Ben Roberts Africa’s Premier Ski Resort

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The route from Tahnaout to Oukaimeden could accurately be described as 'the slow road'. The narrow thoroughfare winds along steep valley sides and hairpin bends; the patient traveller is rewarded with stellar scenery.

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The main road from Marrakech to Oukaïmeden can be driven in just under 2hrs in favourable conditions; many Moroccan tourists hire taxis to have a romantic day trip to see the snow at first hand. The valley walls that flank the tight hairpins in the final approaches to the resort are sporadically daubed with the names of lovers past.

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At 60 years old, Omar Maziq doesn't work as a ski guide so much anymore, but he is still fiercely proud of his professional license. In a region that in world terms struggles economically, Oukaïmeden's tourist industry is of immense importance, and provides work opportunities for the inhabitants of surrounding villages. Omar hitches a ride daily up to the resort, a 15km trip.

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A late evening mist gathers over Lac D'Oukaïmeden, shrouding the snow covered peaks.

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Skiing first occurred in the Oukaïmeden area in the 1930's, but the first hotels and chalets were built in the 1950's. There's been sporadic development since then, and a few years ago a Dubai based investment company revealed plans to invest US$1.3 billion into developing the resort. However the global economic crisis has put these plans on hold. For now, Oukaïmeden retains a certain 'wild west' charm - there's none of the big corporate influence that you see in European and American resorts. Even getting hold of a decent pair of skis involves intense bartering; If you want your edges sharpening and some wax applied, you'd better bring your own tools!

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Skis and poles can be hired from a small number of rental locations. The majority of the skiing equipment in the resort is donated by overseas skiing associations and international visitors.

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The main chairlift to access Oukaïmeden's higher pistes is just over a kilometre from the resort. First installed in 1963, it is almost 2000 metres in length and has a vertical climb of 620 metres. A day ski pass for the resort costs just £8.

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The Berber People are the indigenous North African tribe who populate the Atlas Mountains. Some of the Berber (particularly those from the Sahara) were nomadic people, but the majority were historically farmers. In the Oukaïmeden region, many Berber men now make their living working as guides for foreign walkers or skiers. Others hire out skiing equipment and cold weather clothing. These men have a daily commute over the snow covered mountain pass Tamatert - a 20km round trip with a high point of over 3200m. The financial rewards aren't huge, but in the winter months any additional income is a bonus.

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Guides from the Association d'Oukaïmeden Ski/Snowboard Maroc (A.O.S.S.M) gather their equipment after a day spent instructing beginners.

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When the snow conditions are at their best and the resort is busy, there are a number of vintage drag lifts to ease the pressure on the chairlift. Apparently they have catapult-like tendencies.

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The main piste in Oukaïmeden is steep, icy and bumpy. There are no snow making facilities in Oukaïmeden, and with relatively sparse precipitation, the slopes can rapidly become treacherous.

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Retro skiing equipment at the summit of Jebel Oukaïmeden, the resort's highest point.

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Traditional ways of life exist side by side with the tourism industry in Oukaïmeden.

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The 80km taxi journey from Marrakech to Oukaïmeden is a good fare for taxi drivers, but the consequence is a long, cold wait to take their passengers back to the city.

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It's a common site to see fashionable young couples from Marrakech visiting Oukaïmeden for a romantic day trip. There might not be much skiing involved, but a bracing chairlift ride to the resort summit can be combined with an hour or so on the sledging slope and a donkey ride along the valley bottom.

Tourists on sledges join novice skiers on Oukaimeden's gentlest piste.

Tourists on sledges join novice skiers on Oukaïmeden's gentlest piste.

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At the end of a tiring day on the slopes, the easiest way to get your skiing equipment back to the resort is by donkey.

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While Oukaïmeden itself sits in a natural plateau amidst the peaks, the road back to Marrakech quickly descends into a steep sided and dramatic gorge.

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The end of another day in Oukaïmeden, and the light fades over Mount Angour - the impressive peak that guards the head of the valley. The local and international tourists can return to the warmth and comfort of their hotels and city suburbs. For the Berber people, navigating the path between traditional forms of subsistence and the unreliable income available from the tourism industry remains a challenge.

 

Oukaimeden is one of Africa’s few operating ski resorts. Set high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and operated by people of Berber origin, the resort offers an alternative form of income for families that survive on subsistence farming.

 

All images © courtesy of Ben Roberts

benrobertsphotography.com