Morocco – The Atlas Mountains and Sahara

The final road (trip)

From Fez we embarked on our final road trip of the trip. We met up with Lathin, a guide we hired to take us through the Atlas mountains, into the Sahara, and finally on to Marrakech. As we all know I hate camping very much, but it seemed poetic for our last big adventure on this trip to be a trek on the edge of the Sahara. I also suspected (rightly) that there might be some interesting rug opportunities in this kind of adventure, so I sucked it up.

Monkeys and Nomads

We drove south from Fez through Ifran to the cedar forests of Azrou. The forests are in the mountains and the area has an unexpected Swiss-chalet vibe. The region is a winter-getaway spot with ski resorts and outdoorsy activities. Coming from the hot chaos of Fez, it was surreal how autumnal the Azrou forests felt. It almost felt like home, actually, except that there were monkeys scampering around and date vendors along the road. A certain someone (not me for a change) went a little overboard on the dried fruit and ate his body weight in dates over the course of our three-day journey.

Like most of Morocco’s nomads, Lathin is an ethnic Berber and he chatted with us about the hardships of nomad life in the modern world. Nomadic people are disenfranchised by the government and suffer frequent harassment. Around noon we passed a nomad camp that Lathin knew and decided to stop for a cup of tea. Over minty tea we chatted with a young mother and found out that her husband had died in an accident 3 months ago. She has four children and her situation seemed pretty bleak, but Lathin promised to return before winter with some clothes that he gets from a British NGO.

Camel Safari

After tea we headed on to the town of Merzouga, located on the edge of the Sahara desert and the border with Algeria. As the sunset we saddled up for a camel trek into the desert to our evening’s accommodations, a Saharan Berber camp. It sounded like fun, but after about 30 seconds on our camels both Jeff and I wanted off. They were uncomfortable, unruly, and suffering from a bout of gastroenteritis (like everyone else in Morocco). Jeff’s camel was just gassy but my camel seemed to be constantly peeing-a-little-bit and pooing-a-little-bit. The intimate familiarity with camel bodily functions does slightly decrease from the magic of a Saharan trek, but only slightly.

After about 30 minutes on our camels the sun went down, and walking through the Sahara in twilight was magical, farts and all. With no light pollution, the sky was fabulous and trekking over the silent dunes was surreal. When we finally arrived at the camp, we found a hodgepodge of other travelers (mostly British) and got a kick out of spending the evening with them and our Berber hosts. I even joined in on a drumming session. And I enjoyed it!!! I know – first camping, now a drumming circle? Who knows what will happen when we’re back in Utah.

Mud Cities and Rugs

At sunrise we trekked back to Merzouga and Lathin took us to the town of Tinghir. The valleys of the Atlas Mountains are dotted with ‘mud cities’ like Tinghir, which was built around 800 AD as a waypoint along Saharan trade routes. The walls are made entirely of mud and straw and have to be rebuilt every few years. The central ‘square’ of Tinghir is a big open space for holding markets and has a gigantic blackened recess in one wall to contain the communal cooking fire during weddings. Tinghir and other mud cities are visually stunning, and exploring one up close really gave a sense of life in an ancient village.

On the outskirts of Tinghir is a cooperative that sells rugs woven by nomadic women. Naturally, my ears perked when I heard this and I haven’t had this much rug fun since we were in Uzbekistan. As we settled in for a cup of tea and a ‘chat’ with the man running the cooperative Jeff and I both knew good/bad things were about to happen. We bought a fabulous rug made by the Beni Ourain tribe, known their free-form geometric designs and neutral color pallets. We’re inching toward that Qatar Airways baggage limit….

With our new rug in tow, we headed toward the Todra Gorge, a massive orange limestone canyon in the High Atlas Mountains. Jeff and I were amazed at how much like Moab this place feels, except that Todra Gorge canyon is bigger. The walls rise up almost 1,000 feet on either side, and it’s impressive. From Todra we continued on to Dades Valley, which was equally spectacular and Moab-y. We stayed overnight in a guesthouse overlooking Dades Valley, and the sunrise was one of the most spectacular we’ve seen.

The Road of 1,000 Kasbahs

The next day we continued east, passing through a route known as the ‘Road of 1,000 Kasbahs’. Like Tinghir, the Kasbahs (or fortresses) along this route were part of a medieval Saharan trade route and each family group would have lived in their own fortified mini-village. The scenery and Kasbahs are incredibly atmospheric, and not surprisingly lots of TV shows and movies are filmed here. Everyone wanted to talk to us about Gladiator, Prince of Persia, and Game of Thrones. There are three decently sized movie studios that have set up shop in the nearby town of Quarzazate, and this has really been a boon to the local economy. We visited the most famous Kasbah in the area, the impressive UNESCO site Ait Benhaddou, and the lesser visited but much more interesting Kasbah Telouet.

After a long 3-day journey through the High Atlas Mountains, we crossed Tichka Pass, the highest pass in Morocco, and headed toward our final destination: Marrakech.

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