In early of april, we left for vacation to Morocco. For us, a different part of the world and a different culture! We’d been to Marrakech earlier (2010), but this time we decided to visit the southern parts of the country and into the Sahara desert. To get the most out of the few days of our vacation, we contacted Arib Voyages – a family run company from the small desert city of Mhamid – to help us set up the journey. I learned to know one of the company founders – Bachir Elammari – when we visited Marrakech in 2010. Ever since, we’ve been tempted to visit the Sahara desert.
On April 2nd we left Norway by plane to Marrakech, and then spent one night at Riad Jona (that’s another recommendation for you if you’re traveling to Marrakech). The day after we were picked up by Bachir and headed straight for the Atlas mountains – which were covered with snow, and with green palms and trees and red soil giving the scenery a magical look. The road took us through the Tizi n’Tichka pass – 2.260 meters above sea level. This road and mountain pass takes the same route as the caravans traveling from Sahara to Marrakech in ancient times used. Soon after the pass, we took left from the N9 on to P1506 heading for Telouet – still following the old caravan route. In Telouet, there’s an old and worn kasbah built by Tami El Glaoui – also known as Pasha Glaoui. A kasbah is a fortified village surrounded by city walls to protect agains enemies and attacks from thieves. This kasbah is under renovation, but is still pretty worn on the outside. The building material is mostly stone combined with mud, soil and hay as reinforcement, so the weather can destroy the surface fairly easy without constant renovation. Especially rain (of course) is the worst weather in this respect.
Inside, the kasbah is partly in very good condition. The few houses and rooms that are renovated tells a story of a very rich and dominant family, and a pasha ruling his people with a strong hand and collecting large taxes from the inhabitants in the valley. Bachir explained the whole story of the kasbah and the valley of Teoluet. Afterwards, we headed further south towards the city of Ouarzazate.
Just before we got to Ouarzazate we stopped by one of the most famous places in Morocco – Ait Ben Haddou, listed on the Unesco World Heritage site list. This is a Ksar, meaning several kasbahs gathered in one place. Ait Ben Haddou was a main junction on the old caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech and was therefore particularely exposed to attacks from bypassers or other tribes in the area. What makes Ait Ben Haddou so special is the many Hollywood-movies that have been shot here – for example “The Gladiator” and this scene featuring Ait Ben Haddou in the background.
After visiting Ait Ben Haddou, we drove through Ourazazate and Bachir offered us to visit two different film studios. Ourazazate is after all Moroccos equal to Hollywood! But it was getting late and we already felt that we’d seen a lot, so we skipped the filmstudios. We continued some miles past Ourarzazate on the N9 road leading west to the town of Skoura where we checked into our first hotel of the tour – Chez Talout. This was a great hotel with a spectacular wide view of the surrounding landscape and with a large palm grove to the east. We were served a variety of salad and some barbecued meat for dinner, and slept well till the next day.
After enjoying breakfast with the marvelous view from the roof terrace, we continued our journey eastwards. The target of today was the two valleys of Dades and Todra. Both valleys are very luxuriant along the bottom and with narrow canyons that the rivers had used several thousand years to dig out. But first we had a small stop along the road to see some interesting caves the local nomads used during winter and other times when the weather conditions were hostile. During the year, nomads usually live in tents, herding their animals (mostly cheeps or goats) where ever there is food to be found. We drove further east through the city of Kelaat M’Gouna, the starting point of the valley of roses. This city is a popular starting point for mountain walks and climbs in the Atlas mountains to the north – for example if you want to ascend the highest peak in the mountain range – the mount Toubkal at 4.167 meters above sea level. The valley of roses got it’s name from the rose production that takes place here. This does not only include fresh flowers, but also perfumes and rose water used for cooking and food production. We did not stop anywhere here, and neither did we see many roses from the car. But a large statue of a rose in the busiest roundabout in the city told the story clearly.
From the rose valley we continued to the city of Boumalne Dades where we turned left on to the R704 road leading up the Dades valley – also known as “the valley of the thousand kasbahs”. And yes – the Dades valley did have many kasbahs on it’s many cliffs and heights. The valley floor itself is very luxurious, but more infertile and hostile furter up the slopes leading to the surrounding hills and mountains. Deep into the valley, the road winds up an extremely steep cliff. Impressive engineering work had been carried out to construct this road, and the view back out of the valley was superb. The gorge itself was very short and a bit disappointing, but contained very high cliff walls on each sides. The road through the gorge was partly flooded after lots of rain during winter, but fortunately it was drivable with the car. After gazing at the gorge for a while, we drove back to Boumalne Dades and continued east on the N10 road to the city of Tinghrir where we stopped for a late lunch. An omelette, salads and a meat ball tajine tasted delicious!
After lunch, we continued up the Todra valley on R703. The Todra valley was even more luxurious than the Dades, and the gorge itself was much longer, larger and impressive than the Dades gorge. We walked by foot through the whole gorge to have a closer look (and quite a lot was going on here). School classes, rock climbers and of course lots of other tourists. After passing through the gorge, we continued for a long stroll further up the vally to have a look at the mountains. The highest cliffs are up to 300 meters tall, so the surroundings in Todra are quite spectacular! After the stroll, we got back to the car and returned to Tinghrir and hotel Tomboctou – an old riad transformed into a more modern hotel with swimming pool and a nice restaurant that even served beer! That was refreshing! And at the dinner, we got a chance to try the local wine too. Serving alcohol is a bit restricted in Morocco because of the islamic religion, but very touristic hotels and riads often serve both beer and wine. In the areas around the city of Meknes (further north in the Morocco), wine production is very common too.
After a good nights sleep we continued east along the N10 road for a short stretch before turning south on R113 to pass through the anti-Atlas mountains. This mountain range is partly situated parallel to the high-Atlas in the north. The two mountain ranges are both interesting – the high-Atlas are made from pressure and seismic waves in the earth crust, but the anti-Altas are created from volcanic activity and have a different soil and rock compared to the high-Atlas. The anti-Atlas mountains appear more rounded too, and during out journey they were very green looking due to the rainy winter. Normally, these mountains are quite infertile, looking more grey and brown. It was a great drive through this mountain range in the low morning sun, making the landscape look fascinating. After a while we reached the small town of Alnif where we turned west on the N12 against the Draa-valley. We had a short stop for tea in Tazzarine, and after that the miles got long and many in the open landscape with endless fields with a few lonely akacia trees every now and then.
After driving for about 2-3 hours, we reached the Draa valley and the Draa river. This was a really luxurious valley with large palm groves. We headed south on N9 towards the city of Zagora – our target of the day. The Draa river is Moroccos longest river. When filled with water, it runs for about 1.100 km. starting in the high-Atlas, passing thought the Draa valley and into the Sahara desert, turning west where it finally reaches the Atlantic sea. But a dam close to Ouarzazate has prevented the water from running as freely as it did before. Because of agriculture, palm groves and a very dry climate in summer, the water ends before reaching the desert. In the south – close to the Chegaga dunes which we had yet to visit – a large lake (Iriqui) had gone dry because of the dam. The water is sparse, and the inhabitants have made complex irrigation systems everywhere in the palm groves and other places where vegetables, fruits and wheat is grown. This is the way they share the water from the river. Cheating with the irrigation systems to get more water is not accepted… We had a closer look at these systems in a palm grove in Zagora, the city with the largest palm grove in the world. In between the palms, vegetables, fruits and wheat was grown – mainly for own supply. As earlier mentioned, the winter brought lots of rain to Morocco. The rain had caused severe damage along all the rivers we drove along during the trip. The Draa river might have been able to lead water to the dry lake of Iriqui this winter, but the wind and constantly changing sand dunes of the Sahara has made the original riverbed disappear with time. This causes the river to split up in many small streams that eventually runs dry before reaching the Iriqui lake…
The drive of today was no longer than we managed to reached our hotel in Zagora for lunch. Just outside the town we stopped for a photoshoot and to watch the gigantic palm grove consisting of over 2 million palm trees – a splendid view! Arriving at the hotel Villa Zagora, we got a great lunch with a large variety of salads and grilled lamb meat. Really delicious! The hotel was very nice – almost like an oasis with lots of vegetation and a small swimming pool. As we arrived early, we had a couple of hours free from the program, so we decided to try out the swimming pool and to have a couple of beers. Just before dinner, Bachir and a nice guy from the hotel staff took us for a walk through parts of the huge palm grove. This was interesting because we could take a close look at the irrigation systems and what was grown here in addition to the palm trees. The palms all carry the same fruit – dates. There is a variety of about 50 different qualities of dates, varying from animal food (the lowest quality) to delicacies exported mainly to foreign markets. For preservation, the dates are either dried in the sun or wrapped in plastic with a special spice mixture that keep them fresh and well tasting for several weeks or months. In Norway I’ve seen both dried and spiced ones but they are most common in shops during christmas time. After the guided tour in the palm grove we headed back to the hotel for a nice dinner and a good nights sleep.
Day 4 did not start very early, as we should not travel very long this day. But the presumed highlight of the trip – the Sahara desert – was our target today! We continued south towards the village of Tamegroute for a short visit to a coranic library. In addition to a lot of corans (of course), the library also contained literature and mathematic writings in arabic. The oldest book was written on gazelle leather and was about 1.000 years old. After the library visit, we went to a pottery famous for items painted in a typical green color. The conditions for the people working here didn’t seem very good, unfortunately. We tried to bargain for buying a bowle, but the owner didn’t want to lower the price – very uncommon in Morocco. Bachir told us that he usually tried to get as much money out of tourists as possible and that his prices was not very reasonable. For comparison, we later saw the exact same bowle in Marrakech costing about half the price as at Tamegroute – and that was before we had even started bargaining… The road took us further south through wide flats with mountain ranges both sides. After a while we crossed one of the mountain ranges and from here the landscape flattened even more driving towards Mhamid – Bachirs home village and the last town before the Sahara desert. In Mhamid we stopped to get some turbans, and Bachir had to stop everywhere as he had friends and family everywhere! He seemed to know the whole village… In addition, he had been so kind as to invite us home to his family for lunch. We were a bit nervous when we stopped in front of his house and passed the doorstep to an islamic home – something neither of us had done before. Bachirs family was very generous and friendly, but unfortunately neither of them spoke any english or other language we did understand or speak. His family had lived their lives as nomads in the past, herding their animals and living in tents in the desert south of Mhamid. But eventually the conditions became too hostile (partly because of the river that got dry), preventing them from living their lives the way they had done before. So they moved to Mhamid when Bachir was seven years old. I managed to communicate a bit with his father, showing him some pictures from Norway on my mobile phone. But there was an embarrassing silence for a while… Bachirs mother prepared tea for us in the traditional way – as a welcome for us visitors. After a while Bachirs cousin arrived. Luckily, he spoke english and was able to translate a bit between us. He also worked for Arib Voyages and knew the route we were travelling and what we had yet to see in the desert. He joined us for lunch – a gigantic couscous with vegetables, meat and sauce – really delicious! After eating we said goodbye to Bachirs friendly family and headed off road towards the Sahara!
The distance from Hamid to the Chegaga-dunes is about 60 km. The surface is constantly changing between sand, gravel and rocks. The route did have some roads – or should I rather say trails – but not official ones layed out on the map, and a 4×4 is necessary to be able to drive here. The landscape of the desert became more and more prominent the further we drove. However, the presence of the many plants made the landscape more green and lush that we had thought it would be. Finally, we reached the Chegaga dunes, stretching for as long as 40 kilometer. The highest dunes reaches up to 300 meters height – a marvelous sight! Arib Voyages had a well established camp close to the dunes that they ran along with some other travel companies. There was a large dinner tent, some 14-15 smaller tents serving as hotel-rooms in a square with a camp fire and some seatings in the middle. Another of Bachirs cousins that worked in the camp served us the welcoming tea. After a short while, camel riding was next up for us – we got one camel each and headed out for a ride in the dunes accompanied by the low afternoon sun.
Our shadows got longer, and the color of the sand red and golden in appearance. We rode for about 1 hour before we continued by foot and snowboard (!) in the dunes. We marveled at the sunset from one of the highest dunes and the setting was really magical. After a quick decent (again by snowboard!) we were ready for a late dinner. Once again, Bachir surprised us with something special – a baby goat tajine! The meat was tasty and very tender and we ate until we were fuller than we had ever been before…! After dinner we gathered around the camp fire and the staff played and sang some traditional music for us. Unfortunately we were only 4 guests (and 5 musicians), so the party atmosphere never really came upon us… But the experience was never the less great!
The next day we had a very early start as we didn’t want to miss the sunrise! On top of all the dunes nearby there were people, so we surely was not the only ones longing for this experience! And it was really magical – looking out on the dunes, the green fields with grazing camels and endless silence giving peace of mind. The only thing to regret was that we did not have any more time to spend here – we probably should have booked another night or two in the desert. After a quick breakfast we headed out with the car at 8.00 because of the long journey that would take us back to Marrakech in just one day…
Soon we drove past the previously mentioned lake Iriqui. The desert trail now passes straight through the dry bottom of the lake. The shores of the lake actually got close to the Chegaga dunes in previous times, and the area was rich in animal life because of the water and the more luxuriant surroundings. After a short stop in the middle of Iriqui, the trail of sand and gravel took us to an interesting site with lots of fossils from millions of years ago. The area was open to everybody, and we could even take some fossils to bring with us home! After a short stretch of rock, an interesting mountain range rose in the south. These mountains could very well have served as scenery for any american western movie. The mountains appeared to look like those in Monument Valley in the USA. We stopped for a small snack in an oasis with palme groves to have a closer look at these mountains. From there, we drove a fairly long stretch of rocky trails before waving goodbye to the Sahara desert at the town of Foum Zguid. From there we headed north on the R111 towards Tazenakht and the N10 road before joining the N9 road again shortly south of Ouarzazate. From here, the road was identical to the one we had travelled some days before – through the Tizi n’Tichka pass and finally we reached Marrakech at around 20.00 in the evening – making it a very long day but with lots of nice landscapes and memories to remember.
Surrounded by the chaos of Marrakech we bidded farwell to Bachir and Arib Voyages, wishing that we could spend another night or two in the quiet of the desert looking up on the stars… We checked in to Riad Jona once again were we would spend 4 more days before heading back to Norway. During these 4 days we visited (among other things) the Majorelle garden, the souks, the Bahia palace and Ben Youssef Medersa. We also took a stroll through the crazy market at Djemaa el-Fna both at daytime and at night. But I will not get into detail about this, because you can read it in any guidebook.
What you cannot read in the guidebook is the feeling and experience of touring the south of Morocco and Sahara with Arib Voyages – something I would really recommend to anybody!