The Todra Gorge, Tizi-n-Tichka, Merzouga, Ait Ben Haddou, the Cedar Forest were names I had not heard of a few months ago. After a four-day trip from Marrakech to Fes, I became very familiar with them. My daughter, Erin, and I hired a Moroccan tour company by the name of Rough Tours to show us the mountain and desert areas of Morocco. Youssef, the owner of the tour company, was our guide and the driver was Mohammed.
As we drove out of Marrakech on a Saturday morning, Erin and I were excited about the upcoming four days – mountains, deserts, forests, gorges, Berber villages, film studios and who knows what else. Within an hour, we were climbing into the High Atlas Mountains heading southeast towards Ouarzazate – the Hollywood of Morocco as it’s referred to. As we climbed higher into the mountains we went from an arid environment to one with many pine trees. It reminded me of the many drives I had taken in the mountains around Southern California. It was nice.
The road was fairly narrow and very windy in certain parts as we climbed higher. After reaching a “Kodak moment” spot, we pulled off the highway to get a view and some pictures of the mountain we had just navigated. The road looked like a snake slithering upwards. The pass that we were traversing is known as Tizi-n-Tichka. As we continued on, we began to see more and more Berber villages. The homes, Youssef explained, were made from mud. Two walls of wood were positioned several inches from each other. A mud-based composition was used to fill the area between the wood partitions. The mud was allowed to harden and within a couple days, the wood was removed leaving the side of the house. Next the walls were covered with another mud-based composition; however, this one contained straw. This added layer would help hold the wall together during periods of rain and high winds.
In short order, we crested the summit, the Col du Tichka with an elevation of 2,260 meters (or 7,400 feet). As we headed down the other side, the terrain became warmer and more desert-like.
Soon we pulled off onto a side road heading to Ait Benhaddou – a short 10 kilometers from the main road. Ait Benhaddou is a fortified city or ksar and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a Berber village that is fairly deserted because a new village was built across the dry river bed. Youssef explained that it’s easier and less costly to build a new village than try to upgrade/renovate an existing one. There are still a few residents living in the older section along with retailers who display their carpets, paintings and other souvenirs. The real interest to this location – the movie Gladiator was filmed here. After Maximus is captured in the movie, he is required to fight in a North African arena against other men and animals.
We continued on to the desert town of Ouarzazate (pronounced “wherezazat”). Located there are two film studios and a large desert area where the City of Jerusalem was built for the movie Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Bloom playing the fictional character Balian of Ibelin who is defending the city against Muslim sultan Salahuddin. Ridley Scott directed both of these movies along with Black Hawk Down in the Ouarzazate area of Morocco. At the end of a long day, we pulled into our hotel for the night – Hotel Xaluca Dades – located on a hill overlooking the Dades Gorge.
On the morning of Day 2, we headed northeast, through the Dades Valley, towards the desert town of Merzouga. Our first scheduled stop of the day was the Todra Gorge. The width is barely 30 feet wide in places with sides over 500 feet in height – pretty impressive especially when you include the red-rock surfaces. It is a popular spot for rock climbing. The river, that shapes the gorge during rainy times, was barely alive in mid-July. The television reality-show “Expedition Impossible” was filmed here a few years ago.
When we got to Erfoud, which is near the beginning of the sand dunes, we stopped for lunch at Café Pizzeria Restaurant des Dunes which is one of the very few places in Morocco that serves Berber pizza – meat and vegetables stuffed into a flat bread dough and baked in an oven. Berber women started making this by buying ingredients from the local markets and baking it in their own homes.
About 5 pm, we pulled into our guesthouse, which is located at the beginning of the Sahara Desert’s sand dunes in the town of Merzouga. My detailed post of the overnight desert experience can be found on our website at http://www.mytravelop.com/an-overnight-trek-into-the-sahara-desert-an-experience-of-a-lifetime/
Day 3 started with the camel ride from the overnight camp back to the guesthouse. After eating and showering, we headed north towards Meknes – our stop for the night.
After driving for about a half hour, we stopped near the town of Erfoud at a carpet selling location. After a negotiating lesson, from Youssef, in buying Berber carpets, Erin and I headed into the shop. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of carpets, everywhere. Erin was looking for a carpet for her apartment. After seeing probably 60 carpets, Erin narrowed her selection down and with some back and forth, and emotional (as is traditional in many countries) bargaining, she selected three carpets finally agreeing to an amount that was 40% of the originally quoted price. Youssef was pretty proud of his student for bargaining a 60% discount.
An hour and a half later, we were back on the road. Today was a great day for seeing different landscapes. Past Er Rachidia, we drove through the Ziz Gorge, which was much wider than the Todra Gorge seen the day before. The rock formations looked like something from another planet. Again, we crossed through the High Atlas Mountains. The scenery was beautiful and the roads very windy. Soon, we came to the Middle Atlas Mountains. As we climbed into the mountains, we passed through small valleys with large tents visible where the nomads currently lived until the weather gets cold and they have to move towards the desert. They could be seen tending to their herds of sheep and goats. We passed trucks carrying huge loads of wheat that were loaded extremely high and hanging about six feet out over the back end of the truck. It looked like it would fall off at any moment. As we continued into the Middle Atlas, we came to a dense cedar forest, which reminded me of the Sequoia National Forest in California. Having a guide who is familiar with this area pays off. Youssef knew right where to look for the little monkeys who inhabit parts of the forest. We got out of the SUV and walked through a part of the forest all the while watching, photographing and video taping the monkeys, especially the young ones, at play with each other.
Prior to reaching Meknes, we had one final great landscape moment. We stopped to view and take photos of the Paysage d’Ito – an incredible view of the Middle Atlas Mountains and the valleys below. About 7 pm, we reached the Riad Lahboul – our stay for the night in Meknes.
Day 4 was all about touring the medina of Meknes and then the ancient Roman city of Volubilis. I am always amazed at the level of architecture exhibited by the ancient Romans. I have visited the Roman cities of Jerash (Jordan) and Bet Shean (Israel) previously, which I felt were better preserved than the one at Volubilis. Much of the ruins at Volubilis were destroyed or damaged during the big earthquake of Lisbon in 1755. Still, it was an interesting tour as we strolled through the ancient city with our local Moroccan tour guide.
Erin and I were sad as we bade farewell to our friends for the last four days – Youssef and Mohammed. I was extremely satisfied with the quality of the tour services they provided – the comfortable air-conditioned ride, the information about the Berber people and their way of life, the sites we saw, and even the general lifestyle of people in Morocco. It was very well presented. I highly recommend RoughTours to anyone looking for a Moroccan Tour.