Sunday, 8 April 2012

River deep, mountain high

Here's a very delayed post, got hijacked by an Austrian with a bottle of wine and a very punctual carpenter....

When living and working in Morocco for some time, you come across a variety of Moroccan tourism publicity posters. Some of the most highly photographed areas in Morocco are not on the easily accessible coast or in the large tourist towns, but out in the middle of nowhere on the south of the High Atlas mountains. It was as a result of this ‘picture envy’ that we set off on the second part of our Spring break and on yet another mammoth journey. Heading south from Marrakesh and over a mountain pass we figured four days would be enough time to comfortably make the 700 kilometre drive home. 

Tizi n Tichka
Driving south from Marrakesh the first major obstacle you meet is the High Atlas Mountains. Climbing steeply to peaks over 4000 metres, this is as imposing as a fortress wall. There are only two windy roads that cross the 400 kilometre long mountain range. Tizi N Tichka is the only one that has two lanes. As a result you not only have treacherous bends with vertical drops to contend with, but also the overloaded gas bottle laden trucks that have to come onto your side of the road just to make it around the corner. Once you get your head round the driving conditions the scenery is mind-blowing.  The road winds along the valley floor passing cafes, rock sellers, oak trees, walnut groves and colourful pockets of manicured vegetable gardens and blossom trees.
As you begin to climb the landscape becomes more lunar. Vast slabs of grey rock which the road has been carved out of. The air cools and you are torn between admiring the view and cringing with fear every time you go round a bend faced with drop off or the solid and slightly out of control bulk of a lorry.
The road climbs to 2192 metres and while the view from the top is worth the climb the best view is seen from the car just before you reach the top. Look back at the way you came and the road snaking down the mountainside to the valley floor far below.
When you reach the top you are faced with a very different landscape from the one you have just left. Acting as a giant weather divide, the Atlas Mountains separate the Saharan influenced climate of the south from the Mediterranean climate of the north.  Now into martian surroundings it is all barren and empty with bright red clay and rock stretching down the mountainside until it reaches the dusty plains below.

Ait Benhaddou
Located just outside Ouarzazate otherwise known as ‘Ouallaywood’, Ait Benhaddou is a UNESCO protected Ksar that has undergone a number of facelifts to become one of the best known Moroccan monuments. Sitting alongside a vast and mainly dried out river bed, this Ksar or fortified city has been used in the films Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Jewel in the Nile, Alexander, Time Bandits, The Mummy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Prince of Persia and many many more.
Ait Benhaddou has been at the top of my Moroccan wish list since we arrived here. It was therefore to be expected then that we would get heavy grey clouds and eventually torrential rain during our visit. Months of endless blue sky and on the day we visit it was barely worth getting the camera out and the best view we got was from the inside of a cave where we stopped for coffee.
Needless to say we will be going back in search of the perfect picture.

Dades Gorge
Most if not all of the landscape south of the Atlas Mountains is uninspiring. Endlessly empty and barren, your view is broken only by the occasional empty and dusty long forgotten village. This is an unimaginably hard life for those born into it. With little opportunity for work or escape these places are cheerless and closed down. Having driven through constant brown for hours, it is with a sense of wonder that you find yourself in Dades Gorge. It is truly an oasis. Raggedy red rock hills fold down in unique melted wax formations into a valley with a floor of green. Date palm plantations give way to almond and fig lined vegetable gardens, made all the more spectacular by the pink and white blossoms. Everywhere you look there is an abandoned Kasbah. Perched on rocky outcrops or riverside cliffs and lining the valley floor. Kasbah life has not long passed but these impressive buildings sadly fall into disrepair quickly when people move out.

Arriving in the gorge we were cold, wet and hungry. While the rain didn’t suppress the beauty of the place it did stop us from exploring as much as we planned. Instead we were welcomed by the fire at Le Cinq Lunes a guesthouse owned by a local musician. As well as great food and a fireside sofa for an afternoon of reading we got to enjoy listening to CD’s of traditional Berber music played by our host. Along the walls were pictures of him playing around the world with people like Carlos Santana.

The next day we took a short walk down into the valley with a local Berber guide. He took us to an abandoned Kasbah and gave us a lesson on Kasbah life. His childhood was split between life in a Kasbah and up in the mountains with the nomadic shepherds.  It was fascinating to get a local's perspective on life in the valley, but this is for a later post.
Before leaving Dades Valley we drove further into the gorge. The valley seems to open up before taking a turn for the dramatic. Narrowing quickly and climbing steeply the road winds up to a grand Kasbah style hotel. From here it is possible to look back and see a climb not quite as high but equally spectacular as Tizi n Tichka.

Todra Gorge
Less than an hour further east from Dades Gorges, you reach Todra Gorge. Highly recommended by a friend who does guided photography courses around the world, Todra is known as the more dramatic of the two gorges. Todra Gorge is created by a huge fault that has caused a narrow river filled canyon to form. Whereas Dades Gorge is soft and welcoming, Todra is grand and imposing. Vertical rock faces close in on you as you take the road that runs through the gorge. Deep in the gorge a hotel has been built for those brave enough to stay. It is somewhat claustrophobic and dark surrounded by the towering rock walls.  However, if you can time your visit right you are lucky enough to see the morning sun stream briefly into the gorge illuminating the walls with a soft pink glow.

I guess that’s another thing we’ll have to return for. This is one of the perks of living here. And one of the reason we plan our holidays so far in advance. We want to do a two week hike from Todra into Dades gorge. So, think we can fit that in sometime around November 2013.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My school holidays seem totally boring in comparison to your amazing experiences. Lots of love Marilyn X