Days 93, 94, 95, 96 The Great Sahara, Gladiator, Game of Thrones and so much more
With our journey through Morocco largely uncharted, we have freedom to choose our adventure. We want to get to Fes from Marrakesh which is going to be tricky using public transport. When we find a private tour that efficiently gets us to Fes via Ouarzazate and Merzouga, deep into the Western Sahara and close to the Algerian border – places we’d be nervous to venture on our own.
I must say, Tommy Trip Planner outdid himself! Our 4-day tour in a 4WD was incredible and took us to places never contemplated in our wildest dreams and truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
We said farewell to the wonderful staff at our Riad and were collected by Mohammed, our tour leader and driver. We headed east towards Ouarzazate and quickly started to climb the magnificent Atlas Mountains, where centuries old Berber Villages are set into the rock, where not much changes – except for the advent of satellite dishes, which adorn the traditional mud and straw construction homes.
We drive through mountain passes and Passo di Tizi n'Tichka with an altitude of 2260m.
We continue through Villages, dry and dusty desert and stop off at look outs over vast canyons that open into brilliant green oases. We follow each oasis by road and pass numerous palm groves and farming. Our perception that the desert is devoid of water, but are astounded that rivers and water holes are bountiful. The rivers, a trickle now in late summer but in spring are raging torrents as the snow and ice in the Atlas melts, feeding the landscape and communities below.
We stop off at a co-op for widowed and divorced Berber women who show us the step by step process to make argon oil and argan nut butter. It's supposed to be the premier oil - Jen takes a fancy to the oil and I hoe into the nut butter. We buy a small jar of the oil and Jen assures me it’s great for keeping skin soft and the money goes to a good cause.
The roads are impressive and we pass many sections of roadworks, as part of a massive road project.
As we continue on, we take a dramatic turn, off road for about 6 km, through what can only be described as barren rocky desert with a mountainous backdrop.
It is a surreal and eerie experience, quiet and almost feels like a vacuum.
We continue on through salt flats and huge expanses.
We stop for lunch before heading up to the Kasbah "Ksar Ait Ben Haddou".
Our lunch was simple Moroccan meal in a traditional restaurant. What was most outstanding was the Waiter. He greeted our Guide in Berber and Arabic, took our order from the French menu in English and seamlessly switched to Spanish for the group of young ladies from Barcelona panicking that they didn’t speak French. He let them squirm a little and then eloquently explained the menu for them. We chatted with him and he also speaks Italian and German.
Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, Ksar meaning “Castle”, sits atop a hill overlooking a fertile valley and oasis. Kasbahs are traditionally a walled communal home occupied by a number of families as a cooperative in order to protect the inhabitants from invasion from other tribes.
In the famous lyrics of the Clash, this Kasbah most definitely rocked!
The “Granary” is the highest point and was used to store grain and supplies, as well as the families’ treasures as this was the most protected place. Some Kasbahs only had one door – aiding security and often had lookout towers around the perimeter to protect the heart.
So why does Ksar Ait Ben Haddou look familiar? It's famous for staging scenes in over 50 movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile and Kingdom of Heaven. Whilst the structures are gone, the Gladiator locale is still there.
More recently Game of Thrones has shot many scenes here.
Nobody puts Donkey in the corner...
The town Ouarzazate, "the Hollywood of Morocco", is nearby which is a huge movie set that first sprung up with the movie "The Mummy". It feels like we’re driving through an Indiana Jones movie!
We continue through a seemingly Martian Landscape.
Next stop the Rose Valley,
A rock formation Mohammed calls Monkey Fingers,
Magnificent rock gorges and scenery
and a valley oasis of over 200,000 palms creating a fertile green ribbon through the desert expanse.
Best let the photos speak for themselves.
We ended the night in the Dardes Gorge in a hotel built into the rock face. This was the view from our room.
The next day we take in the look out at the top of the Dardes Gorge before continuing on "the Road of 1000 kasbahs". When Rockfalls occur they are devastating, taking the road with it. Here the team are repairing a recent fall.
The scenery out the window is always changing and also hypnotic as the landscape of the Atlas Ranges is so vast and unending.
Mohammed drops us off at start of Todra Gorge allowing us to walk along and have the magnitude of this Gorge reveal itself to us.
The sheer walls rise up about 400m from a fresh water river fed by natural springs and water seeping down from winter snow.
The continual flow of cold water is a great way to cool drinks.
It is a divine cool place where locals come to relax,
kids play in the water
and the donkeys have a drink and a good ol’ dust bath!
It's noticeably cooler in the Gorge, with temperatures out in the open now risen into the high 30's. There’s a wonderful atmosphere. The hotel at the base has been closed due to a rock land slide that took out the restaurant of the hotel. Thank fully no one was there at the time!
Again, there is a local natural spring that the locals prefer to collect water from
We drive for a few hours with the scenery always changing from the rocky Middle Atlas ranges to flat barren rocky expanse, broken up a village built around an oasis with palm groves and paddocks.
We stop for lunch and get our bearings
As the rocky landscape gradually gives way to Sahara Sand, we notice a series of mounds in parallel rows at regular intervals along the highway. Mohammed obliges and drops us off at a solitary tent in the parched landscape.
Stepping out of the car, the heat envelopes us, now in the low 40's. We are welcomed by a lovely fellow who lives out here and shows us the mounds. They are wells, since dried up but the past times, were wells connecting aquaducts conveying water from the oasis outwards to supply life giving water.
We go underground and the temperature drops 20 degrees.
It is like Coober Pedy. The Guide tells us we could walk all the way to the village underground, about 7 kms away. During Ramadan, locals often hang out in the tunnels to conserve energy and escape the heat during the day’s fasting.
The area we’ve been exploring is also ancient and was once under water as a great ocean existed. There are many diggings for trilobites, ammonites and other geode fossils. We are warned not to buy the brilliantly coloured geodes as they are artificially coloured by the locals who try to sell them at every lookout stop along the road. As is customary, we are offered and grateful accept mint tea and we rest awhile in his canvas tent. We enjoy the cool breeze under the canvas of the tent and the absence of noise, we could have sat for longer in the peace. We are amazed this man and his brother live out here in the desert and survive.
We continue on and catch our first glimpses of the golden colours of the Sahara desert and the Erg Chebbi dunes which are one of Morocco's two Saharan ergs – large seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand. Locals have woven palm fronds into a grid as dune preservation measures to stop the sand blowing over the road and eroding.
In the heat haze and barren landscape the desert towers above everything else. This is Dakar Rally country. The massive dunes rise up on the horizon and eventually we are driving along the edge of the Sahara, about 2 kms from the dunes arriving at Merzouga in the afternoon, on the western edge of the Sahara and a couple hundred kms west of the Algerian border.
It is now 5.30 pm and the heat of the day has gone, cooling to low 30's.
We dump our bags at the hotel, pack an overnight bag, ready to take a camel ride to camp a night in the dunes. Exiting a side access from our hotel, Jen and I are looking at each in amazement as we wait to climb on the camels to head into the Desert with the Sahara as far as our eyes can see.
We both feel as far away from home as possible.
Our camels take a slow meandering pace in an orderly procession.
It takes over an hour going deeper into the dunes and go deeper into the desert, enjoying sunset along the way.
We arrive at camp, about a dozen round tents, surrounding a collage of berber rugs on the sand, snuggled into a valley between the dunes.
We have a full moon so Jen and I quickly climb up a nearby dune to look out easterly and gaze across the Sahara.
We sit there in silence and all we hear is a soft wind and the occasional growl from a camel bedding down for the night.
The atmosphere is great, with our fellow campers from all around the world – Spain, Argentina, Italy, UK, striking up conversations, sharing wonderful stories or just sitting with a wide eyed look of amazement.
After dinner, the crew take up traditional Berber instruments and encourage us all in a sing along and dancing.
We are given the option to sleep in our tents, or drag our mattresses out to sleep al fresco. As the night is so hot we don’t hesitate to have the crew haul our bed out on to the rugs on the sand. After dinner we climb up another dune taking in the silence and the knowledge that we’re sitting on a dune in the Sahara – so far away from our life at home. We don't get to bed until after midnight. A few hours later woken up by the brightness of the full moon, with gentle cloud cover gone, its like a torch shining directly over us. The wind has whipped up a little and blowing sand across our beds and filling open mouths with sand. We don't care, we are in the Sahara desert!
We get up before sunrise and the whole camp climbs the nearest dune to get a complete view east and the sun rising.
Jen and I sit on the edge of the dune for about an hour while the others just drift back to sleep. It is one of those scenes where you sit quietly and enjoy the moment and pinch yourself. No photo does any justice to the beauty and how the colours change as the sun rises.
We ride our camels back to the hotel again taking photos and videos to make sure we don't miss anything.
As soon as we disembark, the saddles are removed and the camels have a glorious roll in the sand and trot straight into the yard where their morning hay awaits.
With bewildered looks on our faces, and bleary eyes, not quite believing what we actually experienced we are greeted by friendly smiling faces of the hotel staff and the glorious spread of breakfast!
After breakfast and a very necessary shower – there is sand everywhere – it’s time for a snooze. A few hours later, Mohammed takes us to a few Merzouga attractions.
This included the well where locals like to collect water. Whilst municipal water is available, they prefer the spring water that flows constantly, filtered through the sand into the well where women gather to fill plastic bottles. The women come from traditional families and are wary of tourists, especially prefer not to have their photo taken.
We then enter the oasis and learn about the organisation of the gardens.
There is an aqueduct flowing through the centre with side channels branching off every 10 metres, but dammed with earth. Mohammed explains that each plot along the aqueduct has an entitlement to about 6 hours of water in order.
When a farmer’s turn comes, the earthen dam is unplugged and downstream blocked so the water flows along the irrigation branch, allowing the farmer to water crops of peppers, carrots, onions and other crops amongst the date palms. If the full allocation is not required, the farmer can sell the entitlement to another. There are no signs, no timetables, no officials moderating the arrangement but it works – an honour system that is likely unchanged for centuries.
We are in medjool country – where the finest dates are grown. There are thousands of date palms, seemingly randomly growing from the side of the road into the oasis but every one is owned by a family. Sometimes the land and the date palm is owned by different parties. Again, there are no signs or assertions of ownership but there is order and honour.
We are offered dates straight from the tree – a sweet sticky treat and not grainy, so much more amazing than what we get at home.
We then visit local nomad co-op shop where we were enticed to buy some carpets but were able to resist. We also enjoyed a concert from Gideons des Sabre (Pigeons of the Desert). Originally slaves brought from Mali and Senegal, and then abandoned to a semi nomadic life in the Sahara. They sing and dance to celebrate their history and liberation. A statesman of the tribe is building a life for young men and saving the traditional music by recording the music and selling CDs.
Being on the edge of the Sahara, Merzouga is a town at the centre of trading routes with caravans of Africans, Moroccans, Andalusians and the Middle East passing through for centuries.
Now, time for lunch at a local family restaurant, Cafe Nora, where there is only one menu item - Berber pizza.
This pizza was OUT OF THIS WORLD! It has to be included in one of our top 10 meals of the trip.
We tried to verify the ingredients with the waiter. Whilst he was happy to confirm eggs, beef, onion, carrot but would not reveal any of the spices. We later found out it contain a special mix of 44 spices that are a trade secret. We could barely walk out of the restaurant but couldn’t possibly leave one bite behind. Don't be surprised if this ends up on a dinner party menu at our house as Jen is determined to try to recreate the spice mix!
The afternoon comprised sleep and a welcome dip in the pool.
The temperature has climbed to plus 45 degrees which instantly drains your energy and slows you to a lethargic pace. It is the hottest day of our travels and the locals tell us in peak summer it gets to 55 degrees plus.
Once the sun starts going down we again go back out to the dunes to take further photos. The dunes have a mesmerising hypnotic effect and we can’t get enough.
Jen's Keens are on their last legs, having hiked her around the world many many times, its time to retire them when we get home.
Experience everything and leave only footprints
Our Riad is wonderfully Moroccan and, even though we're still digesting the Berber Pizza and request small portions, a sumptuous 4 course meal is unleashed upon us.
After breakfast the next day we head out for a few more photos, to be sure we have enough.
Today is a long haul to Fes, around 500 km's through the middle Atlas Mountains. First stop is a local traditional market in a town nearby Mohammed's home town.
This market happens twice a week and many people come from nearby villages to buy and sell their wares. People come by donkey, push bike or a van and there are only 3 other foreign travellers in the market.
We are now amongst clothes shops, vegetables, spices, nuts, olives, dates, chemists shops, house wares, open air butchers with hanging meat, furniture being made, basket weaving, welding gates, shoes made from leather and tyre rubber for soles and repairs for bicycles.
There is even a donkey parking lot. If it has a saddle it’s there for parking, if it's has no saddle it there to be sold!
There is also sheep, cows and goats up for sale. I was told early in our travels that I could sell Jen in exchange for a few camels. Talking jokingly to hosts in our riads, they opined I could fetch a price of a few thousand camels. I resist, to me she is priceless!
We go through the middle Atlas Mountains and the scenery is forever changing and spectacular. We drive along a 100 km oasis valley that sits in a massive canyon.
Again, we come to appreciate that water is not that scarce in the desert, with dams being built to supply a massive underground network. Everywhere we drive we can see the manhole/vent for the pipeline at intervals.
Moroccans love Football (the round ball variety) and I have to tip my hat to them as this is their typical playing field, two goals and a whole lot of rock.
We are reunited with the Atlas Mountains which are magnificent and massive.
Crossing over to reveal rich pastures in the plains below.
Many many thanks to our amazing driver and guide, Mohammed.
We have lunch in a town where the main street is BBQ alley with smoke billowing out of every other shop. Most BBQ joints are a butcher and BBQ – select your cut of meat from that hanging out front and they’ll cook it then and there. We look down the street and the air is filled with BBQ smoke and the chaos of parking attendants wrangling cars in exchange for a few dirhams, vendors with carts and people going about their daily life.
Note the guy photobombing our picture is the Providore of this fine establishment who happened to be missing all but thumb and pinkie on one hand - best he be the host than the butcher behind the counter.
We are grateful for Mohammed navigating the busy restaurant for us and we devour our plate of mixed meat cooked over hot coals.
As we drive out of the town we notice there are wild dogs at regular intervals sitting along the road. This goes on for about 10 km and our guide explains the locals throw scraps out of the car for the dogs to eat. It is hard to see these dogs trying to survive in this harsh environment surviving on scraps. There are very few true nomadic tribes left but there are still a number of families who live in tents, tending to livestock, moving on when new pastures are required. Donkeys are the main mode of transport and, like the dogs, it is hard to see some small donkeys seemingly overloaded and carrying their owners. Donkeys are also often tethered to the side of the road to graze.
There are also wild donkeys picking amongst the sparse rocky countryside.
We pass through the mountain ranges and the temperature starts to drop. We start passing through forests, colours reappear and a green haze materialises. We pass through Ilfrane, the Switzerland of Morocco. It’s a mountainous high altitude region with access to water, perfect for ski resorts. It is an affluent community. We then enter a forest with the same breed of monkeys as we saw in Gibraltar.
Finally we drop down into the Apple Valley with orchards of apples and olives. The King of Morocco is subsiding farming and development in the desert, including solar panels to pump irrigation, enabling farmers to create huge plantings of fruit trees. Our tour is drawing to an end as we sight Fes.
It has been a special experience to see the Sahara desert along with the spectacular rugged Atlas mountain ranges, canyons, kasbahs, palm groves, many oases and traditional villages.
We have loved Morocco and would encourage everyone, if planning a trip to Europe, allow time for a visit to Morocco and this tour has to be on your "must do" list.