Ascent of Djebel Toubkal
There is something surreal about putting on salopettes and a ski jacket in a riad in Marrakesh and stepping out into the sun-drenched passageways of the Medina lugging a ski-boot bag. We were leaving chic Riad Akka to make a day trip to the tiny ski resort of Okaimeden, 45 miles south of the city in the Atlas Mountains.
Okaimeden is Africa's highest ski resort, its village sitting at 2,600m and its chairlift rising to 3,258m – the peak of Jebel Attar. Five runs come down from this dizzying height; elsewhere are four drag lifts servicing the nursery and intermediate slopes.
It has all the facilities you find in a typical European resort – ski hire, ski school, restaurants and hotels – but all done in a Moroccan way. The ski hire shops offer reasonably well-maintained, if dated, skis and boots for around £11 a day – or you can take your chances with the many unofficial renters, whose "shops" consist of piles of 1980s skis and boots costing about £4 laid out in the mud. A lift pass costs £7; ski lessons range from £3 to £8 an hour and donkeys, rather than shuttle buses, wander back and forth between lifts.
The chairlift is ideal for those who are afraid of heights, as it is slow and you are never far from the ground. At the top, young men, all keen to offer their services as "moniteur", argued over who was going to accompany me down – for a price, of course. Eventually I agreed to a guide, as I couldn't see anything resembling a piste. There are a few signs pointing vaguely in various directions, but once you have left the top, the boundaries – such as they are – are not marked. The only piste map is a faded board at the bottom of the slope.
The snow is far from the groomed-flat pistes of European or US resorts, and this, combined with the old-fashioned hire skis, made for a bumpy ride and a lot of difficulty turning.
After one cautious and very mogulled run, I ditched my moniteur, who didn't seem sure of himself, and sought the guidance of the president of the Oukaimeden Ski Instructors' Association, a young Moroccan called Mohammed. He said the authorities should do more to keep unofficial workers away, adding: "They put people off and it can be dangerous, as they don't always know what they are doing."
Ski Slopes on Djebel Okaimeden
The longest run is 3km and none of the runs from the top of the chairlift is easy. The main runs are Grande Combe (a steep mogul-field) or Pistes des Mouflons, which is dotted with huge boulders and feels more like being off-piste on hard, icy snow. If you fall, you fall a long way, as I terrifyingly discovered, and while Mohammed assured me the pistes are groomed, they felt nothing like any piste I had skied before. The slopes were uncrowded, even though the resort seemed busy, and skiers mainly picked their way gingerly rather than swooshing in smooth turns. There are no motorway runs for showing off your carving here.
Over on the nursery slopes, catapult-like drag-lifts take skiers to the top of a reasonably well-groomed snowfield and local men mill around trying to sell bags of walnuts, honey and necklaces. Guides also offer other mountain activities such as ski-touring and snowshoeing.
Ski Runs on Djebel Okaimeden
But Okaimeden is not just about skiing. There is a big sledging area for families, while the queue for the chairlift for people going to admire the view is four times as long as the one for skiers.
As well as kiosks selling snacks, there are a couple of restaurants. We ate at Chez Juju, which felt French; tagine was on the menu, of course, but there were also some chicken dishes, cassoulet and a children's menu, and you could even order a beer.
There are four hotels, ranging from the 160-bed hostel Club Alpin to the 101-room four-star Hotel Club Louka. Nightlife and other activities are limited and for most people, it would probably be better to make it a day trip from Marrakesh.
But all this is set to change. Dubai-based company Emaar is investing $1.4 billion in Okaimeden – improving the infrastructure, updating the lifts and runs, introducing snow-cannons, building 11 luxury hotels and installing the world's highest 18-hole golf course. Planning has already started and before long this truly old-fashioned little ski resort will probably start to look much like any other. Catch Okaimeden in the raw while you still can.
Three nights' B&B at Riad Akka costs from £175 per person with Fleewinter ( 020 7112 0019; www.fleewinter.com). A day trip to Okaimeden costs from £90 per person, including transport and lift pass. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) operates regular flights to Marrakesh. Club Alpin ( 00212 243 19020 ) has rooms from £5; four-star Hotel Club Louka ( 243 190800 ) has doubles from £60, half board.
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