Updated: Mar 30, 2019
To the Anti-Atlas
After spending roughly a week on the Moroccan coast, it was time to move inland and explore some of the spectacular ochre-hued interior - we were heading north and east, to the Sahara. We took a grand taxi back to Tiznit, and then a bus out again a couple of hours later, into the Anti-Atlas mountains - basically an extension of the Atlas range which stretches, under different names, from the Sahara in southern Morocco to The Algerian border in the north east. It's a huge range which defines north Africa, created when Europe and Africa collided a few millenia back. This part, slightly lower than the High Atlas, was recommended to us by a couple of travellers in Marrakesh, and it seemed vaguely out of the way and likely to be relatively undiscovered. As our clapped-out bus chugged painfully slowly out of the Souss Valley and up a mountain pass, I sincerely hoped it would be worth the effort. It took the bus, including obligatory kebab stop, four and a half hours to cover the 110km to Tafraoute, our destination for the next three nights. It was hot, cramped and unpleasant again, and I swore to myself that I would not, if I could help it, use the Moroccan bus service ever again. Grand taxis would be the way forward. It was however, far from dull, thanks not only to the stunning scenery outside the window, which was changing colours from russet red to pinky beige to deep rust and ochre browns as we passed in the late afternoon sunshine, but also to a delightful little girl in front of us who demanded our attention for the entire journey, fascinated by my camera for some reason.
Tafraoute, which I instantly loved, is a small village set in a stunning backdrop of mountains, and is in the middle of huge areas of boulders and bizzarre rock formations which I strained to take pictures of as we were passing through by bus. It was getting dark as we arrived, but we found a place to stay easily - there are plenty of cheap guesthouses as it's on the backpacker trail - and found somewhere to eat. The next day we hired a pair of sturdy mountain bikes for about $10 each and headed straight into the countryside and blazing heat, armed only with a couple of bottles of water, some stodgy cakes and a map which looked like it had been scribbled by a six year old. We set off at a fair clip, covering the flat tarmacced road out of Tafraoute to the south in no time and passing some gorgeous crags, rocks and boulders which seemed to litter the landscape in a careless and random way, as if spewed out by some passing volcano. A kind gentleman paused to ask us where we were from and offer us some cold water. He pointed us in the right direction and we headed off road and onto some 'piste' which twisted and curved upwards towards some stunning landscape.
The whole area around us resembled a moonscape - just rocks, dust and boulders, and a path winding vaguely through it. No cars, birds, people, just silence. Presently, just as I was beginning to wonder whether I might have taken a wrong turning, we came to a tiny Berber village called Aguerd Odad. I asked a passing local if it was the one that corresponded to my less than adequate map, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was. He then attempted to engage me in conversation in French - not easy considering we were both speaking it as a third language, and I know that mine is certainly not conversational anymore, if it ever was. He invited us into his modest house - really just a mud-built construction with very little furniture or furnishings, but his whole family appeared from nowhere and were soon sat down and presented with mint tea and couscous, with cactus fruit on the side. I struggled to eat the couscous, because it was served with warm milk and argan nut oil, making it taste like the worst school semolina you could ever imagine. I probably didn't hide my facial reaction to it well enough, as this was soon whisked away and I washed away the taste with the delicious sweet mint tea. We were given a tour of the house, which was mostly a storage area for the argan nuts that grow in abundance in this region, without the benefit of electricity or running water. It is extraordinary how people from such deprived places have such open minds and open hearts very often, throwing open their houses to complete strangers, feeding them and watering them as if they were long lost relatives. We were on our way again after an exchange of pleasantries; oddly, the elderly guy who welcomed us in seemed me to want to keep in touch by writing to him. I gave him my email address. As we cycled through the rock-strewn landscape, we passed a notable landmark called 'Le Chapeau de Napolean'; a large rock formation which did indeed look like Napolean's hat, from a certain angle.
As the sun began its descent, around four o'clock, we reached the point I'd been aiming for on this cycle trip, an extraordinary and surreal area of rocks and boulders painted blue by an eccentric Belgian artist in 1984 for no very obvious or stated reason. Although the paint had begun to chip and flake in certain places, which given the ravages of time isn't that surprising, it is incredibly affecting, leaving you with the strange impression that you have just smoked something strange. The scope of the whole project is impressive - the area of painted boulders covers a couple of acres easily, probably the size of a football pitch or two.
We wandered around for a while, clambering up rocks and taking pictures from all sorts of angles, with the late afternoon sun adding extra dashes of colour to the riot of different shades of blue around us. It was deeply memorable; probably one of the strangest and most incongruous things I have ever seen, and we had it all to ourselves. We hardly saw a soul all day, except for the family in the Berber village.
As we cycled and hauled the bikes back through increasingly tough terrain which I was snapping away at with my camera, thinking I could probably make a bit of money for 'Mountain Bike Monthly', the inevitable happened and my girlfriend got a puncture. Luckily, we had a spare. Unluckily, it also had a puncture, as I discovered after I had changed it. I thought about the tricky job of reparing the puncture, but it was rapidly getting dark, and were only 4km from home, so we opted to wheel the bikes back. Happily, this was mostly downhill. At the first restaurant we got to, I guzzled down two large coca colas and a bottle of water. Good advice to anyone attempting a similar trip: take a lot of water. Two large bottles were not enough, and you won't have many opportunities to get more. They served a fantastic tagine of lamb with raisins, apricots and almonds too which made the day even nicer. Total price - $6. After dinner, I treated myself to a nice hammam and scrub-down to get rid of the day's dust and wind down; a great way to end a perfect day.
The next day was spent largely lounging by a large and lovely swimming pool at the top of the town, in a plush (but not really overpriced) hotel called Les Amanandiers. They let us use the pool for a reasonable $5 each. It had a prime view over the entire town, and the weather obliged most of the day, although there were threatening rolls of thunder nearby. About 3pm, we left our slumbers and got a grand taxi to the neighbouring Ameln Valley; a stunning valley of pink mountains and shady palmerais which was festooned with lovely villages clinging to the mountainsides. We strolled up through the valley and to one of these villages through extravagent palm trees and lush greenery, a stark contrast to the region we had been the previous day, obviously fed by underground water supplies. Up until this point, we still hadn't seen running water in Morocco. We spent some time talking to the shopkeeper who sold us a couple of glasses of fresh orange, and hiked back accompanied by another wonderful sunset.
The next day, we knew, would be a pain: getting back out of Taffraoute, without backtracking again, meant a costly shared taxi - we ended up negotiating for about $15 each with a couple of English backpackers we had met - a lot in this country - for what was about a three to four hour journey, in an ancient red Ford Escort. The price was worth it; as I suspected, the scenery to the north of Tafraoute was even better than what we had seen getting there. The road climbed up through spectacular passes and descended through breathtaking gorges, although our driver kept having to get out and feed water under the bonnet to the thirsty car. As we cruised into Inezgane, a large and unpleasant city some 150km north, near Agadir, we were back into reality after a great three days somewhat removed from it. The grand taxi we caught from Inzegane to Tarroudant, our destination for the night, only took another hour. We were to travel in a roughly northeasterly direstion for the next three days until we reached the Sahara desert. Tarroudant was pleasant but unexceptional, and nothing very interesting happened there except me buying a lovely blue towel in the souq to replace the two I had inexplicably left in the last two hotels. We had a nice meal in the main square on a rooftop terrace, watching the sunset over the mosque as evening prayers began and the imams started their eerie calls to prayer across town. The next day's bus journey took us six hours and nearly 300km east, to Ait Benhaddou.
Our coach journey from Tarroudant was tiresome. It took up virtually all the useful daylight hours, and this despite me vowing never to use Moroccan buses again. It just seemed to take forever. Parts of the road towards the end of the day were just rough mud track. I felt sorry for those who were made to stand up for the entire journey because they had cleverly over-allocated the seats. And there were about twenty of them, so it wasn't some administrative oversight. The belligerant ticket inspector didn't help things much either, bellowing randomly at blameless passengers to everyone's bemusement. I had to keep a sharp eye on my map and the road because I needed to stop the coach at a turning for Ait Benhaddou, on the road to Ourzazate. This can be accomplished by clapping your hands frantically until the driver hears you and screeches to a halt. A gaggle of grand taxis were waiting for us at this junction fortunately, and we were soon whisked along the dusty road to Ait Benhaddou. Now, you may not have heard of this town but you will almost certainly have seen it at some point; reason being that it has been used on numerous occasions as a film set over the last four decades. 'Lawrence of Arabia' set the trend in the 60's, and countless other films have followed in its footsteps, including 'Jesus of Nazareth', 'Kingdom of Heaven', 'Kundun' and, most recently, 'Gladiator'.
Anyway, Ait Benhaddou was stunning. It basically comprises an entire, working 'kasbah' (a sort of fortified, turreted, medieval town made from traditional materials like mud and straw), which, as we approached it with the setting sun, just looked sumptuous. It stands on a promontory, raised from the surrounding open plain, which gives it even more of a visual impact. The outlying village was sleepy, to the point of catatonic, and by the time the sun had hit the horizon, it seemed that everyone had packed up for the night, and the whole place had become a ghost town. Michael Palin wrote in 'Sahara' that it felt like a town which was waiting, a sleeping beauty waiting to be woken up by the next handsome film executive bearing dollars. The town exists in these interim periods on tourists alone, and because it is so out of the way, these usually arrive in large buses, together. It seemed we hadn't been expected. Therefore, we had a whole film set to ourselves; we relaxed on the terrace in the evening to the sound of crickets and drank berber whiskey (mint tea). Another exciting night in Morocco. I was beginning to realise why I hadn't seen many lone travellers here, and why the ones I had seen had a slightly nervous, twitchy, aura about them. You would go crazy from isolation here after a while, even if you stayed in the cities, where bars are male-only and dreadfully depressing.
Dodging the salesmen
We arose quite early next day to stroll around, take pictures and generally take in the ambiance of this extraordinary place. The street vendors here had an unusual tactic: they would lull you into a false sense of security by appearing nonchalent and friendly, then once in their shop, they would hold onto you like a rottweiller until you agreed to buy something. If you want my advice, never go into any souvenir shops in Morocco. If you do, never ask the price of anything or give the slightest hint that you are interested in buying anything. If you do, you won't get out without an extremely protracted and embarrassing bargaining exchange which will normally involve you buying some trinket you didn't want for the price of your night's accommodation. Fortunately, on this occasion my tormentor was momentarily distracted by a large Polish tour group, which gave me just enough time to make good my escape; though this didn't stop the vendor chasing me up the hill, protesting that I had agreed in principle to buy something. I finally got rid of him by promising faithfully to stop by on the way back. (I was already planning an escape route which would involve not passing his shop on the way back). I glanced back and allowed myself a wry smile at the unwary Poles being lured into his trap. They probably wouldn't have given him much change either, they're not exactly known for their spendthrift nature.
We allowed ourselves a couple of hours wondering around the magnificent kasbah, clambering to the top of the hill to be rewarded with great views of the surrounding area. It seems the town can survive on tourism alone. UNESCO has recently placed it on the world heritage list, and it's being carefully renovated to keep it looking as good as old. I think this is a good thing on the whole. Our next stop was Ourzarzate (Pronounced 'War-za-zat'), another town which has a reputation in the film industry here in Morocco. This wasn't immediately obvious as we entered the city, it seemed like another unattractive big Moroccan town. We didn't stick around long enough there to find out what it was like, because we met a guy at the bus station who took us to a hotel we had already been recommended, and then effectively sold us an excursion which left at 8am the next morning: the Sahara. This was still a couple of long day's travel distant but inbetween were two valleys which had been highly recommended to us, and which would otherwise have been highly difficult to visit: The Valley of the Kings and The Valley of the Roses. We would see them in style, from a Landrover 4x4.
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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous part,on Coastal Morocco, including Agadir and Essaouria, please go here:
And to see the next part, on the Sahara region, please go here: