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Moroccan mountain magic
A deep, steaming bath soothed my aching body after a demanding nine-hour trek up and down spectacular zig-zag mountain paths, thousands of feet up in the High Atlas range in Morocco.
After eleven gruelling vista-filled miles, the final flight of stairs to that welcome soak in a traditional Berber village guest house felt as tough as any gradient I had tackled all day.
The 'mature' traveller of today likes a challenge I remind myself, as I catch my breath.
In the last five years, demand for adventure travel has taken off, says Saga. To find out why, here I am (a reasonably fit 67-year old) tackling the huge slopes of the Atlas mountains, where the tribal people of North Africa still maintain a culture that has not changed in centuries.
After a night acclimatising in Marrakech, our walking boots were eased with a gentle, exploratory stroll around the steep-streeted village of Imlil, that sits in the shadow of snow-covered Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in Morocco.
I stayed in the traditional Dar Imlil guesthouse, on the outskirts of the village, with the Imlil river - which killed hundreds in horrific flash floods in 1995 - tumbling down the mountainside over huge rocks just yards away.
After an enormous breakfast, including freshly baked round bread, pancakes, honey, fruit and hand-squeezed orange juice, our Berber guide, 24-year-old Driss Maaza - who seems to know everyone we meet - leads us along narrow paths from Imlil up to the mountainside village of Armed.
Armed was typical of the villages we saw, some with only 20 homes, arranged like children's brown building blocks along the lower slopes of the river valleys, each with a pink-towered mosque.
At this level, the slopes are covered with stone-walled terraces built to grow fruit trees, vegetables, flowers and food for their goats, sheep, mules and donkeys.
In a narrow lane between Armed's orchards, overlooked by towering peaks, I spoke to a woman bent under a huge bale of grass she was carrying for her animals, and remarked that it was a beautiful place she lived in.
Pausing to rest against one of the hand-built stone walls, she replied in French that it was, but they had to work very hard to create that beauty.
Indeed, how hard these mountain dwellers work to eke out a living from such an unforgiving landscape - from tiny stone 'boutiques' selling cloths and jewellery far out on the rocky trails, to a few long terraces built right by the stony river bed where purple irises are grown for sale in distant Marrakech.
Even children work for the family. I saw one eight-year-old boy cheerfully using a stick to dig a deep hole in the river bed, to excavate gravel from between the rocks to sell for building work.
On a high trail I found a brother and sister, about eight and ten respectively, looking after four sheep grazing on the steep rocky slope below. They asked in French for "mange" - and were delighted with a battered chocolate bar from my rucksack.
On the twisting stone trails beyond Armed we met pack mules carrying goods - and occasionally people - between the villages.
These sure-footed animals are the 'white vans' of the mountain trails. A good one costs around 800 euros, said Driss, and gives years of service.
Towards the end of our circular five-mile trek we zig-zagged down the mountainside opposite Armed, and clambered over rocks to enjoy fresh orange juice prepared by hand in a tiny wooden shelter just feet from a spectacular waterfall.
That trek - plus another 3.4 miles after lunch - meant my muscles were ready for the next day's much harder route of almost constant ascending and descending.
Saga customers on a Morocco Mountains holiday get four days on these trails, to decide with a guide if they can tackle harder routes. I felt I was up to the challenge.
It was immediately all uphill from the Dar Imlil guest house the following morning, along steep winding tracks through pine woods, planted to stem soil erosion, to the 2,300m Tizi N Tamatert mountain pass.
Stopping for a cold drink at a tiny stone hut, I could enjoy a sweeping view to the snow-covered peaks around Mount Toubkal, with my destination, the village of Tinoughrine, looking tiny in the valley of the river Imnane 600 vertical metres below.
By the time we had descended the long snaking path, a chef and his mule had already made the trip over the pass and down into village to cook our lunch.
Thunder rolled and rain threatened, so we went inside for a traditional lamb meatball tagine - a stew slow-cooked in a shallow earthenware dish with a curved conical lid - round bread, salad, fruit and the ubiquitous mint tea.
After lunch there was, at last, some flat walking ahead of us, high above the valley floor towards the village of Ikiss, where we scrambled down a watercourse to cross the shallow but fast flowing river.
Our guide Driss carried one of our small party across on his back, but I joined the others in wading barefoot through the chilly waters - a welcome respite for hot and tired feet.
River levels are checked before Saga clients set out on their trek - so if the level has risen in the interim and made a crossing difficult, walkers would take an alternative route.
The long climb back to the return mountain pass at 2,100m was hard on the legs, but with every twist and turn in the route, another sweeping mountain perspective emerged to take the breath away.
By the time I descended to the village of Aguersioual to slog the final miles along the valley floor back to Imlil, I had a great sense of achievement - and the memories of some truly awesome terrain.
I always felt in safe hands. There are two mountain guides with each trek, so if anyone falls ill, one guide remains with that person and arranges assistance either by mobile phone or from one of the villages along the trail.
After all this exertion, you will relish two final nights in the Kenzi Farah Hotel in Marrakech, well-placed to enjoy the sights and sounds of an exotic city - and perfect for some rest and relaxation.
Saga travellers are at least 50, their travelling companions at least 40 - and if any are brave enough to trek up to 3,800 metres in the Himalayas, in the shadow of Mount Everest, there's a package for that too.
I'm not sure i'm ready for that just yet.
Key facts - Walking in Morocco
:: Best for: Fairly fit adventurous types who want to experience the beauty of the mountains.
:: Time to go: Avoid the high temperatures of June/July and the hard winter months.
:: Don't miss: Colourful, labyrinthine Marrakech souks where you barter for leather, shoes, jewellery and metalwork.
:: Need to know: Locals dislike being photographed, but respond to a friendly "bonjour".
:: Don't forget: Footwear with ankle support. Mountain trails can be narrow and uneven, with loose stones.
Chris Court was a guest of Saga Travel which offers an eight days' Trekking in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco trip in early December from £1,249.
Package includes return flights into Marrakech and transfers, travel insurance/cancellation cover, excursions, tour manager and experienced trekking guides, five nights' at Dar Imlil guest house and two nights at Kenzi Farhi Hotel, usually half-board. Dar Imlil also provides all lunches, and wine/beer with dinner.
Connecting flights ex-Manchester and Glasgow around £100 return.
Saga reservations: 0800 056 5880 and www.sagaholidays.co.uk