On Tuesday we set out on a three day road trip that would lead us to into the Sahara Desert in Merzouga and back to Marrakech. We used a tour company, Aztat Treks, for the trip, and we had the most lovely guide, Lahcen, and driver, Abraham.
Watching Abraham maneuver the Marrakech traffic as we headed out of town was incredibly impressive. He safely drove around and out of the way of women carrying textiles while walking hand in hand with their children, donkeys hauling produce, men pushing carts filled with bread, and the myriad motorcycles rushing through the streets. (We later learned that he used to be a bus driver in Marrakech, and his years of practice clearly showed.) It wasn’t long before the traffic subsided, the noise quieted, and the scenes from our windows changed from clay buildings to rocky hills and olive trees.
One of the first sights we hit was the Atlas Mountains, a mountain range spread throughout Northern Africa in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, and separated into three subranges: the mid, high, and anti-Atlas. We watched in awe as we passed the rocky, dry, brown mountains and the countryside below, and we enjoyed hearing about the landmarks we saw as we passed. As we turned a corner on the windy roads, Abraham pulled over and we all hopped out to buy prickly pears from a fruit stand. Across the road we could see the cactus plants where the pears had been picked, and we laughed as we ate them because we weren’t sure whether to chew or spit out the seeds of this delicious fruit (Moroccans eat the seeds of all fruit).
Once over the High Atlas Mountains, we arrived in the town of Ouarzazate, nicknamed “the door to the desert.” We stopped for lunch – more tagine and couscous, and the most delicious watermelon for dessert. Then we visited the Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, which is a palace that is part of a fortified city that was on the caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is still very much intact, although it is now lined with artisans selling goods at every turn. We stopped to see how Moroccan saffron and indigo art is made, where the painters use these materials to create light lines on paper and then set the paper above a fire for the picture to appear. (Here is a youtube video of what it looks like.) And we just might have walked away with one of these paintings in our hands before we hiked to the top of the Kasbah to catch the beautiful views of the valley below.
Fun fact: Many films and TV shows have been filmed at Ait Benhaddou, including Gladiator and Game of Thrones. A few miles away you can find several film studios right off the side of the road in the middle of the desert.
We continued from Ouarzazate to Dades Valley where we spent the night and enjoyed another Moroccan dinner and music. We rose early the next morning to continue our journey along the Dades Valley, knowing that we would end up in Merzouga many hours later to begin our camel trek. On our way we stopped in Dades Gorge, a gorge in the Dades river at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Jeff commented that it was oddly similar to the landscape of Norway, with large mountains on either side of body of water, although the colors were distinctly different. We watched locals swimming, washing their clothes, and filling up jugs of water in the river, and we wished we could jump in ourselves to escape the heat of the day.
Our last stop before driving to Merzouga was the town of Tinghir, where we met a local guide from one of the Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains. The Berber people are indigenous groups of Northern African countries, and our guide Lahcen told us about the different groups and their traditions, languages, and ways of life. The guide who led us around Tinghir showed us much of the agriculture that the people depend on, including dates, cabbage, and other vegetables. He also explained the rigid rules around plots of land and how they have settled past land disputes in the villages. As we walked along, we were surprised by how green and lush the area was, with palm trees and tall grasses surrounding the crops.
We visited a local Berber home, where we met some of the people living in the village and were served mint tea. We watched a woman brushing sheep’s wool that she would turn into yarn to make carpets. They explained the process of how they turn wool or camel hair into rugs, and it is quite extensive. First, the wool is gathered, then it is washed in the river and lays on the banks to dry, afterward it is brushed and spun to become yarn. At that point they can begin using it to weave the rugs, some of which take up to a year and a half to complete. Naturally, we had one of them shipped home to California. 🙂
Next, we hopped back in the van and headed for Merzouga to spend our night in the desert. (More on that in the next post!)