Sunday, April 17, 2011

Morocco: From the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert

By Melissa at 10:05 AM
On our last day in Marrakesh, Brian and I woke up early in the morning, had one last delicious breakfast of Moroccan crepes and bread at our riad, and then headed with our bags to the Jemma el Fna square to meet Omar, the Berber guide we had hired to take us on a tour from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara desert. We were going to be traveling in a 4x4 with 4 others, a young married couple from England and two women from Vancouver. Also on the tour, in another 4x4 driven by one of Omar's employees, was a group of six guys, college students, originally from Puerto Rico, but studying in Spain.

Our touring 4x4, Omar (the guide), and some companions
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Driving out of flat, arid plain where Marakkech is located, the landscape changes quite dramatically as you enter the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. They are green and many are planted with the myriad of crops needed to feed the 1.6 million plus residents of Marrakech. Oranges, apricots, dates and wheat are the main crops. There are small towns and settlements periodically dotting the roadside. As we start to climb higher, the landscape again became more barren. The mountain took on an alien looking purplish-brown color, interrupted by patches of purple, red and yellow wildflowers. Many of the houses were made of a mixture of mud and straw instead of the concrete structures we saw closer to Marrakech.

Our guide Omar tells us that we are traveling through the Tichka Valley and eventually up through the Tizi n'Tichka Pass. This road was a major caravan route for salt, slaves, precious metals and spices traveling from Timbuktu, Mali to Marrakech. Along the way we stop to take pictures of Ergram Village, which was founded in the 14th century as a major stopping point for the caravan route. The residents now farm and sell geodes and jewelry on the side of the road to tourists. We stop again to take pictures at the highest point of elevation in the Tichka Pass, at 2,270 meters or 7,448 feet, and then begin to make our way down the winding road into the valley. Across the valley lie the other mountain range, the Anti Atlas mountains. We planned to travel east towards the Sahara, stopping along the way to view a few notable sites.

Tizi n Tichka Pass 
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Ergram Village
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The first major landmark we come across is the Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah. The word kasbah means fortress. The kasbahs in Morocco were built centuries ago by wealthy Arab families to provide protection and to exert control over one of the two major caravan routes that ran through Morocco. This particular kasbah was built in the 11th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has been featured in a number of movies including, Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator. Omar tells us that Morocco has managed to capture quite a bit of the market for Hollywood films that take place in desert areas.

Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah
From Desert Tour, Morocco

At every stop we were amused by the seemingly endless energy of our tour mates in the other 4x4. The cars were air conditioned but we stopped frequently for pictures, water and bathroom breaks. Being out in the sun and heat and being cooped up in a car for hours had made everyone in our car slow down a bit, but not our college buddies. They pulled up to every stop, heads bobbing to the dance music they had blasting, ready to climb whatever hillside was in front of them. We started calling our car the Atlas and their car the Anti Atlas.

A couple of hours later we drove into Ourzazate, which means without sound in Arabic, the home of Atlas Studios. Over 30 movies have been filmed here at least in part including The Man Who Would Be King, The Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, Body of Lies and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The impact of the movie industry on the town town is quite apparent. The infrastructure in the town is significantly better than any of the surrounding areas. The streets are wider, the sidewalks are in perfect condition, cute street lamps and palm trees line every street. The town has doubled in size since 1982 when the movie studio was constructed and the town has also developed luxury hotels, upscale restaurants and a bigger airport to serve the movie cast and crew when they are shooting on location. Many of the town residents have benefited from the studio as they can make the equivalent of a week's salary in one day working as a crew member or as an extra. In addition to the main studio building the have also built a number of outdoor sets comprised of building facades from various civilizations which is quite an odd sight. By this time we had lost sight of the Anti Atlas group, but it seemed like Omar was communicating with them via phone every so often.

Atlas Studios
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Next stop on our route was the Skoura Oasis, an approximately 6,000 acre oasis about 25 miles from Ourzazate. It's a welcome visual break around in after hours of driving through the mostly flat, pink-tinged dessert that surrounds it. The families who live on the oasis dig irrigation channels to get the water from the underground water source onto their surrounding plots. There are over 30,000 palm trees in the oasis and the residents cultivate olives, almonds, alfalfa, barley, apples, apricots, figs and pomegranates. The irrigation channels resemble small, gurgling streams and we all enjoyed roaming around the oasis for a while.

Next we drove along the Road of the Thousand Kasbahs, resulting from each family from nearby tribes trying to out do the others by building bigger and better kasbahs and each wanting to have a representative to conduct trade along the caravan route. This road leads into the Dades Valley and the Dades Gorge, a beautiful and striking area with pink-toned kasbahs nestled among bright green vegetation surrounding the river in the bottom of the valley, against a backdrop of the steep pink rock formations that form the edges of the valley. We stopped to take pictures of a particularly beautiful rock formation called Monkey Fingers. It was almost sunset as we drove up the Dades Valley towards our hotel and the scene was just stunning. Our hotel was a cute inn on a river, constructed in the traditional way with mud and straw, but quite nice. The Anti Atlas group arrived downstairs for dinner shortly after we did, looking slightly worn down, but only for a minute. Once they started eating, they regained their usual boisterousness.

Dades Valley
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Monkey Fingers
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast of the usual, Moroccan crepes with jam, french bread with butter and tea and headed out to the Toudra Gorge. The Toudra Gorge is a stunning canyon with vertical walls of about 500 feet, only about 50 feet wide with a stream running through it. There is a cool breeze running through the gorge and the river water provided a nice place to cool off your feet. Omar said that many families from the nearby cities and towns come here in the summer when temps can reach over 100 degrees outside of the gorge.

Toudra Gorge
From Desert Tour, Morocco

After the Tourdra Gourge we headed in the direction of Merzouga, Omar's home town and the jumping off point for many excursions into the Sahara. We drove towards the desert where more hotels were located catering to tourists wanting to venture out onto the Erg Chebbi dunes. We drove for a while on a well-maintained two-lane road through a completely flat landscape. The sand changed colors occasionally, varying from pale yellow, to black to a reddish brown.

After about an hour or so we turned off the main road and headed into a large, flat, sandy plain that stretched far into the distance. There was a rough dirt road cutting through the plain, demarcated by white painted stones placed every 15 feet along the sides. Omar chose to drive just adjacent to the main dirt road most of the time since the main road looked quite bumpy from all of the 4x4s and minibuses that ran across it. The whole area was quite rocky and Omar was careful to drive carefully and slow down when we came to major dips in the ground. Omar pointed out some mountains not to far in the distance. Right on the other side was the Algerian border, he said. Morocco and Algeria do not have very good diplomatic relations to put it mildly so the border area has many military outposts and is dotted with land mines from a prior war. Omar then switched on some music sung in Arabic and we slowly made our way across the rocky plain towards some very large sand dunes that were now visible in the distance. It was the perfect backdrop to our surroundings and we all sat quietly pondering the beauty of the desert and the history of Morocco.

A few seconds later our tour mates in the other SUV came speeding past us. There were five of them hanging out of the three passenger windows in the car, waving their shirts above their heads, dance music blaring, while the driver proceeded to do donuts in the sand. Our entire car erupted in laughter, but none of us were in the least bit surprised. They were after all, the Anti Atlas. Omar just shook his head and steered the car to the right so we could drive up a small hill to take pictures of the Erg Chebbi dune and the mock kashbah-style hotels that were constructed at the base of the dune. Our Anti Atlas tour mates soon joined us and took shirtless pictures in front of the dunes while attempting to form a low human pyramid.

Outside of the Erg Chebbi desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Omar told us the legend behind the Erg Chebbi dune, the largest in North Africa. The story goes that the Chebbi family was the first to settle the area were very rich and built a kasbah where you now see the dune. One day, a Friday, a poor woman and her son came to their home to ask them for help, some food or money, but the Chebbi family sent them away with nothing. As good muslims, Omar told us, you are obliged to give help to the needy, especially if you have much to spare. And you are never to refuse helping others on a Friday, the holy day. As punishment for their coldheartedness, God sent a series of sandstorms that occurred every Friday after that day until the entire family was buried underneath the gigantic dunes.

We made our way down to the hotel where our camels and Berber guides were waiting to take us to a camp in the dunes where we would spend the night. I should note that we didn't actually ride camels (two humps), we rode dromedaries (one hump). Apparently, there are no camels in Africa, only dromedaries, but dromedary ride just doesn't have the same ring to it so I'm going to say camel.

Our camels just chillin'
From Desert Tour, Morocco

We rode in a little caravan of camels, meaning each camel was tied to the camel behind it. We were thankfully in a different caravan than our Anti-Atlas tour mates who were somehow still full of energy. I didn't want to be attached by a rope to one of them when they decided to do something that would invariable piss of one of their camels. We were glad to hear their non-stop chatter fade away as their guide led them on a different route to the camp. The rest of the ride was beautiful although a little scary at times when we were crossing along the ridges of the very tall dunes. But camels are of course exceptional sure footed in the sand.

Brian on his camel
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Melissa on her camel
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Camel caravan
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The view from our camp site
From Desert Tour, Morocco

About an hour and a half later we all stumbled off of our camels, our bottoms a little worse for the wear, and got settled in the camp. The abundance of scarab beetles brought back horrifying scenes from the movie The Mummy, but I finally resigned myself to just ignore them. About ten minutes later, the Anti-Atlas group arrived and I noticed in addition to their backpacks they were carrying something else across the front of their camels, but couldn't quite make out what it was until they got closer. Finally, I saw. Oh my god! I said to the rest of the Atlas group, they have snowboards! We all erupted into laughter again. Of course they were going to go sandboarding. It was 90 degrees out, we had been in the car for about 5 hours, plus we had a hour and a half ride on camels, but they were raring to go sandboarding. I was excited that I was going to get to test out how well the video focus on my camera worked with fast moving objects. The Anti-Atlas with their seemingly endless energy took off almost immediately up the dune just behind the camp and after a while we all decided we did not want to miss the sandboarding or the sunset. The dune was probably about a steep 300-foot climb from the camp, but it took forever to get up to the top. We had to stop at least four times because the air was so dry, it felt similar to climbing in the in the Andes, but we were no where near as high. The Anti-Atlas delivered when it came to sandboarding entertainment including a number of spectacular face plants. And of course watching the sunset from the top of a huge sand dune was sublime.

One of the Anti Atlas sandboarding
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Faceplanted
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Just before sunset
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Sunset over the desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

After waiting for what seemed like forever for dinner, we were served a delicious meal of bread, vegetable soup, chicken tagine with vegetables and oranges. They somehow managed to cook a gourmet meal in the middle of the desert somewhere behind the tent. The chicken tagine was delicious, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the tagine wasn't goat because there were some plump looking goats who seemed to live near our tents. I guess they serve the chicken to the tourists and save the yummy animals for themselves. After dinner our Bedouin hosts built a campfire, played drums and told us bad jokes. After a full day and a huge meal, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow of my cot. At this point there could be a million scarab beetles in the tent and I wouldn't have cared. Although I was glad to have my silk sleep sack between me and the camel hair blankets.

We woke up about five hours later to the sound of our hosts banging on the tents and the camels bleating in protest. Apparently they didn't like to get up before sunrise either, especially not to carry a bunch of tourists around the dunes. But watching the sunrise over the dunes was worth hauling our sore butts back onto the camels at 6:30am. That day we made the grueling 8-hour drive all the way back to Marakkech where we went back to the same riad for a much needed shower and a good sleep.

Leaving the desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The next day we were boarding a bus to the coast for some much needed R&R in Essaouira, a sleepy little beach town on the Atlantic Ocean. Stayed tuned for the next post which covers our final week in Morocco where we travel to Essaouira, Fes and Chefchaouen.

In the Erg Chebbi desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

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