With each day, the scenery became more striking and untouched. Our mules snaked up barren rock faces and along narrow mountain ledges, our bottles of booze clinking shamelessly.
At lunchtime, we would round a corner and find that the muleteers had arranged a picnic beside the glinting waters of a mountain stream. There we would lounge; eat tuna salad, dates and khobz bread; drink mint tea; and take a siesta before hitting the trail again. It felt like a scene out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald book.
Occasionally, a Berber farmer would encounter us near a village and enthusiastically shepherd us into his home. This meant the wife had to drop her duties and scramble to make mint tea, remaining in the shadows of the low-ceiling house while the husband entertained us on rugs woven of old pieces of cloth. A large-eyed child would carry in the tea and the patriarch would make a ceremony of adding overpowering amounts of sugar (an expensive commodity) and expertly aiming the amber liquid into tiny tea glasses. He'd then walk us to the edge of town and wave us on our way.
Over five days, we hiked southwest from Oukaimeden to Tachedirt, Tachedirt to Imlil, Imlil to the Azzedine Valley and finally to Ouirgane, driving back to Imlil. Our nights were spent lying about, sipping illicit alcohol (that word, ironically, comes to us from the Arabic alkuhl, representing the essence or the spirit), listening to John's James Bondian tales of global derring-do and feasting on couscous and tagine (slow cooked stews) meals.
Some of the guesthouses were fancier than others. Most had three to eight rooms, and all were comfortable and attractive, with excellent food.
Imlil, a buzzing metropolis of several hundred, is the launching spot for those not too lazy to ascend Jebel Toubkal. It's reminiscent of Katmandu, but in miniature, the dirt streets populated with emaciated travelers sporting dreadlocks, ethnic tattoos and hand-loomed harem pants. It is also the home of the famed Kasbah du Toubkal, an old fort turned Berber hotel that sits above the town and draws a more upmarket crowd.
We stayed at Dar Imlil, a beautiful little hotel on the outskirts of town. It had great food, chic décor and the best view in the valley, so we were quite content to sit and watch the first snows fall on the mountains surrounding us.
To recover from our grueling Toubkal nonascent, we said goodbye to Calal and John and headed for Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot in the Asni Valley, 20 miles from Imlil on a twisting road. Imagine a scene in which the parched and weary traveler arrives at a sultan's court, a walled Shangri-La with fountains, rose gardens, petal-strewn reflection pools, carved doors, silk divans, stuffed dates on golden platters and, blessed day, not one, but three bars and a spa.
Branson, of Virgin Atlantic fame, discovered Tamadot while trying to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon. Actually, Branson's mother, who had come to Morocco to cheer him on, discovered it while exploring the Atlases, telling her son that he must buy the enchanted fortress. So we have Eve Branson to thank for what is now one of the most sumptuous Virgin hotels.
It has a domed marble hammam, a spa, two pools, two restaurants, 18 palace-like rooms and six Berber tented suites. And so I finally got my Berber tent experience -- except that this one was heated and had a sitting room, a shower, a claw-foot bathtub, a dressing room, a plunge pool and a vast deck from which I could gaze up at Jebel Toubkal and admire the stoic die-hards who were huddled in their tents while a blizzard raged outside.