African Snowboard Safari; Morocco

Words and pictures by Fran Hardy
Published December 2006

Join SnowSphere as we head south for an African snowboarding adventure featuring a one legged taxi driver and a number of mules in Morocco's Atlas mountains.

Mules: the main form of transport in Morocco

Surrounded by smiling, weathered faces, jolting from side to side as our small bus lurched round each corner pulling behind what had been our taxi so far this morning since 07.45am. Now 09.15am and over 100km from Marrakech and teasingly, only 10km from the tiny Moroccan resort of Oukaimeden high in the Atlas Mountains, the grande taxi we had chartered had broken down within an hour of the summit.

The day I'd been waiting for was upon me, after the thought of sampling the snow in Africa had crossed my mind all those weeks ago (too broke for the Alps, and craving some culture and adventure) here we were, stranded on the mountainside with only my pidgin French to communicate with, nervously wondering whether we would ever get there, and if we did, whether we'd ever get back to the comforts of the small budget riad, Hotel Afriquia we had made our base in Marrakech, or be spending the night on the mountainside…

When the car stopped and the gears failed to engage which the engine, several anxious minutes passed before some villagers came to our aid. The car was turned to face down hill and we started free-wheeling, curling our way down the mountainside at a pace way faster than my liking, given the sheer drop to our right. When we reached a flat stretch of the road, we had to jump out, car still moving, reeling from its own momentum, and start pushing.

Narrow streets lead to the mountains

Our driver only had one leg so we were on our own, until another group of Berbers (those native to the mountains) jumped out of a small passing bus loaded not only with seven men, a lady and her two children (and very soon us), but also with four or five hefty sacks of olives, dripping with their dark black juice, stains with which still adorn my snowboard pants as a sticky token of remembrance.

Some thin, pink rope was swiftly tied underneath both vehicles, by an agile local and we found ourselves running up the road after them. I failed to mention that we had bumped into a guide from Explore the night before, so to top it off, having consumed 4 bottles of the vin rouge, between us (in one of the very few bars that hide in this very Muslim city), we were rather more worse for wear than we would have liked for this kind of activity. Plus I'm still getting over a broken back injury from two years before!

The rope snapped, for the first of many times, which was subsequently tied and re-tied, we caught up, and this time jumped in the van. We chatted in basic French and giggled together at the rather funny situation we had gotten ourselves into, as I passed round the dates I'd kept from breakfast (bit of a cheapskate I admit, but we were on a budget). It was obvious these simple, mountain folk had honest, generous hearts, despite having so little themselves.

Moroccan break down

It took around three hours to get off the mountainside and into a small village in the valley where the nearest mechanic dwelled. We would never have done it alone, me, Jess and our one legged driver. So there we stood, glum and in contemplation. Was my dream to snowboard in Africa too far-fetched to realise? Should we retreat, tails between legs, to the familiarity of Marrakech, or try once more to reach the top? It was decision time…

The problem we faced all along was that there are no buses to Oukaimeden; you have to haggle with the drivers in Marrakech to decipher a fare price for him to drive you and wait for you, whilst confirming that payment will be made on the condition of your safe return, in order to ensure you're not stranded at the top of this remote mountain range with a plane to catch in under 48 hours, because he had a better offer.

Our driver bounded off on his faithful crutches and disappeared round the corner far off down the road. Ten minutes later he arrived back beaming and exclaiming:

"You want to go ski in Morocco? I've found you driver who will take you there!"

So with Mohammed's car now in safe hands, the four of us set off once more. Our new steed appeared even more vulnerable than the first, with no means to open either the rear windows or the doors, and the engine continually shuddering. The hour's relentless climb to the top, on this narrow winding road on the very edge of the mountainside was almost as nerve racking as our earlier, downhill, free-wheeling experience. Nevertheless, we were in good spirits once more and we set off laughing, enveloped by the dramatic beauty that surrounded us.

Lush green and brown tiered mountainside with whole villages teetering on its edge. Inhabitants farm and cultivate the virtually vertical hillside making full use of every spare inch until it falls away as the sheer rock face it rests on reaches the fast flowing river below. Small children lace our winding road, vacant expressions upon innocent, grubby faces; their heads turn as we drive past, some wave. Young teenagers flung arms out brandishing candlesticks or bunches of fresh mint, for the Moroccans' celebrated sweet tea.

African powder: worth the wait

I am filled with wonderment and awe at these hardy mountain folk who dwell in small mud houses with no running water on the edge of a slippery hillside. I am both envious and saddened by the simplicity of their lives; family bonds are strong and spirits robust, but life in these mountains is hard. We pass solitary men, who sit and gaze admiringly at the view over the deep valley and its high soaring walls, I'm certain we passed these same men three or four hours before.

Old men plod steadily up the roadside and I look to see the familiar sight of a donkey, saddle baskets laden to the gunwale with crops. I feel sorrow for the steadfast hardy beast; so many work relentlessly for 24 hours in the cities, a sickening reality, but this time I see a woman balancing a huge basket brimming with the same produce, on her head! We could no doubt learn a lot from these people.

The cloud becomes denser and the road steeper and windier, whilst the engine becomes concurrently smokier. We finally arrive at the top, the road almost coming to an end, almost six hours since departing Marrakech. We were faced with a glorious sight for snow-hungry eyes. We see five drag lifts and further up the road, the beginning of the highest ski lift in Africa (3273m).

There are a smattering of people, both local (making their living from the white stuff) and some Europeans milling around (spending what they've earned on the white stuff), but few are heading towards what we have our focus on, the big chair disappearing into the cloud.

I put on some soft, ankle breaking boots (they mimicked the 'blocker boots' favoured by Vanilla Ice in the '80s), altered the stance of one of two snowboards for rent and set off for that lift, passing mules as we strode. Twenty long, excitable minutes later we arrive at the summit in thick cloud, and to our gratitude three local men, dressed in an array of rose patterned and chequered printed ski gear (not far off the attire favoured by the Europeans), join us and we 'surf' down the deserted, untracked African powder emerging through the cloud, into bright sunshine.

The one legged taxi driver and co.

For that moment it seemed like we could have been anywhere in the world, except there were no mod-cons, no avalanche control, expensive branded snowboard gear had no meaning and mules were the main mode of transport. Most importantly, there were hardly any people - we had the mountain to ourselves.

We descended with a sense of adventure and accomplishment; it was a pleasure to have spent the day having a glimpse into a way of life so far removed from the one we live here in the West, and to ride some powder at the same time.

Fran Hardy is a British snowboarder who recently returned from two years in Whistler.