Jewel of the Atlas: mining for pleasure in a Berber retreat
My daughter spots them first, glinting like diamonds in the midday heat of the Moroccan sun, irresistible for small fingers to pick at. “Treasure!” she exclaims, kneeling down to pick clusters of tiny crystals out of the earth, some of them clear, others in ochres, oranges and yellows. From gold and silver to cobalt, nickel and zinc, the Atlas mountains are a mineral paradise, as well as an ancient and lucrative industry.
Centuries ago, explains our walking guide Abdelkarim, the original silk route would have passed through these mountains en route to Timbuktu, transporting gold and silver from the area. Mining is big business in Morocco, its applications ranging from cobalt for phone batteries to quartz crystals in watches and zinc oxide in agriculture.
Rich with ravines and canyons, waterfalls and wild flowers, the Atlas mountains stretch 2,500km, spanning Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and separating the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines from the Sahara desert.
Today, the main jewel in this part of Morocco is Marrakech, attracting ever larger numbers to the markets and souks, or for trips into the Sahara desert for promised peace and tranquillity under the stars. But it is difficult to see why these mountains – remote, vast, empty, yet only 40 minutes away from the chaos and crowds of Marrakech – are not the star attraction. You could be in the Himalayas, but you’re just a three-hour flight from London.
During our three-hour hike all we can see from every vantage point are endless craggy peaks dotted with pretty Berber villages carved out of the dusty landscape. To get here, we stop at one village, perched across the valley from where we’re staying. In the square, a group of children start to follow us and Abdelkarim stops, pulls out some pens and exercise books from his bag and hands them out. School resources are stretched here, he explains, but education is highly prized. He points to a large new building in the middle of the village, the school house where pupils are taught in Arabic and Berber.
Up here in the hills, we meet no one. It’s just us – my husband and two daughters – the epic silence of the landscape, and the odd mule, known locally as the 4×4 of the mountains, tethered to a tree.
Back at Kasbah Angour, where we’re staying, it’s so comfortable and pretty, it would be easy to succumb to languor, never venturing beyond the hotel’s swimming pool. The lush manicured lawns, terracotta pots and rows of Cyprus trees lend the place a Tuscan feel, yet the scorched red and pink rocky landscape couldn’t be anywhere else but north Africa. But explore we must. British owner Paul Foulsham encourages his guests to immerse themselves in the area and appreciate the local Berber culture.
Back in the early 1990s, Foulsham worked as a financial analyst for various oil companies but when he came to Morocco, to mine baryte for the oil industry, he decided to stay put. He found the site within two weeks, and set about building the 23-room Berber-style castle from scratch with the help of local architects. The project has been a labour of love.
Every detail has been crafted from locally sourced materials, from the traditional tiled floors to the carved shutters, Berber rugs, ornate mirrors and handmade furniture in the restaurant. The overall feel is luxurious but authentic, too. Our two-bedroom suite is extremely spacious with a comfortable sitting room, and kitchen area perfect for mixing a G&T to drink out on the terrace, with yet more wraparound views. Every evening we sit and play cards and watch the sun dip below the mountains before we head for the hotel restaurant below us.
The real joy of Angour is exploring its gardens, which are large and sprawling, full of formal rose beds and wild flowers, and fringed with fir, olive, fig and pomegranate trees. Most of the fresh fruit and vegetables grown here are used by the chefs in Angour’s kitchens to create traditional Moroccan meals, from tagines with preserved lemons to stuffed peppers, and simply prepared fresh artichokes.
We quickly fall into a morning routine, whiling the early hours away by the pool and enjoying yet more 360-degree views of the mountains from the vantage point of a sun lounger.
Each morning, over breakfast of fresh bread, honey, olives and figs, Foulsham chats to the guests about their plans for the day – often excursions on offer through the hotel. There are camel rides, 4×4 off-roading trips or guided treks up Mount Toubkal – 4,167m-high, with views of the Sahara over the other side. We opt for a day in Marrakech, which is easily accessible by local cab, and find ourselves joining a long queue of (mainly French) tourists outside the Yves Saint Laurent Museum.
Inside, it’s dark and mirrored, a beautifully designed space that’s well worth the wait. The original YSL tuxedo takes pride of place.
A few minutes away is the Jardin Majorelle, the garden that Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought to preserve the work of its original owner, the French landscape painter Jacques Majorelle. We switch into a surreal desert landscape with towering cacti, ornamental ponds, and every surface painted an iridescent Yves Klein blue.
No day trip to Marrakech is complete without lunch on a rooftop terrace, so we head for Café Arabe, with a modern Med menu, curvaceous cream sofas and views across the medina rooftops. Best of all are fine water jets above each table that release a misty vapour that makes the city’s 40C heat almost bearable. The lunch is perfect: the vegetable couscous is buttery and meltingly tender, and the Casablanca beer beautifully icy.
A lightning glimpse of Djemaa el-Fna, the main square in Marrakech, is just long enough to see the crowds arriving and the snake charmers setting up. I vow to come back to Marrakech for a longer stay but for now we can’t wait to scuttle back to our waiting cab and the oasis of Kasbah Angour.