In the dark days after Christmas, what could be nicer than a friend calling to ask if I’d come to Morocco for a long weekend with luxury spa, sunshine, Atlas Mountains and no jetlag? I said yes immediately. Then it became clear that this was a trekking trip, organised by a company who do the kind of unusual active trips that other people take but I never do. I tried wriggling out of it, but the die was cast.
For one night in Marrakech, all was well. The huge balcony outside my rooms at the Riad El Arsat overlooked a garden of citrus trees and birds. The most enticing shop in the medina nearby was a herboriste where bottles of argan oil, nigella oil and other ethno-botanical beauty products could have kept me entertained for hours. The musical instruments like ouds inlaid with mother of pearl scored high too. After supper at the chic Dar Moha fusion restaurant, I was hoping for a long sleep to gather strength for exertions ahead, but at 5 a.m. morning prayers started up across the city, so that was that.
Nothing in Marrakech prepared me for the Atlas Mountains. Driving south for an hour and a half through Asni towards Imlil, the mountains began to rise and magic descended. Overwhelming panoramas, huge blue sky, tumbling riverbeds and snowy peaks floating beside the daylight moon made me want to dive through the window and melt open-armed into the wilderness.
As my eyes acclimatised, I began to make out mediators between the landscape and me. Berber goatherds in hooded djellabas calmly negotiated the rocky crags. Berber women trotted along paths carrying vast bundles of fodder on their backs. Groups with mules made dry-stone walls for terraces of cherry, walnut and mint by the banks of a river. The landscape looked empty but there were people everywhere. The car dropped us at Imlil, our bags disappeared on a mule and we were shown the shockingly steep path to the Kasbah du Toubkal.
The Kasbah is a Berber hospitality centre run and staffed by locals. Craftsmen and women from the village make everything, guided by the architect John Bothamley and owner Mike McHugo, whose responsible attitude to tourism has been key. ‘We didn’t use bulldozers to cut a road to the Kasbah,’ said Mike. ‘We preferred to do it the local way using mules to bring up the materials.’ Fifteen per cent of profits go to the village association, which now has a school and an ambulance from the proceeds. There was nothing pretentious here, but it was unique and innately elegant.
My bathroom had velvety Tadelekt walls and beside a huge tub sunk in black granite was a basket of rosebuds to scent the water, ghassoul clay body mask and kohl for the eyes. A smiley Berber showed me a selection of woollen babouches, djellabas and shawls in the cupboard to wear on the way to the Hammam steam room or just to relax in, and a CD player ‘for dancing’. Fellow guests were trekkers and a group of glamorous male Princeton graduates on a reunion, who provided a potent frisson of interest in the dining-room.
We embarked on a day’s hike towards Id Issal, where the Kasbah’s newly completed mountain lodge would be home overnight. I’d been advised to bring trainers, and thought I’d gone a bit far with the brand-new hiking boots, but thank God I brought them. Hussein, our guide, would point heavenward at the impossible peak we would be scaling and my heart would sink. At the top of the world where no phone signal reaches, someone appeared on a mule, cooked us lunch of tagine with couscous, packed up and disappeared again. The lodge had wood burners, wooden shutters and Trivial Pursuit, which kept us occupied during the snowstorm that night. Omar, the host, even had a gap between his teeth, as every Omar should.
In the strange Berber villages, the sound of chattering is like birdsong. Villagers with crinkly eyes invited us to drink mint tea on their roofs, and one woman bent double under a 40kg load suggested I try to carry it. I managed precisely six steps before keeling over, and we laughed till we cried. On the last day, we stopped at Tamartet for a delicious lunch at the Douar Samra lodge. It was lucky my friend tricked me into trekking — I wouldn’t have gone otherwise and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.