WHERE ARE THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS?
Morocco, mainly. The Atlas mountains stretch for 1,200 miles from the Atlantic port of Agadir to the Tunisian capital, Tunis. But Morocco is, arguably, where the Atlas range is at its most interesting. Within Morocco, the Atlas is divided into several parallel ranges - the Anti, Middle and High Atlas. Of these, the High Atlas attracts most visitors, many of whom come to climb Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 4,167m.
WHAT CAN YOU DO THERE?
All the usual mountain activities are on offer in the Atlas but be prepared for them to be Moroccan-style. Don't expect to find the sort of tourist infrastructure you find in the Alps, or even the Pyrenees.
Trekking is the main draw, with thousands of French, Spanish and British walkers visiting each year. Weird geology, warm weather and a colourful local population make the Atlas one of the world's great trekking environments. Guides and pack mules can be hired cheaply and easily at all major trail- heads. Finding maps and accommodation, however, can be a little more difficult.
The four main trekking areas are Toubkal, M'goun, Sirwa and Sahro. Each is very different. Toubkal is the highest and most easily reached from Marrakesh. M'goun is lush and densely populated. Sirwa and Sahro are lower, hotter and more isolated.
First-time trekkers in the Atlas will be surprised by how few fellow walkers they'll meet; trekking is still in its early days here and the range is far from crowded. Arranging an independent trek is fairly straightforward but a number of British-based tour operators also offer comprehensive trekking packages. There are also 4WD tours available for those who want to see the mountains without a work-out.
Not all visitors are trekkers. Many people visit simply to see the mountains or to enjoy the peace. Horse-riding, mountain-biking and climbing are easy to organise and twitchers flock to this important haven for birdlife, too. Look out for the rare Moussier's Redstart, endemic to Morocco and Algeria, the Bearded Vulture, Bonelli's Eagle and the Barbary Falcon.
WHERE EXACTLY SHOULD
The Atlas may be one of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges but specific "attractions" are scarce. Trekkers hoping to scale Jbel Toubkal need to get to Imlil, the start point. Tabant is the trail-head for the M'goun region. The Sirwa area is most easily reached from Taliouine, while Sahro should be tackled from N'Kob.
Of the many beautiful and ancient Berber villages in the Atlas, Megdaz, in the M'goun area, is perhaps the best. Imilchil is well worth visiting for its annual Berber wedding festival (usually held in September). The mosque at Tin Mal and the kasbahs at Telouet and Ait Ben Haddou are other popular highlights, and Ouirgane is the best base from which to explore the Atlas without roughing it. Here you will find La Roseraie, one of the very few top-class hotels in the area.
WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE?
In general, the Arabs dominate the cities while the Berbers occupy the mountains. There is some tension between the two ethnographic groups, who have different origins, outlooks, language and even appearances.
Berbers are famed for their generous hospitality to strangers. It is quite common to be invited to share tea and bread with a local family, or even to stay overnight. They are also, however, equally well-known for the passion and violence with which they have defended their independence and beliefs. Like many mountain peoples, Berbers are often extremely fit. Trekking guides and mule-drivers cover vast distances quickly without the trekking gear Westerners might would consider essential.
The traditional dress for Berber men, still worn today, is a brown or dark-blue, full-length smock. Women wear colourful, highly- decorated dresses with distinctive headscarves and bright sandals. …