O is for Ourika Valley

After eating yet another huge Moroccan dinner, I felt I needed more exercise than a six hour walk through the medina. So it was time to go climbing in the Atlas Mountains!

Ok, I have to clarify things here. Unlike my father, my sister, and her partner, climbing is something I’ve never aspired to do. It’s something to do with the vertigo I suffer on top of a ladder, and a deep congenital fear of rickety swing bridges, confirmed once again for me on Sunday evening during a rerun of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom! So I didn’t consciously set out to climb in the Atlas Mountains. Rather, when staying in Marrakech, we decided to take a day trip up to the Ourika Valley.

The valley is nestled at the foot of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains, across the plains from Marrakech. There were few trees, though as it was spring it seemed very green. The earth was a rich fertile-looking brown.

The Ourika river emerged from the valley, giving rise to citrus groves and crops. It seemed lush and green. We began rising into the mountains. It looked uncannily like New Zealand – green, hilly, with distant mountains capped in snow. I could now understand how the rather decent chardonnay we had had the night before had been produced here. But this was not what I had expected in Morocco!

Only an hour or so from Marrakech, the Ourika Valley is populated by Berbers, inhabitants of north Africa long before the Arabs arrived, united by their language across Morocco and Tunisia, but also Algeria, Libya and Egypt. Berber dynasties established Marrakech, and for two hundred years ruled much of north Africa and Spain around the 12 century. Today communities of Berbers are found in the rural areas, keeping their language and culture alive, whilst adapting to the technological changes of the 21st century. Look closely at the photograph below, those white dots are satellite dishes.

Set into the rich brown earth of the foothills across the Ourika river on the road up the valley, were a number of Berber villages. They were startling in the denseness of their colour, a deep rich brown blending perfectly into the landscape, truly of the earth. I wished we had had time to visit these villages, to potter around, get lost, meet the people, eat the local food. They are obviously not stuck in the past though.

The road winds through a river valley and finishes at a small but touristy village, overrun with tourists like us, daytrippers from Marrakech.

From the village, you can walk to a waterfall. Our driver had organised a guide for us, which we agreed to, somewhat puzzled why we would need this. We pictured a sedate path and a mediocre waterfall. We have been underwhelmed often enough on our overseas visits to have become complacent and arrogant about the ubiquitous stop to see a waterfall.

The guide tried to get us to cross the white water river on a high, rickety series of uneven planks and branches masquerading as a bridge. I halted. No way. So we went another way, finding a somewhat safer looking bridge. We wound our way through the village, enjoying seeing the local houses and small shops, the oranges and soft drinks floating in calm spots in the river, chilling naturally.

But soon we realised that maybe this guide might be helpful after all. There was no gently rising slope behind the village. Instead, the small river was rushing through rocks, which rose steeply above us. As we started climbing, we rapidly found ourselves above the village, at times looking straight up and straight down. Our guide Mohammed showed me where to put my feet as I climbed, held my hand as I crossed the river, and pulled me up some steep rocks. My husband is very nimble, but occasionally needed the mountain goat-like abilities of Mohammed as well.

There was a steady trail of tourists also doing the climb. Some had obviously left Marrakech that morning completely unprepared. In particular, there was a young English woman, inappropriately attired for the medina let alone for a traditional village, let alone for a climb. How she managed not to break her ankle in her canvas wedge sandals straps laced around her calves, I will never know. The less said about the view she provided to other climbers in her denim mini-skirt and thong, the better.

About 40 minutes after we started climbing we arrived at the top, so it really wasn’t that arduous.

Mohammed told us that we were now 400 metres higher than the village where we started. We felt a long way from anywhere but he then made me feel old and pathetic by saying that the Berber women will walk for three days across these hills to the village markets, carrying bales of wool and woven rugs on their backs. I looked across the hills to the High Atlas, and marvelled at the lives lived here, unchanged for centuries, and wondered what they thought of this recent influx of pampered Westerners and Asians, buying their rugs and clambering up their hills. Amused, certainly. Contemptuous, probably, as many of our fellow tourists deserved it, showing little respect for local traditions. Afraid, perhaps and with some justification, fearing the loss of a lifestyle. Grateful? Maybe. Foreign currency is always welcome. But tourism brings change, and change is so often frightening and welcome at the same time. Which is a dilemma for the conscientious traveller sometimes.

Getting down was hair-raising. At least going up I couldn’t see the drop behind me! Mohammed earned every sent of his fee, the payment transacted out of sight of our driver (I suspect he gets a backhander from him too) in a small alleyway back in the village.

A late lunch on a balcony beside the river, enjoying some traditional tagines and couscous and a welcome beer, and admiring the scenery, capped off our visit to Ourika Valley. We had been typical tourists for the day, slightly uncomfortable in that role. But it won’t be a day we forget in a hurry.

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