North Africa might conjure images of camels and sand dunes, but Morocco’s Atlas Mountains are home to two of the continent’s only ski resorts. Dan Milner went in search of cous-cous and pow-pow.
With no roof rack, our board bags are piled directly onto the roof of the ageing, beige Mercedes we’ve commandeered to take us to the mountains. It’s one of about forty identical taxis lined up outside the airport, most of them seemingly idle, so our driver is elated to have secured himself the 40 Euro fare. All he has to do now is secure our luggage somehow; it appears he hadn’t thought about that before, and he scrabbles about hopefully in the boot to find any means of tying the bags down. By now he’s immersed in a throng of other taxi drivers, slipping below a sea of chain-smoke as the men all tut and shake their heads. Each of them has their own suggestion as to how our driver might be able to convey the luggage to its destination. At least I think that’s what’s being said; my Arabic is none too sharp these days. Beaming widely, our driver pulls out a tangle of string. Unravelled, it measures about half a metre in all its glory - not even enough to reach once over the roof - and after many attempts to put the string to use, and regular mutterings of insh’allah (‘God’s will’) I see the first glimmers of doubt begin to creep across his weathered face. Eventually, whether in solidarity or pity, another driver offers some luggage straps, the rest of us pile into our cab and we’re on our way. If there’s a solution, it seems, the Moroccans will find it. Next stop: Oukaimeden, Morocco’s highest ski resort.
Let’s face it, snowboarding in Morocco is never going to be a big thing; you won’t see Marrakesh vying to be the next winter Olympic host anytime soon. Ask anyone about the two ski resorts in this North African country and you’ll most likely draw a blank. To Average Joe with his blinkered knowledge of the world outside Starbucks, Morocco is a place of Bedouin tents, deserts, and turban-clad nomads sitting atop camels. In fact that’s exactly how I pictured it until I visited the place on a mountain bike trip a few years ago. Before then, my own image of Morocco was a romantic but largely inaccurate mix of Bogart’s Casablanca and the pyramids of Egypt.
That first trip replaced my Casablanca image with memories of towering, 3000-metre plus peaks that sit snow-capped for months on end: true adventure country. Throw in some ski lifts of dubious reliability, along with the usual challenges of vegetarian-scaring menus and the risk of catching something life threatening, and the allure of snowboarding in Africa becomes irresistible. Luckily for me I am not alone in the perverse gratification I seek from dodging exotic ailments, and phone calls to Brit rider Ed Gunn and French shredders Jean-Jacques Roux and Bruno Rivoire were all it took to score me some travelling companions. Ahead of us lay new experiences and the chance to slide about on snow.
Like the whole Moroccan stereotype, my assumptions about the ski hill waiting to greet us prove profoundly wrong. For Oukaimeden (pronounced you-kye-mee-den) I’m expecting random patches of empty snow beneath a blazing hot sun. Instead we join a queue of traffic on the road up to a resort that is heaving with activity. Families buzz to and fro, kids and adults shuffling about the flat sections on skis and shunting each other along on heavy steel sledges. The snow is ploughed high on each side of the road, evidence of some heavy winter storms that have preceded our arrival. So far the blazing hot sun is evading us, and instead we are welcomed by thick fog and light rain, both of which conspire to render the main and only road through the village a muddy quagmire. Our spirits and clothing are dampened slightly by the weather, but the soaking rain is having little effect on the hundreds of Moroccans that are filling the snowy slopes around us. Disembodied voices squeal with excitement through the cloud that shrouds the mountain, and out of the gloom appear random shapes, teetering on ancient rented skis, which slide by us gingerly. In short, a visit to Oukaimeden is the perfect day off for the locals, and a bit of flat light is not going to get in anyone’s way. As we wander through the chattering families it’s hard not to be swept up by the positive mood, but finally our own inappropriate footwear drives us to seek refuge and some mint tea in our selected accommodation - the large and institutional-looking ‘French Alpine Club Refuge’. A six-per-room bunk bed set-up means the refuge is the best deal around - some 60 Euros cheaper than its nearest competitor - but what the place lacks in en-suite it more than makes up for in 60’s retro kitsch; its original fittings and colour scheme tops anything Ikea’s trendy designers can muster.
We wake up to sunshine, and look out across a snow-laden landscape of rugged peaks and red-rock outcrops. This is our first glimpse of the real Morocco we will be savouring for the next week. The mountain in front of us is way bigger than I expected, and steeper too. It’s only 9.30 but outside the sun is already hot. Grabbing our snowboards, we wander up the road towards the ski lifts, slipping and sliding on the ice that is now layered thick on top of the mud. It froze hard last night and the snow, at least at the 2200 metre altitude of the village, is as hard as iron. Randomly, a battered old Renault 4 sits in the middle of the ice, marooned on the frictionless surface with its occupants still inside, waiting for the sun to soften things up and let them to continue on their way. I wonder if they have been there all night. People here have time, it seems. Life is different.
Surveying the valleys that radiate, spoke-like, from the village hub, I see figures in the distance hurrying along well-trodden paths through the snow, each carrying bundles of skis and armfuls of boots. These are the enterprising locals who inhabit the mud-brick houses that dot the hillsides, and who have seen an opportunity to cash in on the Oukaimeden skiing market. They gather up their stocks of antiquated ski hardware and lay them out on the snow to rent to visitors from the city. It’s their way of trying to scratch a meagre living in a harsh environment. We scan the range of hardware for rent; it’s all from the 70’s and 80’s, some of it broken - stuff you wouldn’t find for rent or for sale anywhere in Europe. Many of the ski boots are already attached to the bindings, suggesting that if the boot fits then that’s your length of ski. Simple, and almost logical. Almost. Each renter has his patch and lays out his wares on the snow. Some have old snowboards, and a classic Burton Safari lies resplendent in one guy’s quiver, while another has screwed loops of rubber to one deck to act as bindings.
We dodge the guys with donkeys that are offering their own ‘taxi’ service to the other side of the resort and head for the chairlift. Replaced only a few years earlier, the chair is as modern as any you’ll find in Chamonix or Vail. Unfortunately, it is lying dormant. We enquire why it’s not running on a sunny day like this, and learn that only the week before, during heavy snow, two skiers were taken down in an avalanche. The chair is closed pending an investigation by the “authorities". We needn’t ask if there’s a chance it will re-open that week. Insh’allah is the only answer we’ll receive. Looking up at the 3232 metre peak above us, we can see a host of great freeriding terrain and maybe one or two kicker spots. The mountain has potential, but with the lift closed today we turn our attention to exploring the fun that can be found on the lower slopes. We wander up to a small village, no more than a cluster of mud-brick homes, some of which have incorporated old skis to use as beams around their doorways. Nearby, a scoop in the landscape lends itself perfectly to a little quarter pipe building, and before long we have an epic hand-plant session underway.
Our afternoon combo of digging and jibbing leaves us with an appetite that only a mountain of food will quell. We pass up the tired French menus of the posh hotels in favour of some authentic Berber cuisine from one of the small, simple cafes that huddle together in the centre of the village. With all the day-trippers now departed, we’re the only customers in the plastic-chaired, brightly lit dining room. The bare light bulb does little to hide the grime of the place, and for a moment I wonder what we’ve let ourselves in for. The place is unheated and in the deepening cold of the evening we pull our puffer jackets close and sip endless cups of sugary mint tea. Our restaurant might be basic, but its chef is unashamedly enthusiastic about his tajines (a Moroccan stew cooked in an earthenware pot), which is lucky as we have a choice of tajine or, err… tajine. We wait the 20 minutes it takes to cook the thick stew to perfection, adding to our tooth decay in the meantime with more tea. Later in the week we will order mint tea without the sugar. We’ll only do this once, realising that the Moroccans have, after the centuries of drinking heavily sugared tea, got this one dialled.
Our tajines arrive, belting hot and are set down still sizzling in front of us. This is Berber country, and the mountain version of the stew is as different to the watery offerings of lowland Marrakesh as they are to a pub ploughmans. Richly flavoured with Moroccan spices and steeped with olive oil, they’d give Jamie Oliver a run for his money. At five Euros each, our nightly dining experience is set for the week. It’s only at the end of our stay, when we see some day–trippers sharing one tajine between a whole family, that we realise why we’d struggled to finish our “individual" ones.
With the chairlift closed indefinitely, we decide to hike up the mountain the next morning. Plummeting temperatures overnight have dealt the snow another coating of concrete, but it makes the initial hike a mere walk in the park, at least until the terrain steepens sharply. After we reach an abandoned hut at about 2700 metres, we struggle to keep our footing on the solid ice. These are crampon conditions and, this being Morocco - land of sun, heat and Bedouins - we hadn’t anticipated needing enough kit for an assault on K2. The ruined hut makes for a great place to stop and survey the scene, and to shelter from the howling wind (hey, remember this is an adventure) and it also allows Ed the opportunity to scare the sh*t out of us by dropping an indy off the ledge onto the bulletproof snow five metres below. The landing has a steep enough transition to save his knees but the snow surface is so hard it catapults him straight towards a cluster of boulders. Unable to stop on the ice, it’s all Ed can do to try to minimise the impact by hitting the rocks with his board instead of his well-educated head. From our vantage point above, all we see is the poor guy catapulted over the rocks head first and out of sight. Needless to say we’re relieved when, chasing after him, we find him hiking back up with nothing but scars to his pride and board. It was a ballsy move and it doesn’t need repeating, and so with the top of the mountain still frozen solid - but the lower slopes now softening in the heat of the sun - we part with the idea of ice-climbing to the summit and turn our attention to the descent, slashing every windlip on the way back down.
Back at the base of the chairlift, it’s still insh’allah as normal regarding an opening time, so we pause to soak up some sun and munch on almonds sold from a small stand by the ticket booth. The lift station is protected from out-of-control, wayward skiers by a large netting fence, something we figure would make a cool shot with the help of a small kicker and someone spinning over it. Under the pensive gaze of a dozen locals and a couple of mules, a jump session kicks off. As my riders spin and nose bonk the fence post, I can’t tell whether the spectators are amused, bemused or just unimpressed by our antics; there is neither cheering nor gasping, and after a couple of jumps most return to their chores of smoking and chatting. It’s as if a bunch of Europeans spinning backside ones over an eight foot fence is a daily occurrence here.
With the snowpack softening, we tick off our remaining days by exploring further out from the village, finding two kicker spots which play host to some fun sessions and great photos - particularly the step-up, with its village-hut backdrop. Capturing scenery like this makes me stoked to be the photographer rather than the rider, a feeling that’s driven home further when I see how fast JJ has to ride in to hit the step-up. Just watching him hurtle across the frozen crust makes my teeth rattle.
Powered by nightly tajines and daily doses of almonds we hike the slope behind the village to a vantage point that looks way out across the desert, before returning our attention to some classic rock-fakie fun among the red sandstone boulders that poke through the metre deep snow. Amongst the scattering of expensive but currently empty summer homes, Bruno finds a challenging down-flat-down rail, and after shovelling the stairs we begin what is perhaps the first ever street rail session in Morocco. At least the expressions on the faces of the kids gathered to watch suggest it might be.
As our planned departure nears, Ed Gunn lets slip that he has one final jib he wants to tackle. Back up behind the village he’s found a huge rock, perhaps eight metres high, that has the remains of a small, rock-walled hut still perched on top. It seems an odd place to have built a house, but then I’ve never tried living in the extremes of a Moroccan mountainside, so what would I know? Whatever the reason, one small wall of the original building still exists on top of the boulder, and as Ed insists, would make a great rock fakie. I’m fighting my own feelings here. One the one hand I agree: It will make a killer shot. But on the other, get it wrong and you’re looking at a 25 feet drop to flat and a two hour taxi drive to the nearest hospital, with the injured most likely tied to the roof with a bit of tatty string. Ed decides the jib is well within his capabilities and sets about prep’ing the run in. What he hasn’t revealed is that it also needs a kicker building to actually air onto the rock first. So, not only has he got to get the rock-fakie speed exactly right, but he has to gap onto it as well. Hmmm.
I set up for the shot. The light isn’t best for me; too late in the morning, but we only have today to get it nailed. Ed drops in once, twice and a third time to test the speed. All looks good. As he lines up for the last time, I’m biting my lip. I’ve shot snowboarding for well over a decade but I still get nervous. Sitting on a Moroccan mountainside surrounded by Berber mud houses, all I can think is: “He’ll get it this time. Insh’allah."
Oukaimeden is located about 70 Km from the ancient city of Marrakesh. There is no direct public transport but a taxi from the airport or downtown Marrakesh costs about 40 Euros each way for up to four people. You can arrange with your driver a day and time to be picked up for the return. He will be there, don’t worry!
The resort has reliable snow from January until April, and while powder is not uncommon, it’s best to expect spring conditions. The resort has six draglifts on the mountain’s flanks and one chairlift which accesses the 3232 metre summit. You can pay per ride on any lift for a couple of Euros. Don’t forget your sunscreen: it is Africa after all.
Flights to Marrakesh with EasyJet.com or AtlasBlue.com start at about £80 return. Comfy but basic accommodation can be found for 12 Euros pppn in the Refuge Club Alpine Francais (tel. 00212 24 31 90 36). You’ll need your own sleeping bag. Reservations recommended at weekends, but not necessary on weekdays. Water in the refuge is safe to drink, but several small stores in the village sell bottled water and snacks. More upmarket accommodation (55 Euros B&B) can be found at Hotel Chez Juju (tel. 00212 24 31 90 05). You can eat great tajine at any of the local cafes for 5 Euros. Share them if you are weak.
10 Facts about Morocco
1. Morocco gained independence from France in 1956. French is still widely spoken.
2. The University in Fes, founded in 859 AD, claims to be the oldest university in the world (in case you’re wondering, Oxford and Cambridge were founded in 1167 and 1209 respectively).
3. The 1942 romance Casablanca, often hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time, is set in Morocco. Its lead actor, Humphrey Bogarte, gave birth to the phrase ‘Bogarting’ the joint, thanks to his habit of keeping cigarettes in the corner of his mouth but rarely actually smoking them.
4. Speaking of joints, there are an estimated 130,000 hectares in Morocco devoted to producing sieved hash. This makes Morocco the world’s largest hashish producer and exporter but also (since it is sieved rather than hand-rolled) the producer of the world’s most potent hashish.
5. Still on the stoner theme, Morocco was a famous stop on the 60s ‘hippy trail’. Musical legends Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix both frequented the seaside resort of Essaouira, where Hendrix - inspired by a ruin on the beach - composed ‘Castles Made of Sand’.
6. The website “dumblaws.com" warns that in Morocco, anyone in company with someone who possesses narcotics, even if they are unaware that their companion has them, can be tried for the same crime.
7. Getting married can be a scary thing. Brides in Morocco clearly think so - they keep their eyes closed throughout the ceremony as per the custom.
8. The Great King Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the world's biggest mosque. It can hold 100,000 worshipers.
9. The Djeema el Fna (‘place of the dead’) is one of Morocco’s most famous landmarks. A giant medieval square, it still plays host to storytellers, musicians, acrobats and snake charmers.
10. If you don’t get lucky with the snow in Morocco, the Atlantic coast around Agadir is one of the world’s best surf locations. Check it out.
Words and Photography by Dan Milner