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Through the Atlas Mountains and into the Sub-Sahara

May 9-14

After Essaouira, we were dreading going back to Marrakech. We had to because it was where we were going to rent a car to drive through the mountains and into the desert. Also, we had promised our friend Abi that we would visit him for dinner. So, we packed up and, grudgingly, headed to the bus station to buy tickets to Marrakech.

Our drive this time wasn't quite as easy as the the first. In third world travel, there are two kinds of buses: fast ones and slow ones. The fast ones typically cost a little more, but are comfortable and will get you to your destination with a minimum of stops. The slows ones are cheaper, prone to breakdowns, and stop frequently. We got one of the slow ones this time. It seemed the thing stopped any time it saw anybody standing by the side of the road, whether they wanted a ride or not. Then there was the 30-minute rest stop at a small town at the halfway point. That did provide us with an interesting glimpse of rural Moroccan life from our bus window, though. Alongside the bus, a snack shop festooned with Coca-Cola and Sprite advertisements sat alongside a tiny butcher shop selling various portions of lamb (including some sections of nearly-whole animal), hanging right out there in the open. The sight itself was an interesting analogy for the country as a whole. Morocco seems to sit somewhere between some conservative third world and modernized, consumer-oriented western nation.

As promised, we made our way to our friend Abdullah´s shop in the winding souqs of Marrakech as soon as we arrived. We were warmly received, chatted for a while, and then were treated to another home-cooked lunch (a tagine this time) in his crowded, multi-level shop. After resting and chatting with Abi for an hour or so, he had his young helper Moicine take us to his home in the outskirts of the Ville Nouvelle (the new part of the city, originally built by the French earlier last century). Abi´s house was modern, with all of the amenities of a western home. But its decoration was decidedly Moroccan, with carpets adorning the walls and floors and beautiful pieces of Berber and Moroccan art hanging on the walls. Over the course of the evening, we were to be treated to some of the kindest hospitality either of us ever experienced. As guests of the house, we were to do nothing but enjoy ourselves. Anything we needed was supplied for us promptly. Before dinner (a delicious kefta tajine cooked by Abi´s lovely wife), Abi´s “family” of friends and helpers began to show up one by one. There was Jalil, a nice man in his late thirties who was nearly deaf and didn´t speak any English. Jalil did a lot of grunt work for Abi, and he was often the brunt of group jokes as the night wore on. But he took it well and seemed to roll with the punches. There was Moicine and the other boy helper (we can´t remember his name), who seemed to be part of the family, too. Then there was our favorite person in the whole group, Mohammed. An old friend of Abi´s, Mohammed was a man our age, only 32 years old, and yet he had an air of wisdom about him beyond his years. He was from the region of the Western Sahara, which is considered a part of Morocco by most Moroccans since it was annexed several years ago, but is still officially recognized internationally as an independent state. He comes to Marrakech for one month every year to visit his 10-year old son who goes to school here. It was obvious by the way he was treated that Mohammed held a special place in the household, as he was never asked to do anything, and was usually served by the others. He wore a long cotton jellaba (a traditional long, hooded robe) and smoked from a long wooden pipe. He spoke excellent English (he taught himself by reading and talking with tourists), and always looked into your eyes and thought deeply about things before he spoke. Often, what he said was philosophical and right on the mark, whether he was discussing international politics or talking with us about our shared love of travel. He was an amazing man.

After dinner, we were treated to an impromptu Moroccan drum performance by most of the men. By midnight, we were all very tired from the food and the wine and the singing and dancing, and it was time to go to sleep. We retired to our comfortable bedroom and went to bed. What an incredible evening! We won´t soon forget our experience with Abdullah and his extended family, and we hope that perhaps one day we will see our new friends again.

The morning after our dinner party at Abi´s house, we rolled out of our bedroom somewhere around 9:00am, and were notified that a representative of the car rental agency was already waiting for us downstairs with our car, a little Fiat 55. Abi had called and arranged the drop-off, along with a special rate in advance for us. We bid our farewells and did our best to find our way out of town. Driving in the Ville Nouvelle sections of the big Moroccan cities is much easier than figuring out the twisting alleys of the old medinas! Luckily, young Moicine was right there with us on his little motor scooter to help direct us out of Abi´s neighborhood toward the highway out of town. Our plan was to drive through the Atlas mountains and make it as far as the town of Ourzazate, an administrative capital within striking distance of the desert region we wanted to get to the next day.

Atlas Mountains

Driving into the Atlas Mountains

Within forty five minutes of leaving Marrakech, we were climbing into the Atlas Mountains. The dry rolling plains surrounding the city quickly gave way to beautiful green foothills full of picturesque natural scenery. This was our first glimpse of Morocco´s mountains, and we were impressed already. The High Atlas are the tallest of the four major mountain ranges in the country, their highest peaks reaching some 4100 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level. Hardly the picture of Morocco in the minds of many, but nevertheless a very major part of the Moroccan geography, the High Atlas (along with its sister ranges, the Middle and Anti Atlas) provide for a cool retreat from the heat of the lowlands during the warmer months.

Mountain Pass

On top of the windy Tizi n'Tichka pass

One of the things about Morocco that really struck us on the drive is the number of incredible changes that occur in geography over relatively short distances. We drove only about 250km (160 miles) in that first day, yet we saw so many different types of climate and geology that we couldn´t believe our eyes. The top of the High Atlas, like the area around the Tizi n´Tichka Pass, is a barren and windswept landscape very different from the foothills we had just driven through two hours earlier. All along the road over the High Atlas there are fossil sellers peddling everything from colorful geodes (hollow rocks bearing crystal innards) to genuine 100+ million year-old trilobyte fossils. The High Atlas were once at the bottom of the sea, and the mountains are full of ancient fossils.


Near a mountain river

As we descended into the southern foothills of the High Atlas, we decided to take a quick side trip to a small Berber town called Telouet. We had read about the town before, and thought we´d take a look. About 20km (1.3 miles) off the main highway to Ourzazate, the town of Telouet itself was nothing spectacular. But the drive to the town was beautiful, full of green river valleys and farms growing wheat and other crops. We had a quick lunch of chicken tagine in the town proper, then bee-lined it for the road back to the highway. While we loved the scenery, we found the people in and around Telouet to be quite strange. They seemed xenophobic and very different from the other Moroccans we had met. The children were particularly obnoxious, often appearing from behind rocks and from literally out of nowhere any time we would stop the car to get out and take a picture. We´re not kidding. Example…we were on this barely-paved road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with no other traffic, and we would make a quick stop every once in a while to take a picture. Within five seconds, at least half a dozen small, dirty children would emerge, some from behind rocks and some straight out of the ground somehow, all demanding pens or dirhams (the Moroccan currency). Some would get quite aggressive, tugging on our shirts as we tried to retreat to our rental car. At one point as we drove back toward the freeway, we came to a road bridge which we needed to cross. Crossing at about the same time were a group of school children, all of them between seven and ten years old. We paused to wait for them to cross the bridge before we tried to progress, but they just stood there on the other side of the bridge. So, we inched forward in the car, trying to smile and be friendly as we passed the lot of munchkins. As we made it to the other side of the bridge, some of the children moved out of the way for us. A few didn´t. As we slowed down to avoid an accident, the little punks to each side of us began to shout demands for dirham and pens. When we declined the request, we were met by shouting and (get this) we were spat on by several of them, right through our open car windows. We couldn´t believe this was happening! We had seen so much Moroccan kindness, friendliness, that this seemed a totally alien act on the part of these rotten little kids. The hassling we received on the streets of Marrakech was an acceptable part of the big-city culture, but this was just plain rudeness. Neither of us have ever been for child abuse, but we swear at that point, we wanted to jump out of the car and choke the living hell out of those little punks. We hit the accelerator and got out of the area as quickly as we could after that incident.

Ait Benhadou

The spectacular Ait Benhadou kasbah

That night we stayed in the town of Ourzazate. There was nothing of interest in the town itself; we were merely tired from the long drive from Marrakech, and the sun was going down, so we stayed the night. The next morning, we drove south toward the desert town of Zagora. On our way, we visited Ait Benhaddou, an very well-preserved kasbah about thirty minutes outside of Ourzazate. You might recognize the image of Ait Benhaddou without being able to name it -- it´s been used in over 20 films, including Lawrence of Arabia. It was pretty enough, but also filled with the usual tour bus groups, so we hightailed it out of there as quickly as possible.

Draa River

The beautiful Draa River valley

Along most of the way between Ourzazate and Zagora, we drove along the Draa River Valley. On the right side of the road, a barren red deserted land continued for miles. But on the left side, the permanent oasis of the Draa Valley snaked its way through the dry lands before us. All around the river, huge palmaeries and green pastures made for a beautiful drive. Along the way, we saw red mud kasbahs and towns which had changed very little in hundreds of years. There was little sight of western civilization except the ever-present satellite dishes which adorn nearly every rooftop in morocco. Apparently, you can´t escape TV or the Internet, no matter how far you try to run.


Famous sign in Zagora - "Timbuktu in 52 days by camel"!

We arrived in Zagora mid-afternoon on May 11th. Situated on the edge of the Sub-Sahara, the town is a small but thriving place surrounded by desert and the palmaeries of the Draa Valley. We had already arranged a place to stay thanks to recommendations from Abi in Marrakech. He had a friend in Zagora that owned the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa, situated in the palmaeries just outside of downtown. After our long drive and our disturbing incident with the Children of Telouet, we needed a break. The Kasbah Asmaa proved to be just the right place for us. Built to resemble an old Berber Kasbah, the rooms and attached restaurant grounds surround an oasis-like swimming pool. A pretty good deal at $37 per night. We rested here for two nights before deciding we wanted to see some of the desert outside the town proper.

Camel Rider

Omar, our camel trek guide


Look! Lawrence of Arabia! (Ridiculously posed  in the desert)

On our third day in Zagora, we arranged to take an overnight camel trek into the desert. The plan was to leave at around 4:00pm in the afternoon, ride camels for about 2.5 hours into the desert, and then stay in a berber-style tent under the stars before returning by camel the next morning. The trek was as advertised, and we enjoyed it quite a bit. Riding a camel can be somewhat of a challenge for the unprepared, we learned. We were a bit sore by the end of our afternoon ride (camel seats have no stirrups!), but we made it through. Our guide was Omar, a wise and knowledgeable pilot of the desert at the ripe old age of 15. Children learn to work very early in life in Morocco. When we arrived at our tent in the desert, we were met by another boy who was our camp cook and guard. The desert was starkly beautiful as the sun went down and the stars came out. We had wished we weren´t so exhausted so we could stay up later and enjoy the night more, but we were just too tired. After our dinner of lamb tagine, moroccan salad, and bread, we crashed hard after our long, hot day. The next day after breakfast, we saddled up the camels and headed back to Zagora.

Jebel Sahrho

The stark Jebel Sarho mountains

After four days in Zagora, we decided we would drive northeast to the town of Rissani to visit the only true Saharan sand dunes in Morocco, the Erg Chebi. The drive was about as far off the beaten path as you can get in Morocco without a four-wheel drive. We drove from Zagora across a vast stretch of semi-desert just south of the Jebel Sahrho mountain range. We weren´t accosted by children (or anybody else for that matter) when we stopped the car, because there was nobody around to bother us. But there were still the ever-present fossil sellers every few kilometers. We felt bad for them…how many customers can each of them get in the average day way out here in the boonies??

Fossil Sign

Fossils for sale, middle of nowhere

We arrived in Rissani only four hours after we left Zagora. We checked into a sister property of the hotel we stayed at in Zagora, and rested up. Unfortunately, Mike was starting to come down with a bad case of strep throat (ah, the hygiene factor in Morocco…who knows where it came from?), which prevented us from making it to the dunes the next morning. We were both so tired from the dust and the heat, we decided to skip the rest of our desert plans in order to get into the mountains for some cooler air and some moisture. The next day, we left Rissani, headed for the Middle Atlas mountains. We missed the Erg Chebbi, but were glad to leave the dessicated lands for some fresh mountain air.

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