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Published: October 13th 2019
A small date stone props up the water jar ~ Moroccan Proverb
Today we were travelling southeast from Ait Benhaddou to Zagora
After a quick visit to a women’s carpet weaving cooperative down the road from our hotel, we piled into a minibus and left the quiet dusty village of Ait Benhaddou at 9:30am. We were travelling to the city of Ouarzazate (a mere 30km away), but a last minute change of plan saw us detour into the Atlas Film Studios, which are located on the outskirts of Ouarzazate.
We were given the option of a guided tour of the studios, but we declined. We opted instead to relax in the internal courtyard of Hotel Oscar while we waited for our film-buff travellers to complete their tour. The hotel was conveniently located onsite for visiting tourists, and its clientele appeared to be on the higher end of the affluence scale. We shared mint tea and sweet Moroccan biscuits, and as relaxing as it was, I would have much preferred to have continued our journey to Ouarzazate.
The surrounding desert landscape was stark, arid and brown. It’s little wonder so many movies have been filmed in this part of the country, especially those with scripts
that required inhospitable environs
. When the studio tour finally ended, we jumped into the minibus and sped towards Ouarzazate.
On the way we witnessed an extraordinary beam of light emanating from the middle of the desert. We discovered it was a solar power station located about 20km northeast of Ouarzazate. The complex is part of the Moroccan government’s solar energy program, and it is apparently the world’s largest concentrated solar power
plant – where solar power is generated by using mirrors to concentrate a large area of sunlight onto a small area. We couldn’t see the station itself (it was too far away), but the beam of light was astonishing. It was like something out of a science fiction movie. I’m not sure why I was surprised to discover Morocco at the forefront of solar power, because it makes perfect sense – we were on the edge of the Sahara, where the sun shines brightly for most days of the year. The complex is being co-financed by a number of European countries, and it was heartening to know that such multi-country solar partnerships exist.
We arrived in Ouarzazate around midday, and the reason we were stopping in this
desert city was to visit the Taourirt Kasbah. The ochre hue of the kasbah’s earthen walls, silhouetted against the stark blue sky, created the most stunning visual atmosphere. I immediately warmed to the place, and the open courtyard we initially entered off the street was incredible. On leaving the open courtyard and entering the surrounding buildings, we found ourselves in a warren of interconnected rooms. It was a fascinating place, and what appealed to me the most was the random way in which we moved through the building. It appeared to lack an overall master plan (at least that’s how it felt to me), which made it all the more fascinating. We slowly made our way to the top floor of the kasbah through a maze of random stairs, where we peered out tiny windows to catch glimpses of the desert city that surrounded us.
However, the best part of the kasbah experience was our guide. I didn’t really hear much of what he was saying as we navigated the labyrinth of rooms, stairs and very low doorways, but my attention suddenly stirred when I heard him say he’d been an extra in a number of movies filmed in
the area. As I desperately tried to hide my disbelief, he pulled a handful of photos from inside his djellaba
(traditional Moroccan long hooded robe) and started handing them around – and suddenly old mate was a hero. Everyone wanted to know which movies he’d appeared in, and he wasn’t holding back. His fame was immediate and unquestionable. People somehow recognised him in the tattered and timeworn photos, and the room was filled with gasps of excitement. We were in the company of a bona fide movie star. I wondered if he shared his stardom in the same room on each tour, or whether he waited until a group’s level of disinterest hit a certain low before pulling out the photos.
Having thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Taourirt Kasbah, we piled into the minibus and drove a short distance into the city to pick up some supplies for a picnic, which we were going to enjoy at a quiet spot on the side of the road later in the day. We grabbed some tinned tuna, cheese, chips and coke from a supermarket, khobz
(traditional round bread) from a bakery and a beer from a bottle shop. We also grabbed some
vodka for the Sahara Camp. We were travelling into the heart of the desert and camping in tents the following day, so vodka seemed a good addition to our packs. 😊
We left the small town and drove for just under an hour until we found a ‘suitable’ picnic spot. Well, I’m not sure ‘suitable’ is the right adjective to describe the location, but it was as good a spot as any. A gravelly clearing on the side of the road, surrounded by palms and greenery, with no view. Still, we were hungry, and we were in the open air. We set about making our tuna and cheese rolls, which we enjoyed with coke and cold beer as we sat on the comfiest rocks we could find. What more could we have asked for?
I enjoyed this lunch stop. The khobz
was a bit dry, but it didn’t matter. We don’t picnic enough at home, so it’s great to picnic when we travel. On finishing lunch we packed our provisions, jumped into the minibus and continued our southeast journey on the N9 highway to Zagora. We were about to traverse the Ait Saoun Pass over the desolate Anti-Atlas
As we crossed the spectacular mountain pass, the surrounding topography resembled a moonscape. I struggled to understand how anything could subsist on these arid mountain slopes, and it was hard to believe we were in the same country that includes cities such as Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier. The lush terrains of northern Morocco seemed a world away from this forsaken place. As I stared at the barren mountains, there was little vegetation and no signs of habitation. However, as we began our descent on the southern side of the Anti-Atlas, vague signs of life started to appear. First there were patches of greenery, then power lines, then small villages of mortar and stone – all standing in defiance of the harsh landscape they found themselves in.
The sun was bright in the late afternoon sky, and it was beautifully warm. We were driving alongside the Oued Draa, Morocco’s longest river, which starts in the High Atlas Mountains and runs 1100kms through the country to the southwest coastline. From the township of Agdz we shadowed the Oued Draa all the way to Zagora. This truly was a spectacular landscape. Palm trees lined the river banks, which are well
known for the dates they produce. After more than seven hours of travel (including detours, visits and picnics) we came over a slight rise and before us stretched an enormous oasis of palm trees. The small town of Zagora, sitting on the Sahara fringe, was visible in the distance. I was spellbound. The view through the minibus windows was breathtaking, and I’ve never, never before seen anything like it.
We checked into our hotel (Le Tinsouline), dragged our packs to our rooms and organised day packs for the following day – we were camping overnight in the Sahara Desert, and we were travelling the last part of the journey by camel, so we couldn’t take our full packs.
We headed out to a local restaurant (Chez Omar) for dinner in the early evening, and it was so warm we opted to sit outside. This small oasis town is a desert outpost, and it’s a part of Morocco I’d really been looking forward to experiencing. Ren ordered a chicken tagine
with vegetables and an avocado juice, while I went for a Berber omelette
(omelette cooked in a tagine) and an orange juice. The food was fantastic, and a resident
cat rummaging around our feet provided no end of amusement for Ren.
We wandered back to the hotel, settled at a small table around the pool with a few fellow travellers and enjoyed a bottle of red wine (Ren opted for a lemon vodka). It was so beautifully warm that we sat under the stars and chatted into the night – the perfect way to end a great travel day. It was also my first red wine since arriving in the country! With a long travel day ahead of us, we retired to our room and eventually crashed at midnight.
We were sharing the hotel with a contingent of rally drivers and associated support teams, and while we thought they were gearing up for a big night of drinking, we didn’t hear a thing. Feeling suitably refreshed after a good night’s sleep, we settled at a table in the hotel’s internal courtyard and helped ourselves to the breakfast buffet. I enjoyed yoghurt, freshly cooked msemen
(flaky Moroccan flatbread), boiled eggs, baguettes and jam, and I hydrated with orange juice and mint tea.
We checked-out of the spacious hotel at the same time as the rally drivers and
their entourage, and we couldn’t help but wonder if we were all heading to the same destination – the desert sands and dunes of the Sahara. The last thing we needed was a bunch of bogans hooning around in cars!
Before leaving Zagora, we couldn’t resist a cheesy photo stop at the iconic Tombouctou, 52 Jours
sign. Well, a replica of the original sign, which once informed nomads and their camel caravans that Timbuktu was 52 days travel by foot, with an arrow pointing in the vague direction of Mali.
We also visited a shop that sold the indigo head scarves worn by Berber men as protection against wind-borne sand, and while these would have made us look the part, we were already travelling with scarves, and we didn’t want to unnecessarily add to our ever-growing packs. The main activity of the morning was a walking tour of Zagora's palm groves, where our guide informed us of the dire water shortages faced by locals in the area.
It was mid-morning by the time the tour ended and we had a long day of travel ahead, so we jumped into the minibus and drove a short distance to
Tamegroute, the next stop on our journey to the desert sands of the Sahara. SHE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Ait Benhaddou to Zagora
, via Ouarzazate
, by minibus.
We left the carpet weaving cooperative in Ait Benhaddou and drove a short distance towards Ouarzazate (pronounced War-za-zat). We’d been given the option of visiting the Ouarzazate Atlas Studios, and after some tense carry-on in the minibus (more on this later), most of the group decided to visit the studios. Andrew and I have no real interest in that sort of thing, so we joined Mike, Ineke, Jasmin and Bonnie in the nearby beautiful Oscar Hotel. We relaxed poolside and enjoyed a mint tea and Moroccan biscuits for an hour or so – it was a most refreshing break.
Our main stop on the way to Zagora was at the 19th century Kasbah de Taourirt in Ouarzazate. The kasbah
(a fortified household) is the largest in the area, and it used to belong to a very wealthy El Glaoui family who apparently controlled the southern caravan routes to West Africa. We explored the kasbah with a local guide called Mohammed, who helped us navigate the tightly
wedged complex of defensive towers and labyrinthine walkways leading to a jumble of rooms on different levels.
I found it interesting that I just couldn’t fathom a logic to the layout, and that every room we looked at was unique in shape and size! All the rooms had characteristic low windows with ornate wrought iron grills, allowing a view out but stopping prying eyes from looking in. The bedrooms were my favourite – they were very decorative with beautiful tile work, floral motif plasterwork and painted cedar ceilings. They’d clearly built the kasbah to be defended, and to also suit the hot and harsh climate. However, the closely packed series of rooms with low doorways and dark hallways may have felt very claustrophobic to live in.
Sadly, the majority of the kasbah has fallen into ruin, and we could only view the family quarters (restored with funds from UNESCO). It was very interesting getting an impression of what living in a kasbah would have felt like…however, Mohammed wasn’t the best guide. His claim to fame was that he’d been an extra in movies filmed in the area, and he much preferred to talk about his acting than the
kasbah! At one point he pulled out a handful of faded photos from his pocket and eagerly handed them around. Some of the photos were so old he was virtually unrecognisable in them. Judging from the sets he was on, most seemed to be war films, and he seemed most proud of a film with Jean-Claude van Damme. While many of the group were suddenly eager to talk to him and gathered around to take photos of the photos (hmmm yes, that actually happened), we made the appropriate ‘impressed’ noises and got out of there.
Khalid (our group leader) had suggested that we have a picnic lunch at an oasis on the way to Zagora, and we all thought that was a fabulous idea. We shopped for picnic items at a supermarket and bakery, and we also took the opportunity to buy some alcohol at a decent bottle shop (for our time at the Sahara Desert Camp the following day). I love checking out the range of ‘unknown’ goods in supermarkets, but not having things like plates and cutlery made our picnic choices somewhat limited.
We were driving through more brown landscapes today. We'd left the High Atlas
Mountains the previous day and crossed into the Ounila Valley, and now we were driving into the Anti-Atlas mountain range. Our destination was the Draa Valley, which is one of the valleys of the southern oases.
At one point we saw a weirdly bright lighthouse-like light in the far distance (that we’d also seen the day before), and Khalid explained that this was the Noor Ouarzazate Solar Power Station, the world’s largest concentrated solar panel plant being financed by the World Bank. I researched this solar plant, and I was so glad to read that Morocco has an ambitious target of 42%% of its power to be produced from renewable sources by 2020! How remarkable. The plant covers 3000 hectares and the light we saw was being emitted from a 243 metre tower (the tallest in Africa). It contains molten salt which stores heat and could be converted to energy when needed.
I’ve previously described southern Morocco as ‘stark’… but I hadn’t yet seen this Anti-Atlas landscape. The Anti-Atlas was striking in its starkness, and the drive to our lunch spot was through the plainest landscape we’d been through yet. The only signs of life were occasional palm
trees clumped together. We eventually pulled just off the road into a tiny oasis.
‘Our oasis’ wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It was a cluster of palm trees near a small stagnant-looking body of water. It was the only greenery or shade as far as the eye could see. We sat on large rocks in the shade and clumsily assembled our picnic rolls with our only appliance – Andrew’s trusty Swiss army knife. We had chosen khobz
(traditional round leavened bread), edam cheese, tinned tuna, packets of chips, beer and coke. We’d also bought a few sweet pastries at the bakery, and had leftover oranges from lunch the previous day. The pastries and oranges saved the picnic for me… while khobz
is lovely with butter or as an accompaniment with soup, it’s not the greatest picnic bread. Lesson learnt! But regardless of the food and the slightly sharp rocks we sat on, that picnic lunch in an isolated Moroccan oasis wasn’t an experience I’m going to easily forget! 😊
I haven’t talked about the Moroccan oranges yet. They are amazingly sweet and tasty, and they peel as easily as a mandarin. I’m not a fan of eating
oranges in Australia, so I had been ignoring the oranges here too, but never again! Moroccan oranges are truly in a league of their own.
I mentioned earlier that we had entered the Anti-Atlas region. The low lying mountains were made up of a tumble of black volcanic rocks with small thorny bushes and large channels carved by the lava. Also called the Little or Lesser Atlas, this is the oldest of the three Atlas ranges. This trip to Morocco has had me really searching the recesses of my brain… trying hard to recall the rock identification knowledge I gleaned in my first year uni Geology classes. 😊
Andrew’s cold virus had finally caught up with me and I could feel a sore throat coming on… so as much as the landscape interested me, I thought it best that I sleep as much as I could after lunch. I woke up when we stopped at the Ait Saoun Pass over the Anti-Atlas, and it was a sight to wake up to! The black volcanic rock was now ribboned with hills of softer red sedimentary rock formations, and erosion had created a highly sculptural ridged pattern. There was an
obvious green tinge to the sedimentary rocks, so I would guess the hills are rich in mineral deposits. It was simply stunning.
Eventually the seemingly lifeless hills gave way to more and more oases and a few dusty kasbahs along the road. However, it was sad to see that some villages had been abandoned. The water table has been getting deeper over time, and the villagers have had no choice but to move north. We drove alongside the Draa River as we approached Zagora. It’s Morocco’s longest river, and I had expected to see a lush free flowing river, but the water levels were very low. This area is really struggling with an ongoing drought.
The horizon started filling with more date palms, and then in the distance we saw Zagora. After seeing practically nothing for hours, it was an awesome sight. For centuries Zagora was a popular stop along the famed ‘Salt Trail’, the caravan route from Marrakesh to Mali in West Africa. I can only imagine how those caravans would have felt on first seeing Zagora on the horizon.
We drove through wide dusty streets and finally arrived at our Hotel Le Tinsouline – a
comfortable sprawling complex that sits under the mountain Zagora got its name from. The mountain was stamped with an ever popular sign we’d seen on many elevated spaces in the country – the trilogy of Allah, Country and King.
We checked in and were shown to a room that overlooked the hotel’s private palmerie (palm grove). It was a beautiful and serene outlook. We had just enough time to freshen up and get ourselves organised for the next day. We had to pack just one small bag to take for our overnight stay at a Sahara Desert Camp, because our big packs were staying with the minibus.
We gathered at reception and walked to dinner at Chez Omar. I mentioned Lahssan (our minibus driver) in the last blog. After being quiet on the first day he met us, he couldn’t manage to hide his bubbly personality for long. Not only was he a caring and helpful guy (I was never allowed to cross a road without his assistance stopping traffic!), but despite his very limited English, he managed to communicate with us through his humour and playful nature. Not many drivers are comfortable socialising with us (usually due
to a language barrier), so I was very glad that Lahssan decided to join us for dinner that night.
We sat at a large table in the restaurant’s patio and enjoyed the warm evening air. Andrew and I shared a Berber omelette
(omelette cooked in a tagine) and a chicken tagine
with vegetables. Andrew had a freshly squeezed orange juice and I had an avocado smoothie made with orange juice instead of milk. I know it sounds odd, but the sweet orange juice is quite delicious in an avocado smoothie.
After an eventful dinner (which I’ll cover later), we wandered back to our hotel. Our hotel had a bar! A huge rarity in Morocco. So Mike, Mark, Sue, Andrew and I joined Sien and Jasmin for a drink in the charming hotel garden around the pool. It was a lovely way to end a longish day, but we were sharing the hotel with a bunch of international rally car drivers and their noisy entourage. We had seen them when we checked in, and we had also seen the crates of alcohol they had stock piled in their support vehicles. When they started getting a bit rowdy, we decided
to call it a night.
We slept really well after a long day of travel, but we were woken at 5:30am by someone being very noisy in one of the adjoining rooms. We assumed it was the rally car crew getting an early start, but we hadn’t heard even the slightest sound from their drinking the whole night… so I was probably blaming them with no justification. But being up early wasn’t such a bad thing, as I was still struggling to decide what to pack for the night in the Sahara. It was a difficult decision, as we didn’t know the exact weather conditions we were heading into. We’d been told it could be cold at night, so I decided to err on the side of caution and take as much warm clothing as I could.
Breakfast was the usual hotel fare as well as Moroccan breads, pastries, juices and mint tea. Guess what I had? Msemen
with honey! And lots of it! 😊
After checking out, we set out to explore a local date palmerie. But first, we stopped at that world famous ‘Tombouctou, 52 Jours’ (Timbuktu, 52 Days)’ sign for the obligatory tourist shot.
Apparently the original sign had been destroyed during ‘development’ by the local council, but a replica sign has been created. As cheesy as it was, I really loved that we saw the famed sign. It might be a copy produced purely for tourism or for nostalgic reasons, but it still captured the essence of that arduous journey so many people would have set out on for centuries. Fifty two days to your destination… by camel or foot!
Zagora is famous for its native dates, especially the black medjool dates that are considered the best in the region. We drove to a vast palm grove on the edge of town and met our local guide in a shop that was hoping to do a brisk sale of scarves, especially the distinct blue scarves of the Tuareg Berber people. I nearly bought one, but then realised I was getting caught up in the frenzy of shopping rather than actually needing one (and they weren’t the best quality).
Othman, our local guide, was much darker skinned than most Moroccans. With the south being much hotter, the locals are naturally darker skinned, but there has also been a lot of mixing with
sub-Saharan people who have passed through here over the centuries. We didn’t discuss Othman’s ethnicity, but he told me that his family has lived in Zagora for generations and they spoke Arabic at home.
I loved our walk through the quiet and peaceful palmerie. The palm grove is owned by multiple families (including Othman’s family), with blocks sectioned off with low lying mudbrick walls. It wasn’t date season yet (dates are harvested in November), so the female palm trees were nearly bare and no one was around… but I really enjoyed ambling through this very local ‘farm’ and getting a sense of where our dates come from. The land was also used to grow herbs, vegetables, henna shrubs (for the red henna dye) and native tamarisk trees (the tannin in the tamarisk fruit is used in curing leather skins). I’d never seen a tamarisk tree before and mistakenly thought it was a type of small acacia tree.
Othman talked at length about the drought and how the locals had been battling the government for a long time for more access to water (I assumed this was related to issues with the dammed Draa River). I suppose water rights
for farmers is a universally similar story, but much more so when you live on the edge of the Sahara and the river is your only lifeline.
We ended the palmerie walk on a sleepy main road where our minibus picked us up for our onward journey. Even though our stay in Zagora had been brief, it gave me a definite impression of a riverine oasis that had been a trading outpost for centuries. Zagora may not be on the ‘Salt Trail’ anymore, but it’s still very much a through-town and pit stop before the Sahara, rather than a destination in its own right.
I’ve just realised that I haven’t recorded any group dynamics for this second trip yet. In general terms the second group was as easy going and fun as the first, but possibly a bit sprightlier and louder. The group had also naturally split into smaller subgroups, which made navigation and dinner seating arrangements easier for everyone. But the shenanigans of a minority of group members continues to keep things interesting…
There’s a new player in the Mr Men / Little Ms story! Let’s call her Little Ms Trouble – for her erratic outbursts
of drama and yelling. There was an incident on the train in Tangier where she yelled at the compartment guard for locking the interconnecting door between compartments (which stopped her from using a toilet in the other compartment). When I say yelled, I mean actually raised voice, hands in the air YELLING at an old man. We later learnt the compartments were locked for our safety – there were only two sleeper compartments, and the other compartments had people getting on and off right through the night. I’d thought that episode was an isolated incident (we have all got tetchy about toilet situations at some point), but I was wrong. As the trip progressed the episodes become more frequent and bizarre.
We were generally a happy playful bunch, and at the cooking demonstration in Ait Benhaddou there had been joking banter being shared around the group as usual… but suddenly there was a raised voice from her directed at the group, and I honestly couldn’t say why she lost her cool. And then it happened again the next day in the minibus when decisions were being made about visiting the Atlas Studios. There was a miscommunication and we hadn’t
been told that the visit would only occur if the majority of the group opted in. And again, abruptly, she was extremely loud and rude to Khalid. It was totally unprovoked and uncalled for. I almost felt sorry for her that she was carrying around all this anger just under the surface, which suddenly erupted as disproportionate responses to routine situations. 😲
And now back to the previous Mr Men / Little Ms players… Mr Rude and Ms Scary had been generally keeping to themselves. However, the domestic rows (and subsequent pouting and silent treatment) between them were getting quite tiresome – especially when it happened in the confines of the minibus or at the dinner table – and caused discomfort for everyone around them. We had kept our distance from them, as I suspect many others had. However, something shifted at dinner in Zagora, and Ms Scary voiced an opinion that the group had been making no effort to hang out with them (despite the fact they’d constantly chosen to separate themselves from the group right from Day 1). She started by making passive aggressive statements along the lines of ‘we must be very boring because no one
talks to us’ etc. etc. When no one took the bait, she escalated the aggression to say she can’t wait for the trip to finish. I missed most of the rant as there was a very cute cat and her kittens at the table needing some love. However, I was very glad when someone at the table put on their teacher voice and told Ms Scary to settle down. Yay! I love people who don’t buy into that kind of bullshit. 😊
Ms Whoops had an incident that night too. One of the cute little kittens apparently scratched her leg, and she went into freefall hysteria about it. I know the risk of rabies is very real in countries like Morocco, but it was the tiniest of scratches and it didn’t look like the skin was broken. I made a light hearted comment that if she got rabies she’d be in good company, as Sue, Ineke and myself had also received scratches while playing with the kittens… that joke didn’t go down well at all! She left dinner in a panic, and went back to the hotel to medicate the scratch. Spoiler Alert: None of us got rabies
We meet some truly amazing and interesting people on these trips, but as with in life, not everyone gets along with everyone. And fortunately we have been able to laugh off most of the carry-ons… and it certainly ensures there’s never a dull moment on the trip! 😄
Next we travel south to Erg Chigaga, the largest sand dune in Morocco’s Sahara Desert.
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