Another crisp morning, another early departure, another packed breakfast. This one looks very promising – fresh orange juice, yoghurt and chocolate cake. It is dark as we leave and I am cautious; but there is neither man nor beast up at this hour. We pass through the beautiful gates in Rissani at first light and enter the flat, stony desert that runs between the Anti-Atlas on our left and the High Atlas on our right.
The dawn brushes the mountains ahead with hues of pink and sienna. We stop at the first sign of life – a family of wild camels crunching the young leaves off the acacias in the crisp still air.
I decide to pull off the road to take a picture of the sunrise behind us. As the wheels leave the tarmac, my heart sinks as the car sinks into powdery sand. We are well and truly stuck. Nikki gets behind the wheel while I try to push us out. No chance. As we start packing the few available small stones behind the wheels and wondering how we are going to get out, the first vehicle we have seen all morning pulls up alongside. 5 burly soldiers jump out and manhandle us back onto the road. With a smile and a wave they roar off to protect the country.
We wind through villages and towns. We are fascinated by the architecture – many ugly square cement buildings with large steel warehouse doors below and normal residential windows above. The majority are incomplete. Through our journey we asked why, “Is it Covid?”, “Is it a Tax dodge like Egypt?, but have not received an answer.
Donkeys, bicycles, motorcycles make their appearance. At Alnif, the market is in full swing and we consider doing a Midelt, but decide to leave our lunch shopping until Tinghir. We turn off the N12 and head for the N9. I had thought that this minor road would be in bad condition as it is not a national road, but is as good as always.
The south of Morocco is dotted with shops, open-air stalls and sometimes individuals waving from the side of the road, selling fossils and minerals.
The Sahara Desert was once a shallow sea. Prehistoric sea creatures like Ammonites, Orthoceras and Trilobites flourished in this sea and as they died accumulated on the seafloor. Their bodies were buried in the sediment and over millennia were turned into stone. Ammonites are similar to modern-day snails (mollusks) and recognized by their spiral bodies. Orthoceras resemble modern-day squids with a narrow body and ‘toothlike’ beak. The hard exoskeleton of Trilobites is divided into three distinct segments that fossilize well. These floor dwelling creatures are the ancestors of modern insects, spiders, centipedes, lobsters, and crabs.
The minerals are generally quartz crystals. At times these are altered or painted to enhance the colour or trick buyers into thinking it is a rarer stone.
Tinghir, the gateway to the Todgha Gorge, is a surprising large town and we waste time fruitlessly looking for the market. Eventually, we drive along the main road and Nikki pops into various shops (ala France or Itay) and gets a baguette and various tasty fillings for a picnic at the top of the gorge.
The palmerie formed by the Todgha river carves a green swath through this arid region and is a welcome relief from the harsh, rocky scrubland that we have traversed. Brightly coloured shawls, draped over the crash barriers line the road and at every photo stop we are greeted with salesmen eagerly proffering their wares. It is hot and I am easily persuaded by one to buy a pair of his “Ali Baba” trousers, hanging on lines bolted into the side of the cliff base. I change into them and flip flops immediately. These light, loose fitting pyjamas are refreshing and cool.
We stroll between the cliffs soaring 300 meters into the sky, shielding us from the suns rays. The tranquility is rejuvenating and the slow moving Todgha River cools the air. We marvel that this river has run so fiercely at times over the milennia so as to carve through the limestone to create the gorge.
There are few tourists about and no tour buses. Once again highlighting the joy of travelling out of season
Another example of the ancient irrigation systems known as tirgiwin in Amazigh, which means canals, or seguias in Arabic. These canals irrigate the valley and its surrounding areas from the river, resulting in lush orchards of olives, apples, almond trees, peaches, cereals, alfalfa and of course, pomegranates
We find no place conducive for a picnic so, yet again, Nikki makes the most yummy sandwiches in the car as we make our way to our next destination – Gorge de Dades
As we enter Boumalne Dades we have a forced photo stop to allow a train of camels, donkeys and sheep to cross. These 2 cuties shyly approach the car and then run beaming back to their parents with their reward.
Gorges de Dades
The gorge is heavily populated, villages, Kasbahs and Auberges run continuously on both sides of the road as it crisscrosses the Dades river. School is out, and kids wend their way home always accompanied by mothers or grandmothers.
Once again, there is considerable building activity and once again, the architecture is harsh. No doubt form follows function, yet the older adobe buildings which served them so well over the centuries are so much more attractive.
We pass the strange shapes of the famous “Monkey Fingers” rock formation and then zip up the last stretch of switchbacks in first gear. The view from the top of the serpentine route we have just traversed is remarkable – one of the best mountain passes we have ever done. A youngster with his equally young camel proudly shows us some Polaroids of the two of them.
The M’Goun Valley, often known as the Valley of Roses, runs between the villages of Kelaat M’Gouna and Boumalne-Dades. Every year, from April to May, the valley is turned into a beautiful and fragrant overload of roses.
Skoura is a breathtaking oasis of 4500 hectares with over 70,000 palm, fig, almond, olive and pomegranate trees. It was the transit for camel caravans connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean to Sub-Saharian Africa.
As with many oases, the palmeraie of Skoura runs along a river which remains dry outside the spring period. A centuries old series of Khettaras (underground aqueducts) were constructed to draw subterranean water from the Atlas mountains to reservoirs in the oasis. Water is then distributed via a network of irrigation canals (seguias) to the various agricultural plots. This water supply system is collectively shared and maintained by the entire population of the oasis.
Maison D’hôte Amridil
It has been a long, tiring drive and we are delighted with the warm welcome, refreshing mint tea and home made cookies from Hamza. Revived, we stroll through the palmeraie and the nearby Kasbah Amridil. We round off the day with chicken tagine and salad before collapsing early to bed.
We sleep and then explore some more before savouring a delicious breakfast overlooking the pool and garden full of pomegranate trees.
Kasbah Amridil was built in the 17th century by the Nassiri family, who still take care of it to this day. This largely unchanged, “living museum” offers a great opportunity to learn more about how the people once lived in the Kasbah 300 years ago. The houses, streets, and Kasbah walls are well-maintained. Walking among them, you can get a sense of what it was like to live there. Several buildings have been restored so you can see inside. There are old wells, bread ovens, and even an ancient olive-oil press.
The beautiful Kasbah was once featured on the 50 dirham note, although the newer ones no longer have it. It has also been featured in several films, including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Lawrence of Arabia.
Ouarzezate, the film capital of Morocco.
An Moroccan entrepreneur set-up up Atlas Studios and persuaded Hollywood to film there with cheap production costs and desolate scenery.
Over 200 movies and television programmes have been filmed at Atlas Studios including, Gladiator, Ben Hur, The Mummy, Passion of Christ, Black Hawk Down and Game of Thrones.
The set of Kingdom of Heaven with towering walls, weaponry and religious imagery is in CLA Studios 1km away.
The road from Ouazerzate continues the Route of a 1000 Kasbahs. This is no exaggeration. Large ones small ones. Some in excellent condition some just crumbling ruins scant reminders of their former glory.
Some are located in the plains, others set up high and others nestled in palmeraie. They generally have a rectangular layout with 4 defensive towers and a single entrance access, as well as several upper floors for different uses, usually the first floor for the grain storehouse, the second for the kitchen and workers, and the third for the family.
All the kasbah’s and ksar inside the valley were built by families of high status for both defensive and status purposes.
The site of the ksar (fortified village) has been inhabited since the 11th century. None of the current buildings are believed to date from before the 17th century, but they were likely built with the same construction methods and designs as had been used for centuries before. The site’s strategic importance was due to its location in the Ounila Valley along one of the main trans-Saharan trade routes. The Tizi n’Tichka pass, which was reached via this route, was one of the few routes across the Atlas Mountains. Today, the ksar itself is only sparsely inhabited by several families. The depopulation over time is a result of the valley’s loss of strategic importance in the 20th century. Most local inhabitants now live in modern dwellings in the village on the other side of the river, and make a living off agriculture and especially off the tourist trade.
In 2011 a new pedestrian bridge was completed linking the old ksar with the modern village, with the aim of making the ksar more accessible and to potentially encourage inhabitants to move back into its historic houses. Wikipedia
The ksar’s structures are made entirely out of rammed earth, adobe, clay bricks, and wood. Rammed earth (also known as pisé, tabia, or al-luh) was a highly practical and cost-effective material but required consistent maintenance. It was made of compressed earth and mud, usually mixed with other materials to aid adhesion. The structures of Ait Benhaddou and of other kasbahs and ksour throughout this region of Morocco typically employed a mixture of earth and straw, which was relatively permeable and easily eroded by rain over time. As a result, villages of this type can begin to crumble only a few decades after being abandoned. At Ait Benhaddou, taller structures were made of rammed earth up to their first floor while the upper floors were made of lighter adobe so as to reduce the load of the walls. Wikipedia
Leaving Ait Benhaddou, the odometer shows 182km left in the tank and it is coincidently 182km to Marrakesh. We had passed gas stations regularly so I’m not concerned. However, in a few kms it drops to 100km and very shortly thereafter it shows zero! We pass through village after village without a station. I drop our speed to 50 and coast down every hill. This isn’t fun. We see no ideal picnic spots and feel too tense to eat in any case. We idle into Almoun and are greeted by the beautiful sight of TotalEnergies. MAD600 fills our tank and we enjoy the scenery again. All good things come to those who are perpetually lucky – a few twists and turns and we find an idyllic spot for Le pique-nique nestled amongst rolling green hills before the Tizi- N’Tichka pass.
A sheepdog takes one eye off his flock for a short while to enjoy a smoked salmon sandwich with us.
The name of the mountain pass comes from the berber language: “Tizi” means “mountain pass” and “Tichka” means “pastures”. So, literally the name in English will be “pass of the pastures”.
The road was built during the period of the French colonization of Morroco in 1936 by the French army in order to have direct access from Marrakech to Ouarzazate It twists and turns and the landscapes and colours change constantly along the route.
Bloggers had warned that the route was dangerous, other vehicles were driven by maniacs and the road was in bad condition. Yet again, our experience was completely different – courteous drivers, speed limits adhered to and, despite the extensive roadworks, an easy road to drive.
The scale of the upgrade to the N9 is staggering. Tons of gravel brought in to fill dips. Blasting through spurs to smooth the curves. Heavy machinery everywhere. They don’t do a short section at a time. They tackle multiple areas. Impact on traffic is minimised as much of the road takes a new course.
As always, we are amazed at the diversity in Morocco. Super modern bullet trains, highways; and the wide spread use of donkeys and mules.
You don’t want to be caught behind this guy on the Tizi N’Tichka pass.
We come off the High Atlas mountain meander onto the plains towards Marrakesh.