Morocco: East of the Atlas

November 1999


After seven days holed up in a hotel room I finally felt fit enough to resume my travels. It seemed like an age since I was on the road. I booked myself on to a bus the next day to Ouarzazate on the other side of the High Atlas Mountains and recommenced my journey to the desert. The trip through the High Atlas had been one of my travel dreams for many years now. I'd always wanted to see how the geography of the country changed as you travelled from the coast across the fertile coastal plains, through the mountains and onwards into the desert. It had always fascinated me how the landscape could change so dramatically in such a relatively short distance.

Now here I was, recovered from a rather nasty fever, hitting the road again feeling as though I was starting a whole new adventure, speeding towards the mountain peaks in the back of a bus. It was a beautiful sunny day, the sky was clear and you could see for miles. The driver was not hanging around and we were soon winding our way through the foothills and into the mountains. The lower valleys were green, trees clinging to the slopes and the rivers in full flow after the recent rain. Along the road evidence of the heavy rainfall during the last week was clearly visible, with washouts covering the road and bulldozers still working to clear the mud and gravel away. The bus stopped about halfway along the road through the mountains for a lunch break. Stepping out of the bus it was pleasantly cool and the air was fresh. I sat in the garden of a small café and enjoyed a pot of mint tea while a local man tried to sell me some crystals he had found while trekking. I wasn't in the market for crystals today, much to the disappointment of the local man, so I offered him and a couple off his friends a pot of tea. We sat under a tree, a vista of mountain peaks surrounding us, trying to make conversation while sipping our tea. The peace was finally broken by a blast of the buses horn. The other passengers began to wander back to the bus and I quickly finished my tea and climbed back on board.

We now travelled through the heart of the mountain range. The mountain slopes were barren and rocky, the peaks covered in snow. The road became very narrow, steep and twisty. This, though, did not manage to impede the progress of our ex-racing car driver. He managed to fling the bus around the hairpin bends. Our one moment of almost disaster occurred when we came around a hairpin bend, on the wrong side of the road and met a bus coming the other way. Both buses managed to stop in time, which was lucky as there was no verge to escape on to, only cliffs. Once through the mountain range it was downhill all the way to Ouarzazate, with speeds to match.

The bus pulled into a dusty yard off the main road through town, just past the centre of town. I had arrived in one piece at my destination. I walked back up the road to the Hotel Royal, one of the cheapest hotels in town. Despite that, for a cheap hotel, it was very nice. I had a single room at the back of the building for about half the price I was paying for single rooms in Marrakesh. I sat on the roof as the sun began to dip towards the mountains, now to my west. There was not much activity along the main street of the town; in fact it was rather quiet.

Ouarzazate does not have a long and colourful history. The French created the town in 1928 as a garrison and administrative centre. Before then the only thing here was the Glaoui Kasbah of Taourirt at the eastern end of the modern town. Today, with a population of 30,000 it is a tourist boomtown and is marketed as a base to explore the kasbahs, desert and gorges of the surrounding area. There are plenty of tourist class hotels and regular flights to and from Paris from the local airport. Once the sun had sunk behind the mountains I went downstairs to the reception. The owner and his son were very friendly. They were watching football on the television with some other locals, so I sat down and joined them. The national team were playing. I can't now remember who they were playing and in what competition. All I do remember was that they lost, much to the disappointment of everyone at the hotel.

After the last ball had been kicked and interest in the TV began to wane, a group of travellers arrived at the hotel reception. There were six of them, four North Americans and two Japanese. The first thing to strike me as odd was the Japanese girl who had a camcorder. As they checked in she busied herself videoing everything from every possible angle. As the group lugged their backpacks up the stairs she stood in the reception filming them as they went before retreating upstairs as well. Once they had disappeared out of sight the football crowd and I looked at each other; what was that all about? I've heard of the Japanese being keen on their cameras and videos, but this girl was taking this interest to a whole new level. About half an hour or so later the group came back downstairs to the reception to complete the hotel register. I joined them that evening for dinner, partly because I had been in seclusion over the last week with my fever and partly I was intrigued as to what was going on here.

Over dinner at a local restaurant just down the road from the hotel I was introduced to everyone. The four North Americans were Canadians; Trevor, Jana, Angela and Scott and the Japanese couple, Emi and Yoshi. Emi and Yoshi were making a TV programme for a Japanese cable company; it was beginning to make sense. They were making an educational/travel programme teaching English. The gist of the programme was to go travelling and meet English-speaking people. They had met up with the Canadians in Tangiers yesterday evening after crossing from Spain on the ferry. They had travelled on the overnight train to Marrakesh from where Yoshi had hired a 4WD and today driven across the mountains much in the style of my bus driver. Apparently talking into a video camera while trying to steer around the hairpin bends had left the other passengers nerves slightly frayed. Yoshi was the front man of the show, Emi the producer. It was a rather surreal dinner being interviewed while eating tajine and drinking mint tea, definitely not your ordinary evening out with a group of travellers.

That night the town was quiet, much like many other small Moroccan towns. You could wander up the main road without much danger from passing traffic. Back at the hotel the Canadians and I sat down to discuss our plans, which seemed to get more complicated the more we discussed them. I was fairly flexible, I just wanted to explore this side of the mountains and get out to the Sahara desert.

The following day Yoshi and Emi were going to Ait Benhaddou, one of the most famous kasbahs in the whole Atlas region; we were welcome to join them. From there they were going back to Marrakesh and the Canadians and myself had decided to head out to the desert. We planned to get to Merzouga, as it seemed the most remote of the accessible desert towns.

The next morning we left our luggage at the hotel and jumped into the 4WD for the 32km trip to Ait Benhaddou. We turned off the main road and drove down an increasingly narrow road through a parched dry landscape. The signposting was not that good and we soon found we were driving down a rough track across broken bridges through small villages hidden in the hills. Eventually, as the road became rougher and rougher, we stopped and turned back the way we had come. The Kasbah was a popular sight to visit and it was unlikely that it would be down a road like this. We retraced out steps back across the broken bridge and took a turning to the right. Ten minutes later we found our destination. The Kasbah was an oasis in the surrounding hard rocky desert. Palm trees grew along the course of the Ounila wadi, which was still in flood from the recent rains in the mountains. The buildings in the village were made of mud bricks and were all a uniform ochre colour. The Kasbah was perched on a hill overlooking the village and wadi. We walked down to the wadi where a group of enterprising villagers operated a crossing service with their mules and camels. For the payment of a few dirhams we hopped on the back of a beast and were led to the other side.

Finding the entrance to the Kasbah was our next challenge. There's never a kid offering his services as a guide when you really need one. On our search around the walls we met some other tourists on a similar quest. Eventually we found the main gate, the souvenir stalls gave the game away. We walked in and worked our way up to the top of the Kasbah. The whole place was peaceful and unexpectedly hassle-free. I was expecting it to be a bit of a tourist trap and was pleasantly surprised as we wandered about. The views from the top were spectacular. Below us you could look down on the traditional mud buildings, the Ounila wadi a silver streak reflecting the bright sunlight as it crossed the rocky desert. On the banks of the wadi grew palm trees and the village was surrounded by small green fields. In one vista you had the two extremes of the desert and the river and the clash of the traditional and the new as power lines marched over the hill feeding the mud brick houses with electricity.

The Kasbah and the village are very well preserved considering the nature of their construction. This conservation has been partly due to the many films that had been shot here, including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth and about eighteen others. On our way back across the wadi Yoshi was recognised by another couple of Japanese tourists who had seen his television show. It seemed that he had a cult following back home. We returned to the 4WD and Yoshi dropped us off back on the main road. We said our farewells for the camera and then said good-bye and Yoshi, Emi and the video camera disappeared back down the road to Marrakesh.

We were left standing by the side of the road in this town, which only owed its existence to the junction to Ait Benhaddou, the dust still hanging in the air from Yoshi and Emi's departure. Wherever there is civilisation there is a taxi and soon a driver approached us, appearing out of nowhere. He must have thought it was his birthday, five passengers turning up out of nowhere in this small insignificant town. Soon we were back at the Hotel Royal in Ouarzazate to collect our backpacks.

Continue reading this journey: Quest for the Sahara