It’s hard to say if I ever been to a more captivating place than Morocco. I was in the country only 6 days, but I feel as though I played witness to so many spectacular scenes – both cultural and natural – that I will certainly be riding this wave of post-Morocco wonder for a year to come (at least).
My time in Morocco was split down the middle; 3 days spent exploring the crazy, colourful capital city of Marrakech (which deserves, and will receive, a blog post in its own right) and 3 days travelling around to see some of the most spectacular parts of the country, including the breath-taking Sahara. Literally... I was short of breath when I first glimpsed it.
There are plenty of companies that offer sightseeing trips around the country every day of the year, most of which can be booked online. We opted for a 3-day/2-night tour offered by Rouge Hostels. Setting us back just €85 each, it included all breakfasts and dinners. Seeing the country on a time limit means a lot of hours spent sitting in a van, but this is simply a necessity here; Morocco has a lot of land to cover! Allow me to assure any of you thinking about doing one of these brief tours though, the van/bus travel is worth every moment, for the sights you will see and the roads you will drive are such as you have never experienced before.
Here are the highlights from our excursion, and spots I can’t recommend highly enough. In a word? Magical.
THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS / TICHKA PASS
Shortly after leaving the city limits, we found ourselves climbing into the Atlas Mountains, taking the road which leads over the Tichka Pass at an altitude of 2,260 metres. Even coming from New Zealand where our mountain scenery is some of the best in the world, the vistas up here took my breath away. The scenery was certainly lusher than I had expected to see in this notoriously dry North African nation – green hills and dense blue atmosphere stretched as far as the eye could see.
It was amazing to watch the landscape gradually change from green to brown to red as we moved further inland, entering into ever drier climates. Best of all, these mountains are full of Berber villages, belonging to the Berber people who have occupied this part of the world for millennia. The endless square-shaped dirt houses were at times the only reminder in the surrounding scenery that I was in Africa at all!
This UNESCO World Heritage site is an ancient, pre-Islam citadel in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and like something out of a dream. The village was once a popular trading stop for travellers between the Sahara and Marrakech, and is now an even more popular photo stop for tourists to Morocco. It used to have a largely Jewish population, and a synagogue remains within the ancient city, but the last Jewish family left in the 1960s, and Islam is now the only locally practised denomination. The New Town is located on the opposite side of the river from the Old Town you see in my pictures, where there remain only 4 families who reside here permanently. Until 2010, there was no bridge connecting the two, and crossing was dependent on weather and water levels, meaning families in the old town sometimes had to wait it out until the river was low enough to cross with donkey and cart.
The unique site, consisting of old clay buildings, some with their own turrets, and palm trees at its base, has been used as a location in several films, including Gladiator, Jesus of Nazareth, The Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Alexander, Babel, Prince of Persia and many others. Standing before it, it’s not hard to see why – it looks like something that has been created for an elaborate fictional story, something that can’t possibly be real. I’ve never seen anything like this place in my life, and I’m not sure I ever will again... It has to be seen to be believed.
View from atop the old citadel, looking back down on the (currently low) river and the New Town
Endless, dry surrounding landscape seen beyond our local Berber guide
ROCK FORMATIONS IN DADES GORGE
The sun was setting over the Dades Gorge - the location for our first overnight stop - as we descended into it, casting dramatic shadows against the massive ancient rock which patterns the gorge, forged by the Dades River. The next morning, we woke up to stormy skies which were arguably more spectacular than the clear ones which had greeted us... opening my curtains and looking out the window to this sight is something I won’t soon forget. A spot of truly magnificent natural beauty.
OASIS TOWN OF TINGHIR, AND TODGHA GORGE
Tinghir is one of Morocco’s many oasis towns, and a perfect stop en route to the Sahara, whose westernmost sand dunes are a 3 hour drive on from here. Tinghir was an unexpected lush green haven amongst miles and miles of desert in every direction. Its palm trees and beautifully maintained fertile fields are fed by a vast irrigation system, using the waters of the Todgha River. A short drive away you can walk through the mighty Todgha Gorge whose scale and magnificence – try as I might – I was unable to capture on camera. This stunning scene of natural beauty is definitely worth a visit.
ERG CHEBBI SAND DUNES, THE SAHARA
What words can I possibly use to convey the sense of magic I felt when I first saw the Sahara – the vivid orange, impossibly perfect sand rising out of an empty, endless landscape? Or the sense of wonder I felt as I rode through the dunes on camelback by moonlight, under a brightly burning milky way? Or the feeling of awe as I watched the sun rise over the landscape, its changing light making the impossibly smooth sand formations come alive? There are no words.
The Sahara is I think the most unreal place I have ever been... to think that what I saw of it was but a infinitesimal portion of this tremendous force of nature, which matches the continental United States in size – my mind is blown. Riding camels was in itself a worthy experience, though a word from the (now) wise... if you have the option to share or to ride solo, for goodness’ sake ride solo! They may carry two people with ease, but the saddles aren’t made for it... my thighs are still paying the price for learning this lesson.