Down the Draa: Ouarzazate to M'Hamid

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March 9th 2008
Published: May 10th 2008
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Kate riding from Ait Ben Haddou to OuarzazateKate riding from Ait Ben Haddou to OuarzazateKate riding from Ait Ben Haddou to Ouarzazate

The change from the geography of the High Atlas mountains to the desert was swift and dramatic.
After a day exploring the extremely photogenic kasbah at Ait Ben Haddou, we had a relatively short morning's ride to get into the city of Ouarzazate, at the intersection of the Dades and Draa River valleys. Ouarzazate was the real beginning of our trip south to the end of the N9 highway at M'Hamid, where the paved road finally gives way to the hammada and sand dunes of the Sahara. While riding out of Ait Ben Haddou it was very clear that we were now out of the High Atlas mountains and into the desert, with the tortured, red-rocked landscape reminding us of our own Southwestern U.S. (We got to telling people we met that the landscape looked a lot like Utah with the addition of palm groves and kasbahs.) All through this leg of our trip we experienced absolutely ideal desert spring weather, with temperatures in the high 70's during the day and 50's at night, with only the occasional annoyance of a Saharan dust storm.

Ouarzazate was a bit of a utility stop, where we did laundry, picked up our package from home at the CTM office (THANK YOU AHMED!) and I got a haircut down the street
Behind the scenes at Atlas Film Studios, OuarzazatBehind the scenes at Atlas Film Studios, OuarzazatBehind the scenes at Atlas Film Studios, Ouarzazat

The funkiness of the Atlas tour actually made this incredibly touristy activity a lot of fun.
near our hotel from a barber whose shop was adorned wth photos of himself styling exotic hairdos on various movie sets. Ouarzazate is very obviously the Hollywood of Morocco: we passed a couple of big movie studios on the way into town, saw film equipment trucks in the streets, and the city even has a motion picture-themed monument at the entrance to town. In fact, we were so efficient with our errands that we had time in the afternoon to catch a taxi back out to the Atlas Studios and take their one-hour guided tour through the back lot and sound stages. This Moroccan-style tour was - literally - a world away from the slick theme-park tour you'd get at Universal Studios, and we were allowed to clamber up the steps of a Roman ruin recreated in plywood, peek behind the monumental plaster facades of faux Egyptian tombs, and wander through a Tibetan Buddhist temple (left over from Scorcese's "Kundun") that had an F-15 fighter jet parked incongruously next to the stupa out front.

Ourzazate is also very obviously the hub of tourist activity in the south: the restaurants were full of tourists and the streets were filled with
Climbing the Tizi'n'Tinififft south of OuarzazateClimbing the Tizi'n'Tinififft south of OuarzazateClimbing the Tizi'n'Tinififft south of Ouarzazate

The words are obscure but the meaning of this sign was pretty obvious. Luckily we had a 20km downhill run on the other side of the pass.
SUVs bearing the names of desert guiding services. After one more day of errands and sightseeing, we packed up the bikes and headed south out of town for the first 80km leg of our trip following the Draa River downstream. Having neglected to carefully study the map, we expected an easy cruise along the riverside, but instead the highway takes a bumpy route over the dessicated hills at the tail end of the Jebel Sarhro mountain range, while the river flows through a deep gorge to the east from its source at the huge Taorirt Reservoir outside Ourzazate. On the N9 highway an increasing series of ascents and descents culminated in an climb up the spectacular 1660m Tizi'n'Tinififft pass, which yielded a single 20km downhill taking us all the way into the town of Agdz. At Agdz the highway finally met up with the river, and for another 10km we skirted the edges of lush palmeries before crossing the bridge at Tamnougault and pulling into the beautiful and near-empty auberge Kasbah Itrane, our destination for the day.

If we hadn't now been running on a "tight" schedule (Kate had a flight out of Marrakech on March 17) we might
Kasbah at Tamnougalt, MoroccoKasbah at Tamnougalt, MoroccoKasbah at Tamnougalt, Morocco

We walked around the old kasbah of Tamnougault, just south of Agdz, after spending the night right next door at the Kasbah Itrane auberge.
have stayed another day at Kasbah Itrane; as it was, we settled for a quick swim in their gorgeous pool and a fabulous tagine in their two-story kasbah-style dining room, with a quick walking tour of the village of Tamnougalt the next morning. And if we'd had more time - and full suspension bikes with knobby tires - we might also have tried following the rough and dusty piste (indicated by highway signs at the river crossings reading "Route Touristique") that parallels the highway on the EAST side of the river all the way to Zagora; in retrospect this would have been a great way to see the palmeries and numerous kasbahs of the Draa from a much closer perspective.

Instead, we crossed back over to the paved highway and headed south for our next destination at Tinzouline, where we'd been told we could find a simple guesthouse. The Lonely Planet was fairly mum about the possibilities for hotels along this route, but between Tamnougalt and Zagora we passed at least a half-dozen signs advertising "kasbah"-style accomodations unmentioned by the LP, mostly situated in the palmeries across the river from the highway. Our interest in Tinzouline was piqued by
Draa River near Tamnougault, MoroccoDraa River near Tamnougault, MoroccoDraa River near Tamnougault, Morocco

We thought the river looked pretty full, but the locals say alot of it has been diverted to water the golf resorts around Ouarzazte.
the fact that we would be passing through the town on market day, a spectacle we were curious to experience first-hand.

Our ride to Tinzouline took us on a rolling route never too far from the course of the Draa, whose swift flowing green water looked to be wonderfully nourishing to the strip of palmeries and cultivated areas that lined it. In fact, however, the river is now controlled by the reservoir upstream and some locals grumbled to us that the flow is far lower than it used to be, with much of its former capacity dedicated to watering big new golf resorts outside Ouarzazate. And what we expected would be an easy cruise - we were heading downstream, after all - took a fair bit more effort than we expected, not only because the descent of the river is so shallow as to appear flat, and because the road surface was not quite up to the typically excellent Moroccan standards, but also because we'd long since lost our Atlas mountains tailwind and were now pushing against a hot breeze blowing north from the Sahara.

When we arrived in the dusty village of Tinzouline in late afternoon there
Village near Tinzouline, MoroccoVillage near Tinzouline, MoroccoVillage near Tinzouline, Morocco

They often look like ruins, but people still live in these crumbling adobe villages.
was no obvious sign of a hotel in the town, and even with the assistance of some locals who claimed to know a family that took in travelers we were unable to scare up a place to stay. So we rode back a few klicks to the Auberge Tamchenna, a funky campground we'd noticed on our way into town, and discovered a little oasis with a handful of the now-familiar French RVs parked under the palms and a little block of mud-brick guestrooms off to one side. The proprietor, Abdelmalek, was a somewhat gruff Moroccan with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, but when we agreed to rent a room he marshalled a crew to sweep the concrete floor and make up the moldy matresses with fresh sheets. Dinner was a bit of a disaster, with cold takeout tagine from a restaurant in town accompanied by deafening Arabic music videos under a Berber tent and served at mercilessly marked-up prices.

The next morning we had breakfast back in town and joined the hordes streaming into the multi-acre walled lot that housed the weekly market. Along the way we picked up a pre-pubescent "guide" who offered to show us around and even suggested
Side of lamb for sale at Tinzouline souk, MoroccoSide of lamb for sale at Tinzouline souk, MoroccoSide of lamb for sale at Tinzouline souk, Morocco

Freshness is guaranteed by the butchering operations taking place just behind the butcher's stall.
the photographic angles I should use to best capture the scene. (By way of a thank-you I bought him a 5 dirham football-official's whistle that I trust he is still torturing his parents with.) Within the market walls every conceivable comestible was for sale in booths or spread out on tarps: spices, nuts, dried fruit, carpets, shoes, clothes, brassware, hardware, lumber, and even electronics and automotive parts, as well as mountains of ripe fruits and vegetables and raw meat hanging in whole sides from butcher's stalls. The freshness of the meat could be surmised by the bleats and moos issuing from a large corral behind the butchers stalls where livestock were being led off the backs of flatbeds, pickup trucks and the roofs of minivans.

Kate appeared to be the only female in a surging crowd of perhaps 1000 men, but didn't seem to attract much attention until she got sucked into the stall of a Touareg-styled vendor of jewelry, scarves and traditional clothing who seemed to be there to take advantage of the market's small tourist contingent. His well-practiced schtick, witnessed by a growing crowd of male on-lookers, consisted of dressing Kate up in layer upon layer of
Kate plays the Berber bride, Tinzouline souk, MoroccoKate plays the Berber bride, Tinzouline souk, MoroccoKate plays the Berber bride, Tinzouline souk, Morocco

Kate was a good sport to let this "Touareg" dress her up, but ended up attracting more attention than she bargained for from the all-male crowd.
necklaces, headgear, scarves and robes until he proclaimed her to be the perfect image of a traditional Berber bride. When Kate good-naturedly attempted to play the part with a few of the dance moves we'd seen in Berber music videos, the assembled throng erupted with a hue and cry that we interpreted to mean "too much information!", and she quickly shed the costume and we hustled off to finish our tour of the market.

The day's ride from Tinzouline into the city of Zagora was much the same as the previous day, pushing a warm headwind and following the western bank of the Draa, for the most part sticking to the desert periphery of the riparian zone away from the cooler palmeries. The frequency of Kasbah-style auberges and guesthouses seen along the highway also increased until we hit Zagora proper, and then exploded. We were immediately introduced to the unique technique of the Zagora touts, which consists of literally following you around town on a motorbike and repeating their pitch until you agree to stay at their guesthouse or sign up for their camel trek. After surveying quite a few places, including some high-end hotels that wouldn't have been
"The" famous Timbucktu sign, Zagora Morocco"The" famous Timbucktu sign, Zagora Morocco"The" famous Timbucktu sign, Zagora Morocco

The famous sign pointing the way to Timbucktu, Mali, 52 days away by camel caravan. There are actually a dozen versions of this sign posted around the Zagora area.
out of place in Marrakech, we checked into the Hotel La Palmeraie, an establishment dating from the French colonial days that had cheap rooms, a pool, and cold beer!

We spent a stopover day in Zagora reading by the pool, doing internet tasks and researching what kind of desert trip to take once we reached the end of the paved road at M'Hamid. Camel-back or 4x4? One day excursion, overnight out-and-back, or multi-day expedition? Professional guiding service or local operator? The sheer number of choices being offered in Zagora was so overwhelming - and expensive - that we ended up setting out for M'Hamid with no more of a clear plan than to defer our decision until we got there.

Although we could probably have made it from Zagora all the way to M'Hamid, the map showed a couple of passes of unknown difficulty along the way, and as we started cycling south pushing a hot headwind our more modest goal of Tinfou, 10km past the historic town of Tamegroute, seemed more prudent. Besides, the Lonely Planet mentioned an interesting place that we wanted to check out near Tinfou, the SaharaSky Kasbah Hotel, run by an amateur astronomer
Potter at his wheel, Tamagroute, MoroccoPotter at his wheel, Tamagroute, MoroccoPotter at his wheel, Tamagroute, Morocco

Part of our impromptu tour of Tamagroute took us through the ceramics workshops where the village's famous green pottery is produced.
who offered his guests exceptional planet- and stargazing opportunities from the high-tech telescopes of his hotel's rooftop observatory.

As we passed Tamegroute, the pancake-flat landscape disapeared at a foreshortened horizon line into the brown haze of airborne Saharan dust. Out there beyond the haze were the hills ringing this section of the Draa valley, as well as, somewhere, the river itself. Eventually, the outline of the SaharaSky hotel became visible and, just beyond it, the Tinfou Dunes, an isolated area of sand dunes rumored to have collected around and buried an ancient, treasure-filled kasbah. After meeting Fritz, SaharaSky's German proprietor and resident astronomer, we knew that this would be a great place to stay, and after we checked into the luxurious room (at 680dh, our most expensive of the trip) Fritz made a couple of calls and quickly arranged a guided tour for us of the historical sights back in Tamegroute that we'd passed up in our haste to get to Tinfou.

After being chauffeured back from our tour of Tamegroute we headed out on foot across the hammada to catch a sunset view of the nearby dunes. Although Fritz's hotel was the nearest possible to the dunes,
Tinfou Dunes near Tamagroute, MoroccoTinfou Dunes near Tamagroute, MoroccoTinfou Dunes near Tamagroute, Morocco

A timeless image of the Sahara, even if it is a nomad-for-hire leading tourists around on rent-a-camels.
as we got closer we could see that other guide services were operating semi-permanent camps on this semi-public land, complete with generators, water tanks, and camel corrals. When we saw fleets of SUVs racing across the hammada bringing in their tourists for a sunset camel ride or an evening's "authentic nomad" dinner and desert bivouac, we finally understood the whole commodification of Sahara tourism that we'd only scratched the surface of in Ouarzazate and Zagora. We soon forgot these ugly commercial considerations, though, as we watched the camel trains plodding across the sand dunes, glowing golden with the imminent sunset, an image timeless in at least some of its aspects.

That evening, Fritz treated us and the other two guests to a spectacular skyshow up on the roof, and we peered through his massive computerized telescopes at various galaxies and nebulae and even saw the rings of Saturn. Fritz turned out to be a retired executive of multinational pharmaceutical giant Bayer, who had built SaharaSky from the ground up but operated it as a bit of a "hobby business", secondary perhaps to his more profitable real estate investments in Casablanca. Besides ordinary tourists like ourselves, Fritz hosted large groups
Our 4x4 trip to Erg Chigaga, Morocco Our 4x4 trip to Erg Chigaga, Morocco Our 4x4 trip to Erg Chigaga, Morocco

We took turns bouncing around in the tiny 3rd seat of this old Land Rover.
of European motorcyclists in the wintertime and vast hippie raves in summer. Married to a younger Moroccan professional woman, Fritz reads and speaks fluent Arabic, and much to our delight was an engaging raconteur who wasn't too shy to share his insights and opinions about Moroccan culture and politics.

After discovering that the other couple at the hotel were also interested in a desert excursion, we had Fritz arrange a trip by Land Rover with one of his experienced drivers (about 1800dh for 4 people) to take us out to the massive Erg Chigaga dune complex. To get there we took the highway south over the two windy passes (which turned out to be quite minor climbs) past the built-up area of auberges and guesthouses at ???? and down to the end of the pavement at M'Hamid. M'Hamid turned out to be a somewhat ratty desert outpost with a significant military presence due to its proximity to the Algerian border, and we were glad we'd decided not to cycle all the way down here just to see it. Somewhere near here the Draa river finally drained away into the desert sands, leaving only a dry riverbed stretching from M'Hamid
Nomad chameaulier, near M'Hamid, MoroccoNomad chameaulier, near M'Hamid, MoroccoNomad chameaulier, near M'Hamid, Morocco

This camel driver appeared out of nowhere in the desert and disappeared just as quickly.
to the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Draa, south of Sidi Ifni, to support the claim of the Oued Draa as the longest river in Morocco.

From M'Hamid we headed roughly west following vague tracks on a route that crossed alternating stretches of hammada (the firm, stony desert surface), dried mud flats of ancient lake beds and undulating areas of soft sand where the old Land Rover and its tired-out suspension got their best work-out. Ali, our Arabic-speaking driver, clearly knew the ins-and-outs of the route and its myriad branching tracks without recourse to maps or GPS, but tended to be a little overconfident when traversing deep ruts and drop-offs, to the detriment of whoever was seated in the reduced-headroom section of the Land Rover's 3rd row seats.

20km out from M'Hamid - really in the middle of nowhere - we encountered a nomad leading a train of tourist camels, presumably coming from the dunes and heading back to M'Hamid, and when Ali stopped to greet him he showed us a desert well, an inconspicuous hole in the ground covered by a slab of rock, where he could dip out water for his camels. A little farther on Ali
At L'Oasis Sacre Doum Laalag, near M'hamid Morocco At L'Oasis Sacre Doum Laalag, near M'hamid Morocco At L'Oasis Sacre Doum Laalag, near M'hamid Morocco

This nomad family is part of the small bpermanent community living around this oasis near the Algerian border.
stopped at an authentic Saharan oasis, L'Oasis Sacre Doum Laalag, a small permanent encampment and marabout (Muslim hermit's retreat) nourished by a spring whose crystal-clear water literally sprang forth from the desert sand and supported a lush palmerie with chirping birds and croaking frogs.

After about 60km we reached our goal, the Erg Chigaga dunes area, said to be the largest and tallest complex of sand dunes in Morocco. Like the Tinfou dunes, Erg Chigaga had its own set of semi-permanent "nomad camps" for tourists visiting the dunes on overnight trips. After our tour-supplied lunch in one of these nomad tents (soggy onion and tomato sandwiches that left us hungrily eyeing the freshly grilled kebabs being served to the other tourists) we had an hour or so to explore and photograph the dunes. Our calf muscles burned as we churned through the powdery sand, trying to scale the 100m summits of the big dunes nearest us. The view, especially towards Algeria to the south, was of a limitless sand ocean, exactly the dauntingly beautiful landscape embodied in popular images of the Sahara - images no doubt reinforced by the numerous movies shot in this area (in fact, on the return trip we
Kate of the Dunes, Erg Chigaga, Morocco Kate of the Dunes, Erg Chigaga, Morocco Kate of the Dunes, Erg Chigaga, Morocco

This sea of sand stretched as far as the eye could see out into the Sahara.
passed a film equipment truck heading out to Chigaga.) In retrospect it would have been nice to be able to see the dunes at sunset, their most dramatic hour, though it would have meant signing on to one of the big tourist trips.

Ali took us on a different route back to the highway, bypassing M'Hamid and heading straight across the desert to the scruffy town of Tagounite, another place where we could have found accomodations had we ridden down this far. Along the way across we stopped for a scramble at the "Dunes of the Jews", and passed through a spectacular area of hammada that was awe-inspiring in its absolutely flat 360 degree horizon-to-horizon featurelessness - paradoxical that "so much of nothing" can be so fascinating!

Back at SaharaSky we decided that, having had our "Sahara experience" and driven the route to M'Hamid in the 4x4, there wasn't much point left in our bicycling down there, despite our stated goal of "riding to the end of the paved road." So the next day we packed up the bikes and headed back up to Zagora to catch the CTM bus to Ouarzazate, our goal of cycling the loop
Across the hammada, near M'Hamid, MoroccoAcross the hammada, near M'Hamid, MoroccoAcross the hammada, near M'Hamid, Morocco

Strange that so much of nothing could be so interesting...
from Tansikht through Alnif, Rissani and Erfoud to the Todra Gorge also abandoned due to the insufficient time left before Kate's flight to the States. Before we left SaharaSky however, we entrusted Fritz, whose summer house north of Casablanca was practically in the same neighborhood as Ahmed and Aisha, with an envelope containing 400dh to be deposited in Ahmed's name with the management of the Big Bamboo restaurant in Mohammedia - also in their neighborhood - where we'd had such fabulous Asian food on our way down from Rabat. The concept of "gift certificates" seeming not to have arrived yet in Morocco, a meal at the Big Bamboo was the best way we could think of to thank Ahmed for all the trouble and expense he went to on our behalf extracting the UPS package from Moroccan Customs and sending it to Ouarzazate. (A week or so later we got an email from Fritz confirming that he'd deposited our gift at the restaurant on his way up the coast.)

Getting our bikes on the bus in Zagora was a piece of cake - basically we just rolled them into the big luggage compartment underneath the bus and bungeed them
Kate biking back from Tinfou, Moorcco Kate biking back from Tinfou, Moorcco Kate biking back from Tinfou, Moorcco

We didn't ride ALL the way to the end of the road at M'Hamid, but we were satisified that we'd seen what we came for.
upright - and in a few hours we were back in our room at the hotel in Ouarzazate, preparing for the next leg of our trip, riding east along the Vallee du Dades to see the famous Todra and Dades Gorges.

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