When it's time to climb off your faithful mule, the Kasbah du Toubkal in the High Atlas mountains is a scenically spectacular lodge to rest your weary limbs
He was a very ordinary mule. A sort of brownish-grey, just like the clusters of Berber houses that huddled on hillsides of the same colour. He had long ears, a soft nose and a long-suffering expression as I fumbled onto his back, ready for a five-hour trek to the Kasbah du Toubkal – an award-winning ecolodge and ‘Berber hospitality centre’ working with the communities of Morocco’s High Atlas.
Only a day earlier I’d been in the hurly-burly of Marrakech, gazing longingly at the peaks of the Atlas Mountains so clearly visible from the city’s rooftops. By teatime I’d escaped, and within two hours was at a quiet trekking lodge owned by the Kasbah. It felt as if I’d stepped back a century.
Set in the hillside village of Aït Aïssa in the Azzaden Valley, the trekking lodge looked similar to other village houses; however, inside there was solar-powered underfloor heating and huge bathtubs for soothing weary trekkers’ limbs.
I was greeted with mint tea on arrival. “Berber whiskey,” grinned the cook as he served us on the little terrace, which had stupendous views across the valley to the snow-capped Toubkal Massif. It was sunset, and the deep pinks of the hills turned to dark purple as the moon rose; a few lights flickered on – electricity has only recently come to the valley.
In the morning I woke early and was drawn back to the terrace like a magnet. As the suns rays reached it, the village slowly come to life. A young girl, all in red, pulled a reluctant black cow by a rope, her younger sister attempting to encourage it from behind with a stick nearly as big as herself while also leading a large and very round sheep. A small white donkey made its way up and down a steep track, transporting rocks.
The backdrop was an abstract of bright sunshine and dark shadows, with the occasional flash of a woman’s vibrant outfit. The soundtrack was one of crowing cocks, braying donkeys and the rhythmic thud of corn being pounded.
From Aït Aïssa there are a couple of different routes up to the Kasbah du Toubkal itself. Recovering from some broken bones in my foot, I decided to commandeer the most typical local vehicle to help me up there – a mule.
An embroidered rug was thrown over its saddle frame; I balanced on a rock and slung my leg over. My mule-with-no-name rushed down the steep hillside, and I frantically twisted sideways, grabbing the back of the saddle and anything else I could get a grip on to prevent myself sliding over its head.
Fortunately, decorum was restored once we reached the relative ease of the dirt road below and I had time to get used to the mule’s paces before we turned up a hillside and through the terraced adobe village. The narrow streets, no wider than passageways, were cool; houses overhung them, allowing just enough headroom to pass under on mule-back.
We carried on climbing past groves of olive, argan and walnut trees, and then along a stony trail above a long gully. We had seen few other people so, on reaching the top of the col, it was a surprise to find a rather bored soft-drink seller sitting on a wooden crate, his mule grazing nearby, his bottles of pop baking in the glare of the midday sun.
Descending the other side of the pass, I was relieved to find that I’d adjusted to the mule’s moves and so didn’t feel too uncool when we came upon a group of Berber men, sitting in a huddle around a brewing kettle. Berber hospitality being what it is, they offered me a glass of hot, sweet tea, which proved surprisingly refreshing.
By this time I’d fallen in love with my surefooted and willing mule. We carried on zig-zagging down the track until we reached the Imlil Valley and its collection of a dozen villages, home to around 4,000 people. Flash floods have devastated the valley over the centuries; now the houses huddle high on the slopes, away from the valley bottom.
Rounding the hillside I caught my first glimpse of the Kasbah du Toubkal, perched on an outcrop of rock. Despite seeing many photographs, it still took my breath away. Guests were sitting on the terraces – and I couldn’t wait to join them. The terrain doesn’t allow for a grand front entrance. Rather, you approach by mule or foot, open a huge wooden door and then walk through the gardens to the main building. Inside, I was greeted in the traditional Berber way: with rosewater, for washing my hands, and with a date, to dip into a bowl of milk.
“We think of this as a Berber hospitality centre rather than a hotel,” explained founder Mike McHugo later that evening. Mike first started coming to the area in the 1970s, and ran adventure tours in the Atlas. On a visit to the valley in 1989 with good friend and mountain guide Hajj Maurice, he once more spotted the ruined Kasbah – the crumbling former summer palace of a local feudal chief – and this time decided to make enquiries about it.
He bought it, brought in an architect and gradually began restoring it. “It all had to be done by hand,” he told me, “and everything had to be carried by mule – there was no electricity in the valley until 1997.”
Mike started by opening the Kasbah to student field study groups, but today there is accommodation for all budgets, right up to a superb three-bedroom house with floor to ceiling plate-glass windows. Traditional furnishings, including walnut wood doors and furniture, are used, and all but the ‘Berber salons’ have superb views from the windows. Hajj Maurice and his wife run the Kasbah on a day-to-day basis, assisted by a team of local staff.
The Kasbah’s benefits to the community are wide ranging: the renovation and building work was carried out by locals; the guides and the hundreds of mules used for riding and goods transport are all local, too, as is much of the food consumed. A 5% surcharge is added to guests’ bills, which is passed to a local management committee – to date, the proceeds have paid for an ambulance for the valley, for the provision of drinking water to outlying villages and for a community hammam (steam bath). The Kasbah is also very involved with an NGO, Education for All, which works to enable girls in rural communities to access secondary education.
The Kasbah sits at 1,800m; some of the guests were using it as a base to climb Mt Toubkal. However, many more were here for walking in the surrounding valleys – there are numerous treks on offer, ranging from an hour upwards. The next day I took a circular route around the valley with a guide, Mohammed, as well as a mule and muleteer. We started off by following the recently tarmacked road to the next valley of Imane. Roads and electricity are gradually being introduced in the Atlas. Mohammed talked of how it used to take his father’s generation two or three days to reach Marrakesh by donkey or mule.
Today a 4WD may be a sign of wealth; just a generation back only the comparatively wealthy could afford a mule. We turned off the road and up a narrow mule track, which opened up onto a surprisingly green hillside of pine trees. This is national forest and a goat-free zone. However, the scene was a lot starker over the hill; the Toubkal Massif’s volcanic pedigree showed in black basalt rocks and pumice stones.
I’d arranged a picnic, little realising that this involved a chef trekking up with the ubiquitous mule carrying everything he needed to knock up a gourmet lunch of chicken tajine (shame I’m veggie...) and a fabulous salad, along with flat breads, fruit and mint tea.
After letting lunch settle while watching some energetic lads play a game of football, we carried on skirting the valley before passing through the village of Aremd, and descending to a beautiful waterfall. Every bit of land that can be irrigated is, and we passed orchards of apple, cherry and peach trees, and small, densely packed plots of purple irises, following traditional channels back to the Kasbah.
That evening we relaxed with Mike McHugo over a bottle of wine (the Kasbah isn’t licensed, but you’re welcome to take your own). Some other guests joined us and, on finding out who Mike was, gushed, “This is by far the best place we’ve stayed in Morocco!”
The self-effacing Mike looked rather embarrassed. “It’s reassuring when people love it here. The Kasbah’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” he admitted. “Some people expect the slick, white-gloved service of a five-star hotel. We’ve put something on our website now, explaining ‘Who should stay’ to try to deter people who shouldn’t!”
I was glad to be firmly in the camp of those who should.