I always used to think of myself as more of a beach person than a mountain person. It is only when we head up into the hills that I appreciate just how at home I feel there. It's refreshing and invigorating in a completely unique way. And while I don't have that drive to climb the highest peaks and scale all I encounter, I love the feeling of being nestled in valleys and protected by the massive peaks. Around this time two years ago we were in Nepal, and while nothing will match the grandeur of the Himalayas, the feeling of increased energy you get is the same.
Arriving in Imlil our taxi was met by a boy with a mule. Without a word he loaded our bags onto the mule pack and headed uphill out of the town. Ten minutes on having passed through a damp walnut grove we found ourselves at Dar Adrar. Here we were welcomed with spectacular views from our window, a roaring fire and hot mint tea.
|The view from Dar Adrar|
Imlil is a small town perched on a hillside at the joining point of three valleys, and ringed with tall rocky mountains. The Atlas Mountains are very dramatic. At the highest point they are only about 4170m, but driving across the Marrakesh plane towards them they appear to rise straight up out of the otherwise flat and featureless ground. Once up in the mountains you are struck by the rich red colour of them. These are rough and ragged peaks at their best.
Once a small Berber village, Imlil has become a hub for tourists keen to experience Moroccan mountain life. Imlil is the starting point for nearly all summit attempts of Morocco's highest mountain, Jebel Toubkal. Toubkal can be summitted in two days, with an overnight stop in a refuge near the top.
While many guidebooks describe Imlil as an ugly and characterless town, I think it would be hard for any town to be described as ugly when it sits in a location like Imlil. As well as incredible mountain views stretching out along three valleys, the valley floors are lined with apple and walnut groves that are criss-crossed by babbling irrigation channels. Exploring on foot it's possible to wander round villages such as Armend, and see a way of life that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. That is apart from satellite TV, there are more satellites here than in any other country I’ve ever been to. Life is not easy for people here and is often subsistence based; growing and trading to get what you need. Outside the houses you see weather-worn women cooking over home-made clay ovens. Walking along the dirt tracks you pass women carrying heavy loads around on their backs, taking the shopping home from the weekly souq a few kilometres away. It is quite humbling to be overtaken by an eighty year old carrying two enormous sacks up a steep hill.
Although life in the High Atlas has many parallels with that of what we saw of Nepal, while exploring Imlil that first day we noticed one distinct difference. In Nepal the villages we walked through have a long history of interaction and dependence on tourists. Big smiles and warm welcomes came from everyone you encountered. Walking around Imlil and other small villages, while many people were friendly, you got the sneaky feeling that some people would just rather you weren't there. The occasional stare and frown could be a little unsettling.
We stayed two nights in Imlil, where we were lucky enough to have great fireside company with an American couple who travel the world looking for adventure. A love of speed flying had brought them to the area. For those unfamiliar with the extreme sport of speed flying (as I was), it is the slightly questionable activity of throwing yourself off mountains with a mini and seemingly fragile para-glide that weighs a no more than a couple of kilos. Usually done over snow with a pair of skis on it seems that the idea is to slow your fall down the mountain only enough not to injure yourself while still making occasional contact with the ground before propelling yourself into the air again.
Our time in Imlil was just the start of our adventure, the stay there was just the relaxing precursor to a three day hike across the mountains and into a neighbouring valley. I’ll post more about the journey with our guide, cook and a female mule called Bob very soon.