We are 90-minutes’ drive, and a world away, from the hustle-bustle of Marrakech. As we wind up a narrow valley road en route to our destination, Kasbah du Toubkal, I have to laugh. We just passed Richard Branson’s Moroccan hideaway,and we are climbing ever higher into the Atlas Mountains.
How often do you get to hang your hat in a place that looks down on Richard Branson’s digs?
We enter the village of Imlil and park the car. Our Hyundai can serve us no further, as the road appears to simply end here in the foothills of the High Atlas range. The last few hundred yards to the Kasbah du Toubkal will be undertaken on foot via a switchback dirt trail. A mule is loaded with our luggage, and if need be, stands ready to tote me, as well. I am grateful I wore sensible shoes so I can enjoy the upward journey under my own power.
In short order, we approach the door leading to Kasbah du Toubkal. A sign on the door reads, “Dreams are only the plans of the reasonable”. Indeed, the setting of Kasbah du Toubkal is dreamlike. Nestled in the shadow of Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, the views are showstoppers. So much so that the Kasbah du Toubkal served as a shooting location for Martin Scorsese’s film, Kundun, an epic about the life of the Dalai Lama.
A pretty face, yes, but Kasbah du Toubkal is so much more. From the beginning, Kasbah du Toubkal was conceived as a partnership with the residents of the surrounding Berber communities. Indeed the nearby villagers provided the labor and most of the components for reconstruction of what was previously an ancient, decaying ruin.
Today, the Kasbah du Toubkal is staffed entirely with local residents, and Berbers are natural hosts. We are greeted with rose scented water to wash our hands, and welcomed with mint tea, dates and nuts sourced from the nearby fields. Our guest room mirrors the style of a Berber home, with a cushioned conversation nook and traditional djellabas and babouches in lieu of robes and slippers. Our primary diversion at Kasbah du Toubkal is to absorb the arresting views from large picture windows or the rooftop terrace. Dining is a candlelit affair featuring the bounty of the surrounding valley.
During our stay, we learn more about the symbiotic relationship between the Kasbah du Toubkal and the local Berber villages. A portion of the revenue generated by the Kasbah is devoted to funding community projects, including an ambulance, a motorized trash removal system, retaining walls to combat flash flooding, and more recently, a secondary school for girls.
As tempting as lounging about the Kasbah is, on our second morning, we are excited to set out on a trek through the mountains to the Kasbah du Toubkal’s satellite lodge. Accompanied by a Berber guide, a mule handler, and a mule, we wind through dramatic vistas and ancient hamlets. In the process, we get a glimpse of largely unadulterated rural Berber life. Here, hand-hewn rock terraces reclaim productive land from craggy ravines. Indigenous plants function as a natural pharmacy. Goatherds tend their flocks, some of which deftly climb trees in search of edible vegetation. Earthen homes are strategically positioned to minimize the dual risks of rock slides and flash floods. Village children greet us with curiosity, and smiles.
During our hike, the conversations with our Berber guide are illuminating. He tells us he is soon to wed, and we learn that the tradition of arranged marriage has only recently given way in his village. When asked why, he responds, “Three years ago we got electricity…. and now we have televisions. We see what is possible.” I find myself silently hoping that his television network does not carry The Simpsons.
We pass villagers of all ages, and both genders, laboring in the fields or at their trades. It is a hardscrabble life; one that causes me to reflect on my own cultural safety net of social security, food stamps and unemployment compensation. I ask our guide, “Who takes care of someone who can’t take care of themselves here?” Self-reliance is so ingrained in Berber culture that he can’t quite seem to fathom the concept. After a long silence, he finally answers, “The family.” When I ask, “Who takes care of someone who has no family?” he seems further perplexed. Eventually, he answers, “Everyone has a family. The village is the family.”
As we end our hike and depart Kasbah du Toubkal, I feel enlightened. I have come to understand that Berber culture is both amazingly resilient, and alarmingly fragile. Too, I now recognize that Kasbah du Toubkal is something much more than a lofty perch above Richard Branson’s crib. The Kasbah du Toubkal is a member of the Berber family. It is a novel, and noble, hospitality experiment which integrates tourism and the local community to the benefit of both.
Kasbah du Toubkal, www.kasbahdutoubkal.com