Highlights of Morocco – Mountains and desert

Morocco is an awesome place to visit around this time of year. The crowds are (supposedly) starting to dwindle, and the weather is stunning without being too hot. It’s the ideal destination to tack onto adventures in Europe, where it’s starting to get a bit dreary and cold.

I did exactly this last year, when I spent two weeks in Cornwall on the South West Coast Path, followed by two weeks journeying with an Intrepid group around Morocco. Even though I was super lucky with the October weather in Cornwall, it was fabulous to warm up a bit in Morocco during November.

I’ve blogged a bit already about this trip, but it has become a bad habit to leave my holiday blogging incomplete. (Apologies, Mongolia Journal!) In an attempt to combat this and stay relevant, I’ve made a pact with myself to complete the Morocco series within a year of completing that trip. (That is, by 23 November.)

This, then, is the third and hopefully penultimate Morocco post. It covers the middle section of Intrepid’s Best of Morocco trip — the wild, scenic and adventurous week between Fes and Essaouira.

The first four days of our trip were a whirlwind of legendary Moroccan cities — ancient palaces, kasbahs, medinas and artisan crafts. But, after leaving Fes, the tone of the trip changed. Now we journeyed through beautiful and rugged scenery, a juxtaposition of desert and mountains. We had several long days of driving with occasional breaks, and at the end of each day a marvellous location.

Oh the glorious mountains

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Atlas Mountains, and we spent most of this week winding our way through and around them. Depending on where you are in the mountains, the scenery changes dramatically.

From Fes, we drove south and ascended through the Middle Atlas, a region of lush vegetation, cedar and pine forest, where Barbary Apes like hanging out with the tourists.

Then we moved into the High Atlas to the town of Midelt. Around Midelt, an old mining region now devoted to farming and orchards, the vegetation is more scrubby and open. It was great to get off the bus and take a walk around the valley, through local farmlands, and take in the spectacular local scenery, ringed by snow-capped peaks.

From Midelt, a road along the Ziz valley took us across/through the mountains to the barren and rocky eastern side, the gateway to the Sahara Desert. The landscape along the foot of the mountains is striking — comprising ‘palmeries’, which are deep river gorges, lush with date palms and kasbahs, backed by barren rocky mountainsides. To the east the land is flat and barren, stretching all the way to the dunes of the Sahara.

After a detour to the Sahara (see below), it was back into the southern part of the High Atlas to the Todra Valley. We stayed a couple of nights here, taking a hike up through the Todra Gorge to enjoy its rugged, rocky beauty.

On leaving Todra Gorge, we traversed a plateau between the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas (two distinct mountain ranges) through the Valley of 1000 Kasbahs, also known as Rose Valley. (Our destination was the desert kser of Ait Benhaddou…) After that we left the Sahara side of the Atlas Mountains behind for good, winding north into the High Atlas Mountains, then up and over the spectacular Tizi n’Tichka Pass — at 2,260m above sea level. There was snow!

Over the pass, we headed to Toubkal National Park and the gorgeous mountain village of Imlil. This is Moroccan hiking mecca. We stashed our main bags and gave an overnight bag to a mule, then hiked up into the mountains to the tiny (and rather cold!) village of Aroumd. This part of the High Atlas was different again — scrubby mountain vegetation, with long flat valleys and tiny villages dotted all around. It reminded me of Nepal a bit, because past Imlil there was limited road access. We stayed in a family-run mountain home called a gite — kind of a B&B on steroids, although there was no power.

In the morning, our planned half-day walk to a mountain shrine was cancelled due to weather, but we did get a couple of hours walking up the valley. So beautiful and this experience was one of my main highlights of the whole trip.

Desert spectacular

As mentioned, we wove between mountains and desert for this week. The desert abuts the mountains quite spectacularly. And the Sahara Desert is exactly as one imagines it… one minute the terrain is flat and hard, then out of nowhere the dunes rise up and one is transported away into fantasy land.

The Sahara tourist circuit is centred around the Merzouga area — in our case the town of Hassilabied, just at the edge of the orange Erg Chebbi dunes. We offloaded our main bags and our overnight bags were strapped to the harness/handlebars of our camels… and then it was a one-hour journey by camel train into the desert!

We had previously acquired scarves to wrap around our heads in a quasi-hamada style, and I also was wearing a Moroccan-style tunic. We called this ‘glamelling’, or glamorous camel riding. So much fun! (Albeit not precisely comfortable.)

It was late in the day, so the shadows were long and the dunes rose around us, soon obscuring all sign of the town behind us. It would have been even more awesome if we could have obscured all the camel tracks (and ATV tracks) marring the desert sands around us. But it was still incredible to be in the legendary Sahara, even if we only scraped the edges of it.

We stayed in a desert camp nestled in the hollow. There were many similar camps dotted all around, but we might have been alone in the desert for all the sign there was of them. We arrived in time to catch the sunset from the top of a dune… then departed very early in the morning to see the dawn from another.

And this was my main complaint with our Sahara night. It was too short! Being November, the days were shortening and we just didn’t have enough time in daylight to truly soak it up.

Our other main desert experience was visiting the kser of Ait Benhaddou — a spectacular medieval, walled, clay city rising up out of the desert. It’s been used in quite a few movies (including Lawrence of Arabia), and the nearby town of Ouarzazate is Morocco’s version of Hollywood.

Centuries ago, Ait Benhaddou was an important stop for caravans transporting salt across the Sahara and now it’s a world heritage site. We climbed up through its streets to the top, where it was extremely windy. From all angles it is beautiful, and it was so easy to imagine the camel caravans arriving and departing. Another huge highlight for me.

Local culture

Along our travels we had many opportunities to meet the local people, especially Berbers — the people of the mountains. We visited two different nomad Berber families for tea (an experience very reminiscent of similar occasions in Mongolia). One of them served us wormwood tea, which was a bit weird. We also visited a small but interesting Berber museum in one of the towns (El Khorbat) where we stopped for lunch en route to the Todra Valley.

Everywhere we went, the traditional food was pretty similar: a few different meat-based tagines with couscous. I don’t think it was much fun for the vegetarian among us. I didn’t really ‘get’ tagines until I saw the following in Imlil — below are three tagines sitting on individual fires. This highlights how tagines are a mode of traditional cooking, not the dish (food) itself, which could be many things…

We also continued our sampling of chicken pastilla — a cinnamon-spiced chicken and almond-filled pastry. Sounds weird, but so delicious!

One of our best meals of the trip was enjoyed in the Todra Valley, where we dined in a mud-brick kasbah run by a group of women weavers. They showed us a stunning array of carpets, and although I was tempted to acquire one, I managed to resist. (Another close call!) The meal, however, comprised a first course of broadbean soup… then a stuffed pizza-like bread… followed by my favourite fruit platter: fresh dates, cinnamon-spiced orange segments, fresh pomegranate and banana.

After Imlil, our next stop was Essaouria, followed by Marrakech and the end of the trip. They will be featured in the final post in this series — sometime in the next month!

The first two posts in this series are here: Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes and Volubilis and Fes.

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