Everyone was a little sad to leave behind our desert adventures, but there were more waiting for us as we boarded our van about 9am and turned west towards the Todra Gorge and M’Goun Valley.
Little more than an hour later Jamal wheeled us into the parking lot of Macro Fossiles Kasbah in Erfoud, a business that specializes in extracting, processing, and selling fossils.
During the Paleozoic Era 300 million years ago, northwestern Africa was covered with a shallow sea teeming with prehistoric marine life. As these animals died and sank to the bottom, they were covered with layers of sediment that eventually turned to rock. The hard shells of some of these life forms were hardened along with the sedimentary rock, while other shells were dissolved and replaced with other minerals in the resulting “molds”. When the waters receded and the Atlas Mountains were formed, large chunks of this rock were brought to the surface where they were discovered by humans.
Some fossils are found in slabs of rock at the surface, but much has to be excavated from below using machinery and much human labor wielding picks and shovels. Large chunks and slabs are hauled to the shops where large saws with water-cooled blades slice them to precise dimensions. Desirable flat pieces with good specimens are then polished to high luster, suitable for beautiful countertops and coffee tables. Smaller pieces are finished for plates, sculptures, bowls, candle holders, etc. Trilobites, Orthoceras and ammonites are the most common fossils found here. Since the late ‘90s, the “trilobite economy” has exceeded $40 million annually, becoming the most important industry in some southeastern towns.
Proceeding west another 25 km we arrived at a flat, rocky area that was dotted with
hundreds of low mounds of dirt, marching off into the distance in straight lines. What we were looking at was an ingenious method of irrigation called a khettāra or qanat, that has been in use over a thousand years, that transfers water from a reliable source to arid regions some distance away.
A vertical well is dug down to a water source, and underground lateral passages called galleries are dug at a slight decline, so gravity carries the water to the end point. Multiple shafts are dug down for maintenance about every 10 meters with a mound of dirt at the surface to provide visibility after a sandstorm. The gallery terminates in a sāqiya, a system of irrigation gates & channels to distribute the precious water. When the water table and output drops, the gallery and well are extended if possible. If not possible, the oasis is abandoned and moved to another location.
Along with physical structure of the system is the social aspect, which grants water rights to families based on complicated formulae involving labor donated to building and maintain the khettāra, inherited family rights, political influence, etc. The shaykh as-sāqiya (“water chief”) is the person an irrigation community elects to oversee the sāqiya and khettāra.
Mustapha led us down a narrow stairway into the gallery which was completely dry right now. Digging these passages would not be fun for anyone with claustrophobia! He also demonstrated a human-powered winch used to remove buckets of sand and dirt when they were digging and maintaining the system.
After a quick stop for a tasty Maroc lunch at Restaurant La Kasbah we made our way down the road to the spectacular Todra Gorge. Located near the town on Tinehir on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains, this deep cleft through the limestone rock was carved by the Todra and Dades Rivers over the centuries, leaving 400-meter cliffs with a narrow passage between. The Todra river was dry when we visited, but multiple small springs provided a steady if low-volume flow of clean water. During rainy periods the gorge can turn into an impassable torrent. A popular tourist spot, the canyon draws thousands of visitors on holidays. They were some visitors and a few vendors as we took a leisurely walk through.
Another couple of hours of driving brought us to M’Goun and our lodging for the next two nights: Gite d’Etape Tamaloute, a traditional Berber dwelling with a French name, made from mud bricks. Everyone enjoyed a nice meal on the patio under the stars and were ready for some rest after a very interesting day.
Monday October 18th was day 9, starting with a tasty Maroc breakfast in “the cave”, a narrow room with a low ceiling and 3 small windows that seemed to be carved out of mud. Our morning activity was an easy trek through the surrounding valley, walking along paths through fields of alfalfa and barley and groves of dates, figs and apples. We stepped across irrigation ditches with diverter gates that ran along the perimeters of the crops. and walked up into the village across the valley from our gite. Two men were working on an addition to their dwelling, mixing reddish mud with straw and shoveling into a form, then setting the bricks aside to dry and harden.
The most famous aspect of the area around M’Goun is the Vallee de Roses, which produces between 3,000 and 4,000 tons of wild roses every spring. The Damask rose that blooms here is prized for it’s distinctive scent, and most petals are shipped to French perfume houses. Each season ends with the Festival des Roses, a boisterous celebratory event lasting 3 days for locals, tourists and especially buyers from abroad.
Back to Gite d’Etape Tamaloute for a delicious lunch of Moroccan omelet & chicken skewers, and then a trek up the hill to a local family for tea. Fatima showed us how she brews Moroccan tea, from cleaning & rinsing the tea pots, heating the water, adding the spices and (lots!) of sugar. It was delicious with a different flavor than the typical mint tea.
After our tea service, Fatima’s daughter and a friend applied intricate henna patterns to the hands of the women, and then dressed everyone in Berber party clothes for photos. While chatting we discovered that many locals do not know their exact age as they do not keep personal records. Many of these villages are so remote it is difficult to stay in school which may be far away, with no public transportation. It was a wonderful experience that was thoroughly enjoyed by all.
Back at the gite we had another yummy dinner on the patio with goat or chicken tagine, (and maybe someone had some wine). Once the dishes were cleared away we were ready for the entertainment! Six men in flowing white djellabas and four women in beautiful bright robes and scarves performed traditional songs. The men kept a steady beat with drum and tambourines while they all sang and chanted, dancing choreographed steps.
This turned out to be a big celebration for the whole village – the first gathering since Covid had isolated most folks. It wasn’t long before many of our group and local children were up and dancing with the performers, and other local men brought out their own drums to play along. A truly wondrous evening under the stars with people from so many different countries and cultures.
After breakfast in the cave Tuesday morning, we say goodbye to Gite d’Etape Tamaloute and head out of town, with a quick stop to admire the Skour Oasis from the road, a beautiful oasis filled with almond, fig, and olive trees, and date palms. Mustapha now has a special treat for us, taking us to his nearby hometown to meet his parents. His father speaks little English so we can’t get any funny stories from him about his son, but he serves us some delicious mint tea in the new addition. Afterwards he shows us around the place, and we sample some almonds from a large pile that are curing in another room.
One more stop before we leave the Valley of Roses at The Rose of Dadse Oasis, an agricultural cooperative that extracts and distills the local Damask roses and produces (and sells) rose oil, lotions, powders, etc. I did not buy any…but others did!
Btw, remember what I said about each city having a distinct color for their taxis? Guess what color the taxis are around here!
Next - we pull up at Kasbah Amridil, one of the largest fortified residences in Morocco built in the 17th century, that was previously featured on the 50 dirham note. A humorous guide gave us a great tour showing what it was like to live in this large kasbah, with multiple kitchens, living rooms and storage areas, and ingenious methods for heating and cooling. The large central building has four large towers and a lovely open courtyard, with smaller buildings around the insides of the walls.
After lunch in Ouarzazate we checked out Atlas Studios which claims to be the world’s largest studio at 30,000 meters2. First used for Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, other film credits include Alexander the Great, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, The Mummy, Star Wars, Gladiator, and many others. There was no filming at the moment, so we did not want to pay the fee to go in and wander around, but there was a snake charmer outside playing his flute for a cobra, with a green snake around his neck.
As a huge fan of Game of Thrones, I was very excited to see our next location - Ait Benhaddou – a perfect example of a ksar (fortified village) built on a hill overlooking the Ounila River. Remember the Battle of Yunkai - when Daenerys fought the slave masters and Second Sons to free the slaves? This was the place! The iconic walls and towers of this UNESCO World Heritage Site have been featured in many famous movies throughout the years.
We parked the van and walked across the dry riverbed into the walled village, which is a jumble of shops, towers, small and large homes of reddish-brown mud-clay, marching up the hill. One shop featured a beautiful assortment of Berber rugs, carpets and tapestries, where the proprietor explained the different weaving techniques and Berber symbols used in the patterns. Farther along an artiste demonstrated a painting process known as pyro aquarelles, whereby he uses different pigments to paint a picture which is not visible until he wafts the sheet over an open flame, causing the image to appear. We saw several shops along the way demonstrating this process with many beautiful paintings of various sizes and complexity, depicting Moroccan & Berber themes.
Continuing up the hill we passed other shops and stalls before arriving at a small terrace near the top, Some men had 2 camels tethered to the wall, enjoining tourist to have their pictures made next to the animals – for a small fee, of course. One more climb led to the summit where a monolithic watchtower stood guard. It had a commanding 360° view of the surrounding valley – a strategic advantage when the caravan route to Marrakech passed by.
Next morning we are back on the road, winding up through the Atlas Mountains once again, stopping a few times to gaze at and take photos of the rocky and rugged peaks rising above us. We also enjoyed a quick visit to the Cooperative Feminine D’Argan. Argan oil is used for cosmetics and food, and has been a product of the Berbers in southern Morocco for centuries. Picking and grinding the nuts has been a very labor-intensive process that has been modernized in recent years, and co-ops have enabled local people to purchase modern pressing equipment so they can compete with foreign processing plants. I think most of the women bought some product – I didn’t.
Signs of urbanization start appearing along the road and we soon roll into Marrakech, making our way as far as possible into the old city and the medina. After unloading our bags into some human-powered carts, we bid a fond farewell to our driver, Jamal. He has done an excellent job of navigating everything from one lane mountain gravel roads to 8 lane toll roads and we are all grateful.
Our last 2 nights are in a riad near the big square. The rooms were nice, but the a/c never worked in ours, and the hostess was rather abrupt and smoking cigarettes as we checked in. Mustapha led us to Jamaa el-Fna for a tasty lunch at L’Table, and back again for dinner after dark. The square was busy as always, but this time there were many local families with young children, as the holiday of Milad un Nabi was just winding down. We all sat at a big table under one of the tents while the merchants cooked and served us a variety of Moroccan dishes.
For our last full day of the tour, we started off with Yusseh - a great local guide. He walked us over to the Bahia Palace, a large complex of rooms, chambers, courtyards and riad gardens begun in the 19th century. The outermost rooms are rather plain, where anyone off the street might enter. Progressing inwards the décor becomes more ornate, and the people allowed in are more selective. There are beautiful examples of mosaic walls and doorways, painted ceilings and ornate fountains.
Yusseh then led us across the square to Herboristerie Bab Agnaou, a two-story spice shop near Bab Agnaou, one of the 19 gates of Marrakech. We sat down in a comfortable room upstairs that was lined with bottles and jars of colorful substances, while two gentlemen gave us a comprehensive and humorous description (and sales pitch) for dozens of spices and herbs. We all found this to be highly entertaining, and everyone, (including me!) bought packets of saffron, tagine spice, curry mixes, harissa and more. Can’t wait to cook with some!
After a quick lunch all the women were off for a luxurious Moroccan Hammam, a spa treatment similar to a Turkish Bath. Guests are pampered with a steamy start, followed by bathing & scrubbing, and finishing off with a relaxing massage.
Since we would be flying into the USA soon a Covid test was required and we walked to the same clinic where Skylar had her test 2 weeks ago. $40 each for PCR tests. We received our negative results by email the next morning.
Mustapha and his brother have their own tour company called Roaming Camels and they loaded us into their Mercedes van for our final dinner together. They took us to Bistro La Saveur, a French/Euro restaurant in the new section of Marrakech where we enjoyed good food & drinks while we reminisced over our recent adventures traveling through this amazing country.
And this brought to a close one of the most exciting adventures of our travels, as well as making more great friends from 4 different countries. Fair winds and safe travels to Mustapha, Alina, Bruno, Cassy, Enea & Nicole, Joy, Lisa, Nadja, Rachel & Somea.