Morocco – Atlas Mountains & SurroundsBack to Story

The Sahara and Atlas Mountains

After Fez, traveling through the countryside is the next most rewarding experience Morocco has to offer. There are obviously two options – firstly take a tour – or drive yourself. The decision was made to follow the latter through the advice of a traveling friend. A great decision in my opinion but beware the maps are not always accurate (although this was prior to GPS systems) and the directions given to guesthouses are not always easy to follow.

Oasis

One of your nights must include staying on or near an oasis and at least a tour and explanation of how these complex ecosystems exist.  Our guide tells us that once completely self-sufficient many are now feed water by the government.  The walk around reveals an incredible system of irrigation and cropping using a network of channels and also the shade of the palm trees under which to grow their crops.  The work in the fields is nearly all done by woman, which feels very unusual for anyone having grown up in the western world.

The interesting and very sensible thing you notice is the location of the crops and the houses. The houses are usually built on the rocky and less fertile, leaving the fertile soils to grow their crops. This seems so logical and yet I can think of many instances of relatively modern planning including cities, where this hasn’t been the case. The houses are all very square in design with flat rooftops. The rooftops are used to dry crops such as grains and corn and woman can often be seen trashing wheat or grinding grains for their households.

Market towns Erfoud and Rissani

On the edge of the desert there are two major towns of Erfoud and Rissani, which operate as markets for all the surrounding villages.  The markets play a key role both in the economic functioning of life but also in the social.  Obviously the domain of the men any vehicle is used to take produce to market.  Anything from bicycles, motorbikes, donkeys to vans are packed to the hilt.  It’s an unusual sight to see vans full of people with goats in a pen on the roof, a great way of providing practical transport. Trucks carrying hay are sometimes so loaded that the hat forms a rim up over the drivers cab.

With the same practical approach you can buy anything you need at the local markets.  Product is displayed on mats and spices are piled high in sacks.  Often you can walk to a different area and pick yourself up some livestock.  All the while there is lots of chatter and time for a tea or smoke with friends.

Sahara

These towns act as gateways to the Sahara that you can go out and stay in and around.  It’s fascinating to hear of the nomad life, which is becoming increasingly rare in the desert.  Many of the families still live in the area but are more reliant of tourism.  While sounding cliché a ride out into the desert on a camel to see the sunset is a magical experience and not one to be missed.

A great location for exploring the desert is the Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua – The Desert Inn.  The rooms are simple yet very comfortable.  The shared spaces offer lots of space to rest and relax with a book or you can take a dip in the pool.  The food is tasty with a good variety.  They will also arrange a night out in the desert in their luxury bivouac if that’s one of your dreams.

Middle Atlas Mountains

Driving through the countryside around there are amazing baron hills with very square almost fortified looking buildings.  We see many 4WD trips in this area and you can see why.  Remote areas offer an insight into the Berber culture that is almost lost in time.  Many families live a subsistence life surviving solely on what they can grown and trade.  Each member of the family takes turns to graze the stock in pastures in the nearby hills, living with the herd as they care for them. Foreigners are a much rarer sight out here and we found children rushing out to wave and come and see who we were.  Education is difficult though and in retrospect it would have been fitting to fill a bag with much needed pens for the children.

Todra and Dades Gorges

Even if you don’t have a 4WD the Dades and Todra Gorges are both spectacular.  The Dades gorge is a vivid red color and after driving though the narrow gorge you wind you way up over the mountains.  It’s worth keep driving on as far as you can exploring some of the more open agricultural land. There is an excellent guest house called Chez Pierre at the base of the gorge,  perched up above the road and a central base for exploring some of the mountain regions. It is a haven with comfortable rooms and a pool that is made for having a nice relaxing drink beside

Todra Gorge has equally as impressive with the gorge narrowing to less than 10 meters. If you have an appropriate car (it would be worth taking a 4WD) then continue up the road into the more remote areas. See nomads and their herds, corn drying on the roofs and small villages.

One village we stopped in was celebrating the wedding of their son to a girl from a far off village.  Arranged marriages between families are still common and some even attend the wedding fair or betrothal festival held annually in Imilchil to seek marriage.

Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate is reputed to be the Hollywood of Morocco and has certainly been the location for many films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Babel among others.  Its home to the Atlas studios which you can’t miss the tall Pharoh statutes at the entrance on the Marrakech side of town.  There is nothing pretty about the town itself really but some of the surrounding areas are well worth exploring and if you want a more luxurious base it could be an option for you. The nearby old Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou is well worth a visit and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Dar Ahlam is one of the more upmarket choice’s to stay locally and enjoy the area but there are many boutique options. Le Meridian Berbere Palace is also one of the 5 star hotels.

Kasbah du Toubkal

The Kasbah du Toubkal is a beautiful lodge is set among the mountains and is so popular you may find yourself having to book the rest of your trip around it.  The mule ride to get up to the Kasbah reminds you that you’re on a unique experience. The hotel overlooks Jbel Toubkal, which is the highest mountain in North Africa. From here you walk any number of trails around the hills either guided or own your own. A day trip can be made from Marrakech as its only 60km away so in the least go out and experience lunch on the rooftop.  If you can spend a couple of nights and visit some of the nearby villages where you may be lucky to be invited in for a cup of tea.

Travel photographs from the Todra and Dades Gorges, High Atlas Mountains, Oasis. Travel images include the Sahara desert at sunset.

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