Trafraout, Ait Mansour Gorge and the Palm Valley Oasis

An early morning departure from Taroudant on the road to Tafraout took us through the outskirts of the city – passing school children and livestock on the road, as well as a charcoal kiln operation just beginning to belch smoke. The Anti-Atlas range appeared quickly and we began a climb to start quite possibly the most beautiful drive so far. A fitting beginning to one of the best days on the trip. 

The route to Tafraout is spectacular. PreCambrian rocks in bedding planes subjected to massive deformation in the past, mountain peaks, valleys – absolutely breath taking colours.

One sobering detail is the lack of people. The road into Tafraout travels through an area where climate change has made the biggest impact on any areas I have visited on the planet. Up until 50-60 years ago the area in the Anti- Atlas was farmed intensively, a rich producer of  agricultural products.

Climate change has resulted in extreme drought conditions gradually spreading over the region. The terraces that the vanished farmers created for their crops still remain, as do Argon trees which can go dormant for years and resprout from the base when the rains come. It may be a while.

Even the prickly pear cactus is wilting. Small villages remain here and there in the landscape – many deserted at least partially – its inhabitants moved to the city in search of a way to make a living.

Once we reached Tafraout we took a quick orientation walk through the market before departing the city for the famous Ait Mansour Gorge Palm Valley Oasis and its accompanying villages.

A different vibe in the village, more conservative dress for women and men with black covering most women from head to foot. A lovely surprise was a face scarf blowing aside for a moment revealing a face of delicate beauty with impeccable makeup and a glimpse of what looked like a designer dress.

 Another truly memorably drive to Ait Mansour Gorge, complete with whiplash curves.

The drop down into the Palm Valley oasis in the gorge was stunning. The villages in this oasis are scattered along the river flowing through the bottom of the gorge. At one point 3000 people lived here, now 300 remain.

We were met by a lovely man who led us along the gorge bottom to his home where we enjoyed a couscous and chicken lunch and chatted with his family.

A magical lunch in a magical place. Our walk back though the oasis to our transport was a peaceful one as most of the villages inhabitants were at the local market in Tafraout purchasing supplies.

One final stop on our ride back was at Chapeau du Napoleon -a village set under a huge rock escarpment resembling Napoleons hat. An odd place – large more opulent homes, all shuttered and locked up.

A ghost town, inhabited only by wealthy people in the summer months. Not a positive impact on the community. Our local guide was excellent as always and we enjoyed a day that not many get to experience. Icing on the cake was finally finding my Berber rug in a local shop – bargaining was fun and the shop owner high fived me when we came to an agreement 🙂 The rug is now carefully packaged and ready for its trip home.

Tomorrow we leave for the coastal town of Essaouira – until then Inshallah 


Anti-Atlas, Berbers and Taroudant

Our long journey today took us through what is known as the anti – Atlas range – a lower range than the high Atlas on a ride of spectacular beauty. Massively deformed bedding planes in the red hills, coupled with the ruins of an occasional Kasbah, small villages, herds of goats and sheep all along a winding river bed surrounded in many places with date palms was stunning.

I have spoken about cemeteries earlier  on this blog, how bodies are aligned on their right side, head facing east and how traditionally graves are not marked except for stones. Although the practise of not marking graves with names is slowly changing – many traditional graveyards still exist. Stones are placed at the head end of the grave and at the feet of the deceased person and all graves are facing Mecca – head first. Size difference was apparent in the resting place we visited today, small distances between head and foot stone indicated children, longer spans indicative of adults. A few actual markers were also present.

Berbers or Imazighan

A good deal of the travel time was taken up with a discussion on the indigenous people of North Africa living west of the Nile Valley – who we know as the Berbers – but who are actually the Imazighen (or free people)

The connection between the Imazighen and the land is strong as is their belief in freedom. Although many have settled in towns and cities, 20% of the Berber population still practises the nomadic life- most in the Saghru mountain area in the High Atlas. 

Successive waves of outside peoples entered Morroco over the centuries. The first were the Phoenicians who established trade routes, the next were the Romans who had other interests, the Romans were followed by the Arabs, then the Portuguese, Spain and France. The Berbers  were named by the Romans – loosely  translated it means wild ones or barbarians – who considered the nomadic indigenous people  as uncivilized according to their standards….. . The  language is one of the oldest in the world and was finally recognized in 2004 in Algeria and Morocco and is now taught in schools in both countries. One interesting Berber festival in the High Atlas is called the Festival of Marriage. The beginning of this festival arose from a Romeo and Juliet like a story of a boy and a girl – who wished to marry but were prevented from doing so by their families who were in conflict with one another. The young couple died from sorrow after crying for 40 days and nights – their tears creating two lakes (a version of cry me a river ). Their families reconciled after the tragedy and began the festival in the area of the two Lakes. This where nomadic boys and girls can meet. At the end of the festival all the young end up in a circle. A boy will point a stick at his bride of choice – if she accepts she takes the stick. If she does not she breaks the stick. Nice and clean in any case 🙂


Dropping down out of the Anti-Atlas took us through Saffron fields, Argon orchards, olive and citrus groves. The Moroccan oranges are right up there with the Mexican ones I have enjoyed so much during my travels there. Large herds of goats inhabit this region – some climb trees and we stopped to photograph their acrobatics. What the owners of the Argon trees they were munching away on while 20 feet above the ground thought is unknown…..

Taroudant is our stop for the night. We are here for two nights to recuperate from our busy schedule, as well as get some laundry done. The hotel is lovely and I plan to spend sometime at and in the pool tomorrow.

Sahara (Erg Chigaga), Zagora/Taroudant

A glorious dawn sky ushered us out of Ait Ben Haddou. Colours intensified as our vehicle travelled east through another series of whiplash inducing switch backs descending to the Draa valley, a major oasis for Camel Caravans reaching the area following transiting the Sahara or coming out of the High Atlas Range and heading into the desert.

52 days was the usual transit time for caravans departing Timbuktu to the Draa which must have been a welcome sight for weary travellers. The unique geographical position of Morocco allowed it to become a major transit point for goods moving between Africa and Europe. The trade routes that existed between the two continents as well as the Silk Road through Asia have begun to interest me – the seed of another journey has been planted 🙂

Many kasbahs and villages can be found along the river. A large dam on the Draa helps control water usage with each village having its own time to irrigate.

Once past the town of Zagora we stopped at a lovely hotel Riad for lunch

and transferred our luggage to 4 X 4’s for the 90 minute drive into the Sahara to our tented camp at Erg Chigaga. Our drive was accompanied by ear splitting Berber music with occasional bits of Euro techno rock thrown into the mix. Dust hung in long furrows behind each vehicle as the area we passed through gradually became dryer and the sand deeper. Along the way we met our first camels including a new born baby. 

Following a drive that was at times like being in a blender we arrived at the tented camp. The tents were lovely and the late afternoon – glorious ! 

Riding a camel has been on my list for a long time. With appropriate head gear in place, off we went.

Berbers do not name their animals so I called my lovely ride Annabelle. She took very good care of me during our sunset ride. Saddles are fitted and shaped to keep you in the right place particularly when a camel gets up – Butt first -and lies down – front first. Arrival back into camp at dusk to the echos of camel calls accompanied by caravan leaders songs and chatter was magic. Magic which continued into the night with drumming, songs  and dancing around the fire following dinner. The night sky was brilliant with stars and shooting stars, a moon rise at around 9 completed a perfect evening.

Our tents were equipped with heavy comforters and extra blankets but some of us were still cold as temperatures dipped to below freezing overnight in the clear air. The sunrise did not disappoint nor did the first cup of coffee in the doorway of the kitchen tent.

We said good by to an incredible place way too soon and headed out of the desert to meet our main transport van before headed back to Zagora and then on to Tamegroute.

Tamegroute is the site of a famed Islamic library of ancient texts as well as the home of the Moroccan green pottery valued by many collectors. A tour through both facilities rounded out our day. The Moroccan green pottery is manufactured in a 17th century kasbah – an example of Moroccan earthen architecture.

The green colour is a result of the unique mixture of minerals found in the clay in the area. Although working conditions were medieval, the product was certainly beautiful.

Mint tea has a special significance  in Berber culture. Tea time is when the entire family gathers to visit, speak and listen. Green tea is added to the pot, followed by hot water, mint and sugar.

The higher the tea is poured from above the glass the happier the hosts are to see you, which is also indicated by bubbles in the tea and the direction the tea pot is facing. Happy hosts equals a tea pot spout facing the guest(s). Tea not poured in front of the guests indicates a host not very happy to see you. An interesting late afternoon tea time with lots of questions about Berber life and customs.

After a night in Zagora – we leave tomorrow for Taroudant in the anti-atlas region via the carpet manufacturing towns of Tazenakht and Taliouine, where saffron is harvested. Stay turned!

High Atlas and the Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah

We left Marrakech in a light drizzle which followed us into the High Atlas Mountains.

Drizzle turned to light snow on the ground and then as we descended into glorious sunshine and warmth following the approximate path of the camel caravans of old which took weeks to move from beyond the Sahara through to Fez and Marrakesh. A journey we will make in less than 24 hrs. Salt was a huge export of Morocco. Slaves, marble and gold moved north.  Rocks here date from over 500 million years ago – deformations and bedding show evidence of intense pressure and stress over the millennia.

Red sandstone is the predominant rock type – Berber villages seem to meld into the hillsides. Villages follow the road which traces the route of the Caravans and the Wadi (river) supporting fields of vegetables, fruits and olives.

Climate change is making serious inroads here as many villages are being deserted as a result of the continuing desertification.  Following a drive along what has been included in the 12 most dangerous highways in the world we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou  a UNESCO heritage site.

Kasbah’s are not an invention of a Bill Murray movie but are fortresses which in the past served the same function as a medieval castle in England. The kasbah was the defence for the areas surrounding it and in times of trouble a refuge for people living outside it walls. Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah was a fortress and stopping point along the caravan route from the Sahara to Morocco and is a lovely example of Moroccan clay architecture.

Rock the Kasbah refers to ascending the fortress and taking it over at its highest point. We did that today in close to 60 Kmh sand filled winds which blew some of us over, exfoliating faces and any exposed flesh in the process. A couple of brave souls ventured out in the wind to take our victory photo.

For those of you who are Game of Thrones or Gladiator fans you may recognize some of the locations 🙂 Other films shot here include Kingdom of Heaven, Babel and Lawrence of Arabia. It was an experience walking where some of my favourite actors over the years have walked before me. 

After a visit to a Berber carpet factory we headed back to our high desert hotel and enjoyed a traditional Moroccan meal.

We leave early tomorrow for the Sahara and our tented camp. 

Marrakesh

Marrakech 

 One of the strengths of G tours is the in depth treatment of religion and different tenets of Faith characteristic of the country you are travelling in. Our CEO, a Berber from the Atlas Mountains, began a discussion on Islam that lasted through a good part of our journey south through a rapidly drying landscape to Marrakech.

Unlike conversion to other faiths, conversion to Islam is accomplished with the following statement. “There is no true deity but Allah and Mohammad is the prophet of God”. The 6 beliefs of Islam are 1) Belief in Allah (God) 2) Belief in Angels 3) Belief in Gods revealed books 4), Belief in the prophets and Messengers of God 5) Belief in the Day of Judgement 6) Belief in Al-Qadar.  The Five Pillars of Islam are religious duties to God, personal spiritual growth, caring for the less fortunate, self discipline and sacrifice. 

To my best understanding after winnowing through a lot of information, souls are thought to leave the body immediately following death. Coffins are not used – just shrouds – for burial and after 40 years, another burial may occur on top of the first one. Gravesites are not marked and have no pilgrimage importance. Bodies are arranged facing east towards Mecca. The concepts of heaven and hell are similar to Christianity – your Final Destination based on your activities in your lifetime.

Sunni (85% of Muslims) and Shia Muslims are divided based on their beliefs on who should  have succeeded the prophet Mohammed upon his death in 632. The Sunni felt that a new prophet should have been elected at that time, while the Shia felt that the position should have been awarded to a member of the prophets family. As a result Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected leaders, instead following the leadership of a line of Imans they recognize as being appointed by God or the prophets family. Significant problems have occurred throughout history as a result of the divide. Something other religions share…….

Our arrival in Marrakech was greeted by brilliant sunshine. Sandals and t-shirts replaced socks and fleece before we headed into the main square in Morocco for dinner and to breath in the atmosphere at the UNESCO heritage site Jemaa el-Fnna. I first came to know of the square through James Mitcheners novel the Drifters.

Jamaa el Fna market square, Marrakesh, Morocco, north Africa. Jemaa el-Fnaa, Djema el-Fna or Djemaa el-Fnaa is a famous square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter.

We had a really good time – BUT here is a survival guide. 1) get a map and orient yourself to the geography. If you arrive from Mohammed V avenue –  to your left are the food stalls, further to the left are grocery (fruit and veg) stalls, straight ahead and to the right are dancers, musicians,buskers of all kinds, games etc etc. The souks are beyond the square. The food stalls are only up at night. 2) People are going to try and sell you things – that is how they put food on their table. If you aren’t interested in something do not even look at it. The restaurant punters are aggressive but if you wait until a little later to eat when the tables have filled somewhat you won’t feel so much like bait fish in a lagoon surrounded by sharks. If someone does approach you we said we just ate with a smile – we were then told how slim we were and that we needed more food – lots of laughs finished off the exchange and away we went. We did eat at one place and it was excellent! 3) Leave big cameras, passports etc in the hotel safe. Take just enough cash for the evening and carry it in an inside pocket. The smoothies and dried fruit are excellent and well worth spending a few dollars on even if you decide to have dinner. Vendors were friendly. After our dinner we wandered around, bought smoothies and dried fruit, watched the full moon rise though smoke from cooking fires, checked out the dancers, drummers  and other entertainment. 4) If you video or watch a performance long enough you will be expected to pay for the privilege – 2-10 MAD will do the trick. 5) Same with photos – if you take photos of anyone or any animals expect to pay. 6) watch your back, stay sober and enjoy the chaos 🙂   One final suggestion – hire a reputable guide – trust me it will be worth every penny!

Marrakesh day 2

Today started with a historical walking tour beginning with the Jewish quarter,

continuing on to the Bahia Palace and Saadian Tombs, before finishing with a walk through the Marrakesh Old Medina.

and wonderful cooking class/ lunch in a local Riad. 

Arab homes (Riads in Morocco) are built facing inwards contrary to western homes. While westerners tend to display their wealth, Arabs consider their wealth a very personal thing. their homes are focused inward on central courtyards with very little indication outside that anyone actually lives there. Many are accessed through narrow dark alleyways. The Riad were we cooked and lunched was a beautiful example of this.  Wonderful day!

Having said that – I definitely preferred Fez over Marrakesh. Fez is a very underrated destination and I highly recommend visiting it. 

We leave Marrakesh tomorrow for Ait Ben Haddou (an ancient Kasbah (Fortress village ) a UNESCO world heritage site in the Atlas Mountains. Apparently we are going to “Rock the Kasbah” – how that unfolds in a group of 55 Plus folks (with two exceptions – my apologies ladies) remains to be seen 😂.

Until then “Allah yahmik”

Fes

Famous for the best preserved Medina in the world, Fez-el-Bali, as well as the first University in the world. 9500 alleyways weave through 2.8 sq km of Medina. An area which many residents never leave and which is a world unto itself. 

Our day long exploration of Fes began with a walk though the Mellah or Jewish Quarter.  Established in the 16th C in the newer part of the Medina – the Jewish quarter once held a population of 250,000 – a fraction of whom remain. Residences are located over shops with balconies overhanging the street – contrary to Arab style but similar to new Orleans. Shops were just opening for the day as we wandered through the narrow alleys past cafes, hair salons, hotels  and markets.

A spectacular view of the Jewish cemetery with its white headstones

was visible from our vantage point overlooking Fes and the surrounding valley, the road climbed effortlessly by our transport van. 

Following the photo op, we descended into the city and plunged on foot into the ancient Medina. It is difficult to describe the narrow streets – some barely accommodating a person and with no daylight from above. Narrow rabbit warrens of alleys open up suddenly into restaurants or shops. Windows are non-existent – all light comes from above (if there is any) My sense is that you could walk for days in the maze and never follow the same route twice. Organization of the superficial chaos became slowly apparent – butchers in one area, fruit and vegetables in another, leather, weaving, metal work – all with their own areas.

Our local guide navigated it seamlessly and kept the vendors at bay. If you venture in,  hire a reputable guide for your first visit – do not grab a guide outside the Medina as they will take you to the nearest shop owned by a relative and things can get ugly if you are not interested in buying anything. A highlight of the tour was the tannery area which allowed some spectacular photo ops. If you are interested in leather there are some gorgeous items there. Be prepared to bargain – one of our group members bargained the price down a couple of hundred dollars for a spectacular jacket. What seems to work is starting at about 60% of the asking price and you meet in the middle – having said that, it is not an amount set in stone. Bargaining is expected here and part of the enjoyment of the purchase  – saying give me your best price is vaguely insulting to merchants – it is fun to haggle and the purchase generally ends with good spirits all around. 

The tanning process starts with lime and ends with cow poop and pigeon guano – i knew all those pigeons are around for a reason….   Men work in the vats daily – some getting right in there with the hides. The smell was interesting 😑 – sprigs of peppermint supplied by the facility’s owner were given to us to use to ward off the worst.

Following a few hours of a bewildering walk though just about everything you can imagine (and some stuff you probably cannot – the camel head story will have to wait until I get home) and following a quick lunch we exited the Medina and headed for our calligraphy class. 

Islamic calligraphy is not what I expected but a rigorous academic pursuit that requires years of training and includes many different styles. My experiments with a calligraphy pen were unremarkable 🙃 but at the end of the session our instructor did something very unexpected. We each gave him our name or something we wanted him to write on a piece of decorative paper to take home. Here is mine.

The translation “Travel widely and the crescent will become a full moon” 

Tomorrow we travel to Marrakech. 

Volubilis and Meknes

Mist and a light drizzle interspersed with breaks of sun followed us we exited Casablanca bound for Fez via the UNESCO heritage sites – the Roman ruins of Volubilis and the old Médina of Meknes.

North western Casablanca is an agricultural bread basket – orderly fields ready for planting surrounded the winding highway that followed the coast north.

Olive trees, lentil and chick pea fields, plus mosaics of market garden type enterprises were common, interrupted with occasional herds of sheep, goats and cattle. Chickens followed the animals in many cases. Working dogs are interestingly enough absent.

A steady ascent from the fields led us to Volubilis a Roman town which flourished from the 1st to the 3rd centuries. Garrisons left the town in the 3rd century – recalled to Rome to battle the ever increasing pressure of the so called pagan tribes who eventually over ran Rome. Despite the resulting societal upheavals and looting of the site by leaders from Meknes for building material, some residents stayed and other locals moved in. People were still  present in the town in the 1700’s when the great earthquake that devastated the area completed its destruction. 

Excavation began in the 1950’s, with much work to be done. Infrared photography has shown the extent of the town and as Roman towns were all built on the same plan archaeologists know where to look for public buildings as well as homes. G Travel continues to impress me with the quality of their local guides and this gentleman did not disappoint. Beautiful mosaic tile floors have been excavated

and we explored the ruins of several homes, as well as a dining area complete with ornamental fish pond and vomitorium (area where wealthy Romans went to vomit so they could eat more at their feasts.) In my mind, one of the earliest documented cases of bulimia.  For you “Gladiator” movie fans can you recognize the set of one of the pivotal scenes in the movie???

The patrician Roman class had terrible teeth, one reason being the continuous assault by stomach acid on enamel caused by their activity at the vomitorium. Water pipes lined with lead, together with a lack of antibiotics to counteract sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis resulted often in lifespans that typify the phrase “short and happy”. I suspect that the Plebeians (working class) and slaves had lives that were also short but not so happy. Another example of a situation discussed in length by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse – the wide gap between haves and have nots contributing to the downfall of a society. Echoes surround us today.

G travel does one of the best jobs I know of supporting the communities that they travel through through their Planterra foundation. Today’s lunch was a Mhaya Village community lunch prepared by the women who staff a foundation that benefits rural women and children.

Literacy is still at around 32% in their country, affecting mainly older women. The foundation fund provides vocational training for rural women allowing them to find employment that supports them and their families. We met some amazing women and enjoyed an incredible meal of local chicken cooked in an amazing sauce of apricots, spices and olives. The olive oil here is amazing 🙂

The fortress city of Meknes a UNESCO heritage site is considered to be at the agricultural centre of Morocco, reaching its zenith under ruler Moulay Ismail in  the late 17th century. Stories and legends swirl around this man including a harem with hundreds of wives, hundreds of children etc. Busy man. The old Médina is easily accessed through a number of gates and did not disappoint.

Ismail had succeeded in creating a goodly number of enemies and set out to build a fortress that would withstand years of warfare and siege. The remains of the huge granaries and stables provided some outstanding photo ops as our excellent local guide – another Berber – opened doors for us into a distant past.

We entered the city of Fez following a long, wonderful day.