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Morocco - The Desert Run

By Kathryn Irons , 18 November 2016

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Morocco

Leaving Marrakech (and 45 degree heat) for a more Berber view on life as we head towards the Atlas Mountains and beyond. First stop – the Kasbah Bab Ouirka, set on a plateau above the Ourika valley. Managed by Steven, an Englishman enamoured by Morocco many moons ago, it is a perfect spot for those wanting some time to reflect on life after souks. Of course, that wasn’t to be, as we had a desert to see……but not before a detour to visit the Kasbah Tamadot, coincidentally at lunchtime. Sir Richard Branson’s Moroccan Retreat is everything you would expect and more. A very unpretentious place with exceptionally friendly service from the staff, the majority of which are from the nearby villages of Asni and Imlil.

Onwards to the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, an amazing drive over the High Atlas mountains towards Ouarzazate. Renowned as the centre of the Moroccan film industry (both Moroccan and international films are made here), it is the first of three possible choices for a (much needed) overnight stay on the way to the sand dunes at Merzouga. Passing through the towns of Ouarzazate and Skoura (choices one and two), the terrain takes a turn from mountain brushland to a parched wasteland as we start to wind down the  self proclaimed “road of 1000 Kasbah’s”, a small part of the changing scenery that leads through abandoned Berber villages with the occasional and very unexpected view of a lush oasis of palm trees and rose bushes – the area is also famed for the rose festival that occurs in May with the harvest for mass rose water production. Eventually this road will wind into Boumalne Dades (welcome to choice three), and a stop for the night at the Xaluca Boumalne Dades.

The following morning finds us on the road again with the Sahara (practically) in sight. First a bit more terrain spotting. The beautiful Dades Gorge is about an hours drive along the road, and viewed spectacularly from above. There is the added joy that either this is a very serenely driven route, or Moroccans are not in the habit of littering such hairpin roads with white crosses…………another 90 minutes on brings the market town of Tinerhir and the gateway to the Todra Gorge. Winding towards the bottom of the gorge passing through palmeraies more spectacular than those found in Marrakech (the gorge itself quite rightly a magnet for climbers).

Leaving Todra Gorge, tagine-ed up, marks the final drive through dry, salted land to the “patch” of the Sahara joined to Merzuga. 18 km of sand dunes reaching 250 m, to be exact in its “patchness”. Escaping the mind games of the camels that have taken us to view the sunset, another mint tea is waiting in the bivouac nearby. Hidden by the dunes, the tent sits with full cookery team waiting. Unfortunately we only get a very lovely version of afternoon tea before begrudgingly heading to stay in Erfound. The drive from Erfoud to Fez, the last of the epic drives, winds over the lower Atlas to the beautifully nicknamed “Switzerland of Morocco”….otherwise known as the Ifrane Valley. After days spent heading increasingly into scorched land it is a strange sight to see forests of cedar trees and skiing lodges. But there you go. Bring on the return to the imperial cities, and Fez – with the largest medina in the world and an all together more authentic experience. The last night in Morocco is spent in the lovely Riad Maison Bleue, the more informal sister to the Maison Bleue, and a fine ending to a fine trip. Or maybe that was the complimentary Kirker Moroccan wine. I guess some things are destined to remain a mystery.

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Morocco

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