Sometimes when you don’t have a plan, you come up with shall we say; not the best of plans but still manage to pull it off!
The plan- Drive from Marrakech to Fez, the long way round!
Head south-east first to the desert, then north to Fez taking in the best of Morocco along the way- all in 3 days!
A big round of applause to the guys from Morocco Explored, who at the last minute said, ‘Yes, it can be done’, when others said- “No it’s too far”. They also provided us with two of the coolest drivers and some well-coordinated tag teaming to help us make it happen.
We were told we had over 3 days of driving covering over 1500km. This would see us across all three Atlas Mountains – Twice!
Leaving Marrakech early morning, we headed to the Middle and High Atlas mountains on the Tichka pass.
When you say Morocco, people often don’t think of snow capped mountains, but these mountain ranges are both spectacular and so diverse with constantly changing landscapes. Parts of the Middle Atlas could have passed for a landscape from Europe; cherry blossom, dense wooded forests, apple plantations.
Delightful colourful restaurants line the river banks offering fantastic Moroccan tagines, homemade cous cous and, of course, olives and mint tea. And when we say the restaurants line the river, you may actually get your feet wet!
The landscape quickly changes to rocky, arid and steep. A climb to the waterfalls above the city Fatima can be a little hairy and a little less than dignified at times but is worth having a local Berber boy push you by the butt up a rock face for the view at the top.
These mountain ranges are the home to Morocco’s traditional Berber tribes. Small villages dot the side of the road, as well as those perched impossibly on the sides of the highest peaks.
With the High Atlas reaching over 4,000 metres, it’s mind boggling to think people live up here traditionally with only a donkey and their own steam for transport. One young man who guided us up to the waterfalls walks 5 hours each way up and down the mountain to find work in Fatima- not surprisingly; he only works 3 days a week!
Aside from farming, local Berber women have established women’s cooperatives throughout the Atlas Mountains, harvesting and producing the extremely rare Argan oil from the Argan nut endemic to the area.
Harvested in spring by the women, traditionally the nut was fed to the goats who then digest them breaking down the outer coating. The nut was then retrieved from the goat dung, not unlike the coveted Lewak coffee of Indonesia, toasted and processed into a range of products ranging from oil to beauty products.
Ok – sifting through goat dung is not everyone’s cup of tea and the process may not sound terribly savoury but the end result is beautiful. Especially the lovely butter type dip served with a light roti style bread. It is nutty, chocolaty and incredibly delicious. This small industry is vital to the local economy along with the cultivation of numerous herbs which are processed into medicinal, culinary and beauty products.
After making it over the dizzying heights of the High Atlas, we start to head closer to sea level on our way to the World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou.
Ait Benhaddou is a village of clustered Berber Kasbahs dating back more than 12,000 years. The site was once one of the most important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road when caravans brought slaves, gold, ivory and salt from Saharan Africa to Marrakech and beyond. More excitingly, it has been used as the location for more than 20 films and popular TV series. Starting to look familiar?
Some of the films made here have included Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator and more recently Game of Thrones, season 3. This is the setting for Yunkai, the Yellow City. Walking through these ancient Kasbah’s you have to remind yourself this is actually not a movie set but was once a busy and thriving trade stop.
The mud brick, incredibly ancient structure has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. It is also still home to local Berber people who live in parts of the old Kasbah, maintaining it by the same building methods of 12,000 years ago. This explains the suspicious but faint odour of donkey manure in the walls as you walk through the narrow lanes and buildings.
Passing through Ouarzazate and many Berber villages sprinkling the Skoura oasis we spend the night in the Valley of the Rose.
Early the next morning we are taken by a lovely local man through the old Jewish village. An oasis of small farming plots, hidden in the middle of a busy little province surrounded by barren hills and an otherwise dry landscape. These little plots have been handed down from generation to generation and are integral to the local community.
As we walk through the incredibly serene garden environment, we notice the small plantations of alfalfa and wheat. Orchards of almond trees, dates, apples, cherry blossom, apricots and much more. It is peaceful, beautiful and more incredibly; abundant!
This central oasis also houses small clusters of ancient kasbahs. Among these kasbahs, a mosque dating back hundreds of years which is still in use today. Lit by the same olive oil lanterns used over 200 years ago, the building is still functional in its original form.
After some local Berber chiropractic techniques, a visit to a local Berber pharmacy was in order as we were all suffering various ailments that come about from travelling, one of them being the flu. The only answer according to Mohammed was Berber medicine.
A strange substance was crushed, wrapped in fabric and rubbed vigorously across Mohammed’s hand. It was then jammed up our noses with the order to inhale. Our sinuses were clearer than they had been in days!
It was in the Valley of the Rose we had to coordinate with a new car and new driver. This was part of the well organised, last minute coordination that made this road trip possible. Back in the car for a short drive to the massive fault dividing the High Atlas mountains; Todra Gorge- the sheer rock walls rise to 300 m in its narrowest part.
For the rest of the day, we travel alongside the Anti Atlas mountains in desert country to get to the Sahara.- Two big days of driving down. We are all pretty tired but still had to negotiate our camels and travel into The Sahara for a night in a traditional Berber camp.
Read More on Planning a Trip to the Sahara Desert
After an incredible night in the Sahara, we still had another full day of driving to get to Fez. An early start on the camels to meet our driver and start heading north.
One of the highlights of this road trip was the local food stops recommended by our second driver. He knew we weren’t into the tourist type lunch stops, so went out of his way to ring local places in advance to order things like Nomad Pizza. Imagine a cross between a calzone and a pizza made traditionally by the Nomads. Flat dough stuffed with finely chopped meats, almonds, onions herbs etc. Amazing!
The town of Zaida in the Midelt province has an incredible street lined with restaurants. Each of these establishments is both local butcher and restaurant. Displays of fresh meat hang in front of the shops and smoke wafts like an advertisement as the men fan small traditional wood burners cooking an array of tanginess.
This town is known as a traveller’s stop, Moroccan people say they are obliged to stop and eat here on a long journey to support the local Berber people. I think they all stop because the food is amazing.
Choose your tagine and make sure you order the Kefta. This is like a lamb rissole or burger patty. Minced lamb seasoned and grilled, usually served with slices of tomato and cooked onion on top. Zaida did the juiciest most tender Kefta we have had. Maybe because the meat was so fresh from the in-house butcher. A huge meal of Moroccan salad, lamb & vegetable tagine and a big plate of kefta and we were glad we had a driver, it was snoozy time in the car!
Back past the Anti Atlas, over the High Atlas and Middle Atlas again and we finally made it to Fez . Another long and very interesting day of incredible changing landscapes.
Three full days of driving, a visit to the Sahara and, some incredible stops along the way. A road trip was the most amazing experience and absolutely the best way to see Morocco.