Morocco – home to sweeping deserts and historic sites such as the Medina of Marrakech – is not often associated with skiing. Although the country is not famous for snowsports, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong to connect the two. Surprisingly, there has been a long practice of skiing in the country’s High Atlas Mountain region; home to Africa’s highest ski resort.
As one of Africa’s most northerly ski resorts, Oukaïmeden’s location in the High Atlas Mountains has been a fascinating skiing location for decades. The resort is located about 49 miles (78km) south of Marrakech and is the highest ski resort in Africa. Standing at over 3,000 metres (over 9,500 feet) and offering up to 10km of skiable slopes, visitors are a mix of both tourists and local skiers.
The ski season here can last from late December through to March. However, the high elevation provides ideal conditions during January and February, as they tend to bring snowy weather with perfect ‘spring-like’ skiing conditions. Not bad, once you remember that you’re actually in subtropical Africa.
Oukaïmeden has limited transport links, so to visit it’s best to travel by car, which will take you less than two hours. With the resort being small enough to explore in one day, you can ski until the lifts stop running at 3pm, and be back in Marrakech just in time for dinner. If you are not planning on driving yourself, a shared taxi is the most affordable option – fares from Marrakech are approximately between €50-70 (£44-62) each way. However, prices are highly dependable on the drivers you talk to and your own negotiating skills.
There are seven lifts in Oukaïmeden that run for all abilities, including six drag-lifts that service the beginner’s nursery slope and the intermediate-level slopes; and a slow single chairlift to the more advanced slope. The intermediate slopes are much more attractive and have fairly tamed conditions, but the difficulty of each run varies a lot depending on the hill. At the bottom of the lifts, you will find a well-kept nursery slope that provides a better environment for beginner’s-level skiing, together with a large family sledding area.
The resort offers a small selection of runs, with the longest being just over 2 miles (3km), and the runs from the top of the chairlift being the most challenging. This is where the snow can feel like hard off-piste ice in some sections as you descend. These runs are not particularly easy and are best suited to high-intermediate to advanced-level skiers.
There is a clear contrast to Western ski resorts. Oukaïmeden is smaller, the lifts are dated and the pistes are not as well groomed, which can make for a very bumpy ride at times and can feel like you’re actually on hard off-piste snow. Some runs can be challenging due to the lack of piste signposts as boundaries are not very clearly defined. Additionally, due to its location, Oukaïmeden is completely dependent on its natural environment, and conditions can change drastically from icy hard to soft and slushy snow, or any variation of these.
However, Oukaïmeden is still worth exploring as skiing here can be very rewarding due to its own eccentric characteristics that make it a noteworthy destination. Affordable and less cramped than many European skiing destinations, you’ll also get to enjoy breathtaking views of the region, especially on a clear day. For a unique experience, ride on a donkey to travel between slopes instead of taking a shuttle bus or ski lift.
On-site hire shops are available for those who are not bringing their own gear, offering old-fashioned ‘retro’ equipment at an affordable price. However, some locals also offer ‘unofficial’ hire services for a much cheaper price. Whichever option you decide to go with, make sure you take your time and search out the good equipment before hitting the snow.
There is a surreal element to putting on your ski gear in Morocco. Oukaïmeden is a great option for more free-spirited skiers in search of a new adventurous destination. It is not as expensive as other ski resorts (Morocco’s off-peak season is actually wintertime) and the overall cost of skiing is more affordable. Besides, how often can you say you’ve skied in North Africa?