It had always been very simple. In the Alps you skied. In Hawaii you surfboarded. In India you hunted tigers. In Africa you hunted lions. Now, we are told, it is all different. In the Alps you ski. In Hawaii you ski. In India you ski. In Africa you ski.
In Hawaii people have skied for years on the upper slopes of the 13,784-foot Mauna Kea. In northern India the foothills of the Himalayas provide splendid winter sport. And in Africa...well, in Africa, says John Jay (who has skied and photographed just about every snow center in the world), skiing in the Atlas Mountains is as good as any you'll ever find anywhere else.
The Atlas Mountains—the entire massif, that is—stretch 1,500 miles around the northwest corner of Africa between the waters of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and the sands of the Sahara. The particular part of the mountains that the skiers know is in the Great Atlas, a huge and improbably snowy range that runs for 500 miles through French Morocco, and which, generally, is higher than the Alps, though its loftiest peak, Toubka (13,665 feet), is not so high as the highest Alpine horns and summits.
Skiing in the Great Atlas started during World War II when ski-starved winter sports enthusiasts on duty in North Africa looked longingly across the baking plains to the snow-capped summits and thought of their flying boards. In off-duty hours they began to explore the Atlas. They found the snowy slopes lived up to their promise, and thus skiing came to French Morocco. Shortly after the war the French began to erect lodges and ski lifts. Today, there are dozens of lodges, five platter-pull lifts and one cable lift, and each weekend during the December-April winter season the lodges are filled with skiers. A branch of the French Ski School of Chamonix conducts daily classes. The French Foreign Legion trains military ski patrols on the slopes.
The principal skiing area is near Marrakech, the fantastic old Arab city of 235,000 that has a climate much like Palm Springs, Calif. Marrakech is 180 miles inland from Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast. A daily air service links the two, and Casablanca, a port of call for transatlantic planes, opens the Atlas ranges to skiers from all over the world. There is also a flat, straight highway from Casablanca to Marrakech; a good sports car can make the run in three hours with no trouble. From Marrakech a twisting mountain road winds 45 miles (and two hours) up into the mountains to the lodges at Oukaimeden (altitude: 8,700 feet).
After a week of slalom, schussing and touring on the corn-snow slopes of the Great Atlas, John Jay's party reported enthusiastically. They cautioned skiers to bring their own equipment since shops in Casablanca are only just beginning to carry ski gear. They warned that local hazards include goats and sheep on ski runs, the intense tropical sun, and sudden clumps of cactus jutting up here and there through the snow. But, they added, the skiing is superb. Bernard Juillard, a Swiss ski champion brought along as a guide, admitted he had seldom seen such marvelous sport. Even the cactus failed to bother him. "It makes a slalom naturel," he said.
Skis on a camel yet! Lois Jay and Barbara McClurg, assisted by grinning Arabs, prepare for their ski safari into Atlas Mountains
Market place of Arab city of Marrakech, once a gathering place for Sahara slave caravans, has become jumping-off point for skiers heading up from the stifling plains to snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
Caravan route twists through mountain passes to ski lodges at Oukaimeden. Though road is only 45 miles long, two hours are needed for trip because of hairpin turns and wandering camel trains.
Sun and snow greet skiers Barbara McClurg (left), Betty Carpenter and Lois Jay as they reach the ski area near top of 13,665-foot Mt. Toubka, highest peak in Atlas range. In background is luxurious Le Chouca ski lodge, complete with French chef and modern 2,000-foot cable lift that takes skiers right from the dining-room door to the deep snowfields near the summit.
Plodding up glacier at 11,000 feet, Lois Jay and Betty Carpenter wear warm clothing against chill mountain winds, while lowland plains in background simmer under the equatorial sun.
Resting up, Jay's party of well-tanned African skiers relaxes for a siesta between noon and 3:30 in afternoon, when the sun is so strong that snow becomes too soft for good downhill skiing.