Journeys: Riad Radical

  • The ancient fishing village of Essaouira today attracts surfers of all stripes, from beginners to experts, longboarders to kitesurfers.
  • The ancient fishing village of Essaouira today attracts surfers of all stripes, from beginners to experts, longboarders to kitesurfers.
  • Outdoor sports in the Ourika Valley (shown here) and High Atlas mountains range from rappelling to skiing.
  • Outdoor sports in the Ourika Valley (shown here) and High Atlas mountains range from rappelling to skiing.
  • Photo by  Martin Harvey/Corbis
    High Atlas mountains Photo by Martin Harvey/Corbis
  • Photo by  Martin Harvey/Corbis
    High Atlas mountains Photo by Martin Harvey/Corbis
  • Visitors to Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot enjoy easy access to the High Atlas.
  • Photo by  Martin Harvey/Corbis
  • Photo by  Martin Harvey/Corbis
<< Back to Robb Report, August 2013
  • Jack Smith

For the Berbers who reside here, the fundamentals of their agrarian life have gone largely unchanged since prehistory. Few of the residents find it necessary to speak French, and many of the women do not even speak Arabic.

However bucolic their homeland, the Berbers could be fierce warriors when provoked. "There were always invasions—first the Romans, then the Arabs, then the French," says my guide, Abdel. "But the Berbers could make things uncomfortable for anyone who wanted to impose another way of life on them."

This is not to say that Berbers are not amused by outsiders. In fact, a group of farmers in a nearby cherry orchard appears highly entertained by the goings-on at the edge of the Ahansal River, where Andy Robertson, the Scottish owner of Splash Morocco, is launching a white-water-rafting trip. As Abdel and I arrive, Robertson and a half-dozen vacationing Brits in helmets and life vests are loading into a pair of rubber rafts at the rocky headwaters.

"We’ll go about 12 kilometers down the river today," says Robertson, who also offers kayaking, tubing, sightseeing tours, dune-buggy rides, hot-air-balloon flights, desert tours, trekking, climbing, and multiday rafting expeditions. Business, he says, is good. "People want to be adventurous when they come to Morocco. It’s an exciting place with exotic surroundings."

As for the sporting opportunities higher up the mountain, that depends on one’s expectations. "It isn’t the Alps," Robertson says. "You don’t have the European tradition, and you don’t have the infrastructure. But for hard-core skiers, the High Atlas is becoming a must."

With that, Robertson climbs into a boat and, with a chorus of yells registering their excitement, the rafters push off into the froth. For a moment Abdel and I watch them bob and bounce their way downstream like bumper cars at a carnival, then we climb into our SUV to continue our journey. Somewhere up ahead lies Mount Toubkal, a place where the lift lines are nonexistent, the slopes are almost always sunlit, and the snow rarely melts.

The journey to Toubkal includes one of the most remarkable experiences in Africa—a close-up look at the tiny hamlet of Imlil, the Aspen of the High Atlas. There is a fairy-tale feel to Imlil, a village of simple apartment houses and perhaps a dozen storefronts, with mules and Berber guides milling about on the roadside. As we pull up in town, I notice a shop with rental skis stacked by the doorway. However incongruous—there is not a spot of snow in the village, and the temperature is in the 70s—I take this as a good sign. What I do not see is Imlil’s landmark Kasbah du Toubkal.

"Which way to the casbah?" I ask, dropping my bags at a battered desk by a doorway that appears to serve as reception. Like a scene from an old Bob Hope movie, without a word the man at the luggage desk points overhead. I slowly lift my gaze to see where he is pointing, then look higher and higher until—yikes!—I am looking straight up. There, like some magical castle perched a mile overhead, is the one-time fortress and summer home of the local pasha. If it dislodged from the hillside, it would fall straight down on top of us.

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