Climb 4,000m peaks, surf Atlantic swells, mountain bike on pristine single-track and paddle some spectacular rivers… Colin Irvine discovers that you can have it all on an adventure holiday in Morocco.
The label ‘adventure destination’ means many things to many people. For some, it is simply a fresh place to explore by boat, bike or boot. Others are looking for more of a cultural edge – a place where something as routine as catching a bus can feel like an expedition in its own right, in countries where primitive living is a mandatory reality, rather than an optional pastime.
Typically Irish adventurers hone their skills in European beauty spots, easily accessible by low-cost airline, where a state-of-the-art hospital is never that far away and they can drink from the tap. Then they get on a big fancy plane and drop into the madness of somewhere raw, chaotic and very poor. They return with tales of unexplored routes, reached after hellish weeks of discomfort, despair and diarrhoea. In a way, it is a rite of passage for people who value the all-encompassing nature of exploration. After all, it takes something away from the adventure when the trains are ruthlessly efficient and the picnic areas immaculately landscaped.
What Morocco offers is a fantastic middle ground. You can fly there in under four hours on a cheap airline with no jet lag, or even drive your own vehicle through France and Spain. Once on the ground you can rightly claim to have visited Africa. You’ll certainly experience the invigorating hustle and bustle of a developing country, but the roads and tourism infrastructure are generally good and there is no malaria risk. You can climb 4,000m peaks, surf Atlantic swells, ride pristine single-track and paddle some spectacular rivers… all in an eight-day holiday that won’t cost you the earth.
If you want to experience a vibrant foreign culture, Morocco will not disappoint. There are about 30 million Moroccans spread across a country about six times the size of Ireland. Most are of direct Berber descent with their own traditions and dialect, although Arabic is the official language. Learning a few simple phrases will be appreciated and help break down barriers. Failing that, a half-decent grasp of Leaving Cert French will go a long way. Although some Berbers continue a nomadic lifestyle herding sheep and goats in the mountains and desert, most have now settled into more conventional sedentary living. However, they remain very proud of their nomadic heritage, its customs and music. This is certainly an Islamic country with traditional family values. However, the people are quite liberal and tolerant. The atmosphere in downtown Marrakech is a subtle blend of east and west.
If you want to interact with Moroccan people you must have a thirst for tea. They just love the stuff – minty and sweet, served in small glasses and poured from a great height with great pride. It seems a Moroccan can produce tea from absolutely anywhere at any time, but even more remarkable are the trimmings that come with your brew. Fresh bread is lavished upon you accompanied by locally produced honey, olives, nuts and argan oil. Freshly squeezed orange juice and salads are in abundance, but for the main evening meal it is all about the tajine. These clay pots help stew meat and vegetables to perfection, blended with spices on a bed of couscous. Let’s just put it this way – it is highly unlikely that you will starve on holiday in Morocco.
Thankfully there are plenty of ways to burn off those calories. Trekking holidays are popular, with the High Atlas range offering everything from mellow hikes to winter mountaineering. At 4,165m, Mount Toubkal is the star attraction, although there are many smaller peaks that provide just as much challenge. A large area of mountainous terrain enjoys national park status with unspoilt villages nestled into the sides of valleys. A range of basic gîtes facilitate multi-day routes and there is a sizeable pool of experienced guides to keep you on course.
Mountain biking heaven
In a way this is a golden era for Moroccan mountain biking. The march of progress means that dirt roads will soon become tarmac and villages previously accessible only by foot or mule are being gradually connected to the road network.
The Toubkal area boasts an extensive network of footpaths that snake along the valley sides, linked together by some impressive jeep tracks that wind over some Alpine-style cols. This is mountain biking heaven. With a good guide and jeep support, it is possible to link valleys together in a multi-day riding adventure. The single track flows remarkably well while still providing plenty of challenge for the technical rider. You will get a few cheers from the village children as you ride through and it is well worth stopping for a chat and of course, some tea. In a way, this is a golden era for Moroccan mountain biking. The march of progress means that dirt roads will soon become tarmac and villages previously accessible only by foot or mule are being gradually connected to the road network.
Driving around Morocco’s arid landscape, you could be forgiven for assuming that all its rivers are dried up ditches. However, venture just a few hours from Marrakech and you can enjoy white water rafting and paddling on the Ourika and Ahansal rivers. The Ahansal is particularly memorable, not for the difficulty of its rapids (although there is plenty of class 4 action in high water) but for the awesome gorge it has carved out. Huge walls of sandstone rise up from the water, twisted and contorted into great folds. There are caves everywhere, some still used by nomadic herdsmen. The trip is best spread over two days, giving you a chance to spend a night in the canyon, before paddling out into the blue waters of lake Bin el Ouidane.
If you want a more laid back environment, then the tiny fishing village of Imsuoanne has a north and south beach, clean waves and very little else – the ultimate getaway.
If you are tired of the mountains and fancy a complete change of scene, you might like to head west to the Atlantic Ocean, where the coastline is littered with uncrowded surf breaks. Many surfers head for Taghazout – a lively location with good waves and plenty of atmosphere. If you want a more laid back environment, then the tiny fishing village of Imsuoanne has a north and south beach, clean waves and very little else – the ultimate getaway. Boards can be hired locally and fresh seafood is in abundance.
So there you have it! Morocco really is a super spot for a short, action-packed adventure holiday. There is plenty of variety and a transport network that is good enough to connect it all together. It is not a wealthy nation by any means, and there is enough developing country grit to satisfy the hardened adventurer, without massively impeding your ability to move around and get things done. It’s certainly an adventure destination of note, particularly for those who like tea.
For adventure travel in Morocco for groups or individuals visit Earth’s Edge.