Morocco is a beautiful country with historic and romantic cities including Casablanca and Marrakesh, as well as the snow capped Atlas Mountains and a long, sandy coastline. I joined the High Atlas Explorer trip, which took us from snow covered hills down to the hot, desert sands. I fulfilled a childhood dream to see Morocco the way it should be; on horseback.
After a four hour flight to Marrakech followed by a three hour journey by mini-bus to Skoura, the opportunity to sleep was welcomed. While dying to meet the stallion who would accompany me on my adventure, I knew I had less than seven hours to recharge my batteries.
Morning brought sweet mint tea and pancakes and an introduction to the horse I’d been waiting to meet all my life. All the horses on the Moroccan High Atlas Explorer are Arab cross Barb stallions; mares are not ridden and stallions are not gelded because vets are scarce in Morocco. Put aside all you’ve been told about stallions; our horses were well-mannered, well-schooled and thorough old-fashioned gentlemen. I’m sure if Al Pachino, my horse, could have opened the tent doors for me, he would have!
Al Pachino is a palomino; his mane would put a Timotei girl to shame. Shining with good condition, and, rested after a three week break, he was eager to be saddled and to welcome me aboard. As Al Pachino and I got acquainted, I was getting comfortable in my familiar English saddle and snaffle bridle. Safety was paramount; before we hit the trail, we had to prove our skill around a menege and local village before we were allowed into the open countryside to enjoy our horses and the ever changing landscape.
During the trail we rode from Skoura, on the edge of the desert, over the High Atlas Mountains, towards the Plains of Marrakech, a total of 231 miles (370 km), and reaching, at the highest point, 8,000ft (2,400 meters). It makes my bottom ache to think of it, and I was glad I remembered to take my seat saver!
During the first day we rode through a bamboo grove, which the horses thought very tasty, to the campsite where we were the star attractions. After sweet mint tea, it was time for the first delicious dinner and bed.
I woke to morning prayers. As soon as sunrise hit, so did the heat. I groomed Al Pachino and we led our horses down to the river for a morning drink. My fellow rider Val put on an impromptu ‘display’ for us and the onlookers on the river bank, with her horse Albinos splashing around in the water. We passed abandoned paddy fields, a washed away bridge and a wide river. By the time we reached the campsite, the wind was high, so putting the tents up was delayed.
I brought apple treats to bond with my horse; typically, he was the only one that didn’t like them. Luckily, I liked the treats that were cooked for me. The food, provided by our own personal chef, was amazing. After all the food burned off during riding, I was pleased to be able to refill my energy reserves with mouth watering, traditional Moroccan food such as prepared fruit and vegetable and meat stews prepared in a Moroccan tagine. By the end of the trail, the horses could put their girths up a hole or two, but none of the riders could!
The Moroccan landscape is beautiful; controlled canter shows it at its best, and the terrain varies from lush grass to rocky mountains and sandy plains. The horses cope with the changing surface and varying weather conditions with ease.
On the 5th day we reached the site where ‘Gladiator’ was filmed. I was hoping Russell Crowe would appear, but I had to content myself with exploring the old Roman amphitheatre – which turned out to be made of plywood, and papier-mâché! Riding through wind that afternoon was hairy, especially as the horses were less co-operative, so reaching the tent, at Aït Ben Haddou, was a relief. The day-time temperature varied the most this day, the morning being very hot and dry as we rode through the bad lands, and the afternoon being far cooler as we battled with the strong winds. A heated debate followed in the evening over drinks and nibbles, as to whether it was best to ride in the heat or the wind.
One of the stallions seemed intent on proving his independence. Nassim, meaning handsome in Berber, had a nature as random as the positioning of the loo tent. However, once saddled, he was calm and eager to explore. Omar, our English speaking guide, fell asleep while riding him – which shows how relaxing a lot of the riding was.
Al Pachino liked to display his stallion status when we passed mules, which were on the increase as the trail went on. Each time he passed one, he rounded beautifully (I even got a few steps of Spanish walk!) and it felt like he laughed at them! I think he was saying ‘I’m a handsome horse, and you’re just a silly old mule’. On one occasion we had all stopped for a photo session and let a mule pass; Al Pachino then took the lead in search of the mule, and at every corner we went round his ears pricked up with anticipation of finding him!
On the 6th day of the trail we stopped off for our first picnic lunch, as the truck was unable to get to us. We were instantly surrounded by a group of village boys. Our guide Abdul asked one of the boys to get us some provisions – tea and bread then appeared – a nice change and something we can only dream of happening in England! While we were relaxing in the sun, the horses were having a bath in the river and they all came out sparkling. The ever-mercurial Nassim had to have 2 baths after finishing his first bath with a good roll in the dust. One of the older village boys helped wash the horses, so we dubbed him the young Abdul, after our magnificent guide.
From the desert heat we made our way to a very wet Telouet – the rain actually added to the excitement! Abandoning the campsite for a Gite, or B&B, our cook rustled up an evening meal of Moroccan meat balls with rice on just three portable gas canisters. By now the weather had turned very bad with strong wind, heavy rain and a fresh layer of snow.
We woke the next morning to a snow covered mountain pass and a late breakfast. Worried that we would have to cancel the mountain crossing due to the snow fall over night, we were all excited to find out we’d got the all clear to ‘go over the top’ and we were going to finally see the pass of Tizi-n-Tichka. This proved to be the most exhilarating, rewarding and longest day, and one where we all felt we’d achieved something magical. Our bond and respect for our mounts increased greatly. After a wonderful ride over the top of the mountains, we camped near the main road to Marrakech. Obviously, ‘Houdini horse’ Nassim broke free again within five minutes.
Waking in the Moroccan mist is almost magical. As is feeling the mist blow onto your cheek courtesy of your horse. On the last day I left most of the ride behind in a long, pipe-cleaning gallop. After a few long canters, it was time for a sad goodbye to our beautiful horses, who had made all of our dreams come true. As our horses were loaded into the lorry, we hoped we would be meeting them again. The move to a 3 star hotel in Marrakech was a shock to the system and my heart remained firmly in my tent with the sound of my mount grazing nearby.
- Baby wipes are very handy to clean off the dust from the trail. Part of our evening routine was to sit round cleaning our faces – I even managed to get the guides cleansing, toning and moisturising.
- Neck scarves proved very useful for keeping out the dust when the wind gets up; we cantered through several villages all with our ‘bandit scarves’ on – Val was even called Zoro by a group of village children.
- I was the Kit Queen – when anyone asked ‘have you got…’, I would always reply ‘yes’! The only thing I didn’t have was a sewing kit.
- Sun cream is of course essential.
- The weather was unseasonably bad for this trip; it is usually far warmer. Therefore don’t forget to take warm clothes for ‘going over the top’ – we were riding through snow drifts. The guides really couldn’t do enough for us, and provided us all with extra warm clothes, so we could enjoy the trip in comfort.
- For riding through the desert a long sleeved, light cotton shirt is good for protecting your arms from the sun.
- I was very grateful for my seat saver and it got several jealous stares from the others on the trail.
- A torch is essential for finding the loo tent.
- A camera – goes without saying!
- Horse treats – all the horses loved them (apart from mine). He would look longingly at me as I went round giving the other stallions an apple treat, then stare at me as if to say ‘That’s not what you’ve been giving the others!’
- As this was a camping trip, you need to take sleeping bags; pillows and comfy foam mattresses are provided.
- Bottled water is provided.
- Saddle bags were provided for us for keeping essentials in when riding – mine became my surrogate hand-bag!
For more information and to book:
Telephone: 01767 600606 (UK); 1-437-371-2822 (Canada); 1-888-420-0964 (USA); +46 (0)8-58176336 (Scandinavia)
Account by Susannah Shelly