Joining the morning throng of robed men and carts wheeling out their wares along Essaouira's main passageways, I met Ottmane at the main gate to the medina for the journey by road to the start of our hike into the diverse countryside and coastal landscapes of western Morocco.
A local guide is the ultimate luxury if you want to get off the main track, and I was lucky enough to have an enterprising, enthusiastic, educated and English-speaking Essaouira native to show me around. Based in the coastal medina town of Essaouira, which is mellow by Moroccan standards, Ottmane's Ecotourism Walking Tours give travellers a chance to explore some beautiful off-the-beaten path places.
South of Essaouira's fortified fishing port and long sandy bay where you can stroll the promenade, ride camels along the beach, and relax in seafront cafes, western Morocco becomes a wild coast of wide dune-backed beaches and Atlantic rollers perfect for surfers and those who like to explore on foot.
After a 30-minute drive beyond the village of Diabat's dune-engulfed Castle Made of Sand, said to have inspired Jimi Hendrix, we entered open countryside with gentle slopes of endemic Argan groves and rolling farmlands much greener than you would expect for the climate. As we turned back towards the coast, I could see isolated surfer settlements, cafe shacks and boho guesthouses dotting the land above the gigantic golden windswept beach of Sidi Kaouki. I had no idea this was a surfing spot but looking out on the powerful Atlantic swell, I could certainly see why.
Sidi Kaouki is just one of a series of wide and seemingly-boundless beaches indenting this coast. Around 12km further south we came to another stretch of golden sand completely empty and devoid of development. Ottmane informed me this was his private beach and we parked the car up a track nearby to begin our hike. We wandered up a gravelly path through a brush of Argan trees with twisty gnarled trunks and waxy leaves. The tree's nuts have been used locally to make oil for centuries, now internationally prized for its health and skin benefits.
Beyond the grove, the hillside was speckled with all kinds of wild flowers in spring. We picked our way along a narrow stony dirt path shaded by white broom and juniper trees with fields of wheat and onions tumbling down to the sea, and a couple of donkeys grazing nearby. Bordering the ocean, soft wave-like dunes crested with grass made an interesting mirror for the white-tipped surf, both moulded by the fierce wind with an expanse of golden sand flattened out in between.
Springs and jumps
Down on the beach the wind shifted the sand in glittering golden ribbons. We walked on the damp compact shore to avoid its sting on our skin and Ottmane exercised his talent for photography – snapping flocks of birds at the edge of the surf and suspended-in-mid-air jumping photos against the open space. Apparently this part of Morocco is good for bird-watching, and the eco-tourism group also runs walks for birders.
Ottmane's background as a geology graduate came to the fore when we reached the dramatic overhang of cliffs at the end of the beach. While we took a shortcut across a rocky tidal zone below the cavern, watching our step on the more slippery patches, he explained the rock formations, pointed out the different strata and showed me the well-preserved fossils of ancient marine animals set into the stones.
Beyond these pitted cliffs, the outline of a river is etched into the bedrock with the barest trace of fresh water fanning out towards the sea. Hemmed in by low cliffs on the other side we followed the valley as the channel grew deeper until the source came into view, a series of low rocky terraces cascading with water.
Puzzlingly, a giant silky sand dune rises from its left flank, turning this spot into a natural playground. Stopping for more than an hour to rehydrate, we climbed up Sidi M'barek waterfalls, splashed in its refreshing pools, scrambled to the top of the dune and descend in lolloping leaps before using its soft slope as a sunbed. I was sorry to leave and could easily have stayed all afternoon.
Berbers bearing gifts
Spurred up the steep valley by the promise of a surprise at the top, we came to a little white low-walled compound on a rocky incline above the springs. The goats and chickens heralded our arrival as we entered a small blue wooden door into the stone courtyard where a cat sat crouched in a weather-worn alcove under a hand-made ladder of branches and binding. There a lady with warm eyes, a full-moon face and dark hair lightly shrouded in a colourful scarf emerged from the main house to greet us. It's traditional to remove your shoes and wash before entering Berber homes so she handed Ottmane a large bowl of cool water and a jug so we could wash our hands, faces and feet in the backyard before going inside. The narrow sitting room's thick stone walls keep it like a cool cave in the north African heat, and lined with colourful rugs and cushions it felt like a heavenly resting spot after a few hours walking in the sun.
The consummate host, she laid out a pot of hot mint tea and little glass cups on a circular table before disappearing to fetch a surprise – a plate piled high with hot fluffy flatbreads and a collection of small dishes filled with home-made honey, peanut butter and argan oil. We all settled down to this glorious Berber high tea with Ottmane acting as interlocutor. He has known the family for years and gives them a cut of his profits to host guests at the half-way point or at the end of his hikes around the area. It was quiet as the men were out working and she told me with some pride that her daughter is at university in Agadir.
Over our tea, Ottmane explained that generations of his family have lived and fished in Essaouira. But like many others they have moved out of the UNESCO-listed medina as its modern popularity has driven up house prices, and looked for new ways to earn a living. We talked about everything from tree-climbing goats and scaling Mount Toukbal in a day to London's best places and the effect of terrorism on foreign perceptions of Islam. Asking me about public opinion back in the UK, Ottmane was keen to point out that Islam is a peaceful religion and ISIS an unislamic death cult hated by most Muslims for giving their religion a bad name. Our Berber host simply smiled sweetly and motioned for us to eat and drink more, which I gladly did.
Feeling thoroughly refuelled we said a fond farewell to our new friend and headed off into the midday heat for the final section of our hike down into the River Aghbalou valley sprouting with palms, tall reeds and grasses. Here we spied chirruping frogs and a couple of local ladies crouched by the water washing linen. As we climbed a dusty orange track cut into the steep valleyside I could see it widening in the distance to accommodate subsistence fields fed by irrigation canals. Looping back up and across the undulating terrain through a small village we met a shepherd herding goats and farmers tending to their fields in an age-old scene that reminded me rather peculiarly of a Hardy novel.
In less than a day I had seen several sides to rural western Morocco – open skies and golden windswept coasts, tilled fields and countryside, precious Argan tree groves and waterfalls, giant sand dunes and Berber hospitality. The only thing left to do was head back to the roof terrace of the gorgeous Riad Orange de Canelle in the medina for another cup of tea and a discussion with the owner Chakir on where to find the best chicken tagine in town...