Moroccan Desert

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March 21st 2018
Published: March 21st 2018
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The desert road trip

Friday, 16 March – Ait Benhaddou

Hertz gave us our diesel Peugeot 208 and whilst the weather had cleared enough to go see the Majorelle Gardens, we couldn’t find parking so we decided to forego it and make our way to the desert. Besides, we had a 4 hour drive and we didn’t know what blockers were ahead of us on the 200km stretch. Proudly, Dwayne mastered the art of driving like a mad Moroccan within a half hour!

The dirt is extremely red everywhere. The rivers run red and you can see why the houses are all coloured with terracotta. In amongst all this red dirt are patches of bright green terraces where the locals harvest fields of millet. It’s quite the contrast.

As we drove towards the High Atlas Mountains, the rain and fog set in and we knew that one of the most scenic drives in the world would today elude us. As we climbed up to the pass at 2300m, we lamented the fact that we could not capture the view. We can imagine how beautiful this drive must be when you can see 2km down to the valley floor and another 1km up at the mountain peaks. The landscape also changed from red dirt to grey rocks and the rivers run muddy brown.

Rain turned to snow and by the time we reached the pass, there were snow ploughs and queues of trucks and cars passing on narrow bends in slushy snow and sleet. The roads are definitely the most atrocious of any we’ve driven. Sometimes sealed, sometimes dirt, potholes galore and an average speed of 20-40km/h. We’ve never spent so much time in 2nd and 3rd gears!

Once over the pass, we descended 500m and popped out into blue skies and sunshine. It was like driving through a revolving door from summer to winter. We had to turn the heater off and put the A/C on! We also ended up in a canyon and that was scenic as we wove our way around it. Reminded me of Monument Valley, except with little towns built into the stepped sides.

Our final destination was Ait Benhaddou – an UNESCO world heritage site.

We checked in a wonderful boutique hotel called the Bagdad Café, named after the film. The owner, Mohammed, welcomed us and had us sit down for some mint tea and a chat. He then drew a walking map for us of the Unesco site and told us how to avoid paying. We also agreed to dine in his restaurant that night. $100 for dinner, bed and breakfast. It’s expensive by Moroccan standards (and mine) but it’s nice to not have to wander the streets looking at menus. He served traditional soup (harira) as entree, a vegetable tagine for mains and French apple tart for dessert, because he is Moroccan French. He was the consummate host though, always calling everyone by their names when we saw them. He gets a 10 for service.

Ait Benhaddou used to be a ksar (Arabic for fortified village) of earthen buildings. Parts of it are still inhabited but the upper levels are derelict. It only took 30 minutes to wander around as it’s quite small but by the time we stopped for photos, it took an hour. Dwayne kept saying he felt like he was in Ninevah. You can see the mix of clay and straw in the walls as if the Israelites made them during captivity. A number of films have been shot here, including Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Jewel of the Nile.

Sabbath, 17 March – Todgha Gorge

The morning broke clear and sunny and we could see all the way back to the High Atlas mountains in all their glory, and I again lamented that we did not have that view the day before. I spent a good amount of time looking in the rear-view mirror at their majestic peaks rising out of the flats. Very dramatic.

The scenery in Morocco is amazingly varied. It’s all desert but different kinds of desert. Sometimes it’s nothing but black rocks and pancake formations, other times it’s red dirt and other times it’s cream plateaus or cliffs.

We drove to our first stop, Rose Valley, which is supposed to be stunning when the roses are out but unfortunately it is not rose season so all we saw was a green patch of valley.

We continued on to the Dades Gorge, as I had seen a picture of a crazy switchback road that overlooked a gorge. It was an impressive gorge and we reached the viewpoint after about 20km, but our Bagdad Café host had pinned a viewpoint on our Google map at 52km, so we continued on only to realise that the original viewpoint was the one we wanted. So the journey into the gorge should have only taken us 1hr return, but it took us 2hrs return because of the unnecessary distance. It was definitely interesting though with all the different rock formations.

Our final stop for the night was Todgha Gorge which thankfully was only 20km in from the main road, and we were glad that Mohammed had told us to stop there rather than Dades Gorge. Our host, Julio, had his French mother and aunt staying at his guest house so he invited us to dine with them and that was certainly an experience. We sat around the family table with 5 others and they all yammered away in French whilst we pretended to listen. Occasionally the host would chat in English and the other two guests would also speak English at that time, but otherwise we laughed inwardly to ourselves about being the token Aussies in the room. His cooking was very yummy though – veggie soup for entrée, mains were lentils, berber omelette and a beef dish and dessert was crème chocolat. We think it was the best meal we’ve had since we arrived. Gotta love French cooking.

Sunday, 18 March – Sahara Desert Luxury Camp, Merzouga

We spent the morning looking around Todgha Gorge, which was more beautiful than Dades Gorge because it was more narrow and you could walk in and around the gorge itself. We said hello to a couple from Venezuela who were in the area for rock climbing, and we chatted with them for the 2km walk to the gorge. They then set up their ropes and we watched them climb the easy wall. We wandered around the gorge taking photos and after an hour or so we went back to the car and started the 3hr drive to Merzouga.

The drive was again everchanging from desert scene to desert scene. Just when you think it couldn’t get more barren, it does. And we’d think “no one could live out here” and then we’d come across small townships of people and houses, and we’d wonder what they live on in a moon scape of rocks. In parts of the drive it reminded us of South Africa because there are acacia trees similar to Kruger National Park. It’s the type of environment you’d expect to see giraffe or elephant in the distance. However, besides domesticated animals like dogs, cats and donkeys, there is a distinct lack of wildlife. We expected to see antelope or other desert animals but alas, we assume they have all been eaten long ago.

Morocco is easier to drive in than Turkey. Once away from the Atlas Mountains, the roads have been of good quality with relatively little traffic. It’s difficult to get lost because there are literally only 1-2 roads between towns so you can take A or B. Driving in the large cities like Marrakech is a bit nerve racking but the country driving is a breeze. It’s the language that posts the biggest barrier to travelling here.

Eventually the land changed from rocks to sand and we soon came across a dust willy about 20m in diameter and 20m high ahead of us. It was swirling on the left hand side of the road and we had to stop to let it cross the road, and as it moved off to the right side, we pulled up beside it and took a photo and video. It was exactly like a tornado except miniature and see-through.

And then we saw it. Imposing sand dunes appear out of nowhere, as far as the eye could see. We later learned that they only go on for about 30km to the Algerian border. We met our host at 3pm and by 4pm we were on a single-hump camel train to the desert camp. The camp is only about 3km from Merzouga but our guide, Mohammed, walked in front of the camels whilst we took in the view and got some pictures. We were glad it was only an hour because those camels are not comfortable!

The camp came into view in a dune valley and it was breathtaking. 16 luxury pinstripe Berber tents in a 2x8 config. Up one end is the dining room and down the other end is the entrance. Our tent is amazing with a super king bed, crisp white sheets, richly woven rugs and the thickest bedding I’ve seen. It also comes complete with an ensuite shower and flush toilet. It’s not as lux as our South Africa safari but for A$145 per night for dinner, bed and breakfast, it’s a lot cheaper.

Once settled in they called us for a walk to the highest dune for sunset, which turned out to be a bad idea because the wind was brutal and once we reached the top, we spent half the time with our eyes closed because of the sand. It got into everything – ears, nose, eyes, hair – every nook and cranny had sand both inside and outside clothes. We looked up long enough to grab a few sunset snaps and then after a sand board or two, we descended out of the wind and back to camp. I had a shower to try and rid myself of the sand but soon realised it’s going to take 2 or 3 showers before it’s all truly gone. Still, it was better than chewing grit every time I licked my lips.

There were times throughout the trip when the guides looked uninterested or were taking the mickey out of the guests. They were on their phones more often than not, and instead of calling people by name, they called us by country. That was ok for the most part but then they would say “China, China” and break out into what sounded Chinese but was it just random noises that sounded Chinese? The couple from China didn’t interact with what he said so we wandered if he was taking the mickey. He also talked about how “tourists email me and then shop around for better price. Always wanting cheaper price.” I had contacted this guide directly in Marrakech and he’d quoted me 2000dh per night on email so I declined his offer and booked via his AirBnB site for 1036dh. Is it any wonder that tourists shop around when there are three different prices for the same camp? I’ve no doubt he was referring to me when he said that. After all, how many Aussies named Renae end up at the camp two days after an enquiry from an Aussie girl named Renae? The German couple we were friends with said they kept calling the girl “Fatima” and they were quite offended. I’m sure it was in jest but both the Germans and ourselves thought it poor service to slag off against the hand that feeds.

Dinner was ok and nothing to rave about. We started with veggie soup, moved to stuffed capsicums and when the beef came out, I asked for the pre-ordered vegetarian. This was news to the chef so he had nothing for me. He whipped up a plain omelette but of course it was disappointing because they should have had a proper veggie main for me, not just a bland egg at the last minute. Dessert was fruit salad and custard. After dinner they did some Berber drumming and dancing, which seemed rather ad hoc to me with everyone doing their own thing. We chatted to the German couple for a while and looked at the phenomenal view of the stars. With no lights around for hundreds of kms, except the pit fire, the night sky was littered with glittering gems. Truly amazing.

Monday, 19 March – Ziz Valley

I slept really well under the Fort Knox of blankets but Dwayne was a tad too hot and since he didn’t wash his hair when he showered, he was surprised to find sand on his pillow. Who knew! So he got up a couple of times. It was freezing though, outside of bed.

6am came way too early and we rose to see the sunrise. It was beautiful, as all sunrises are. Breakfast was next and by 7.30am they were ordering us back on the camels. At this point I was a bit disappointed that everything was so rushed and there wasn’t enough time to just enjoy the camp. I think they should offer guests the option to either take the camels back at 7.30am, before it gets too hot, or go back by car at 10am. Anyway, we were on the camels and back at the host’s house by 9am. I gave this feedback to the host, Hassan, as I’ll be saying the same thing on my AirBnB review.

We had to decide whether to stay in a Riad in Merzouga and do more tours (ie dune buggy or 4WD etc) vs sit by the pool overlooking the dunes for the day vs start the 9hr drive to Fes and stop half way. We decided to leave Merzouga, since there were no more tours we wanted to pay for and if we were going to sit at a hotel, we might as well do it closer to Fes. We ended up at a simple Kasbah (family owned mini mansion) for $42 that overlooks the Ziz river. It’s very budget but at least we only have a 5hr drive tomorrow. Dinner will be an expensive $15pp for tomato salad, tajine and whole fruit. This is what you get when you stay with local hosts rather than French hosts. At least when you stay with French properties, you get a more sophisticated meal for the same price.

Tuesday, 20 March – Fes

The land of 1000 deserts – that’s what I’m calling Morocco. The landscapes are all so hostile and it’s definitely the rockiest place we’ve visited. Rocks, rocks and more rocks. Sometimes there are shrubs or trees, sometimes lush oasis in a river valley, but mostly just rocks and rocky outcrops. It never ceases to amaze us that people live in these areas.

The weather went from warm sun to rain and snow in the mountain passes, and back to sun. 50km out from Fes we passed the last mountain range and before us in a wide valley was green hillsides and farms as far as the eye could see. Very unlike the landscapes of the last 5 days.

Since Dwayne drove out of Marrakech, I thought it only fair that I drive into Fes and return the car to Hertz. We nearly had a collision on a roundabout because three lanes of traffic were taking the most direct line around the roundabout, which happened to be the middle lane that I was in! I honked my horn and accelerated with a mere inch of grace in front of the two cars that were sandwiching me on either side. Moroccan drivers are good on open roads but in the cities, they’re impatient and don’t stay in their lanes. Give me the Arc d’Triomphe any day! We got the bags to the Riad first, then the car to Hertz where we discovered that someone had grazed the back bumper at some point in the last week, so the damage bill goes against us. We’ll claim it back on travel insurance of course, but it’s annoying because the excess just pushes the cost of the rental up. Oh well, it wasn’t anything we did so just have to wear it.

Tomorrow we explore Fes.

Additional photos below
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23rd March 2018
An oasis in the Vallee du Ziz

Dear Renae and Dwayne,
You sure get around. We enjoyed your visit to Vallee du Ziz etc. You two sure get around. You should write a book of your travels. I write a small book with story and pics of every country we visit. Our family and friends enjoy them. The kids enjoy the pics. Love to you both, Shirley and David XX

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