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Published: March 28th 2020
It was going to be difficult to top the great experiences we had in the Erg Chebbi on the previous day and night -- our first camel ride, seeing the vivid sunset and moon rise from the crest of a red sand dune in the Sahara Desert, a night sky full of stars, glamping, and being well fed and entertained with music and dancing around the fire cauldron thanks to our hospitable Berber hosts.
But before wandering off to our individual tents for that night, our guide, Larbi, had given us the exact time of sunrise the following morning. Since it would be the perfect ending to experience the desert light full circle from sunrise to moon rise, we didn’t want to miss it. Little by little, our fellow travelers emerged from their tents, obviously still sleepy but eager to witness this beautiful time of the morning as seen from the nearest dune which was literally steps from our tents. When the sun crested the horizon at exactly 7:17 am, the light was so incredible that it seemed no other place on earth could be this beautiful -- once again the Sahara had silently performed its magic.
time, breakfast was ready in the big tent and once again our hosts did a marvelous job with the meal. Afterwards there was some last minute packing, and a long last look at the Erg Chebbi before reuniting with our 4X4 driver for the drive back to the Xaluca Kasbah Maadid Hotel. There everyone reclaimed their larger pieces of luggage to be put on our tour bus before departing for yet another great day on the road in Morocco.
We were already halfway through our trip now. On the agenda for today, Day #8, was visiting the spectacular Todra Gorge in the High Atlas Mountains which was the highlight of the day. Then lunch in Tinghir (Tinrhir), an oasis town in the Draâ – Tafilalit region which has the largest silver mine in Africa, driving through the Dades Valley followed by a ride-by view of the Atlas Film Studios in Ouarzazate where many blockbuster movies were at least partially filmed, and finally landing in Ait Benhaddou where we would spend a night at the superb Ksar Ighnda.
We began our drive by backtracking a bit from the Erg Chebbi and Erfoud. The distance to reach the scenic Todra
Gorge was about 90 miles and approximately 2+ hours on the road. Passing through the Dades Valley we stopped at least twice to take photos. I hoped to capture the color contrast between the deep red earth and the deep green of the Palmeraie, or palm grove, where the date palms, loaded down with heavy clusters of golden brown fruit, thrive for miles along the edge of the river. A virtual Garden of Eden, pomegranate, olive, almond and fruit trees grow here and garden plots look like patchwork quilts. On both sides of the palmeraie (palm grove) we could see interesting villages, both old and new, with flat-roofed buildings made mostly of clay take on a pinkish color.
Most spectacular to me were the high chiseled plateaus, which unlike the closer cliffs, stood out sharply from the flat land surrounding it. The natural light and color here too was magnificent. At one turnout we stopped to take photos of the beautiful landscape and Berber villages in front of us. Someone had carefully arranged a long display of colorful scarves for sale on a low wall here. It was tempting to buy a simple scarf if for nothing else but
to insert a little tourist cash into the local economy, but I resisted. Scarves are one of the most pervasive items you’ll find for sale in Morocco; in fact, beautiful scarves can be bought for a song all over Morocco. A few days later in Marrakesh I did buy a deep royal blue scarf shot through with silver threads which I wore on a special night.
Moving further on we crossed a bridge with a wide stream below where we saw a large group of women with big cloth bundles had positioned themselves along the banks. I assumed at least some of them were washing clothes and though the scene might be reminiscent of a lifestyle from a much earlier era, here it seemed totally compatible with people who could very likely have been nomads.
Just minutes afterwards, we were approaching the entrance to the amazing Todra or Todgha Gorge with its swift moving river. The gorge was created when both the Todgha and Dades Rivers carved out this canyon leaving soaring rock walls on either side of the river at the bottom -- it is a sight to behold. Atlas Obscura states that “Todra is the name
of the last 600 meters (just under 2,000 feet) of the canyons. In places, this gorge measures just 33 feet across.” Since the gorge is a popular attraction drawing large numbers of tourists, some small hotels are here to accommodate them as well as a couple of very small stores, and people selling rugs, clothes, scarves and more. But, the beautiful natural geography here is the biggest attraction, and perhaps secondary is people watching.
Our bus driver had to carefully negotiate our bus through the congestion of the narrow pass at the bottom of this deep canyon ravine or wadi. Buses, cars, and sightseers all compete for space as the river is only feet away at any given point and often virtually only a foot or two below road level. The slow moving traffic, throngs of tourists and vendors, and the sheer height of the gorge walls rising up over 1,000 feet on either side in some places, made it seem as if we were being squeezed through a ‘cattle chute.' I was surprised that the number of vehicles through here is not limited.
We were let off at a relatively safe place and with time to wander
around and explore on our own. At places the river is allowed to meander without constraint but in others it is channeled to allow space for the road. Flash floods here are a real concern and have occurred here in the last 5 years or so. Whether they have happened because of torrential rain or mountain runoff, flash floods can be disastrous for anyone caught in the canyon when they happen.
Luckily the weather was beautiful and sunny on the day of our visit, and some people couldn’t resist putting their feet in the cool, clear water – my husband and some other men from our tour group being some of those, along with a cute stray dog who was standing in the river and lapping water from it. I watched children gleefully playing in river and adults clearly enjoying the same experience.
As the gorge is considered to be in the town of Tinghir, we were only a short drive from our lunch stop at the El Yasmina Restaurant and Milk Bar. With a colorful array of international flags near its front entrance, the El Yasmina can easily be spotted. The restaurant staff had reserved a lovely,
sunny room with lots of windows for our group at the rear of the restaurant. Round tables with colorful tablecloths and cushioned banquets and chairs made an inviting place to enjoy lunch. We had given our meal choices to Larbi earlier in the day and he had relayed that information to the restaurant so the pre-arranged lunch service was quick and friendly. As I recall, Rick and I both had the chicken skewers with sides of vegetables, salad and fries. Khobz bread and bottled water or soft drinks were also included, but beer could be purchased.
The balcony just off our dining room had a good view of the grayish brown Atlas Mountains, the palmeraie and nearby homes for a few photos. But the inside of the restaurant had some interesting features too such as little sitting alcoves decorated with wall paintings of the Todra Gorge and a Berber woman. I believe nearly all of our lunch spots, except one or two, had at least some kind of pleasing attraction as the El Yasmina did and this was even more true for all of our dinner locations.
Well satisfied with lunch, we took our last few minutes in
Tinghir to stretch our legs before boarding our bus. We then headed in a southwesterly direction on the N10 toward our final destination for the day, the city of Ouarzazate, founded in 1028, and a gateway to the Drâa and Dades Valleys. Normally tourists travel in the opposite direction from that which we were doing -- others going east to west -- driving west to east. But whatever direction you’re coming from, this road is known as the “Route des Kabahs,” or “Route of a Thousand Kasbahs,” which was generally the route taken by caravans on their way through the Drâa Valley. Kasbahs are at least a hundred years old in the Drâa, and most notably relatively newer kasbahs inhabit the Dades Valley. The direction and location of both valleys were confusing to me but it is the Dades Valley near the N10 running from Erfoud to Ouarzazate that we were driving through.
Specifically, on this route are Ait Ben Haddou (also listed as a ksar), the Kasbah of Telouet, and the Kasbah of Taourirt. Probably the most famous is Aït Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is some distinction between a kasbah and a ksar: a
kasbah is generally a structure with walls and four towers creating an inner courtyard with living quarters for one family. The ksars are considered as walled cities with living arrangements for many families which are often located on river shores guaranteeing access to water; or, constructed on higher elevations with the advantageous outlook over the area below in case of attempted sieges, and/or have the ability to control the commercial routes of passing caravans.
We bypassed the towns of Boumalne Dades and Skoura on our route before coming to the outskirts of Ouarzazate. Just about 3 miles from Ouarzazate we stopped to see, but only to snap photos of, the famous Atlas Film Studios where so many motion pictures have been at least partially filmed. Atlas Studios, founded in 1983, is the largest film studio by land size in the world. Some of the movies filmed here were “Jewel of the Nile,” “The Living Daylights,” “The Mummy,” “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and the TV series “Game of Thrones,” just to name a few. Tours can be taken here though we were not scheduled for one, and the afternoon was passing quickly. I’m sure this would have been an interesting
change of pace had we the time to stop.
While the light was still good we made one more stop at a good place for photos of Aït Ben Haddou, which is just north of Ouarzazate. From a high vantage point with some distance from it, these photos of Aït Ben Haddou turned out to be my best as others would be taken mostly from inside the ksar itself and were not actually from the best vantage points.
Finally we arrived at the incredibly lovely “Ksar Ighnda,” a hidden gem of a hotel found in a narrow back lane which has an interesting story of its own. This rather luxurious hotel is owned by Pascal Petronon/Pétrone, a man we were told was French, but who is nothing if not the offspring of an amazing assemblage of persons with international heritage.
Although we were all suitably warned ahead of time that our rooms might be small, and our room #102 was incredibly small, the hotel architecture and grounds, which were simply stunning in my opinion, proved to be yet another great choice by our tour company.
I must give a warning for anyone staying in Room 102
at the Ksar Ighnda -- keep all windows shut as they are at ground level, and definitely keep windows covered by curtains or blinds at all times as I caught the hotel staff and assorted passersby either inadvertently looking in, or rather more correctly, purposefully
looking in our room in daylight and at nighttime!!
The Ksar Ighnda was assembled from several old houses from the village of Asfalou into the 40-room hotel it is today. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of thought and planning has been put into every detail imaginable in building the structure as well as in the selection garden plants, garden sculptures and pottery, the lighting and fixtures, and the beautiful pool lit at night with a changing array of colors. Each little area holds a surprise. There is a small but nice bar, several dining rooms, a gift shop and other amenities on property.
Quick hot showers washed away the day’s dust and helped refresh us for the included dinner tonight in a small but charming dining room. We were joined at our table for 6 with very agreeable dinner companions which was nice. Rick & I both chose the fish which was
perfectly done and seasoned with sides of buttery rice and vegetables and wine was included with the meal. Dessert was a yummy Crème Brûlée with coffee/tea which topped off this French-influenced meal and I admit it was my favorite of the trip.
We took a rather long turn around the pool and gardens, and a look in the gift shop for postcards before making a stop at the nice little bar to get Rick a nightcap. Though our room was indeed small, the beds were very comfortable, the room had air-conditioning, a TV, and good lighting. I had no trouble falling asleep quickly after another full day of activity. To this point (Day 8), I had not written one word in my journal while in Morocco -- totally unprecedented for me!!
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