The Sahara Desert
Overland travel in Morocco is not a quick endeavor. The main roads are paved and generally in good shape, but there is no train service into the desert. There are small airports but flights are infrequent and expensive. There are buses that take 11 hours to get from Fes to Mezouga but we opted to join a 3-day van tour with a driver and a guide to see the desert, the mountains and take the very long and scenic route to Marrakech.
The Parc National D’Ifrane
The Parc National D’Ifrane is a national park in the mid atlas is and home to the barbary macaque an endangered monkey related to the Macaques in Asia. These guys have no tails and no fear. They take peanuts out of tourists’ hands and scramble over the tent of trinkets for sale manned by a father and son team. The park is _______
Ziz River Valley
The oasis in the Ziz River valley is 80km long and is the longest oasis in Morocco. Date trees and animal fodder grow along the Ziz River. Once home to a flourishing community, the young people today leave the villages for the bigger cities. At one time taxes imposed on camel caravans though the oasis made the locals rich. Today a fossil and geode market alongside sheep herding and date farming are the main industries. The views are spectacular as a green valley snakes along the river as far as the eye can see while the desert encroaches dry and read from both sides.
Merzouga is a XX town in the southeast of Morocco XX miles from the Algerian boarder. It’s a city that butts up against the Erg Chebbi Dunes, the largest sand dune in Morocco. From movies I thought that the Sahara desert would be all sand, dunes and dust. In reality much of the desert is red and rocky and covered in scrub brush. The dust kicked up from the wind creates a perpetual haze and occasions produces cyclones and dust storms.
There are no stirrups on a camel. There actually aren’t any two-humped camels in Morocco. Camel riders, who any more are predominately tourists, ride the mono-humped dromedaries. The males are tied together with ropes that are lashed around their mouths, under their necks, bellies and tails and keep the donut-esqoue saddle from sliding off the hump. Camel’s rear knees bend to the back and their front knees bend to the front when they kneel to let their riders mount. Their two left feet then two right feet walk in a plodding unstable gait. It’s a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. I was happy to experience it for a few hours and can’t imagine crossing the desert for weeks on camel back.
Sleeping in the Desert
Morocco has welcomed western tourists for the past hundred years so the circuit is well worn and the tourism industry is a popular one as more European, North American and Asian tourists descend on Africa. All throughout the Erg Chebbii Dunes are glamping grounds set up with large vinyl tents filled with full sized beds, Moraccan rugs, running water, electricity and a full bathroom. The camp grounds have outdoor seating, a restaurant for dinner and breakfast and a fire pit for evening drum circles. A kitten named Loli entertained us by chasing the bugs in the sand and climbing up the tent walls.
The Todgha Gorges are some of the most beautiful scenery in Morocco. With the stratified red rock it reminds me of the American southwest. The Monkey Fingers are curvaceous rock formations through the limestone river canyon. The switchback roads are well-paved but steep and the river that cuts through the canyon is filled with plants, frogs and birds.
Kasbah de Ait Ben Haddou
The Kasbah de Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made in the 17th century it’s been the filming locations for scenes from Gladiator, Game of Thrones, and The Mummy among others in conjunction with Atlas Studios, the largest movie lot in the world by square miles. The Kasbah sits above the dry bed of the El Maleh River. Only 4 families still live in the Kasbah. The rest of the city is a tourist site of souvenir shops, weaving workshops and demonstrations of the amazing indigo invisible ink art that rarely turns a sale.
Much of southern Morocco feels redundant, empty space punctuated by villages of red and gray square buildings. The landscape is scorched and sun bleached and the roads are filled with tourists, motorcycles and the occasional 18-wheeler. Camels and donkeys graze in the sun while their owners find shade under turbans and cloth canopies. It’s not beautiful on first look but once you blink the dust out of your eyes and see the mid-Atlas mountains rising on the horizon or the moon in the mercifully cooler night sky, the Sahara grows on you.