Morocco in a Month (Part 3/6) - Tafraoute & Ait Benhaddou
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 myse