To get to the desert, I went through the desert, and also over a mountain. (Like I said, it’s always about journey.) I went on a tour with Camel Safaries, one of the many tour companies operating out of Marrakech, and over the course of 3 days and 2 nights, we wended our way over the High Atlas Mountains through Tizi n’Tichka Pass, stopped in Ait Benhaddou, drove through the Dades Valley, walked in a bit of Todra (Todgha) Gorge, and sped across the the black sands surrounding the small town of Merzouga, where we mounted up on camels and trekked into the Erg Chebbi part of the Sahara Desert. It was a heckuva road trip.
That’s a lot of time in a car, but if you only have so much time and you want to get to a remote spot, that’s part of the deal. One more day to cover the same ground would’ve been nice, to spend more time in some of the stops or do a more proper walk in one of the gorges, but I’m still happy with what I did.
High Atlas Mountains and Tizi n’Tichka Pass
When you think of Morocco, do you think “mountains”? I certainly didn’t before I started researching my trip, but in fact the Atlas Mountains run through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, separating the coast from the Sahara. Morocco is nearly bisected by the mountains, so when you look at a map and think, “I’m going to go from Marrakech to Merzouga, that’s only 350 miles, not a problem,” you are 1) clearly an American or Australian (my British friends would definitely balk at a weekend jaunt of 350 miles), and 2) not taking into account the fact that you have to climb up, squeeze through, and pick your way down a large mountain range.
As we left Marrakech behind and started our ascent, I was reminded of parts of California and the American Southwest, with the orange-red sandstone and the scrubby green trees. Once we passed our first pit stop, the red gave way to brown, and we drove past mud-and-stone villages that blended in well with the hills they were built on. Finally, at the top of the range, as we went through the pass, were among the snowy peaks we’d seen hours ago in Marrakech.
One of the things that attracted me to this tour was the opportunity to see a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ait Benhaddou is listed because it’s a well-preserved example of southern Moroccan architecture; it’s from the 17th century but uses building techniques centuries older than that. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but its placement is no accident; the route we were following from Marrakech to the desert is the same one that caravans used to travel, and this was one of the places they’d stop to trade. Now it gets most of its money from tourists and from film companies — it’s been in Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, and Gladiator, among others.
Our guide, Mustapha, told us that the easiest way to think of a kasbah is as a tower that has four raised points on the corner. The casbah used to be the fortified city which had one of these towers, but when defense became less of a concern, wealthy families started building the towers with the raised points on the corners, as a sign of their wealth and prestige, and the towers themselves became known as kasbahs. Ait Benhaddou is a ksar (or kind of castle/fortified group of houses), with several kasbahs in it. It’s built onto a hill and rises up dramatically from the flat landscape around it.
We got there by fording a river, walking on sacks of sand that were laid out like stepping stones. I noticed some kids holding a tourist’s hand as she walked on the “stones” unsteadily, and once she was safely ashore, it was time for a tip. We admired the imposing gate to the town, which was apparently used in some Game of Thrones episodes, and then walked up and up and up through the town, for some great views of the countryside — a cluster of trees and greenery around the town, and then flat desert punctuated by gentle hills to the mountains on the horizon. As we walked down through the other side of the town to our waiting van, we passed lovely flowering almond trees, white blossoms contrasting with the reddish brown earth.
At one point, we passed the tiny town of Imiter and saw to the east a large complex in the low hills, and an imposing sign over an even more imposing fence. This is a mine owned privately by the King of Morocco. It’s the seventh largest mine in the world; more than 6000 people work there, going 25 kilometers underground to find gold and copper. What a thing for one person to own.
This area is romantically referred to as The Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, and it’s true there are many around. Once you understand that these don’t mean castles the way you might have thought they did, but a combination of necessary defense systems and also symbols of prestige, you can see why there are so many.
We drove deep into the valley at night, and the next morning, we drove up a hill to get a view of the gorge, then back out down the same road, admiring the scenery we’d not been able to see the night before.
One of the surprises (to me) of much of Morocco was how suddenly green spaces appeared in seemingly endless desert. I guess I’d understood oases mostly from comic strips and movies, so to see a grove of date palms rising up out of the otherwise barren earth was a surprise, and a welcome one. Morocco has also built up irrigation systems for farming, and as we drove through the valley I saw greens and beans, and then silvery trees I didn’t recognize. When I asked what they were, Mustapha pointed to a sign behind me that read “Valley of the Figs.” Aha.
The Todra Gorge used to be difficult to access, but the government has extended the asphalt road right up to the mouth of the gorge, so we drove up, hopped out, and walked along it for an hour or so. The river is quite low unless it’s the rainy season, and parallel to part of the river, a canal or gutter had been set up (although it was higher than the river and I’m not sure how it worked).
People had set up stalls along the rock wall, selling pashminas, wooden figurines, silver bracelets. A couple passed us, packs on backs and poles in hand; the Dades and Todra gorges are popular with serious hikers.
One woman, baby strapped to her back, herded donkeys upriver. The Berber nomads in this area used to move around to find food and water, but now they shop in villages and move seasonally: they spend the summer in caves in the High Atlas, and winter in warmer tents.
In several places, people had made giant signs on the hillside out of white rocks, which contrasted well with the brown earth beneath them. Sometimes they said “God, country, and king,” which is the motto of Morocco. Sometimes they said “The Sahara is ours,” which is a claim on Western Sahara, a disputed territory south of here which Morocco occupies and which Algeria claims as well. Algeria particularly wants the oil found there and access to the sea. Whatever the message spelled out on the hillside, there was always the Moroccan star (from the flag) to accompany it.
Glimpses of Berber Culture
Our guide, Mustapha, and driver, Hassan, are both Berber, or Amazigh. We asked if they wouldn’t mind talking a little about what it’s like to be Berber in Morocco, a mostly Arab North African country. Mustapha explained that under French rule, which was under Saudi influence, the Berber language was forbidden, although people still spoke it at home. In the 1970s, university students started being more vocal about being allowed to celebrate their culture. Around 2010, the king decided to head off any possibility of an Arab Spring situation by making Berber one of the official languages of Morocco, along with French and Arabic. The Berbers have had a written language since before Arabs arrived in the 7th century CE, but it was suppressed for centuries. Now, Berbers are openly teaching and learning how to read and write in their language.
Mustapha was part of a Berber liberation group at his university in Meknes. He emphasized that they don’t want a violent uprising, and even when they have marches they don’t want anything too disruptive. (I have my own ideas about what disruption can do for real change, but this is not about my ideas or my cultural context.)
We saw many yaz symbols painted on cliffs, drawn on buildings, formed out of white rocks on brown hillsides. This is part of the alphabet and also represents the “free man” — which is what “Amazigh” means.
Hassan played Moroccan music during a lot of the drive, and one song in particular was so hauntingly beautiful that I asked him to play it again, twice (which my tourmates indulged). The singer was Mbark Oularbi, who sang about freedom for Berbers. Officially he died after a battle with illness, but it is widely believed he was poisoned for stirring up too much unrest. His band is named Saghru, which is a mountain where various Berber tribes banded together to battle the French. The song is in my notes as “Hokuma” meaning “government,” but that gets me nowhere when I search for it. If you have better google skills than I (and nearly everyone does), just listen for a quiet, insistent song and enjoy.
Tunes, new friends, gorgeous scenery, an exciting destination: it was a good road trip.
Be sure to read about the destination of this road trip — the Sahara!