TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

ROCKING THE KASBAH IN MOROCCO’S ATLAS MOUNTAINS

The torrential rain started to pour down just minutes before we arrived at Kasbah Tamadot. The name of Richard Branson’s luxury Atlas Mountains retreat, our lovely By Prior Arrangement driver Mouhssine told us as we pulled up at the entrance, means ‘soft breeze’ in the local Berber language. A fact we could only laugh at as the hail started to tap on our roof. I shook off the feeling that we must have angered the mountain gods in some way to be feeling the planet’s wrath so keenly, took off my leather sandals, and talked my travel buddy Miles into making a dash into the hotel with me.

Cut to us standing in reception – barefoot, clothes drip-dripping onto the floorboards, cheeks pink with embarrassment. Not a good look for our arrival at one of the most luxurious hotels in Morocco. But within seconds a staff member had thrown a jellaba cape around each of our shoulders, given us some soft leather babouche slippers to wear, and whisked us into the dining room for some sweet mint tea and a two-course lunch in the Kanoun restaurant. It was so tasty it almost made us forget how devastated we were that we wouldn’t be getting any poolside action today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe soon realised this was a blessing in disguise. After lunch were shown to our luxury tented Berber suite, one of eight at the far end of the property past the infinity pool, tennis courts and on-site veggie and herb gardens. There were Berber rugs strewn across the floorboards, brass chandeliers hanging from the tented ceiling, opulent drapes framing the windows, pieces of antique wooden furniture, breathtaking views over the glistening Ouirgane Valley, a hot tub on the private deck, our own butler at our beck and call… We were in heaven, giggling like kids at the insane luxury of it all.

What to do but light the scented candles, brew up some tea from the complimentary mini bar, and while away the wet afternoon reading coffee table books on Berber textiles, wallowing in the claw foot bathtub (me), and napping on the comfy couches (Miles) as the misting rain continued to drift across the mountains.
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The following morning the rain finally stopped and, as the clouds parted at breakfast (I’m still dreaming about that breakfast tagine), we were given our first glimpse of the snow-whitened peaks of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa.

Soon Mouhssine picked is up and drove us fifteen minutes into the Atlas Mountains, where we were met by our Berber guide Mohammad from By Prior Arrangement and two muletiers. We jumped up into the surprisingly comfortable saddles of our trusty steads and made our way into the rusty-hued hills, a colour Mohammad told us came from the high levels of iron ore in the stony ground we were clattering over.

We meandered on for an hour and a half without another soul in sight, passing serpentine slithers of greenery, juniper bushes and wild pepper trees, crossing a river on our hardy mules, and making our way to Anraz, an old Jewish village where Mohammad’s family have lived for five generations. Upon entering the village we passed flat-roofed mud brick houses, terraced farm gardens filled with apricot, apple, almond and olive trees, and the occasional gaggle of sheep. It was like a step back in time.

“Life hasn’t changed much here because we’re so isolated,” said Mohamad as we approached his family home. “We still build our own houses by hand, make our livings from sheep, dates, camels and nuts, everything we eat is grown here, and everyone in the village knows each other’s business.”

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Mohammad showed us up to the rooftop terrace of his family home, where we took a seat on a colourful rug that his mother had woven by hand and gazed out over the undulating mountains. We drank fresh mint tea and feasted on a fantastically fragrant, fruity chicken tagine cooked by Mohammad’s mother in a hand-built earthen oven downstairs, experiencing the Berbers’ infamous hospitality first hand. Two kittens tumbled playfully next to us, a sun shower passed over us ending in a burst of sunlight that flooded the valley with a flaming gold light, and Miles and I agreed that we could quite happily stay in this little village forever.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMG_6973OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alas, it was soon time to bid Mohammad’s family farewell and climb back onto our mules. Luckily our arrival back at Kasbah Tamadot wasn’t too strenuous. We had a lie by the infinity pool surrounded by apple trees, cactus and palm gardens, petal-filled fountains and Berber tents decorated with colourful rugs, followed by an indulgent massage where we were embalmed in herb-scented oils at the retreat’s Asounfou Spa. We had a quick shop at the hotel’s Berber Boutique, which sells traditional Berber rugs, hand-embroidered clothing, jewellery and more created by local craftspeople through the foundation set up by Richard’s mum Eve. Then all that was left to do was pour ourselves a glass of Moroccan rosé, take a seat on our deck, watch the sun drift behind the mountains, and finally enjoy the soft breeze this magical retreat was named after.

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