Thursday, January 10, 2013

Morocco Trip Diary: Atlas Mountains, Valleys and Gorges.

On our third day, we left Marrakech and started our tour through the south of Morocco. In total we spent five days and four nights moving through unbelievable landscapes and breathtaking views. Most importantly though, we were led by our beloved driver, Yahia. Yahia's English was, well it was functional and he is also mostly a quiet man. We spent hours in the car with him over the course of the week and Ben and I both fell in love with him. He might be one of the most honorable and just really good people we have encountered and there is no question he made our trip remarkable. A couple hours into the drive on the first day, as we hiked up the Atlas Mountains, he switched on some music that we then listened to on repeat for five straight days. It was some music from Mali that I am determined to hunt down. But I the south we go!

Yahia picked us up and within about an hour of leaving Marrakech, we had started our ascent into the Atlas Mountains. The views as we made our way up and around the bends of the mountains were stunning. Of which, I am sorry to say, I don't really have photos.

We spent the better half of the day making our way over the high pass, which means "pass of pasture". 
From here, we started working our way down into the valleys. We breaked for lunch in this random dusty old town, Telouet, after driving on a dirt road for about 45 minutes. The Kasbah here used to be a major thoroughfare on the former route of the caravans. Today, however, it is slowly deteriorating and been bypassed by a bigger highway that the French put in place. The Kasbah was in my opinion, the most beautiful we saw. Partly because it felt so abandoned and the setting was so unique. We were led up the trail by a local man, who gave us a very cursory tour and we half wandered around by ourselves. The light was gorgeous.

For lunch, we ended up in what was probably the only acceptable restaurant on the strip of town. We sat on the roof looking over the market flanked by mountains behind it. It was random and amazing and we felt like we were already in the middle of nowhere.

Back on the road again, we stopped at Ait Benhaddou. It is known now as a site for various films, including of course Gladiator. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and situated on a hill with a river running in front of it. Walking up to it, you do feel as though you are on a set somewhere. There are only a handful of families that still live in the kasbah and it was a beautiful approach to the city.

With our first car day drawing down, we made our way to Ourarzazate where we over-nighted. This was the first of four of the coldest nights of sleep I can remember. Truly and deeply cold. More on this later!

Our second day on the road was just as packed as the previous. Our drive worked its way through switch-backs, hills, valleys, and gorges.

The colors of landscape were gorgeous. And it seemed like the villages settled into the valleys out of nowhere. We were constantly remarking on the terrain and how surprising it was. At one point during this stretch of long, long roads winding around the valleys, we picked up a woman to drive her to another town. Yahia said it would just be a short distance. By the time we dropped her off, we must have driven at least 7 or 8 miles. The thought of her walking this distance up and around the hills was both remarkable and depressing. It was an interesting 15 minutes exchanging smiles and appreciation but not being able to communicate.

The afternoon was marked by gorges. We crept up hair-pin turns again first to the Todra Gorge. And, we also stopped for lunch where we ate outside in the middle of the canyon. Ben kept saying it was the most beautiful setting for a lunch he can remember.

After lunch, Yahia dropped us right at the start of the gorge and we walked through it with the rock walls shooting up on bothsides and water running through it. 

We ended the day with an overnight in the Dades canyon just outside the gorge. Driving into the canyon, the light was setting beautifully on the plateaus. We settled in for another impressively cold night. Have I mentioned how cold these nights were?

I should mention also that our days were filled with stops for tea with Yahia. Two to three times a day we stopped at random cafes. We would sit and watch Yahia mix and pour the teas (it is an art really) and then sip on teas, chatting occasionally but really just sitting and watching and resting.  Moroccans of course live by their tea and there are varied kinds from incredible mint to more calming, spiced teas. For one stop, we ended up at a gas station. All of the gas stations in Morocco also have roadside mosques for drivers to stop and pray. So there we drank our tea, watching drivers fill up on gas, just outside station mosque on a dirty, two lane road in the middle of the desert. Can't make it up! 

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