On a wind-in-her-hair trip out of Marrakech, Lizzie Frainier experiences the true grit of the Atlas Mountains.
I'm a wimp when it comes to roller coasters. I simply cannot get on board with the idea that tearing along a narrow track at breakneck speed is fun. I've tried, and I've cried. Not to be repeated.
It was amusing to me then, when a friend described our journey through the Atlas Mountains as akin to riding a rollercoaster. We had set out from Marrakech that morning, a convoy of three vintage Ural motorcycles with attached sidecars, winding like an interconnected train as we chugged up steep inclines, swung around voluptuous mountain curves and shot down bumpy dirt paths. At last, a thrilling ride I could get on board with.
Each bike was driven by a knowledgeable guide from Insiders Marrakech, with one guest riding pillion and another in the sidecar. The point being that if I was entrusted with exploring on my own, not only would I inevitably get lost, but I'd shoot past secret spots without ever knowing better. Our itinerary had been designed with the help of Royal Mansour, the luxury Marrakech hotel in which we were staying, to include authentic experiences that remained respectful of the communities we would visit.
We rode out of Marrakech just after dawn to the honking of horns and the whirring of engines; the already-crowded streets were a blur of colours but soon we were on the long road to the mountains with empty expanses of arid land either side, bar occasional flat-roofed buildings and shops selling stacks of terracotta pots.
My guide, Safoine, kept the speed at a good pace, meaning the thrill factor was definitely there, but I never felt unsafe. A big fan of Wallace and Gromit, I had opted to ride in the sidecar, Gromit-style. The added bonus of not being in control of the handlebars, or riding at the rear, was that I had total freedom to take in the views.
In the few small towns and villages we passed through, groups of children gave us quizzical looks and others smiled and waved. I immediately felt connected to the surroundings as the wind whipped across my face and the sun warmed my back. Soon after, I caught my first glimpse of the Atlas: a mighty zigzag of snowy peaks carved on to the blue canvas of the sky. We began climbing switchback bends, stopping to take photographs along the way, before pulling up at a local souk. Our mode of transport, incongruous alongside the countless donkeys used by the locals, drew a small crowd.
Large blankets spread on the dusty ground displayed piles of carrots, potatoes and onions, while cuts of meat hung from the roofs of stalls, and buckets on tables were filled with almonds and cashews — but it was the dates that caught my eye. I attempted to barter with a man wearing a straw hat low over his face, and we settled on the price of 20 dirhams (less than $3). He gave me a smile that told me I had paid over the going rate.
Other highlights included a rocky plateau where we paused for champagne against a backdrop of more mountain peaks; a steep climb up a shrubbery-clad hillside to scope out ancestral rock paintings under the watchful eye of a shepherd and his goats; and supping on the sweetest mint tea in a Berber village, before climbing up a ladder to the roof of a mud house for a sweeping vista with our leader, Thomas, and his local friend, Hassan. From this vantage point overlooking the other flat-roofed homes, we could fully survey the dry landscape and the village's pale-pink mosque, the only bright pops of colour being laundry on washing lines. Our day in the mountains ended on the top floor of a Berber home, where we ditched our shoes to sit on traditional rugs while the owner, Zorah, served a glorious homemade tagine.
From here it was a long, steep drive back down the mountains to Royal Mansour. The hotel is owned by the King of Morocco (he visited during our stay), and is a magnet for Instagrammers with its three-storey riad "rooms", each featuring a rooftop plunge pool and sprawling spa, but our noisy arrival meant all eyes were on us as we pulled up outside the decorative reception, a sun-dappled courtyard adorned with hand-painted tiles and glass lanterns. The faces of the guests were full of curiosity — much like ours had been each time we flew around a mountain corner to reveal a captivating new view.
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I was most excited about the rush of flying through the mountains in a sidecar but it was actually the stops we made at lesser-known spots that tipped this day into the exceptional.