Trippin’ and roadtripping in Morocco: Sahara – Aït Benhaddou – Marrakesh

Trippin’ and roadtripping in Morocco: Sahara – Aït Benhaddou – Marrakesh

It’s mid-August and the heat is on. We’re in South-East Morocco, on the edge of the Sahara desert. Last night it rained. Rare cool. Then hot again. Really hot. But it’s supposed to be like this, plus there are not a lot of tourists around this time of the year. We’d stay more but before reaching Chefchaouen and then leaving Morocco, we want to get a day in Marrakesh and see Aït Benhaddou on the way. Tight schedule. So we get going.

The sun rises fast, like it is in a hurry to get high up there from where it can better scorch everything beneath it. We trek back on camels to the cars left outside the dunes at the camp at Bivouac Lahmada Kasbah. The camels know their way. It’s the way to water and food. They did not have anything to eat or drink since we left the camp in the early evening the day before. They hurry only downhill. We have only to relax and have a last glimpse and gaze at the dunes. The desert though is all around, and ahead of us are three days of road-tripping through the dune-less rocky vast stretches of it. Here they call the rocky desert area reg, while the dune parts of the desert are known as ergs. Not much of a morphologic difference for so different sights. In any case, no water, so more or less the same.

Once we left the dunes behind, our first stop was Rissani, former capital of the area at the crossroads of former N-S and E-W trade routes. The waters of the Ziz River which fuel Tafilalt, the biggest oasis in Morocco, rarely reach the city, and when they do, they mostly come in flash-floods. Here we experienced the prowess of the local merchants first-hand, as they found it a tad hard to take a no after an initial offering. Or maybe we’re just bad negotiators.

At mid-day, we stopped for some cooling down and rest at the Toudra Gorges on the Todra River, close to Tinghir and its oasis.

Leaving the cool air of the gorges, we went on to Ouarzazate, which was to be where we’d sleep for the night. Also known as the The door of the desert, Ouarzazate is home to several kasbahs (fortresses) – decorated with geometrical and Amazigh symbols, and also to the Atlas Studios – one of the largest movie studios in the world.

The following day we spent exploring the gem just NW of Ouarzazate – the ksar (fortified village) of Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As in Ouarzazate, people here take some pride in the fact that the studios, Aït Benhaddou itself and the surrounding landscape – and what a landscape that is! – were the filming locations of many big movies and TV series like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Babel (2006), Prince of Persia (2010), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), Game of Thrones and Prison Break. Cool! What attracted those directors must have been the local open natural geology exhibition and the well-preserved clay architecture of the ancient village along the former caravan route, passing goods back and forth between the Sahara and Marrakech. The modern buildings are on the other side of the river and only a handful of families still live in the ancient village. Without electricity.

For electricity, but mainly to secure water resources in times of severe drought, the few rivers coming down from the High Atlas Mountains are dammed to form lakes, which the local authorities also use to feature ad campaigns against water waste. However, these very dams, especially during the long periods of accumulation during and after construction, leave a lot of the downstream farmers scrambling for whatever reaches the riverbeds. These periods will only get longer as the seasonal rains in the high mountains provide less and less water to the rivers. The balance is fragile and the pressure keeps growing.

After a day and night in Aït Benhaddou, back in Ouarzazate, we embark on a long six hours bus ride towards Marrakesh through the High Atlas Mountains. While the cities are only 200 km apart, the voyage is slow but eyes enjoy it. The way to and through the Tizi N’Tichka high-pass at 2,260 m altitude (another place nicknamed The gateway to the Sahara Desert) offers – turn after turn – beautiful, raw, rough sights of the mountains and the life up there.

So we wind up in Marrakesh. We arrived melted in Jamaa el Fna square – a melting pot of traders, musicians, storytellers, tricksters and con-artists, voices, sounds, smells and tastes. The vibrant rhythm of how life happens here, in the busiest square in the whole of Africa, was the reason behind a push by the locals for it to be included on the UNESCO list of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Many things happen here in s single day and many things happened throughout history. Like, for instance, public torture and executions. More recently, the torture moved away from the eyes of the public, in a police jail right under the Jamaa el Fna square. Above – a shrine to the king, Mohammed VI of Morocco. Around it, the daily ‘celebration’ that the life of the square resembles, with pop-up shops, cafes, restaurants, together with the ‘owners’ of such animals as macaques, cobras, turtles, owls and chameleons, kept on the scorching cement in the wait of some oblivious tourists’ wish to snap a photo in exchange for a few coins. Having already experienced the medina of Fes, we did not fall head-over-heels for Marrakesh, so we went to the train station in search for two beds on the night train to Tangier. No luck, so we were stuck here until the next days’ same train ride.

Checked-in, hungry and tired, we savored some really tasty local dishes away from the hassle of the square at the Cafe Kif-Kif (also a restaurant, recommended), with a view towards the Koutoubia Mosque and the surrounding garden. Next day, in order to pass the time, we ventured a bit more in the medina towards the Bab Agnaou gate, one of the 19 gates of the old city. Right across from it we supplied ourselves with mixed roots and herbal tea for the winter ahead. Helpful now.

We left early to the train station and there we had a taste of the localized McDonald’s menu while playing cards with a friendly student, who welcomed us at her table as she was waiting for a friend. For many who haven’t travelled to an Islam dominated territory, it can be easy to form certain prejudices about people there. But we exchanged impressions, ideas and stories, we exchanged hopes, smiles and warm fare-wells, as we did with our guides, drivers and hosts before. We exchanged openness and, as in the previous encounters when such topics as religious beliefs (or lack thereof – in my case) were reached, no judgement was ever passed for none was produced between the persons talking. And as I failed to understand or find any reasonable justification for some aspects – let’s say, being a women and going out at some sweltering +44°C with the full gear – burqa and even gloves, so failed the few people I could get enough of a conversation on the topic going with. And as I see it, Morocco, as any other place, is not only about a particular religious belief, but mainly about the beauty of the nature and of the kind of art, spaces and living the people create there. One such example of a combination between the four is the city of Chefchaouen. To see that, we left Marrakesh on the night train to Tangier. About its many shades of blue, in the next episode.

Happy travels!

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