x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Anti-climax? No, Anti-Atlas

Amar Grover takes his family on a walking holiday around the starkly beautiful town of Tizourgane in southern Morocco.

Kasbah Tizourgane, Morocco.
Kasbah Tizourgane, Morocco.

The narrow road wound through endless hills and ridges dotted with olive-like argan trees and villages spiked with white- or rose-hued minarets. At almost every turn my gaze was drawn to tantalising views and vantage points. By Tizourgane, we finally stopped and got out for a proper look at a distinctive walled hamlet crowning a low hill.

It's not quite what it seems. Kasbah Tizourgane calls itself a maison d'hôtes, a homestay or inn, and here in Tizourgane village, tourists are likely to form the majority of its inhabitants. Climbing a flight of stairs up the hill, we reached a masonry gateway with an ornate wooden door. Beyond, a flat path orbited the hamlet's heels while another weaved up between closely packed and semi-ruined houses to the inn's threshold. On its rooftop terrace, with magnificent views across a small plain to the craggy hills beyond, my two young boys gleefully announced they were now "kings of the castle".

Morocco's Anti-Atlas Mountains are a starkly beautiful chain running roughly parallel to and south of their better-known relations, the High Atlas. This is not the country's prime tourist region and it remains all the better for it. There are no fancy hotels or swimming pools, tourism is low-key and local friendliness is likely to be genuine. And in a land famed for its mountain-desert scenery, it's with good reason that for decades numerous films and adverts have been shot here in the south - the Anti-Atlas is hardly an anti-climax.

Tizourgane, explained its proprietor Jamal Moussalli late one evening after dinner, began as a 13th-century agadir, a fortified communal granary built by the indigenous Berber tribes to safeguard their food stores and valuables. Unusually for an agadir, which typically stand aloof in lofty, less accessible locations, villagers came to build houses around the cubicle-filled heart of the little fortress. His family owned six dwellings here but, like many in this region who have migrated to towns and cities either temporarily for work or permanently, they left for Meknes in the 1950s.

Holidaying in the region in the mid-1990s, Jamal found the old family homes in ruins and a handful of Tizourgane's remaining families about to give up. To his father's dismay ("he thought I was crazy, coming back to shift rocks with my bare hands") he returned to restore the place and embrace his roots. Stung but not beaten by family disappointment and initially less-than-friendly residents, he inched forward with small renovations. Then a few passing travellers, cyclists mostly, began staying in his basic, though "authentic", accommodation. Six years ago, he secured a government grant to help restore the hamlet's fabric, so from a distance the whole looks rather more intact than it really is.

The inn is simple but spotless and nights here are bracingly still and silent. There's a weekly souq in nearby Idaougnidif and decent walks to be had among the rugged encircling hills and their earthy hamlets - the real Morocco, if you like. Most visitors here are either heading to or coming from Tafraoute, an administrative centre in the heart of the Anti-Atlas about an hour's drive away.

This functional town won't win any beauty contests but it's a relaxed, friendly place set amid wonderful scenery (think day trips). Backed by the Jebel el Kest and a clutch of settlements in the adjoining Ameln Valley, you could spend a couple of days walking the weirdly eroded russet hills with huge molten-looking rocks that resemble creatures, human faces and dinosaur eggs. In the case of Aguard Oudad village, a particularly striking outcrop is known as Le Chapeau de Napoleon, or Napoleon's Hat, while a kilometre away are the so-called Painted Rocks, a surreal hillock with house-sized boulders sprayed sky-blue with splashes of pink and turquoise.

Ameln's villages comprise an unlikely blend of old, almost biblical-looking, houses and newer pseudo-mansions. At Oumesnat, the charming "Maison Traditionelle" is a little folk museum and homestay run by a blind man and his family. Here, we examined Berber implements and artefacts along with the strangely Greek-looking (and rarely used) Berber script. Yet it also lends a glimpse of life today, in particular how the humblest-looking homes will probably still have an immaculate and comfortable salon to receive guests and entertain.

Tagdicht, the valley's highest village, lends its own short but spectacular cliff-hugging drive. Hidden away in a lofty bowl of the Jebel el Kest, it seems to have survived against the odds. Four years ago its tortuous unpaved road, or piste, was repaired with retaining walls and short sections resemble a catwalk. Remittances from émigré workers have kept the place alive. As a handful of its medieval houses crumble and collapse, modern cement versions in burgundy and salmon-pink rise alongside.

"I don't see many children up here," said an old man sitting by the village's solitary little shop as our boys scampered ahead waving sticks. "But sometimes, walkers like you pass through." With our boots and daypacks, we certainly conformed to the mould.

Beyond its scattered houses, we picked up a path running alongside fields now largely abandoned but for strands of almond trees. Jagged red-brown cliffs pierced an indigo sky. The full extent of its lost cultivation was plain to see; an amphitheatre of picturesque terraced fields laddered the hillside below Tagdicht. In this poor soil, crops had demanded relentless toil. "Why slave away to grow anything," remarked one villager later, "when you can just buy food instead?"

Most Tafraoute visitors simply head back down to the plains the way they've come. The trusty Michelin map depicts only three main options, all very scenic. Yet, even the Michelin struggles to keep pace with Moroccan road-building, especially the on-going upgrade of numerous pistes to metalled roads. We'd heard of a new route that cut through the gorgeous terrain of serpentine canyons and valleys that ruffle the southern flanks of the Anti-Atlas.

Bypassing yet another lovely circular drive near Tafraoute known as the Gorges d'Ait Mansour, we headed on past Izerbi to a turn-off signed Igmir. A broad well-graded piste - clearly a proper road in the making - stretched away into a barren nothingness of rounded hills and vast sky. The boys seemed to relish its perceived resemblance to Mars. My announcement that we were now heading towards the Sahara (true in terms of direction rather than objective) was met with mounting excitement. Seventeen kilometres later, we reached the lip of a deep canyon and the route plunged abruptly into a coil of tight hairpin bends.

There's a YouTube clip titled "Crazy Mountain Road", filmed before the piste's recent upgrading, which neatly shows the lay of the land; this part also graces the cover of a French 4x4 handbook. It's much easier now for a standard car and even our plucky little Picanto. Soon the emerald-green heads of palms choking a gorge came into view far below. About 2km later, we landed at the foot of Igmir village, standing across the dry riverbed, utterly dwarfed by soaring cliffs.

Omar, the local schoolteacher, helped us settle into the only accommodation, a simple gite d'etape, or inn, with tea and pastries. We forged plans. An oasis of date palms stretched up and down the canyon, their nodding leaves twitching with little chirping birds. Omar suggested we might visit the nearby agadir, all but invisible atop a sheer bluff.

We picked up the faint trail at the edge of the village, climbing steadily up an austere side valley. After 30 minutes, we gained the spur to reach the little fortress' broken walls. Perched right on the edge of a precipice, we enjoyed vertiginous views of Igmir and its snaking oasis, marvelling too at the tenacity of medieval Berbers who had built and once maintained their eyrie-like granary.

Omar explained the new piste was part of a much bigger project to improve links between this region, the city of Agadir and the mainstream. Down-valley from Igmir, some of the oasis' palms would be felled to widen the road, and its regular blocking by boulders washed down the river-bed after seasonal rain would, hopefully, become history. "Everyone wants it", he continued, "for better communications and opportunities." But he acknowledged that the sublime tranquility of the place would probably fade in time.

Next morning we hiked up the beautiful, still canyon. A path wound through palm groves with clumps of oleander and dense shrubbery edging seasonal streams and ponds. We glimpsed a snake, heard raucous frogs and spun pebbles. Knee-deep water filled one short and narrow section. Wading across, carrying each of my sons in turn, I was instantly upgraded to hero.

Eventually - really too long for young children - we reached our curious objective: crude steps alongside the steep canyon wall rising to a short, roughly hewn tunnel. At the other end we emerged flush with the wadi's bed, just above which stood the tatty village of Oukrda. Centuries ago, the locals had dammed the wadi at this elongated loop to make plots for crops and vegetables. The tunnel was bored to divert occasional torrents of water which, thundering down the canyon, would have spurted briefly from the cliff like some bizarre blowhole. "It's a bit like …" began Amrik, my eight-year old. "Indiana Jones," I finished for him. We grinned and turned round for the long walk back.

Our drive's roughest stretch of piste lay beyond Igmir but this simply forced us to drive patiently and enjoy the wilderness. Shady oases gave way to a widening valley with the odd hamlet huddled beneath the starkest of hills. A rickety-looking van with villagers clinging to its roof swerved past on its way back from a regional market. After a slow 23km ride, we gratefully reached tarmac and soon joined the main Tata road.

We'd left one of the south's most memorable sights until last. Most of Morocco's best-preserved fortress-granaries lie in the Anti-Atlas, little-known or used, hard to reach and barely visited. Lying near the mouth of another gorgeous canyon, Amtoudi village (marked as "Id-Aissa" on the Michelin map) is on the tourist trail and has not one agadir but a pair barely 2km apart. You could easily drive in, admire the scenery and still miss the first, called "Id Issa". Looming over the village, its walls blend almost invisibly into the landscape - only some pale crenulations atop squat watchtowers give it away.

When I first visited in the late 1990s, Amtoudi felt utterly remote. There was no electricity, and the night belonged to the local dogs whose yelps and howls filled the gorge like some macabre echo chamber. Now there are two very simple guesthouses, electricity and a regular trickle of visitors - mostly French - and often in family groups enjoying soft off-road adventures.

Some things haven't changed. From beneath some shady palm, Id Issa's sprightly guardian will spot you setting on up the twisting path zigzagging high above the village. Shortly after you reach its locked gateway he'll arrive with a wooden key that resembles an outsized toothbrush, reach into a crevice and … open sesame. A little farther on he unlocks the main door, you creep into a low tunnel and emerge at the summit. Here, in an open sloping compound, lie the remains of cisterns and grinding stones, dozens of cubicles with miniature wooden doors and baffling lattices of heavy slate (made, I was told, to keep hives for honey). The views from its terrace and roof are startling.

Fewer visitors reach Aguelluy, the second fortress, which, although apparently smaller, is equally impressive. Perched spectacularly on a projecting shaft of rock, local lore says this was the area's "mother" agadir; from the wadi far below it looks inaccessible. Yet by the early 2000s it was in a poor, if not dangerous, state and looking like it might slide off the precipice with the next storm. Timely government funding, villagers' toil and the expertise of Salima Naji, a French-Moroccan architect, have ensured considerable stabilisation and restoration work of this significant Berber heritage.

For my boys at least, Aguelluy's guardian directed another Indiana Jones moment. The 10th-century fortress is honeycombed with around 99 cubicles, some accessible only by cantilevered steps in cramped shafts. There's also a tiny mosque and sleeping quarters, because strife-torn villagers occasionally took desperate refuge here, too. As he led us through, we bent double to navigate tiny passages and paused at loopholes to peer out at the canyon below. "Today we can look with pleasure," he said. "But yesterday they looked with fear."

If you go

The flight

Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies to Casablanca from Abu Dhabi from Dh3,750 return, including taxes.

The hotel

Tizourgane Kasbah (www.tizourgane-kasbah.com; 00 212 61 94 13 50) has double rooms from 300 Moroccan dirhams (Dh134) per person, per night, full board (half price for children). In Tafraoute, Hotel les Amandiers (www.hotel-lesamandiers.com; 00 212 5 28 800 008) has double rooms from €46 (Dh231) per night, including taxes. Hotel Salama (www.hotelsalama.com; 00 212 528 800 026) has double rooms from 256 dirhams (Dh114), per night.

The info

The Rough Guide to Morocco is an excellent source. The Michelin Morocco map (1/1,000,000) is invaluable, although it doesn't show the piste to Igmir. Most Anti-Atlas roads are well maintained. Take care when driving on pistes and check on driving conditions with the residents