I’m pale but through clenched teeth I’m putting on a brave smile as sheer cliff faces flash by me on one side and icy snow-melting streams far below me on the other. As the name suggests, the mountain pass of Tizi-n-test is certainly a test – of my ability to withstand a rallying taxi ride around blind corners, swerving remnants of small avalanches and exploding truck tyres. It is, however, a truly stunning journey and as the driver stops the car and I dislodge my fingernails from the dashboard, I have time to appreciate Imlil – the quaint little village and access point at the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
Steaming lunchtime targines served roadside greet me on arrival into Imlil. One and two-person crock-pots filled with chicken and lemon, cous cous or meat and prunes sit atop open flames as local men in their midday break tuck in.
“Kasbah du Toubal?” I enquire.
“After midday prayer,” I’m advised.
Sure enough, 45 minutes later, business reopens for an afternoon of trading.
The hillside trail weaves its way skyward through fruit and nut trees, rocky outcrops and local Berber family life. Shy kids play by the path-side whilst donkeys laden with baskets of supplies journey up and down the well-trodden trail. The High Atlas is inaccessible by car so I follow the mule with my luggage slung over its back to the retreat at Kasbah du Toubkal.
At 4,163 metres, Toubkal is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. From afar it appears as a soft horizon haze, changing its mood from blue grey to rich burgundy as the sun shifts. Close up, the imposing nature of the peak with snowcap top reminds passers-by of its prominence in the surrounding landscape.
Through the giant timber doors and into the retreat garden, herb and vegetable plots shoot through the ground; over the wall – walnut, cherry and apple trees line whispering valley streams that burst into waterfalls while a handful of primitive hamlets made of pisé (clay and straw) blend into the hillside beyond.
“Salaam alaykum” (peace be with you) is the welcome greeting I receive, along with fresh rose water for the hands and a cool drink. Perched on a protruding outcrop 1800 metres above sea level, the property is spectacular in every sense, and even though it’s only a short 90 kilometres to the city, it feels a continent away.
A stay at the Kasbah is as much a retreat as it is an opportunity to learn about the local Berber culture. Unchanged for centuries, these proud mountain people with their beaming smiles are what make this destination so special. So, after settling in, I take up one of the many-guided walks that visitors travel from afar to experience.
My unassuming and shy Berber mountain guide grew up only an hour from where we stand. “Berber call the Atlas Mountains Idraren Draren meaning Mountains of Mountains,” he shares. It protects both sides (of the mountain range): the fertile plains and Atlantic coastline on the north and encroaching sands of the Sahara desert in the south. The result is a surprising landscape where rocky arid ranges intersect fast flowing rivers and rich vegetation over which snowy peaks tower.
Enchanted forests, streams, waterfalls and hillside villages fill our three hour Atlas Mountains hiking experience, interspersed with local insight into the local plant life, wild herbs and history of the region. “There are 300 Berber dialects” our guide modestly shares “and money raised from the retreat goes towards educating local girls at a school in our language.”
Dinner is fun – an opportunity to get to know other travellers and their tales. By a chance encounter over the evening’s lavish meal, the English property owner reveals the story of how the retreat came to be. “My brother and I used to trek through the area and with each visit we would notice this crumbling old building perched on a hilltop in the middle of a valley. It took a long time and a lot of discussions with the six local Berber families who owned the Kasbah before they agreed for us to buy it,” he said.
Covering the entrance to the high atlas, Kasbah du Toubkal was not always an exotic retreat. Once a dreaded and foreboding stone fort ruled by a local feudal chief, who, as the story goes, was a ruthless mountain toll keeper determining the riches or fate of Marrakech bound traders between the 19th Century until 1956 when Morocco won independence from France. Today, however, with its connection to nature and the community, it couldn’t be further from its perilous past. How symbolic then that the property now gives back to the greater region it once took from.
It’s day four of my destination mountain retreat. This must be what it feels like to be amongst the gods, I thought, meditating in the shadow of Morocco’s tallest mountain as near to paradise as possible. I don’t know if it is the clean highland air, feeling like an intrinsic part of nature or being surrounded in the sound of silence, but sitting here atop innately adorned Berber cushions on the rooftop terrace of the nation’s premier mountain retreat is an extraordinarily spiritual experience.