiple trekking opportunities within a little more than one hour drive away. You can also cross over the Gibraltar strait by ferry ( a 2 hour endeavour, including paperwork and boarding), into Tangier, but that is hardly practical as the only mountain range close by is the Riff Mountains, where Chefchaouen, the blue village, is the main attraction. Tangier lies 6 hour drive away from Marrakech and 7- 8 hours by train.

rock climbing anti atlas lucian

Clambering rocks in the Anti Atlas gorges, February 2018

How expensive it is to trek in Morocco ?

The expenses can be minimal if you are planning on self autonomy. We wouldn't recommend that option though, first of all from a safety point of view ( more on that in the Is it Safe paragraph). If you employ the services of a local guide, foresee a fare of about 300- 400 dirhams ( 30- 40 US dollars) per day. If you are looking to also have a muleteer and a mule to carry some of your luggage and cook one or two hot meals a day, the fares will considerably increase. Don't forget to factor in the transport from the main city ( Marrakech, Casablanca or Agadir ) to the starting point of your trek. Some of these locations can be accessed by public transport ( collective taxis ) whereas for others you will need either a driver with a 4x4 or a rent- a- car.

paradise valley guelta

Paradise Valley, close to Agadir, May 2016

What to pack for a Morocco trek ?

Even in winter months, the sun can be ruthless. We suggest a wide brim hat. Ankle- level hiking boots are essential, considering the rocky terrain. Crampons will make a difference, notably since much of the time you'll be walking on slippery surfaces. Wearing low- ankle shoes may expose you to jags, low spiky thickets and other rolling rocks. They don't have to be waterproof- the likelihood of rain is quite scarce. From March to mid November a light sleeping bag will do. The rest of the year, we suggest a reinforced sleeping bag, capable to endure temperatures as low as -5 Celsius. Mountain water sources are not as dense as in other mountain ranges around the world, so we'd suggest carrying at least 2 liters of water with you at all times. Locally, you are not offered a great choice of canteens or collapsible water bottles, so think of bringing your own.

high atlas mountains roof terrace march 2019

Roof terrace Tizi Moussem, High Atlas, March 2019

Maps and itineraries: there are some written guides but not as many as you'd expect. In general, we always recommend employing the services of a local guide, even when the trek is easy and the change in altitude is minimal. Most of the them will speak French and some speak English.

Autonomy and mules: it is practical hiring mules through your local guide, if you wish to not have to carry all of your provisions, tent, sleeping bag, etc. Having a mule and a muleteer which doubles as a cook ensures at least a warm meal every day. Please remember there are very few refuges in Morocco compared to Europe or other parts of the world. Naturally, from time to time, even if you only have a local guide with you, you'll still be able to arrange for a hot meal here and there.

Camping and making fires: there are literally no camping sites up in the mountains. It's more or less a question of camping on a plain surface and devoid of rocks. Even the rockiest or steepest of landscapes can be someone's property, but your guide will smooth out any lost- in- translation situations. For any trek more than an overnight, you'll need a gas cartridge and stove ( can be bought locally). It is forbidden to light fires inside national parks. If you are outside a national park, consider the fact that wood is scarce in Morocco and the local shepherds and nomads need it for their daily use. 

tizi moussem berber village

Berber village, 1800 meters altitude, October 2020

Can I include the desert in a Morocco trek ?

A distinction must be made between Sahara desert ( sand dunes/ camel treks/ million stars ) and rocky deserts which inform the particular landscapes of the Anti Atlas mountain range and their fringes. Since only a reduced part of the Sahara desert actually lies within Morocco, it would make little sense if at all to trek over several days in the dunes, unless you wish to revisit similar landscapes over several days. The change in altitude will also miss from the mix. Can you trek the dunes and the mountains in the same day ? Well, yes and no. Smaller ergs (dunes) are found south of the Anti Atlas mountains, yet the diversity of landcapes will wane and ideally you'd want to keep your senses awake. Especially more so when Morocco is also known for 'getting from snow to desert dunes' in the same day. If you are looking to visit the Sahara desert and trek in the High Atlas mountains, we recommend giving yourself at least 7 days in Morocco.

imi n ifri rock formation

Imi n Ifri gorges, Middle Atlas mountains, August 2019

Acquire gear and necessities locally.
Although a few years ago, Decathlon has opened shop in the large cities in Morocco, you are still short of finding variety of instant foods, trekking socks or dehydrated meals. You will find basic gear including gas heaters, coffee thermos, power bars, rain ponchos, etc. Also, if you are into hardcore trekking and you'll need ice axes or other niche items, better check with your local organizer first.

colourful donkey and apples

Mule and its colorful charge, High Atlas mountains, October 2018

Is it safe to trek in Morocco ?

With the exception of the murder of two foreign tourists next to Imlil in 2018, Morocco is a very safe country to travel to and most of our guests felt safer in Morocco than in Barcelona or Istambul. As mentioned formerly, we strongly encourage hiring a local guide: there are virtually no marked trekking routes, the need of an intermediary between the locals and yourself and someone to liaise with the local services in case you have an accident. Emergency services: in case of a trekking accident, only large cities boast western- level clinics: Marrakech, Agadir, Ourzazate. Please make sure to ensure your travel insurance covers any accident- related injuries.

gorges amtoudi sunset

Anti Atlas mountains canyon and natural pools, January 2021

How to arrange for a trek in Morocco ?

The question you'd have to ask yourself is whether you'd like to only focus on the trekking while in Morocco or include it along with some time in the Sahara and/ or the imperial cities. If the first option, you can either enquire with local guides before arriving into the country ( make sure they are licensed) or else make your way to starting locations ( Tafraoute, Imlil, Skoura, etc.) and enquire locally. If the second option, you might want to have your trekking arrangements made through a local private tour operator, that would ideally take care of your trekking arrangements ( local guide, mules, meals, gear, etc.) as well as the rest of your private tour including private transport, meals, local guides, entrance fees to monuments, etc. For instance, Leigh and John, all the way from Canada, entrusted us to arrange for them a two week private tour to include 2 days of just trekking: https://hikebiketravel.com/a-2-day-hike-in-the-anti-atlas-mountains-morocco/.

children trekking next to Imlil

Above Imlil village, 1900 meters altitude, March 2019

 © Sun Trails 2021. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Thursday, 21 January 2021 13:55

Work from home? No, thank you- 1

In these series, we detail how the Covid restrictions and the trend to work from home, have but amplified our natural propensity to explore Morocco. After all, it's about trails. And sun.

Part 1: The desert, the water and the djinnoun.

small granary at Amtoudi

Water diviners. Overhanging fortresses. Gold diggers. Sculpted boulders, wells in the desert, trees sprouting out of rock. Treasure hunters, tears of lava - is this how legends are pieced together ? I am told of an aged man fetched all the way in Tiznit, treading these hollows holding olive tree twigs. When water is nigh, leaves flutter. At least, in his hands they do. Yet, it appears the olive tree is not absolutely necessary; a youngster from a nearby village bears the gift of 'hearing' the underground sources. The spell is cast, yet my more rational side pulls me back to the immediate reality. Hassan, my local guide, is quite the story teller, but I start wondering if he's not making things up as we trail along.

nomad cemetery

In this barren immensity, rolling brows and crags of rock dotted by tufts and shrubs, one has to possess a sharp eye. Discern intention. Nature or man. A heap of stones or a an ancient burial chamber ? Rocks piled up on top of each other, erosion's natural outcome ? Or a shepherd’s den ? A vantage point ? Mountain tops or village fortresses ? Without doubt, the too many hours spent in front of a screen don't give me an edge.

I have taken up a two day trek in the Anti Atlas mountains and our departure point this morning was somewhere south of Tafraoute. The ruined village we leave behind is said to have fostered a Jewish community. Hassan points out the marks of someone's recent excavations, testimony to the local myth of treasure hunters. If there's smoke, there is fire... Later, I hear about some which did strike it lucky.

tree burrowing rock

Despite the appearance of a rubble desert, not one hour goes by that we don't cross another soul, mostly nomads, going about their business, which is taking their camels and goats to the next pasture land. And what can grow in the desert ? While crossing a gully, I stumble upon a giant snake burrowed in the rocks. It turns out to be the root of an argan tree. How could it make its way across, or rather through, it's beyond my comprehension. Later in the day, sundry colours grace the stones around us, from the ubiquitous beige and dark grey to burgundy and even turquoise.

gueltas at Boulakouass

Ancient rock engravings etched on canyon's wall portray goats and bovines. At least that's what I make out. Nearby, the water surfaces, creating natural pools deep enough to bathe in, the gueltas. Bordering them, a 30 feet horizontal slab gave birth to most peculiar rock shapes, like horizontal and parallel rows of miniature sarcophagi stacked one next to each other. At night, my guide relates, it becomes the ideal spot to spy on wild animals , gazelles, rabbits or foxes looking to quench their thirst.

sarcofagi at boulaquasse

Late afternoon, we descend onto dramatic canyons, the gigantic slab walls ominous, humbling, their protruding jabs almost menacing. At the bottom of the gorge, we pause and drink straight from the source, rewarded, grateful. The lava caught in time on the side of the canyon, is redolent of wax dripping on candles, silent testimony that at some point in time, year ago ( thousands, millions ?) a volcano spilled over. As the night falls, the call of the muezzin resonates through the valley, a mundane reminder that the supernatural reins.

rock engravings

Next day, I wake up refreshed after my first night in a real bed in a few days. If my legs seem to have recovered from the 9 hours of walking of the previous day, my feet not quite so: I feel blisters shaping up, double- layer socks or not. Yet, who can fret about such trifles when the sun already bathes the valley with its rays ? The girls are preparing for school and giggle around the house, while Hassan is busy performing his morning prayers. Before long, the breakfast is ready and we're feasting on pancakes draped in honey and coffee, a once a day exception for my guide who is otherwise addicted to atay, like any other Moroccan. After breakfast, I saunter around the village alleys and muse about the distance both literally and not so, between here and the world out there, quelled by an invisible, yet ravaging pandemic.

gorges Amtoudi source

With only 5 hours of walking ahead of us, we allow ourselves a late morning. Later, we climb north and leave the village behind. To my left, I wave a silent goodbye to the granary, the stately guardian of the valley. Soon, we are aspirated back into the immensity and desolation of the rubble desert.

granary at Amtoudi

Beyond the next brow, lies a cave. A cave large enough to live in, my guide insists. In principle, grottoes are for animals when rain falls over, while the nomads shelter under their tents, waterproofed by plastic layers. Wouldn't you protect first your most precious goods ? Unless, it is that kind of cave... For the ones that come at night. The ones that can not be seen. The djinnoun. Mentioned in the Qor'an, the spirits, still hold a special place in the collective imaginary of the Berbers. Traditionally, they are believed sometimes to dwell in caves and it used to be a local wont to leave offerings for them ( grains or other edible goods) at the mouth of certain such caves, to appease and propitiate them, a practice somewhat still heathen to the more orthodox Islam. Gradually, we settle into a mute mechanic trudge. The repeated pattern. Oued, brow, oued, brow. How can one explain what oued is ? Not a river, rather an intermittent stream, whose flow relies on rain and the water table.

kasbah in the shade
Today will be completely distinct from yesterday. From 11 AM until 5 PM when we finally arrive at our destination, the only living soul we cross is a wild rabbit. The silence and the humdrum trek are only punctuated by my guide's remarks. Here, he points out how traces of wild animals, rabbits, gazelles, coyotes, and how they converge on the same trail to mean that water is not far. There, he motions me to glimpse in the distance to a chink in the thicket of piled- up slabs; what I thought was a tiny cave turns out to be a well, furnished with a string and bottle, so that any itinerant can help himself to drinking water. Where two dry bed rivers meet, a cemetery lies, its pointed slabs jutting out skywards. A nomad cemetery, by all evidence, as no traces of a hamlet or den litters the site. Hassan lifts his two palms towards the sky and from his whispers comes out a hushed litany to honour the dead.

hassan pouring moroccan tea

Later, we stop for lunch. My guide offers canned sardines. I offer half a pack of camembert cheese and we end up spreading it on the freshly baked bread that we fetched with us from the village. Moments later, atay is poured and our occasional sluices is the only thing disturbing the monumental, almost baleful silence. I wouldn't trade this moment for the best restaurant in Bordeaux. Instead of itching to check my phone for instant gratification, I feel gratified when the No Service mention shows up. Has anyone picnicked here before ? On the same spot ? Treaded in the same steps ? Boulders abraded by sun and wind, has anything else brushed against you ?

gueltas for picnic

Everything surrounding us makes it unlikely. For there is no trail or signs to speak of. I'm relying on Hassan's experience and intuition and my compass that tells me we've been headed NNE all morning. But does it matter ? As long as we're not walking in circles, I'm happy to press on. At the end of the afternoon, when I'm tiptoeing around trying not to step on my soon- matured blisters, I realize how fortunate I am, to be able to glimpse into, dip my toe into other ways of living and feel, if only for a few days, immensely grateful. For in less is more, what is really less ? And what is really more ?

Lunar landscapes, pink washed kasbahs and dramatic summits.

image00051If Titans of Greek mythology, those giant supernatural beings fighting gods, ever had played in their childhood at molding boulders and cleaving rocks, Tafraoute, a little town 3 hours drive south of Agadir, must have been their playground. One hardly ever tires of happening upon most peculiar shapes. As I survey the horizon from the top of the highest crag of the area, vis -a- vis Napoleons Hat, never met the chap yet it's awkward how a French general's name has stuck here out of all places, it dawns on me that we are in the presence of a geological accident. It is only Tafraoute and its surroundings where rocks seem to be piled upon each other forming granite crags jutting out of the ground, as some kind of absurd dream of a pharaoh renouncing too early the endeavour of erecting a colossal pyramid and leaving all detritus behind.

napoleons hat tafraoute

Besides me, the barren ridges of the Anti Atlas glint in the distance, half brazen half charred, depending where you look from. Except for the astute acacia tree, sprouting sometimes plain horizontally out from between the stones, no stain of green or pasture greets the eye, if you except the few scattered shrubs here and there past hoping for the next rains. There is a time of day, not too long before dawn, where the sun slants the rocks as they gradually transform into metal mirrors, slick with the last rays of light. The lumps of stone, eggs, potatoes, ice cubes, slabs, shards, at least that is what they seem to me, are piled up on top of each other. Come on, who dropped that on top of that ?! I hear myself speaking out loud. Not so far away, an gigantic stone egg seems to be tipping on top of a stool. For a second, I could just dart over and nudge it, see if it wobbles. But who'd want to alter anything in this Martian landscape ? Not that I'd know how that looks like. What is undeniably not Martian is the winter sun. Morning brought along a layer of frost on the window of the 4x4 that has by now long thawed away, as the thermometer shows 21 Celsius. Not bad for 1 January. 

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Tafraoute used to be a small picturesque village where French tourists would be taken to on a day trip while holidaying in Agadir. It was also a Mecca for the hippies in the 70's, a tradition that still endures nowadays ( minus the flower power), to the extent that a board now says 'Caravans forbidden to park' on the off road to Painted Rocks. The construction of its main hotel, Hotel des Amandiers, was even inaugurated by no less than King Mohamed 5 in 1959, which says not a little about the ambitions of a tiny village to become a booming tourist destination. Needless to say, that boom never happened, not in the 1970's when Agadir was Morocco's star in the golden age of sea and sun tourism as hordes of sunken Europeans were disembarking on the Moroccan coast in search of vitamin D and exoticism, and neither in more recent times when culture shock and local everything are banners highly flown. After all, Chefchaouen today is not the Chefchaouen from 2005, mostly prized by Spanish backpackers looking for cheap hashish. Yet, why not keep things as they are ?

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To this day, Tafraoute is devoid of any red light, which is probably why it would take about 2 minutes and a half to cross it with your vehicle. In all, I've counted around 2 (two) restaurants where one can be served a decent tagine ( if you except all the hotels - closed due to the curfew at the time of this article). At 9 PM, it has been night for at least 2 hours and in the empty camping site where I choose to spend the first night of my voyage, the owner and few friends roll away the iron balls of petanque, amidst sluices of mint tea and occasional snickers.
pink washed kasbah

Next afternoon I find myself in a carpet shop, where Hassan takes me through a grove of books about hiking, rock climbing, canyoning and trekking. After all, the area yields plenty to satisfy the most demanding. The lofty Anti Atlas ridge, culminating with Jebel Kest summit at almost 2400 meters high towers over the town and would stretch a few glutes, Tafraoute itself lying at 900 meters altitude. On the way, beware of the Lion's Head. No, not the animal, the Moroccan lion being extinct now for at least a century, but a rock formation on the southern slope resembling the said feline. Speaking of rock climbing, an English couple and their friends have set up hundreds of climbing routes around Tafraoute, published a book and created a website.

Seeming a bit dishartened, if I were to take a guess, most likely by the drop in tourism caused by the pandemic, Hassan doesn't even bother to try and sell me a carpet from the thorough selection. A Jewish wool cape hangs on the wall next to the entrance and I stop to admire it briefly. The last rays of sun caress the boulders as I make my way to the Painted Rocks, just a few miles outside the village and pitch camp for the night. 

painted rocks tafraoute

The morning is chilly. Clouds have gathered on the horizon and even the stone lumps have been engulfed by the fog. Later in the morning, the fog dissipates and an azure blue sky prevails. The surrounding villages are a joy to behold with their vintage pink- washed kasbahs. I briefly stop for a chat with Jean and Bernadette, the owners of El Malara, where many of our guests have resided in the past. Part of the reason for my travels this time is to acknowledge how our partners, guest houses and local guides, are holding up through the covid pandemic. The plight affects them too, yet they remain optimist and relate how many of their former guests expressed their wish to return to Morocco as soon as reasonably safe to do so.

lunar landscape in tafraoute

When is time to leave, only one thing is on my mind: when will I get back ? A silent vow is made, to return before summer and not solo. Hidden wonders like this one are best enjoyed in good company...  Fifteen years of living in the country have perhaps blunted my ability for being easily enthused and the bias internalised as a private tour organiser also plays its part as the focus lies on what makes a location unique among others in Morocco. Here, in Tafraoute, the martian landscape makes almost all of the caché. There is no doubt about it. Yet, overcoming it, a feeling of a place that hasn't changed much, that in a way is still redolent of... Morocco. Unimpacted yet by the mass tourism. And likely to continue so. For many of us, that's priceless.

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