At the foot of the Atlas Mountains I sat in the air conditioned Jeep while Becky was led by our guide, Aziz, in to a ramshackle cafe set in a nondescript berber village. We had only been on the road for an hour or so and already the winding roads were talking their toll Becky, who hadn’t managed to keep any food or drink down for the last day or so. We had come to a sudden stop so that she could fling open the car door and dry heave on to the dusty dirt track. I wandered in to the cafe to see the proprietor heaping ground spices on to a spoon and urging Bex to swallow it all in one go.
“I take it you ate in Jemaa el-Fnaa” Laughed Aziz.
“I didn’t. She only had an orange juice…” I replied.
“That’s your problem,” He said, smirking “I’m Moroccan and even I can’t eat or drink in the square without getting sick. The orange juice is always topped up with tap water”
Becky holds her breath, swallows, coughs up a cloud of spice and follows it up with half a litre of water. “It’s an old Berber cure for your stomach” Aziz insists as we pile back in to the car to continue our trip, Becky claiming she feels a little better, possibly to avoid having to take another spoonful of medicine.
We only had a short time in Morocco so decided that a little road trip was a good way to see more of the country. Although it’s not always what people think a holiday should be – with rushed stops, short stays, one journey, another journey and little time to relax, it can help you get under the skin of a place. To see the places in between the destinations. Plus, we needed to get out of Marrakech – there was only so much of the city that I could take. I had originally considered hiring a car and doing all of the driving myself but a driver didn’t cost too much more. Plus, it offered the chance for me to take in some scenery. I’d read that the mountain roads can be challenging even for experienced drivers and the signage sparse. I didn’t fancy getting lost in the mountains on sketchy roads.
The Tichka Pass
We weaved up narrow mountain roads passing the occasional elderly man, a few donkeys, women carrying bundles of fabric and herds of goats. It’s tempting to stop and see where they’re going, with hardly anything around. It wasn’t to be -We had to keep moving up through the High Atlas on to the Tichka Pass. Constructed by the french in 1936,this road links the south-east of Marrakesh to the city of Ouarzazate through the mountains. It lies between the great Marrakech Plains and the gateway of the Sahara Desert. It reaches an elevation of 2,260 m above the sea level and is the highest major mountain pass of North Africa. We stopped for the the obligatory photo opportunity at the summit and marvelled at the road snaking below back towards Marrakech.
I avoided the amateur geologists trying to hawk minerals and fossils from their makeshift stalls while thinking that I am glad I decided not to drive. The only rules of the road on these narrow mountain corners appear to be:
1. Drive as fast as you can up to corners
2. Any time is a good time to overtake
3. Beep your horn as you speed up to a corner so that at least the other vehicle can hear you before you crash head on.
The three of us drove away back towards sea level – Becky and I in the back with Aziz in the drivers seat unloading his vast knowledge of Moroccan history and the Berber people, answering any question we have with more stories and information. He explained how he used to be a builder, renovating the crumbling homes and palaces of Marrakech and transforming them in to the exquisite riads you find dotted about the Medina. As we headed east towards Telouet the mountains started to melt away behind us. “This is where a fuel tanker went over the edge a few weeks ago – no survivors” Aziz explains. I am not reassured by this.
We approach what looks like a crumbling old kasbah; “Welcome to Telouet” we’re told.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from one of the most important kasbahs in recent Moroccan history – formerly the seat of the El Glaoui family’s power – but it wasn’t this crumbling mound of clay. I’m told that restoration efforts are underway to stop the building from collapsing but there’s no sign of this; Other than the tour guide emerging from the warped wooden doors of the building, we’re the only people there. As we’re introducing ourselves to him, Becky breaks off the pleasantries to vomit in the courtyard. “I’ve never been sick on a historical monument before…”
Inside the restoration work is easier to see – intricate carvings adorn the doorways, colourful lanterns hang from the ceilings and elaborate mosaics cover every surface. We make our way upwards to the roof to look out over the ramparts at the nearby village of Telouet, its greenery and minarets jutting out of the brown expanse. Telouet may be a wreck, but it’s a wreck worth visiting.
Kasbah Ait Benhaddou
You may be surprised to find that you have seen Ait Benhaddou before, even if you don’t realise you have. It’s been projected on the silver screen the world over in movies such as ‘Time Bandits’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘The Mummy’ and more recently it has been a shooting location for Game of Thrones. As we approached you can see why.
This earthen clay fortification, A UNESCO world heritage site, is made up of six kasbahs and nearly fifty palaces which are individual forts. It is enormous compared to the villages we had seen up to now. Most of the residents have gradually moved away from Ait Benhaddou to a more modern, nearby village. 4 families still remain, living without power and running water.
Aziz Introduced us to the local imam who doubles as a tour guide. He takes tourists around the site, showing them around the homes of the few remaining families and giving them an insight in to the self reliant life they live here. Our actual time in the town was short – we wandered the earthen alleyways and made our way up to the top of the fort to catch the spectacular view over the village.
After a quick lunch of chicken tagine (always with the chicken tagine!) in what turned out to be an old kasbah that had been transformed in to a restaurant, it was time to hit the road again.
Overnight in Todra Gorge
It was a 2 hour drive over to Todra Gorge and the nearby town of Tingir so we had to get a move on to make it before sunset. Tingir felt like we we’re arriving back in civilisation as traffic appeared and we watched local women doing their laundry in the bubbling Todra river.
As we arrived at the gorge the fading sun was washing the sheer cliff faces with an orange hue making what is already a spectacular sight even more beautiful. Aziz dropped us at one end of the gorge allowing us to wander through the canyon in awe of how the tiny river beside us could have carved this from the earth.
In the final light of the day we stopped at our accommodation for the night – An old kasbah which was now a hotel/hostel set in the sheer walls of the valley overlooking the river. We ate on the terrace as night drew in and watched the bats fly overhead. It had been a great first day.
From the gorge it was a 3 hour drive to our final destination with Aziz assuring us that the early start meant plenty of time for distractions on our way to our final showstopping destination, the Sahara Desert. We drove through endless grey/brown rocky nothingness, occasionally stopping when something of interest caught Aziz’s eye. Slowly out of the desert haze we saw two man approaching, wrapped in traditional nomad clothing and headscarves. With them was a herd of around 50 goats. “They just wander with their herd from well to well, getting water and food for their goats,” Aziz informed us. “How do they know where the next well is?” I asked. “They just know.” We watched and took photographs as they watered their flock all the while discussing something with Aziz in Berber.
We stopped a few time on the road to Merzouga, once to look at ancient irrigation tunnels under the desert. It was of little interest but at 10 dihrams (80p) it was nice to be underground and away from the searing midday sun. In return for the small fee we were offered a mint tea, dressed in head scarves in preparation for our desert adventure and serenaded by the owner of the tea stop playing his improvised guitar cobbled together from an oil can and 4 pieces of wire. It turns out that Aziz is quite the drummer.
The desolate landscape fell away as we began to see greenery rising from the grey. The city of Tineghi at the center of one of the most beautiful oases of southern Morocco. This lush palm covers about 30 miles on 500 to 1500 m wide tracts along the Wadi Todgha. We climbed the steps of yet another converted kasbah to sit on a terrace overlooking an expanse of palms while we were brought plates of, yet again, chicken tagine. I was beginning to think that this was were Moroccan cuisine starts and ends. The food may have been terrible but the view was worth it.
Erfoud was our final stop, renowned all across Morocco for it’s dates (apparently the best in the country), Aziz seemed excited to take us there so that we could pick up some supplies at the date market. “If we pass Erfoud I always have to take some home for my son” he said. He seemed so excited that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I despise dates and anyway, it would be interesting to see the town. As we walked in to the market Aziz began inspecting the mountains of fruit piled on every table, picking them up, squeezing them and having a nibble. I was in the company of a date connoisseur. He began haggling and bought not just one, but around 10 boxes of the disgusting fruit and loaded them in to the back of his 4×4. This man has an insatiable thirst for dates, so much so that we stopped by the side of the road to show us some wild date palms and began knocking the dates out of the branches with a stick he had picked up from the ground. I can’t imagine what anyone passing must have thought when they saw two tourists staring at a man as he pummelled a tree with a stick.
The greyness of the landscape gradually brightened every mile we travelled, becoming at first a little more yellow and then gradually a sandy orange. In the distance pointed pyramids of sand began to rise above the horizon indicating that we were finally arriving at the destination we had set out to see. We were arriving in Merzouga, the gateway to the Sahara Desert.
Sleeping in the Sahara
We arrived in Merzouga, stopping at a small auberge on the edge of the desert to pick up our camels. As the Berber guides helped us rearrange our head scarves they assigned us each a camel, Becky getting the friendliest looking one and me the camel that looked most likely to spit in my face and throw me off. I straddled my dromedary only to be thrown first forwards, and then back as he clumsily got to his feet.
We slowly plodded away from civilisation led by our expert camel wranglers. The clouds had cleared to give a bright blue backdrop to the vast expanse of yellow sand. I finally felt comfortable swaying side to side on the flat sand when suddenly I sloped backwards and had to hang on for dear life as we ascended the dunes, reaching the peak in time to see the setting sun wash the desert in a golden orange. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have even seen and worth the trip to Morocco alone.
For two hours we rode deeper and deeper in to the Sahara – the time passed so quickly and I really felt at peace plodding along on my trust steed, only occasionally being shaken from my trance by the camel galloping up a dune or losing its footing on the way down a slope. You got a tiny sense of what it must be like for the nomadic tribes wandering for days through the sand. I never got tired of seeing our ever stretching shadows projected across the dunes.
As the sun set we approached our accommodation for the night; a Bedouin camp set in the flat between the dunes. before we got settled we were pointed in the direction of the highest dune which must have been over 100m tall; a perfect place to perch and watch the sun set. The climb to the top was worth it as the desert darkened to a deep orange colour and our shadows stretched out across the sand as the moon and stars began to appear as pinpricks in the blackening sky. We spent the evening sandboarding down the dunes before retiring to our tent where a small table surrounded by cushions and blankets was laid out with a chicken tagine (I know!) and decorated with candles.
Before bed we had one last peek at the starry night sky. Living in a city you are used to seeing nothing but black as you look up but here the sky was filled with twinkling lights and the milky way was the clearest I have ever seen.
I awoke to something I was not expecting to feel in Morocco; The cold! Even covered in layers of blankets I couldn’t escape the desert chill. It was time to wake up.
We climbed aboard our beasts of burden and began the slow trek back to Aziz, gradually climbing another dune so that we could watch the sunrise as we walked the ridge. I have no felt so peaceful, so far from civilization in my life. The warmth of the sun started to hit me as light and colour returned to the Sahara, It was going to be a stunning, if uncomfortable, ride back.
We were greeted by a beaming Aziz, wanting to know all about our night, excited that he could share this incredible part of the world with us. We talked excitedly over breakfast before climbing in to his 4×4, the cushioned seats a welcome relief after a bumpy camel ride. With this we began the long, 8 hour drive back to frenetic streets of Marrakech along a new road, bereft of any of the interesting sights we had seen on the previous two days. There was nothing to do but sleep and dream of the Sahara.
I booked 3 day adventure through with Marrakech Keys Travel after seeing the great reviews on Trip Advisor. Aziz was a delight to spend time with and I can highly recommend his tours, whether it’s just to see the sights of Marrakech Medina or for a slightly longer adventure like ours.
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