Updated: Mar 30, 2019
To the Desert
Ourzazate, in the southern part of 'proper' Morocco (it's actually quite central if you count the immense wilderness that is the disputed territory of the western Sahara), is the jumping-off point for excursions to the Sahara. We had organised a short excursion to the Sahara from there the day before, taking in Todra and Dades Gorges, before doing a camel trip from Merzouga to spend a night in the Sahara. We got up there early on the first day of September to a glorious breakfast of coffee and bread with marmalade. Which is pretty much the only kind of breakfast available, anywhere in Morocco, give or take the odd glass of orange juice, or optional mint tea. Still, it always did the job and was never more than a few Dirhams. It had been a last minute decision to go to the Sahara; we had considered it too hot, too far away, too expensive and difficult to get to when we were further west near the coast. I talked my girlfriend round, mainly based on the rationale that we probably would never get a better chance to see the desert, in a way which was not following a line of tourists on camels as you you see in Egypt or wherever. It was a three day excursion, reduced to two days for us because we weren't coming back to Ourzazate but getting dropped off to head north.
Valleys of Kings and Roses
We would see two of the most dramatic valleys in Morocco en-route to it, all from the luxury of a 4x4 Landrover. We were accompanied by a rather shy French couple who appeared to speak no English. As my French is distinctly average, conversation was stilted and embarrassing, mainly because they were so shy. As we all sat around in total silence with our driver a couple of hours after leaving Ourzazate, sipping our mint teas, I wondered if this excursion might not have been such a great idea. However, after getting back in the car, we veered off the road on to 'piste', basically rough track which led through some marvellous palmerais and abandoned kasbahs. This part of the country, to the east of Ourzazate, is known as the Valley of Kings, and has some magnificent scenery, punctuated by these magnificent red structures, crumbling majestically on the edge of the desert.
Before long, we were ascending the 'Valley of Roses', so called because it is swathed in pink from April through to June, and the crop of roses is used for perfumes, scents and potions which are quite valuable for the locals. Unfortunately we had arrived to late to see this but as the road climbed higher and we climbed on top of the landrover to get a better view of the surroundings and take pictures, we certainly weren't complaining. The gorgeous mountains ahead of us closed in and we were suddenly surrounded by stunning red cliffs and boulders, as ever changing in hue as we barrelled past at speeds which, from our precarious perch on top of the landrover, seemed a bit excessive. Our driver seemed to be enjoying himself. We passed a bus, surprisingly, given the nature of the road, and it too had people on its roof and hanging dangerously out of the back doors.
They waved and grinned as we passed. before long, we reached the summit and paused to take in and admire the scenery: a vast impressive valley which stretched out beneath us, red and brown dappled with large areas of green. Clearly there was some water in the valley here, unlike most of the areas we had seen so far. As we descended, the valley became clearer, and it was planted with argan and orange trees with plenty of grass for sheep to graze. We stopped for lunch and a light doze, necessary in the searing heat at 2pm. I had bought a straw hat to protect my head, but I felt quite dehydrated, and was taking on a lot of water. My pocket thermometer read 37 degrees.
The Dades Gorge
The road led after lunch to the famous Dades Gorge. This was another pleasantly stunning valley, and the drive up it took us past almond and fig trees, and some fabulous rock formations and more impressive kasbahs and 'ksars' (fortified strongholds). The road snaked up in a leisurely fashion past a partcularly striking kasbah at a place called Ait Youl. A few kilometers further on, we came to some more wonderfully weird rock formations and stopped to take pictures. It's well worth the detour to go there if you can. If there is a downside to excursions like this, it is the perfunctory nature of getting to these places; you stop, take a few pictures then clamber back in and move on to the next photo opportunity. I'd have liked much longer to get out, stroll around and take it all in, but before we knew it we were off and travelling down the valley to Tinerhir, our destination for the night, past yet more ruined kasbahs and little villages tucked into the mountainside. Essentially a mining town famous for little and of little interest to tourists, we simply used it as a sleeping stop. We got to Tinerhir about 6.30pm, as darkness was falling, and we had the rare treat of being able to buy some alcohol - beer and wine - from a shop on the way into town. It had been almost a week since my last beer, so I eagerly made my purchases and wasted no time in swigging down the cold 'Stork' from an unusually normal sized can. Our auberge was friendly and comfy, and we had a nap on arrival. Dinner consisted of a delicious hashed meat and egg tagine. Delish.
The Todra Gorge
Next day, we got up relatively late - we had been more tired than we expected. We had a brisk breakfast then went on a stroll around town, past more palmerais and, you guessed it, abandoned kasbahs, which were again beautiful. We passed through another Berber village and gave some money and sweets to the begging children. We were given some nice little camels woven from grass in exchange. The main attraction of that day however was the Todra Gorge. This had been one of my Lonely Planet guide's big recommendations on the way to the Sahara, and luckily it didn't disappoint. Only 15km distant from Tinehir, at the end of a valley thick with stunning palmeraies and berber villages, the Todra gorge is created by a massive fault in the plateau dividing the High Atlas from the Jebel Sarhro, with a crystal-clear river emerging from it. It rises to 300m at its narrowest point, where the rocks on either side of the valley are no more than 20m apart, so that you feel almost as if you are going into a tunnel as you drive up it. It's best in the morning, when the sun penetrates to the bottom of the gorge, turning the rock from rose pink to a deep ochre. As we walked through the deep, sun-dappled gorge, I couldn't stop taking pictures. We thankfully had plenty of time here to take it all in and wander around, pausing long enough to order a decent couscous from a restaraunt set just off the road and in the shade. Again, I'd have liked to have stopped longer but we were on our way again by two, for the final leg to the desert.