Saturday we took a drive into the Atlas Mountains. Well, actually, Saturday we were driven into the Atlas Mountains, because neither of us have our International Driver’s Licence and because neither of us have a death wish, which anxious, lacking-in-confidence Western drivers would have to have in order to attempt tackling the Moroccan roads (not because of the roads themselves, but because of the seemingly lack of road rules the drivers on the roads abide by – it’s like driving in France with less cars but more tailgating).
Our driver was very polite and pointed out various attractions along the way, filling us in on various facts of Berber culture (Berbers are the native people of Morocco – they have a different language, culture and religion to Muslim Moroccans, from what I can gather, though I intend to do some more in-depth reading on the history of the country). He mentioned that we might take a 2 hour hike once we got up to the mountains, which we expressed mild interest in, but thought to make our final decision later in the day and when we had actually seen what the hike looked like (we were both dressed in little dresses and sandals – not the most appropriate gear). Our first stop, however, was at a little Women’s co-operative, where they made cosmetics, mainly out of the famous Moroccan argan oil. We were shown the process of making the oil: several older women sat, breaking open the nuts, getting out the kernels, crushing them and then grinding them to paste. We were then shown a variety of miracles of Moroccan cosmetics like the green lipstick than goes on clear and then turns a beautiful pink on your lips and the blackest black kohl eyeliner. We spent far too much money on skin products (well, ok, I spent far too much money on skin products, Liz was comparatively restrained) and then I was invited by the older women to try my hand at making the argan oil myself. It was, again, like the pastry-making, an oddly satisfying experience, but then again I only broke open one kernel and ground the oil for two minutes or so. I can’t pretend to know what that would be like, hour after hour, day after day. The women sang together, encouraging me by clapping along with the blows of my rock as it gradually broke open the seed and got out the kernel. I suppose this sense of community and fun really would be the way you’d be able to work happily all day long. It makes our own stereotypical office work situations – isolated in cubicles, no talking or sharing or laughing – seem all the more ridiculous and inhuman. But, like I said, I did it for two minutes. It’s probably another matter at the end of a 12-hour workday of breaking open kernels with rocks.
We got back in the car and drove on. Our driver was very accommodating and stopped whenever Liz made little sighs or groans of delight over the scenery, or even when she just moved her head backwards to catch something she hadn’t really seen properly. ‘You want to take photo?’ He’d ask and we would sheepishly nod and jump out of the car and start snapping away. At one stop, there was a man selling the most beautiful rocks and fossils from the Atlas Mountains and desert. I knew my father (who would have been a geologist in another lifetime) would have gone crazy for all this stuff. As a child, I spent a lot of time feigning interest in these rocks for his sake (it also made family holidays that much more bearable, as we were often off in deserts, or fossicking for sapphires, or down in caves or completing various other rock-related activities and you could either choose to be miserable or choose to participate), but this time around – maybe because I was older, maybe because it was MY choice to be there, maybe because something my father had said had finally sunk in, maybe because it had been so many years since I’d been forced to admire a rock – I found myself genuinely interested in the names of the rocks and their different formations. Of course, I appeared far too interested and the minute we walked away from the stall without buying anything, we had the stall-holder following us, holding up various rocks and demanding we offer him a price for his wares. I felt guilty, but, hey, I usually feel guilty.
We finally made it into a town right at the foot of the Atlas mountains, where we could see many tourists (both Moroccan and from further afield) dressed in hiking gear and ready to set off on hikes in the mountains. Our car slowed down and a man jumped into the front passenger seat. Our driver said, ‘this is your guide’, which caught us off guard, but we shook hands and tried not to look too perturbed. We knew our hotel manager had made a lunch reservation for us at the Kasbah Toulok, which sat perched up on a small peak and we had assumed our driver knew this too. As the driver and the guide chatted up front, we muttered under our breath about whether or not this guide was included in our tour or if this was another surprise add-on. It soon became clear. After being let off at a nearby restaurant to go to the loo (we hadn’t requested this, we were just told to go) we were informed that this guide was going to take us on the 2 hour hike we had been promised earlier, and that all it cost was 400 Dh each (about $45 Australian). We said no, we didn’t have the money. The cost then went down and it was 400 Dh for the both of us. We still said no and the price went down again to 200 Dh for both of us. It was a ridiculously good price (they were at pains to tell us), but we were in no way dressed for hiking, it was the middle of the day and 37 degrees outside and our hotel manager (who we trusted) had given us a recommendation and that was what we wanted to do. This 2-hour hike had once again blind-sided us. We had no idea where the hike was going, what it would be like, if it was going to be enjoyable or who this guide-person was (all our manager had organised was the driver). We were so confused that we ended up saying no on principle, saying again that we had no more money. We asked the driver to take us to our lunch reservation. He was now fairly grumpy with us and informed us that lunch was going to cost us 300Dh each, which we had known (and budgeted for. We also knew that the place supported a local girls education charity, which kind of made us feel fine about spending that much – contradictory? Perhaps), but he clearly thought we were insane. Then again, we thought he was insane for suggesting a two-hour hike in sandals in 37-degree heat, so at least the feeling was mutual. He dropped us off with a restaurant employee, who would walk us up to the Kasbah (you couldn’t drive there). He took pains to tell us that this was ‘free’ several times over, just to highlight how cheap he thought we were being.
Anyway, once out of the car, we started walking up the mountain and felt very happy about our decision. It was cool under the canopy of trees and we couldn’t get ‘Rock the Kasbah’ out of our heads. Once up the peak and at the kasbah, we were even more certain of our decision. Several members of staff met us at the front door and offered us rosewater to clean our hands. We were then offered dates, which (by an old Moroccan tradition) you dip in milk and then eat. It was all very refined and I realise that it’s a safe, cleansed version of traditional Moroccan culture specifically made to appeal to Western tourists, but, hey, I did feel safe and happy and was enjoying myself, so really why should I complain? We were then taken up to the very top of the Kasbah (which was actually a hotel with a restaurant on top) and shown to our table. The table was snugly tucked into the corner of the hut, sofas all around the edge. The hut gave 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and because it was completely open, a cooling breeze blew in from all sides. We had a wonderful view of the tallest mountain in the Atlas range, which was also the highest mountain in North Africa – well over 4000 feet and almost as tall as Mt. Kilimanjaro. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to sit down for lunch.
Our waiter was a very polite elderly gentleman who spoke halting English. We explained that we needed a vegetable tagine for me, which brought on the usual confused looks, but we thought we eventually got our point across. We were then provided with a beautiful little salad, bread and a jar or mayonnaise. After all the pastry I had been eating, these fresh vegetables couldn’t have tasted better. We over did it on the bread, unfortunately, because then out came our tagines (confusingly describe as ‘lamb’ and ‘beef’ – though the beef one turned out to be vegetables) and they were enormous. We polished them off, only to be told a third course would be arriving, a vegetable cous cous plus chicken in spices and hot sauce. It was all topped off with fruit for dessert. We ate so much and still hardly made a dent in the third and fourth courses. But they were the nicest meals I’d had in a long time – so nice I even ate all the onion in my tagine.
We sat up at the kasbah for a good three hours (the slower you eat, the more you can fit in), enjoying the breeze, enjoying the mountains, taking photos of everything. We eventually decided, sadly, that we had to head down. We found our driver no problems (though he was still clearly grumpy with us – no talking on the way home, no stopping for photos). It was now 40 degrees outside and we felt we really had made the right choice about the hike. The heat and the food and the moving car sent us to sleep and before we knew it, we were back in Marrakech for our last night in Morocco.
If I head back to Morocco, the Atlas Mountains are where I will be going. My plan is to do the full hike across the mountains. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful.