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november 29, 2004 -> Shoulder of the Sahara: morocco

“Most of Morocco is not really Sahara at all, but a benign version of the Sahel, cut off from the true desert by the North African coastal mountains, the Atlas ranges, and the Moroccan Rif.” –        From “Sahara” by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirle 

It was already November, too late for longer hikes in Morocco's mountains.  Even in Marrakech, we had been shocked by the temperatures at night.  Still, we wanted to experience a bit of alpine Morocco, as well as its Saharan fringe, so we rented a car and headed east.   

Several years ago, we had been enraptured by a photo in a travel magazine of a rooftop terrace.  The terrace was smothered in cushions, and had snowy mountains as a backdrop.  We could taste the mint tea, feel the mountain air.  We had long forgotten the name of the place, but our scrambling partners in Jordan had been there – the Kasbah du Toubkal, just a few hours from Marrakech.  We were determined to go, though at US$80 per night (not including very expensive meals), we could only afford one night in bunk beds. 

The drive from Marrakech had been very pretty, particularly the last hour, as we motored up a beautiful valley cut by mountain runoff.  At Asni, we parked our car, had our backpacks loaded onto a donkey, and trudged up a forested knoll that rose above the village.  (The truly lazy can ride up on a donkey.)  Atop the knoll, commanding the surrounding valley like a pioneer fort, sat the Kasbah du Toubkal.  After registering and collecting our bags, we headed straight for the terrace.  There were the cushions.  There were the mountains – including Jebel Toubkal, North Africa's highest at 4167 meters.  The sun was beaming down on us.  It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. 

When the sun dipped below the mountains, however, things got cold fast.  We took a long bath in the traditional hammam (a fantastic perk) and then sprinted back to the main building.  Only then did we learn that the electricity was out.  It was cold in the dining room and freezing in our bedroom, and I was beginning to feel queasy.  The tajine that we had for lunch had not set well, and the scalding/freezing water of the hammam might have been too much of a shock.  I skipped dinner, and spent the night alternately shivering and sweating under an enormous pile of blankets.  The fever broke at 4 am.

The next morning, we started off early.  We had a long day of driving ahead.  Unfortunately, we managed to take the wrong road, twice.  I was grumpy after my horrible night, and snapped at Nori for alleged bad navigation.  Much later than we intended, we found the main highway that stretched from Marrakech to Ourzazate, a mid-sized city on the other side of the Atlas Mountains. 

The highway began to climb, and palm trees were replaced by Atlas cedars, holm oaks, maritime pines, and later, the endemic argan – a short, gnarled tree not unlike the Joshua trees of Southwest USA.  Shepherds burst from the woods bearing rocks that they opened with a flourish, revealing clusters of shimmering purple, red, and green crystals.  Roadside souvenir stalls displayed thousands of fossils – proof that the Sahara had not always been so dry and lifeless.  At the top of the 7000-feet high Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, it was difficult to imagine that we were at the edge of the Sahara.  The formidable High Atlas Mountains - frosted with snow even in summer – marked the western boundary of the world's largest sandbox, a seemingly endless stretch of gravel, sand, rock, and unknown ranges that stretched to the Red Sea.   

Our goal for the first evening was Ait Ben Haddou (“ABH”), a fantastic mud brick village with several kasbahs that had been restored and used in numerous films.  Unfortunately, Moroccan road signs leave much to be desired.  There is often signage in only one direction, forcing you to look in your rear-view mirror to see if you missed a turn-off.  We turned at the first sign that said ABH, which was evidently the road taken by large 4WD vehicles participating in an off-road rally. Luckily we turned back after a half hour; ten kilometers down the highway was the actual road to ABH, which was newly paved.   

A string of oases and villages follow the Draa River as it snakes south from the mountains.  It was terrifying driving through them at night.  There were no streetlamps; no one had flashlights or lanterns.  Pedestrians, bicyclists and donkey carts appeared out of the gloom, giving me little time to honk or swerve.  More than once I had to steer around people having a conversation in the middle of the highway.  In these dusty villages, the highway was the meeting place, the public plaza, and the football pitch.  To make matters worse, passing cars kept flashing their high beams at me.  I was a wreck when we finally made it to Zagora, the last town of any size before Mauritania. 

The return drive was more relaxed.  We took side-trips through the palm plantations, drove to hidden kasbahs, and stopped often to take photos.  It was amazing to see the Tuareg men – the old nomads of the Sahara – with their headscarves wound around everything but their eyes.  Against the bleached and blinding landscape, the burst of green of the oasis was refreshment for the eyes.  Along the roadside, kids raised boxes of dates for sale.  They tasted good, but not as excellent as the gigantic dates that we had recently eaten in Siwa, the Berber oasis on the other side of Sahara.  We had visited both shoulders of the Sahara; I hope that later we will experience its heart.