We hit the road after Dades gorge and headed towards Merzouga to see Erg Chebbi–the only sand dunes in Morocco. The landscape, as usual, was quite beautiful, and changed to become much more desert like as we drove. There was a huge ancient underground irrigation system as we got close to Merzouga, with large humps rising out of the dirt. Though no longer in use, it was impressive to behold from the road. At we were driving, we saw a very loud “CANAL ICI” painted on the side of a structure going into one of the humps, and naturally we stopped. We haggled with the older women who ran the place on the price of the canal tour, and settled on 50 dirhams. The canal was impressive. It’s a person-high tunnel running just underneath the ground’s surface, meant to transport water from the oasis to the fields. It was pitch dark inside, save for the light filtering through from the holes above.
The entrance into the canal
Canals from above
Entering the canal
We drove on across the desert, passing through bustling frontier towns whose streets were filled with people walking, bicycles, motorcycles, tractors, and donkeys. We passed by a camel or two along the unpopulated stretches of road.
Keep your camel-dar on
Soon we began the approach to Merzouga, and orange-pink mountains appeared in the distance. As we got closer, we realised that the mountains were in fact the sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi, part of the Sahara. We turned off into the hard packed ground of the desert leading to the dunes, following a trail to the Auberge du Sud. The dunes were striking against the blue sky, seeming more a painting than a real landscape. The Auberge is set right at the foot of the dunes, which towered above us, the sand orange. After a tea and some bread and olives, we mounted our camels along with the rest of our group to head into the dunes.
Our chariot awaits
Professional camel rider
Camels are peculiar creatures, making wookie like noises and hilarious facial expressions. They’re also quite stubborn creatures, and hate getting down or up. After some wrangling, the whole group was mounted up, and a guide (on foot) walked us into the desert. Soon all we could see were the mountains of sand around us, pink and orange and yellow, curving beautifully into the sky. Our camels’ noises and the clop of their hooves against the ground were punctuated by the whir of ATVs in the distance and our guides’ chatter. The ride on the camels began to get a little uncomfortable, but after an hour we were at our desert camp.
Our guide told us to head up the dune to watch the sunset, so we did, soon realising that climbing up a sand dune is not as easy as it looked. The sand itself is incredibly fine, and we fell back a step for every two we took forward. We summited the dune just as the sunset reached its most beautiful, illuminating the dunes in soft purple hues. The sunset over the mountains in the distance was breathtaking.
Sunset on the Sahara
On the dune
Sunset on the Sahara
On the dune
Sunset on the Sahara
Sunset on the Sahara
We headed back down (one of our loud tourist compatriots slid down the dune on her butt–not recommended), and soon found ourselves drinking tea by the fire while chatting with some Australians and New Zealanders who had joined us. After some soup and a Tajine, our group sat around the fire and listened to our guides play the drums. They were clearly making up words in Berber, but it was a great time, finished off by a round of songs from each nationality present (there were Japanese, Chinese, Taiwaneses, Aussies, Kiwis, and French all there). We looked up at the starry starry sky for a bit, and then headed to our rug-bedecked tent to sleep. We awoke to watch the sun rise over the dunes, and soon found ourselves back on our camels, headed back to pick up our car.
You can go your own way
The road to our next destination was surprisingly well surface and went straight through the desert. soon the desert gave way to the Ziz valley, with red rock walls rising from a large canyon floor. The canyon is known for its palmeries, and a dense palm forest ran for miles and miles along the canyon floor–yet another scene from Morocco we had never seen anywhere else. The green against the red was striking. We got pulled over for a brief moment at one of the many police checkpoints along the road. The officer asked if we liked Morocco. Obviously, we did. He said have a great trip and happy new year, and we were on our way.
The landscape soon changed from the red canyon to a yellow grey green flanked by towering, snow capped mountains, and we soon saw a turnoff for Zaouit Sidi Hamza, the mountain village where we were to spend our night. The turn off we had planned to take wasn’t for another 10-20 kilometres, but after a brief consultation of our GPS we decided to chance it. The road was well paved, and ran into a beautiful, wide plain that turned into a valley in the distance.
Mid-Atlas in the background
We drove into a smaller town which, with its mud houses and livestock, could have been from a thousand years ago, and the road suddenly turned to dirt. Continue on in our FWD Fiesta, or turn back? After a brief scouting trip on foot, we determined to push ahead. The road ended up being pretty bad, and we had to ford some low water crossings, navigate a little mud, and avoid some gigantic holes–but the scenery, with a beautiful valley rising up above the terraced farmland of the valley floor, was unbeatable.
Paved road becomes a dirt road
We passed a few villagers who gave us emphatic ‘salaam m’alaikum’ greetings, forded a stream, and after about an hour’s hard driving, finished the 10 or so kilometres to get to Sidi Hamza. The drive ended in a dramatic, opposite lock charge up a muddy hill to the paved road into town, which we could have taken the whole way if we had just followed our initial plan.
Checking it out
Totally under control
After arriving to the village, we
saw a spray painted sign for our lodging
, the Auberge Palacio Sidi Hamza, which we had
chosen because it seemed just about the most remote lodging
that booking.com had
to offer. We
got out of the car, and asked in the small market about the Auberge–we
got some strange looks, but one of the villagers took off on a donkey. We
decided to continue on, with the now-paved village road quickly turning back into dirt. We
followed another sign, but were soon lost in the labyrinth of village streets. Driving around was complicated by our
constant encounters with donkeys in the road.
Looking for Auberge Palacio
Looking for Auberge Palacio
We hit a dead end, and asked one of the village men. He promptly offered to take us there, and hopped in the car with us. We turned around with another a dozen or so people looking on, and within a minute or so Mustafa, one of the people who was a caretaker while we stayed, ran down from the hill, alerted by the donkey rider from before. He got in, and after a bumpy ride we were at the Auberge, in a position overlooking the valley.
Sidi Hamza and the neighbouring Tazrouft are old Berber villages, mainly of mud construction, that seem largely untouched by the passage of time. Besides the couple of cars that we saw, the cell phones, and the electric cables, the village seems as it probably was a few hundred years ago. Mud houses are clustered together throughout the village, livestock is everywhere (goats, chickens, donkeys, and cows were the main ones), and the people were quite friendly. The twin villages sit in a broad valley, with the Jbel Ayachi range to the north (the second highest peak in Morocco), with the mountains towering up on either side, and the pink minaret of the town mosque as the main landmark. Tazrouft, where the auberge rests, is a village of 280 families.
Our time in Tazrouft was one that we‘ll surely remember forever–as perhaps the most remote and hospitable place we‘ll ever visit. After arriving, we had the obligatory welcome tea outside the front gate of the auberge, looking out over the town and the mountains, sitting with Mustafa and his friend who joined us.
Taking in the view form Auberge Palacio
The owner, whose car broke down and couldn’t join us, called every hour or so to ensure that we were well taken care of and to discuss the plans for the evening (“this is real Morocco, not one of those tourist places–this is authentic Berber Morocco”). Mustafa soon took us on a walk to the old ksar of Tazrouft on the other side of town, an ancient but still lived in set of homes built one on top of each other on a hillside, set amongst a big plot of terraced farmland. A maze of paths ran under and through the ksar. We passed a picturesque stream and livestock, with Mustafa greeting everyone he saw. We saw the inside of a water powered cornmeal mill, powered by the irrigation channels running in to town, flowing strong from the snow melt off the mountain. The terraces are watered from irrigation channel, with each family’s plot getting an equal amount of water. The system appears mostly unchanged from a thousand years ago.
After walking back to the auberge, we settled in as yet another man from the village came to cook for us. His French was quite good, and that combined with RM’s terrible French allowed some small conversation about the village. After some time by the wood fired stove in our room, we went into the chilly dining area of the auberge for a Moroccan meal. We looked through the guest register, and found that we were the first tourists to come to the village for a month and a half, and that since records started 8 months ago only 20 or so people had come. It was insisted that wesit and listen to some Berber music by the owner (though clearly Mustafa wasn’t that interested), and soon two more villagers arrived. Hand held drums were broken out, and one brought a violin, played with the violin standing on his leg. The music was almost impossible to describe, a poem overplayed on the shrieking violin with the drums seemingly out of sync. The two musicians took it very seriously, while the other two on the drums were joking the whole time. Our hosts tried to get RM to play the violin on his knee, but we all just ended up in laughter at his atempt. Tea was broken out, and we listened for what seemed like a couple hours.
Our hosts insisted on all of this.
We slept under a layer of blankets a foot thick, as our mud walled room wasn’t quite enough to keep out the mountain chill. When we awoke, we had a simple Moroccan breakfast of bread, jam, butter, and hard boiled eggs, and then set out on a walk into the village. We hugged the mountains to the north, and walked up a stream surrounded by terraced farmland, passing a man out drying mud bricks. The day was perfect, and we wandered in the riverbed. We soon climbed a small peak and watched the village–kids playing football, some men building a house, donkeys ferrying goods.
One last snack of bread, butter, and tea later, we were off to our next destination. We drove on a paved regional road out of town, and the landscape soon opened up into a much broader plain.
One last beautiful view of Sidi Hamza on the way out of town.
The road to Midelt had yet more great scenery, and after an abortive attempt to find an embroidery cooperative in town we pushed on towards Fes. In the famed cedar forests as we crossed the Middle Atlas, we ran into the Barbary monkeys being fed by tourists. We passed through a high mountain road, where people had pulled over to rent sleds and sled down hills in the snow.
The road was in good shape, and we quickly realised that we were set to arrive in Fes a couple hours earlier than planned. The guidebook referenced a women’s cooperative that makes textiles in a town called Zouait d’Ifrane, and we decided to drive there. The road wound up the side of a mountain, with views completely different to those we‘d seen elsewhere–green hills and big plots of farmland rolling into the distance.
The land north of the Atlas Mountains was much more lush.
The towns we passed through were oddly western in style. The road, as we could have expected, became poor very quickly, with gaping potholes in the asphalt and some areas not paved at all. The drive slowed to a crawl. After a couple encounters with some sheep herds and donkeys, we finally got to the town, about an hour later than planned. We talked to a women outside the coop, and she showed us some of the things they made on the big looms sitting on the concrete floor. The stuff they made was beautiful, though unfortunately they didn’t have too much stock. After a brief glimpse of the waterfall above the town, we drove on, arriving to the Fes airport about 45 minutes late to drop the car. We left the car with two guys outside the airport (hopefully they’re the right ones!), and hopped a bus into Fes.