Atay Maghrebi: Climbing the Cascades in Ourika Valley
Sometimes, the measure of a good summer is when one day rolls benignly into the other. When you're content with your surroundings and the company you're keeping. You're not doing anything particularly opulent, but you're still maybe walking as far as the street corner for an afternoon snack.
My first few days had fitted into this mould. I’d helped Carlos build a swimming pool for Najwa and Youssef’s children in the backyard of the villa in Targa. I’d ventured as far as the corner shop during the day and a café called Extra Blatt in the evening.
For a few years, a place that my host Nassima had often mentioned ahead of my previous visits to Morocco was Ourika Valley. I didn’t really know much about it and even Lonely Planet wasn't particularly enlightening. The basic fact was that it was a short journey from Marrakech and, sensing Nassima's 'Bridezilla-o-meter' could be triggered at any moment, I decided to go and investigate.
Shortly before midday, I waited in the baking sunshine opposite Clinic Rahma for the Number 16 bus towards Jemaa El-Fnaa. A few older Moroccan women gave me a curious sideways glance as I stood in the direct sunshine whilst they took shelter beneath a tree in a vacant lot.
The bus was one of the infamous bendy-bus designs, like those Boris Johnson had banned in favour of his all-new Routemaster designs following his election as Mayor of London. This one was a particularly vintage design.
It rattled and hissed its way along the road out of Targa, through Gueliz, past the Gare Routieres and into the city centre. I opted to jump off at the Koutoubia to avoid the inevitable traffic jam of vehicles and tourists vying for the same bit of space.
It was just a short walk along Avenue Hommame Al Fatouaki, before turning right on Rue Ibn Rochd, and reaching the Grand Taxi rank.
Arriving at the end of the street it was easy to feel quite overwhelmed and lost. In front of you a sea of uniformly desert khaki-coloured Dacia Lodgy six-seater taxis unfolds in front of you.
“Je cherche une Grand Taxi à Setti Fatma,” I ask in my poorly-accented French. The old man grabbed my shoulders, turned me around and shoved me in the direction of a gateway that leads into the old Kasbah.
Part way along the road, I noticed that there were still no clear signs of which taxi was going where.
“Je cherche une Grand Taxi à Setti Fatma,” I asked another man, this time in a hi-vis jacket.
The man, in a supervisor's hi-vis, put up his index finger to ask whether I wanted to have the whole taxi for myself – something that would have cost me around 210dh.
“Non!” I exclaimed. “Avec tout le monde,” I respond, “With everyone.” I knew full well that having the whole taxi would be a luxury that I couldn’t really afford.
The man grabbed me and placed me roughly in the shade of a high wall next to the only white Dacia taxi on the road. I checked the number plate and taxi license plate; it read ‘Setti Fatma’.
With a Grand Taxi you must wait until all six seats are full before you can leave. After around thirty minutes of waiting, two heavily made-up women squeezed into the back seat and we were moving.
When the roads were finally clear of the dual carriageways that encircle the medina, they straightened up and crossed a vast area of completely flat plains.
At first, the road is flanked by pool and 'beach' clubs, hotels and shopping centres, but these eventually dissipate, leaving olive groves, dried up oueds and ceramic sellers to line the road intermittently.
In very little time at all, we reached the town of Ourika which lends its name to surrounding valley area, but here the smooth straight tarmac ended to be replaced by rougher windier roads that follow the undulations of the hills like tangled ribbons, populated with cars and taxis and mopeds all dodging around one another like bees.
The road got narrower and narrower as we climbed higher and higher, and eventually the cramped village of Setti Fatma became visible through the gridlock of taxis and local buses from Berber villages.
The town is spread thinly along the sides of road and up the valley, with cafés and restaurants either side of the river – and in the river too.
I stopped for an atay, bought a cheese spread sandwich (La Vache qui rit of course) and went searching for a guide. It didn't take long to find a guide in this tourist town – after I'd shaken off a few waiters trying to eat a full meal.
The guide that I found, or should that be, who found me, was Moustafa. He was around 5’7”, tanned, lean, in his early 40s and was wearing a brimmed hat and moccasin shoes. We negotiated a fee of 100dh – 200dh cheaper than what Lonely Planet warns you to expect.
As we started the ascent up the side of the waterfalls in the 3pm heat, Moustafa seemed to take on the characteristics of a goat, making no effort to climb the steps in his wholly unsuitable footwear. It was only thanks to my walking shoes and massive legs that I could keep up with him.
The lower reaches of the cascades were quite packed with people, cafés and any number of criss-crossing, intersecting pathways. It was here that having a guide came in quite useful.
The cafés on the lower levels all had what Moustafa called a ‘Berber Fridge’: a small stepped water-feature with bottles and cans of soft drinks, and water cascades both flowing down gently and being flicked all around by fans and waterwheels.
After the first two waterfalls, that were filled to overflowing with tourists bathing and splashing about, the trees began to thin-out and the path became rockier and steeper. Several of the outcrops above the treeline provided a great vantage point for taking photos with my second-hand Nikon D3300 and accompanying Tamron 16-300mm lens.
Free of the trees, the sun grabbed its opportunity to start cooking my forehead. Even with factor 50+, the temperature alone was enough to catch a walker out when combined with the physical effort of climbing.
After reaching the top of the a particularly tough bit of scrambling, Moustafa decided he needed a pause.
“Where did you learn to speak English so well,” I asked him, noticing that his pronunciation was amongst the best I’d heard in Setti Fatma that day.
“Well, it’s a long story really,” he replied, wistfully staring off towards a small red coloured Berber village in the distance.
“Well,” I laughed, “we have plenty of time.”
He told me a tale about two Irish filmmaker friends who’d enlisted him to show an English girl around. They had hit it off immediately, fallen in love and started dating. During their time together, he’d picked up not only a good grasp of conversational English, but a whole host of idioms too.
He told the story as if it had happened a thousand years ago, all the while staring out over the sheer drop of the mountainside.
“After we split up,” he continued, in a tone of tinged with bitterness, “it was all had left of the relationship.”
At this point, I was relieved when he started to laugh. I was worried that I’d opened an emotional maelstrom on the side of a risky precipice.
With the path steepening and the number of tourists – gouri or otherwise – diminishing, we started to see a nearly impassable wall of rock. Nestled at its foot, around a shaded corner, there was the fifth waterfall.
The area was completely devoid of anyone else. The trees echoed with the sound of bugs that, according to Moustafa, get noisier and noisier the hotter they get, until they eventually explode.
Upon reaching the pool, Moustafa dipped his entire head under the ice-cold water and washed his hands as if he was starting his wudu. I took my shoes off and waded part of the way into the pool, breathing in the solitude of the place.
The route down, after some initial scrambling, was much easier and followed a much gentler descent of a hillside.
The view of the distant hillside terraces brought back memories of my geography degree as the olive farmers’ acequias – irrigation channels – were really distinctly marked out as they carried some of the waterfalls water away for farming and commerce.
Shortly before arriving back in Setti Fatma, we cut through a few of the terraces, taking a few pieces of a fruit that looked like raspberries growing high up in a tree, rather than on a bramble bush.
Back on the bridge over the Ourika Oued, I said my farewells to Moustafa and headed back towards the Grand Taxis. After a quick pause for fries and a Coca-Cola on a table in the river, I headed back to Marrakech making it back to Targa in time for a late goûter at the villa.
Taking one of the more modern grand taxis is quite a cost-effective way of travelling about - more about the older type later.
Taking a chance on a guide who walks up to you can be perfectly fine, but negotiate your price first and stick to it.