From Marrakech to desert to the coast in 9 days. Our most off- the- beaten- track 4x4 Morocco tour, away from the tourist crowds: pristine gorges with see- through natural pools where fish swim, Bronze- Age rock engravings, wildlife including gazelles, falcons and hares, 3000- year old tombs, century- old towering Berber granaries, majestic saffron dunes, a 12th century mosque. And then some. Yet, the ultimate luxury is the feeling that you may be the first person to ever walk there.
DAY 1: The first day of our Morocco tour will be dedicated to crossing the High Atlas and reaching the lush valleys where we will have our first contact with palm groves and kasbahs. Leaving Marrakech behind, the road soon starts taking on the mountains. Breath- taking panoramas and hair pin curves succeed while the route follows one minute out in the open, the next under dense pine trees. Shortly after reaching 2200 meters altitude, we leave the main route to reach the village of Telouet and the Kasbah of the Glaoui. From the ensemble of three ruined kasbahs only one has maintained its reception rooms where intricate zellij patterns and precious wood greet the eye. Pacha Glaoui had employed the most skilled artisans to build and decorate his main residence and, in its golden age, armies, stables and Christian slaves were confined within its walls while a flourishing Jewish community was managing the nearby salt mines, which although no longer in use, are also worth a visit. After a succulent fig tagine, our road follows Ounila valley with its mosaic of gardens and tiny douars, each displaying its own ruined Kasbah. Occasionally the valley turns into a canyon, where the nomads have dug centuries ago galleries of grottos to stock grains and sometimes cattle. Late afternoon is the time to visit UNESCO site of Ait Benhaddou, the postcard- like adobe citadel. Hopefully, the crowds have already deserted the place. A fat, red sun, only underlines the beige tones of the mud and straws mixture and through the covered passages and stone walls, the past filters itself into the present. In spite of the local ‘guides’, the best is to just lose yourself in its derbs and explore the honey – comb structures. Stroll back to a local refurbished Kasbah or a lodge nested in the nearby palm grove for dinner and accommodation.
DAY 2: Today our 4x4 Morocco tour will follow the mythical Draa Valley, a route so often used for centuries by the caravans bringing gold, slaves, ivory or feathers from Mali or Ghana. But first, locally sourced breakfast – better had on the roof terrace from you can admire the palm grove below. A tour of the palm grove with a local guide will teach you how the ingenious khettaras are dug, the name of the different plants and herbs, show you the pottery district or how the olives are pressed into oil. If the right season, your driver can stop on the shores of Mansour Eddhabi lake to admire the migratory birds leaving Morocco on their journey to Europe or milder climates. A visit to the world famous film studios in Ouarzazate is possible, especially if you travel with children.
Soon after, a dramatic change in the landscape takes place. Leaving the plain behind, the road climbs, twists and turns its way up into the bare dark brown mountains. Right after the pass you catch a first glimpse of the valley and the oases, a green river of palms snaking up into the haze bordered by the Kasbahs, adobe guardians rising as if from the earth where the green gives way to the desert. There is no road sign but somehow you become aware you have entered a different land, le grand sud. Biblical adobe villages border the palm grove. It is worth visiting at least one of them – perhaps the one where most of the population is black, descendants of former slaves. Then, have a picnic lunch by the river under the palms. Or perhaps awe at the rock engravings at the end of a dusty off road track. But the real treat here is the road itself following the river and the palm grove, one ksour after the other and that unique light of the south. We will stop for accommodation and dinner in a beautiful guest house nested in the palm grove nearby.
DAY 3: After breakfast, our Moroccan itinerary we can visit the nearby village of Amezrou which carries on the Jewish tradition of silver crafting and although the last Jews left in the 1950's the craft and the synagogue are still there. We will stop for a break in Tamegroute where a gold- lettered Qoran from 1036 and Arab treaties on astronomy and sciences are neatly displayed behind glass windows inside the century-old library. The same village carries a pottery tradition known throughout Morocco and it is of interest to witness the shaping and baking of the emerald pots and dishes inside traditional earth ovens. Before long, our tour reaches M’hammid, where the tarmac ends - the last village before the Sahara.
The next two hours of our tour make full use of the four wheel drive as rocky desert gives way to gravel and then sand dunes, past the occasional water well and oasis. The anticipation built doesn’t quite prepare you for the spectacle ahead of you: sleepy yet shifting leviathans of sand as far as the sight can stretch, dotted by the occasional desert camp. These are the dunes of Erg Chigaga and no comprehensive trip around Morocco could possibly not include them. Here, we can arrange for you to be met and taken by camel ride to the camp for the last bit of the way. While the staff of the camp is unloading your luggage and preparing your dinner, you climb onto the highest dune you can find. And lose yourself. One of the first things the desert does is make you aware of your own insignificance. You also realize you are suddenly not somewhere different. You are different. And while the sun sets, there is nowhere else you would rather be. After dinner, use the camp’s telescope to make out some constellations. Like someone once said: ‘Why be happy with 5 stars when you can have billions’ ?’ As you stroll back to your tents, the silence in the dunes is immeasurable. Azalai Desert Lodge ’s canvas tents offer a nice alternative to the Bedouin- style spartan yet honest and clean wool tents. They accommodate double beds with real mattresses , private bathrooms with showers, a crackling firepit and excellent food, a package that will draw cheers from even the most commited tentophobe.
DAY 4: Should you have missed the sunrise… well, try not to. If yesterday was about getting away from civilization, today is about getting back to it. After toddling across sand dunes, our trip reaches fossil- filled Lake Iriki, nowadays completely dry, where the Draa river used to form its estuary. Further on we take on the hamada, the much dreaded stony desert, to finally reach Foum Zguid around noon. Farewell Sahara, hello tarmac. Next, lunch and a dip in a pool are best had at a local lodge where you can skip the ubiquitous tagine. Though the dunes are behind, the immensity is still present. The tarmac swirls past barren plateau and sun- burnt ridges while you barely cross another soul. Continue south and reach the nearby waterfalls reputed for their salty water. And somewhere in the distance, the ululating call of the muezzin mingles with the bray of a donkey. A couple of hours later, reach your accommodation for the night, a five- century old rustic house erected on the top of a village overlooking the palm grove. The many hidden corners, passages and patios will delight adults and children alike.Accommodation ranges from small-yet-delightful where ceiling is only 1.5 meters high to large suites with stunning wide views and stone slabs for stairs. All rooms here are air conditioned and come with en suite hot showers and toilets. Food is rustic, locally- sourced and really tasty.
DAY 5: One can hardly imagine a breakfast with a better view in the south of Morocco. Spend the morning learning how a water clock works in the nearby palm grove, preparing traditional bread in the village stove, visit the old still- working salt mines or trek by the cliffs. Picnic in the nearby palm grove to then reach a very old Berber village where you will be able to admire the old Jewish mellah, the local granary that has just been restored. Inside the palm grove an unfinished minaret from Saadian or Almohad era stands as a silent guard. The owners of the nearby lodge, former rally pilots, are the most welcoming hosts and have plenty of stories to tell over the excellent dinner. The lodge accommodates both Berber style- tents with comfortable mattresses and puffs as well as air conditioned hot showered double rooms and suites, and a small yet very spot- on pool. Furthermore, here you can get a real expresso at the bar and home- made gateau au chocolat is served for dessert. The ladies should also consider an in- house henna tattoo session.
DAY 6: Today, our Morocco tailor made tour is dedicated to discovering the local area and its attractions. The remoteness of the spaces is why most people would come and stay here. But don’t let yourself be fooled by the appearances. In the surroundings, at the right place and time of day you can glimpse foxes, eagles, wild boar, hares, mountain gazelles, bustards or partridges. After breakfast, leave the guest house and take the route to the old village at the foot of the local djebel. Visit the old streets of the village, the museum created by Abdesalam, and the women’s cooperative who make colorful rugs and other home objects ( who also adorn the rooms of the guest house). Then treck to Ait Ouabelli and head south after crossing two beautiful dry wadi ( rivers). Discovery of pre-Berber tombs (burial sites of over 3000 years) and a stunning rock engravings site. Picnic within a beautiful wild oasis under the shade of the palm trees. Back on the tarmac for about 15 km to then go off road again by a field of Selaginella lepidophylla ( Jericho roses) and Calotropis procera ( Sodom apple) and then over a dried small lake to observe the fata morgana mirage.
After a desert area very "Sahel" with its typical acacias, we reach the sand dunes posed against the cliffs of black sun burnt ridges. Time to climb some dunes on foot (or 4x4 ...) Going back towards north, and over an ancient dry lake we will cross nomad herders with their camels and goats. And at the day’s end, you get to return to surroundings that, given the middle- of- nowhere coordinates, are impressively indulgent.
DAY 7: Today we will leave the deserted plains behind and, depending on your wish, will reach the Atlantic coast or a most picturesque village high in the Anti Atlas. In the winter months, we recommend the latter. Then and there a subtle but undeniable transition happens: where desert vistas and acacia trees give way to abrupt cliffs, barren mountains and almond trees. Even clothes change: from touches of pink, turquoise or yellow, the garments are now sober, black being the predominant color. Only one hour drive away, you’ll wander through the 70 odd rooms of the local granary overlooking the village from 600 meters high and see where locals used to stock grains, raise bees and collect rain water. It was also used as a back drop in times of attack from a different tribe or the nomads from the Sahara on one of their ruthless razzias up north. After a Berber omlette and coffee in a local gite, trek up the river bed to find yourself in the middle of primordial gorges, their wax- like lava walls appearing to have caught time suspended. Natural pools of deep- green transparent water appear here and there, where fish swim. With a bit of luck, you and a couple of falcons will be the only ones disturbing the silence of this immemorial spectacle. The climb is sometimes steep but you’d do it again in a heartbeat. At the end of it, the 300 meter high gorge opens up into a lush valley and you can make your way back through the deserted plateaus above. Back inside the vehicle, a most stunning off road crossing of the Anti- Atlas follows, via one of the former piste des legionnaires. Just outside Tafraoute, stop for dinner and overnight in a 6- room guest house run by the most hospitable French hosts.
If choosing the other variant, after the visit to the granary and the gorges you will follow west, reaching the Atlantic coast at Sidi Ifni. As the road unfolds in turns and twists from Goulmine, reputed otherwise for its weekly camel souk, the hard light of the south softens into pearlescence, as moisture from the Atlantic layers the landscape in a prismatic haze and the argan trees and white washed houses come about. Follow the sea side route and stop at the natural beach arches before reaching Mirleft. Here the most amazing view over the Atlantic awaits you on the terrace of your accommodation for the night.
DAY 8: If you have decided for Tafraoute and if any energy left from the previous day, take a mountain bike through the local gorges and awe at the games of light and shade the palm grove and the bare mountains offer. The deep ochre rectangular houses are a landmark of the region. For thos interested, a few tracks are available for trekking or rock climbing. As you thread your way through the gorges and deep red villages, there will be a flash of quicksilver to your left: an oasis of deep- green water, ringed by a white granite bed of rocks, glinting in the sun. Swimming suit, anybody? The local painted rocks and Napoleon’s hat are also worth a detour. Or the Lion’s head… After lunch, take the route over the Anti Atlas and stop on the way to admire the 360 rooms of a local agadir, set on 5 stories where rock slabs are used as stair cases. Arrive in Taroudant in the evening. If you chose Mirleft, this town, far from the crowds and the concrete, lays claim to a windswept, untouched spot on the western coast with empty, golden beaches, clear blue skies and waves to surf on. On your way along the Atlantic coast, stop on the way at Sous Massa national park, one of the most diverse bird reserves in Morocco.
DAY 9: Today, our Morocco tour should be about relaxation. After all, it would be easy to spend a lazy day sitting on one of the deck chairs that await by the side of the pool. To not mention the vast tropical gardens where banana, papaya and cactus blend in with the other 800 plants brought from different deserts around the globe. Or have a Moroccan hammam and body scrub. But tempting as it is to remain permanently tucked away by the pool, it would be a shame not to get out into town. Not that it is some bustling metropolis. And that’s exactly the charm of it: Taroudant is a laid back walled town with its own quiet pace where most people go about on bicycles, a version of what Marrakech was like 20 years ago. Hop on a caleche ride around the city walls or visit a local bee grower shop and have a honey tasting session or try the local argan products. In the afternoon, cross the High Atlas at 2100 meters and a couple of hours later stop to visit the 12th century old mosque of Tinmel, the birthplace of the Almohad dynasty, once rulers of an empire stretching from Spain to Senegal and Libya. The influence of the Great Mosque of Córdoba (period of al-Hākam, who reigned between 961–966) can be seen in the use of multi-foil arches and in the mihrab’s masterly treatment. As you pass by Asni and its apple tree orchards, on your right you may just make out in the distance the Mount Toubkal, at 4160 meters, the highest peak in Northern Africa. Arrive in Marrakech in the evening. Drop off at your Riad/ hotel.
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