Travel The World

Breathing In the Atlas Mountains

Atlas mountains Rose Petals

Rose Petals at La Roseraie

Sometimes I dream that I am falling. Apparently, everyone does. But more often than that, I dream that I am flying, rising, really as the walls of the room grow smaller, the stars sandpaper the sky and I drift up and up, along, beyond. Weightless until caught by the clouds or the distant haze that cloaks the mountains.

Right now, life matches that the crescendo of that dream. The moment where my feet find land and my eyes blink awake. There is snow, I can smell it. There are ripe vines and low hedgerows that stretch across scorched, rust-coloured hills. I see the aged silver of twisting olive groves and hold in my hand more herbs and spices than I can remember or understand.

I’m in the blue sky of the Atlas mountains – and I’m feeling slightly faint.

Atlas

My backpack carries water that gains weight with every step I take and I can’t help but empathise with the god whose name describes this place. Atlas. My muscles strain and my memory scrambles to recall the French that I know lives somewhere, so that I can talk to the man who walks beside me, Muhammed.

Muhammed is a guide from further down the mountain. He lives at the village not far from the dam, and he points it out to me more than one or two times. His legs are strong, although his knees give him trouble on the downhill parts. He shows me photos of his children, bright digital images that live on his mobile phone.

Moroccan food at the Roseraie

Sustenance at the Roseraie

La Roseraie

We left La Roseraie this morning, an idyllic little place that isn’t really small but that somehow deserves the word. Rose petals run amok in La Roseraie, with scarlet and peach petals that flutter through the fountains, the walkways, the bathrooms and the dreams of those who come here to sleep.

I lose the name of the first village we pass, but its walls are made of rough-smooth ochre. It creaks and curves with the slope of the mountain and children peer out of windows, past goats and through shadows to watch this strange white woman wandering through.

Village in the Atlas Mountains

Village in the Atlas Mountains

Atlas Villages & Children

Muhammed wants to continue but I am keen to stay. Childhood, like an atlas, extends across the globe, unhindered by language, clothes or the sight of a dizzy foreigner close to the edge of collapse.

This next ascent should be trivial, but for some reason I find it hard. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so long sat down as I drove through Morocco. Perhaps it’s the altitude, the jetlag, the, er, rose petals. Perhaps it’s my age.

I guzzle down some water, mainly to buy myself some time. Muhammed’s dam seems smaller than ever.

As the soil crunches beneath our feet, my eyes drift towards the peak. We reach another village, where the walls are made of stone instead of mud, ready for the frost and ice that climbs this high in winter.

We pass a man. He invites us to tea.

We accept – and settle on the flat rooftop of his Berber house.

A child appears. She’s about five or six, I’d guess, although age range guestimates are not a strength of mine. She is beautiful, she is interested, she is shy, and she is fascinated. She joins her father, while her mother stays out of sight.

I feel awkward. Unsure, no, un-anything of what the etiquette for this should be.

Girl in Atlas Mountains

Children. Just don’t care where you’re from.

Inside a Berber House, Morocco

Morocco is an Islamic country but I’m finding it hard to discern the rules. Take dress codes, for example. High street shops with lacy bras and string bikinis flourish in downtown Marrakech; yet on the beaches at Oualidia, the women covered up and I saw no-one enter the water.

This morning, when Muhammed suggested I covered my head, I swept a scarf around my skull to hide away my hair. He laughed and rearranged it into a turban with a kind of scarf mullet, leaving my straw hair akimbo. Heatstroke had been his concern; not manners.

So now what? Drinking tea with two men while a girl looks on in silence and her mother hides downstairs. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with culture or religion. Perhaps she just doesn’t like my face.

Atlas mountains Berber Tea

Tea. A near global institution.

The tea arrives, tasting sweet and bitter, so different to England, yet exactly the same. This tea comes, Muhammed tells me, from China and he adds that Morocco’s the biggest importer of Chinese tea in the world. They add home-grown mint leaves and lashes of sugar and serve it without milk in clear long glasses.

The bread is fresh and flat, stretched apart and dipped in olive oil. The almonds are sweet. The girl is still watching.

A Berber Home, Morocco

Afterwards, I’m invited to look around their home. It has a traditional set up. Bare walls downstairs with rugs that cover the floor in woven red, cream and black. A window in the ceiling showers light across the kitchen, glinting in the stove, the utensils and the pots and pans scrubbed clean and lined up in formation.

A Berber Kitchen, Atlas Mountains

Inside a Berber Kitchen. So much neater than my own…

The woman of the house moves from room to room ahead of me to make sure we never meet. The girl follows me everywhere and then reaches to hold my hand.

Outside, we troop towards the plateau, where we can see Muhammed’s dam, the peppery trees and olive groves and the almighty mass of the Atlas mountains heaving out of the earth.

We’re standing on concrete, the foundations for a new hostel that the village dreams will bring more travellers and more tourists to this little town. I look across the peaches, figs, lemons, mint, thyme and rosemary. Across to Muhammed’s dam. Up to the peaks and down to the young girl’s eyes.

I feel a flash of selfishness and the timeless tourism brainteaser.

Atlas mountains landscape

The Atlas Mountains Today

This village dreams of more tourism

I don’t want more people to come here, for there’s no way it could stay the same. I picture these alleyways clogged with tourists. Heaving with backpacks. Brandishing menus in English and suffocating the silence with brash, loud voices. I see the landscape daubed with concrete, a funicular scarring up the peaks.

Perhaps it won’t come to that. Perhaps it’s for the best. And after all, who am I to dash the dreams of those who live here and those who want to come? We can’t all climb mountain peaks – as my own aching limbs delight in reminding me.

I have been lucky, so tremendously lucky, to share brief moments like this around the world. Through tea, through hikes, through writing and photography, I have been able (cough, ahem, excuse me for a moment) to follow my dreams.

As my trembling legs tumble down the steep slopes of the Atlas, overtaking goats as well as common sense and reasonable speed, I reach the obvious conclusion. Ok, make that two of them.

Firstly, that everyone should dream as much as they like.

And second of all: that you should never skip breakfast before hiking to face the gods.

Atlas mountains - goat in the trees

Tumbling down the Atlas mountains past the goats…

Hiking in the Atlas Mountains Factbox & Disclosure

Lawrence of Morocco arranged the car hire and complimentary accommodation at La Roseraie. Hikes are available from the Roseraie on a guided basis (as above) or on your own – although the routes are not all that clear to follow if you decide to go solo.

La Roseraie is a beautiful, peaceful hotel with a stunning central pool and lounge area with a Moorish terrace that overlooks the mountains where breakfast is served. Staff are helpful and professional and the food – which carries a range of British and Moroccan dishes – is of a consistently high standard. Rooms are spacious, if a little on the plain side, with plenty of spaces for reading among the rose trees. Don’t miss the welcome tea and try to stay for a few nights if you can to make the most of the peaceful surroundings. Bliss.

Have you ever gone hiking in the Atlas mountains?

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24 Responses to Breathing In the Atlas Mountains

  1. Jack October 16, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    We had a mule to carry our rucksacks, food etc. when we walked in the Atlas Mountains last year. It seemed like easy walking, except that we stashed all the water with the mule and after we set off from Imlil we never saw the creature again for another 45 minutes (presumably he was being typically stubborn) by which time we’d nearly expired.

    Aah, fond memories :)

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

      Fond memories indeed! I’m really not sure why I found this so hard. I’d been climbing volcanos the week before, so my usual must-have-let-my-fitness-slide-again excuse that races around my brain didn’t even make sense this time. Ah well – at least I made it up and back down again in one piece!

  2. Leyla Giray October 16, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    I’d like to say what a brilliant post – I CAN say that but what I really mean is ‘what amazing writing’! I heard your talk at TBEX but I had no idea. So now I’ve discovered your blog, and you’re stuck with a loyal (and at times vocal) reader. Thank you!

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

      Ah – thank you! I’m all for vocal readers so welcome aboard!

  3. Lynn Sheppard October 16, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    What a great post – I’m going to share it on my Facebook page (FB/marocophile).

    Apparently, the British introduced tea to Morocco via Essaouira, which was a major trading port at the time. In honour of this, a tea museum will open soon in the town. (As you’ll know from your time on Morocco, ‘soon’ is as long as a piece of string!)

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

      Thank you! I’d love to do a “tea tour” of the world one of these days…

  4. Travelista73 October 17, 2012 at 12:31 am #

    Beautifully written post accompanied by breathtaking images! I was in Morocco this past June and reading your post brought back many wonderful memories of my experience. Thank you for allowing me to relive those moments :)

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

      You’re very welcome. Morocco is so, so beautiful, it’s hard to take bad shots ;)

  5. The Weekend Traveller October 17, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    My visit last year in the High Atlas was one of the most memorable travel in my life. The Berber people are very friendly and being up there made me feel so relaxed.

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

      Glad to hear it. I love those mountains…

  6. remy traveller October 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    What a wonderfully engaging article. I’ve never experienced the Atlas Mountains but the landscape looks just my style, It’s now on my bucket list :).

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      If you like that then you may also enjoy the Alpujarras mountains in Andalucia. Some differences – but also striking similarities.

  7. Hogga October 18, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    Sweet shots! Love the church tower thing against the mountains!

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

      I suspect it’s a mosque – but there is a history of swapping back and forth between churches and mosques in this part of the world so I’d have to double-check!

  8. Leon October 19, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    Beautiful pictures!

    Hopefully the village attracts more travelers like you :) of course, provided they don’t build a funicular

    • Abi October 22, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

      Thank you. And fingers crossed! ;)

  9. Jen November 27, 2012 at 6:37 am #

    The picture of that little girl is so beautiful! Morocco is one of my favorite places

    • Abi King March 30, 2013 at 10:54 am #

      Yes, a fascinating country. And it’s so good to meet children – they’re so unencumbered and keen to find out more!

  10. Michelle S January 24, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    Do you have your guide’s contact info? Going to morocco in a few months and would love to do this!

    • Abi King March 30, 2013 at 10:56 am #

      Sorry for the slow reply. I thought I’d answered this on my phone but it obviously didn’t come through…The hotel La Roseraie paired me up with the guide. Here’s the website with their contact details: http://www.laroseraiehotel.com/home

      I hope you have a great trip – and apologies again.

  11. Anne Manning July 2, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Hi Abi, just stumbled on your blog; you are a great writer. I was hiking in the High Atlas Mountains for 4 days/3 nights. What an experience. Sanitation and water were both challenges, but the experience was wonderful.

    • Abi King July 3, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words. Yes, the Atlas mountains are absolutely stunning – with several different challenges ;-)

  12. Katka July 4, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    I love Morocco, and your pictures are beautiful.

    • Abi King July 10, 2013 at 11:40 am #

      Thank you – it’s a beautiful place.

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