Deserts in the Middle of the Mountains

Erfoud, Morocco


Kareem and I left the Medina and Fez bright and early Sunday morning under gray skies headed for the city of Erfoud. The streets were virtually deserted, which was strange for me. Usually the streets in a Muslim country on Sunday morning are packed as Sundays in virtually all Muslim countries is a regular work day (Friday is the Muslim Sunday). But not in Morocco. Morocco follows the Western tradition of the Saturday and Sunday and hence the deserted streets on Sunday morning.

Anyway, we headed out of Fez driving east and up into the Atlas Mountains,w hich run through the middle of Morocco. The mountains are divided into the Middle Atlas Mountains and the High Atlas Mountains. Over the next three days I would travel through both ranges on the road to Marrakesh.

As we drove east and commenced the climb into the Middle Atlas Mountains away from the agricultural land of the lowlands, the air became much colder and I found myself outright cold in my t-shirt. I looked at the outdoor temperature on the car gage and saw it had dropped from 22 C in Fez to 16 C in less than 30 minutes. Yikes.

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Driving towards the High Atlas Mountains

About an hour into the drive, Karem pulled off the road so that I could see Dayet Aaoua, a freshwater lake popular with the locals in the heat of the summer. Unfortunately there was no heat here so I had Karem open the back of our vehicle so I could get put my hoody on. A little warmer, we set off once again.

As we drove, the region became more mountainous and trees began to dot the hillsides. Karem informed me that the trees were oak, cork and giant cedar trees, which the Atlas Mountains are apparently famous for.

Our next stop was only about a half hour later in the village of Ifrane, a quirkly little place designed to look like a Swiss Alps village. The town is famous for its very exclusive university, the Al Akawayn University that was constructed by the Kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Apparently students come from all over the world to study here. There is also yet another Royal Palace in the town – spectacular and as usual … no admission.

We stopped in a coffee shop, and I made a classic faux paux. I went to use the restroom, which took me down a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs there were two sets of stalls. The right was filled and there was a couple women standing talking, so I used the left side which was wide open. When I came out to my horror I find a line of men and the female attendant (who had not been there when I walked in) yelling at me in Arabic. Apparently the left side was the men’s bathroom. Anyway this woman kept yelling at me, while everyone (including me just laughed). Uh chill out lady … you need better signs. (I actually did find a sign over the doorway when I walked out, but I failed to see it when I walked in …. Oh well I gave her the 1 durham she was demanding (men don’t pay if you can believe that) and walked out with my head high. It also helped that when we got in the car I left my classic mistake behind.

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Barbary ape

We drove higher into the Atlas Mountains driving towards the town of Azou. As we drove, Karem informed me that we would be passing through an area where there are monkeys. Huh? Monkeys in the Middle Atlas Mountains … who knew. I learned that they are actually called Barbary Apes and are on the endangered species list. I was fortunate to see three of them and even stopped to give one of them peanuts.

We reached Azou by midday and Karem asked if I would mind if we stopped so he could particpate in midday prayers. Nope. Feel free. So as Karem headed over to the mosque, I wandered around and looked at the mostly shuttered shops in the tiny town. There were a few women on the street selling large circular loaves of bread (used for dipping in sauces and scooping up meat and are a staple at every Moroccan meal), but that was about it for action in the town.

Once Karem returned, we left Azou. It soon became decidedly warmer, the land flattened out and it became dryer with scrub grass and desert like conditions everywhere. As we approached the bleak little city of Midelt we officially left the Middle Atlas Mountains. In the distance I could see the High Atlas Mountains which we would be crossing next.

The drive up and into the High Atlas Mountains south of Midelt became much more interesting as we headed up through the first of many passes before leveling off into dry desert flatlands. Surprisingly, the air did not become cooler as I expected, but instead became hotter as we drove closer towards the Sahara.

The most remarkable scenery was the sudden appearance of large date palms and ksours (fortified villages from the middle centuries) just after the south of Midelt and smack dab in the heart of the desert. Ksors were used as servicing centers for the caravans moving goods from south to north and vice versa.

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Oasis in the desert

The appearance of date palms and ksours also signaled the presence of a water supply that apparently runs through parts of the high desert It was remarkable to see the swath of date palms that began quite suddenly and continued for many miles before suddenly stopping and then picking back up once another source of water became available.

As we continued on to Erfoud, we would periodically pass above enormous gorges, known as the Ziz Gorges, only to have the land level off into the desert/date palm pattern. Karem pulled over every now and then so that I could take a couple pictures and out of nowhere a young man would appear trying to sell me trinkets or camels made out of date palm leaves. Selling begins early in this country I guess.

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Ksour in the High Atlas Mountains

The young men would also ask for empty water bottles, which Karem told me were quite valuable because most people in the area have to go to local springs to fill up water bottles for their water supply so I took to collecting my bottles and giving them to Karem to either toss out the window at outstretched arms as we drove by or to hand over when we pulled up somewhere.

About the same time we started seeing the swath of date palms, we also started seeing homes and buildings constructed from mud and clay and all painted in the same pinkish hue (known as rouge de Marrakesh). Apparently, it is a law in Morocco that all buildings south of the Middle Atlas Mountains must be painted the same colour (seriously).

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Barrage Hassan Addakhil and reservoir

At one point we passed by a spectacular water reservoir and dam known as Barrage Hassan Addakhil, which was constructed in 1971 to harnass the Oued Ziz (river) to provide an irrigation source and electricity to the region.

By late afternoon we approached Erfoud, a soulless little town that is the gateway to the Sahara. Apparently some tourist minded government official decided it would be a good idea to build a bunch of touristy hotels in the style of kasbahs (fortified residential areas) with an overkill on Moroccan themes and have the tourists trapes into the desert for rides on camels at sunset.

Unfortunately, the town was also one of the few places to stay on the way south to the Todra Gorges (which we were headed to the next day) so I was taken kicking and screaming into this horrible looking fake kasbah. Fortunately, I would be staying in a real 17th century kasbah the next night so for now I would suck it up and hang with the tourist pack. And let me give you an idea how kitchy this hotel was… I walked into the lobby and a fellow with a flute like instrument began to play… when I walked back outside he stopped. Geez … is this Vegas?

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Village abutting oasis

Anyway, Karem asked if I wanted to take a jeep ride to Merzouga, which is where the Sahara technically beings, to watch the sun set (with all the other patsies) and I reluctantly agreed. I was actually exhausted and had not been feeling particularly chipper all day, but I didn’t want to hurt Karem’s feelings so off we set.

Uh bad idea. The ride was soooo bumpy, I thought for sure I was going to be sick in the jeep. I asked Karem to tell the driver to slow down a bit (the driver was a particularly sour dude who did not acknowledge me at any point during the drive).  The driver did slow down after being asked, but I think he then took to going over the bumpier sections of the dirt road just to make me feel worse.

When we arrived at Merzouga and the beginning of the Erg Chebbi dunes near the Algerian border, I immediately wanted to turn around and go back. Standing in front of me were more camels than I could count and two ridiculous hotels. YUCK. I immediately made it clear I would not be getting on any retched camels and set off on foot to the top of the closest dunes. As I walked, I was immediately tailed by some Bedouin fellow who would not leave me alone. First he said he just wanted to help me to the top of the dunes, then he wanted to take pictures for me and then … wait for it … he wanted me to buy some fossils (for which the area is famous) and some Bedouin jewelry. Uh no buddy, I am not buying anything. Every few minutes the fellow would bring it up again. I finally told him to buzz off, but he continued to hang around.

The sun finally began to set and I have to say it was underwhelming to say the least. I think one of the problems was that I had already experienced a desert sunset in Wadi Rum in Jordan and NOTHING will ever compare. It was just me, the desert and the sunset. (In fact, I almost got lost walking back to the desert camp in the dark. Moreover, the experience wasn’t some faux desert safari with sour looking camels. I experienced a day hiking in the desert and stayed at a Bedouin camp in the middle of the desert without a hotel in sight and nothing but sand, stars and some blankets.)

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Jeep stuck in the desert

I hiked back down the “dunes” and actually saw the best thing about the trip to the desert. Three guys with a jeep stuck in a huge desert dune. The poor guys were gunning the engine and spinning the tires and going nowhere. I have no idea how long they had been at it or how long they planned to continue, but anyone could have told them that they were never get out of that sand without some serious towing.

Anyway, I got back in the jeep and the driver took me back to the faux kasbah. It had been a lovely drive, but the hotel and the desert trip were a black mark on an otherwise good day. Thankfully, I could just go to bed, wake up and leave this ridiculous tourist trap behind.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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