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On to Marrakech and the Sahara Desert – Morocco

November 22nd, 2023

We left our little wild camp early today as we again wanted to do about 200 km / 124 mi with several stops enroute.  We continued southwest to the Dadés Gorge. The highway part of the drive was pretty unspectacular  but when we turned off and headed up the river gorge, there were a few quite amazing spots to stop and take photos.

We drove a total 30 km / 18 mi up the Dadés Gorge Road and then had to retrace our steps to get back to the highway.

At the beginning:

We saw three unrelated sites to the gorge:  mosques with large stork nests atop their minarets!  (Later we saw more in other towns too – must be a fave spot for nests!)

Here are a couple of them:

Then upon approaching Tamelalt we began to see the cool rock formations known as “The Monkey Fingers” – we would call them “rock fins”).  The sun was not in a great position so we took these photos anyway and will show more below from our drive back:

Then there was a short section where it reminded us of the Fisher Towers near Moab, UT – they, too, did not hold up well for photos until on the way back.

The third section was the serpentine road up the cliff side to the summit.  (We reached about 1800 m / 5609’ up there).  It’s not especially long (we’ve done many much longer ones) but it was fun and at the top we found the perfect view point to see the entire section:

Further up the road, the gorge really narrows and we took this video on the way through:

And then we turned around and began the drive back down to the main highway and got this video back through the narrow part:

At some points in this part on the drive back you can see the river down below:

This video is of the serpentine road going down which we almost had completely to ourselves:

When we reached the monkeys fingers again, we stopped for photos although some were still hard to capture as the sun was directly above the cliffs:

Click here for more photos.

Upon returning to the highway, we continued southwest to Skoura.  This is a large oasis area and a very famous Kasbah that you see on many brochures of Morocco is located (btw the road we’ve been on for the past two days is the “road of 1000 kasbahs!).

We passed through a city famous for roses although we saw none except this one in a roundabout:

Here is the Kasbah Amerhidil as we approached it on the gravel road:

We were directed where to park and decided we wanted lunch first.  The fellow at the gate said, “yes we could eat at the restaurant in the hotel but it was expensive” or he could take us a ten minutes walk to a local restaurant.  We chose the latter and he took us out the back way to a terrace restaurant.  Unfortunately, the walls on one side of the terrace prevent a 360ºview but we could still see around us.  We were the only patrons of the place until we were halfway done.  The food was quite good and included a small dessert.

A couple of young men came into the place and we chatted with them before leaving.  Mohammed was taking Stuart (a South African who lives in Dubai now) around and we exchanged contact info after we told him we’d be in Dubai early next year.

We managed to find our way back to the Kasbah and then paid our entry fee (40DH – $4USD) and spent about 20 minutes wandering through the rooms (without a guide) and climbing up to the terrace.

By now it’s after 2pm and we’d had enough for the day so we went to a wild camp in the palmerie that Fran found on park4night.  A woman with 3 children was nearby as we parked and Doug made balloon animals for her children.  A little later one other child showed up and he made another; then another small bunch of kids and then more and the more; we finally had to say no more as they were continuing to bring more and more.

It was hard to actually get rid of them even after the sun went down.  They just kept yelling “Monsieur, monsieur” and sometimes demanding a balloon in French.

After they finally left we had an undisturbed night in the palmerie after sunset:

Today it’s not quite as warm as yesterday and there’s more wind but it still about 24C / 75F and the sun is shining.

We woke to the coldest morning we’d had in a couple of weeks and didn’t want to dawdle very long.  We made our way southwest to Ouarazate, the “Hollywood of Morocco”.  Here you find Atlas Studios, the place where many movies have been made or at least had partial scenes filmed here (including scenes from Vikings and The Game of Thrones).

The Ouarzazate area is a noted film-making location, with Morocco’s biggest studios inviting many international companies to work here at Atlas Studios. The company was founded in 1983 by entrepreneur Mohamed Belghmi. Since then it has been able to expand, thanks to reliable climate and weather conditions, and because the area is of a nature that can mimic the natural environments of many countries well. The very first movie shot here was The Jewel of the Nile in 1985.  Other films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962)  and The Man Who Would Be King (1975) (shot nearby before this studio came into existence).

Others are:  The Living Daylights (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988),  Kundun (1997), Legionnaire (1998), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Gladiator 2 (2023) Kingdom of Heaven (2005),  The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Hanna (2011),  and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) were shot here, as was part of the TV series Game of Thrones, Vikings, Amazing Race 10 and Amazing Race Australia 6.

The nearby Ouarzazate solar power station, co-funded by the Arab League,] was connected to the Moroccan power grid in February 2016 and is one of the largest in the world.

Upon arrival into the city, we first hit the Carrefour Market – large supermarkets are hard to find unless you are in a bigger city.  You can imagine the film industry employs a great number of people here as well as the actors and crews that fly in, so this town has a lot more shopping, hotels, etc.

Then we parked near the touristy area and took a walk around taking some photos.  It’s a very clean city with a lot of kasbahs and kasbah looking buildings with lots of “souks” with many souvenirs.  The buildings here all have a salmon hue to them:

Museum of Cinema

Then we made out way to Atlas Studios to take a tour for 80 DH – $8USD each.

We did not have our hopes too high but it was a 45 minute decent tour and we got to see many sets and items used in the movies and see how they are all facades and are much smaller than you expect.  With special cameras etc. they can make things look much bigger.

We saw Egyptian sets (they actually created a façade and an interior section of Luxor’s Karnack Temple!), a Chinese set, Moroccan sets, Roman and Greek sets and where a commercial for Hermes watches was made; a building just for it, was created.  We found it on YouTube.

They had items from the first Gladiator movie (the second was just made here a few months ago), a car from the Italian Job, the bus from Prison Break and the plane from Jewel of the Nile parked in the front area before the tour starts:

Click  here for more photos of this part of the blog.

We were impressed and enjoyed this little outing.   Would recommend for sure.

There was a spot at a gas station that had hot showers just outside of town but upon checking them (they were not that clean and the shower curtains left something to be desired) we passed and decided to just use our shower so while the water heated up, we went in the café for lunch.  After showering we were able to fill our tank from the tap at the station (non-potable of course as we are drinking bottled water in this country).  (Seems what Doug had for lunch did not agree with his system; in the middle of the night, he had a bout of the runs.  Thankfully it only last a short while.)

As it was still early afternoon, we drove some more to a UNESCO site of a Kasbah at Ait Benhaddou – now we’re getting a little kasbah’d out so we only stopped at a viewpoint to see the site (also there were a lot of tour buses in town so we knew it would be crowded):

The site of the ksar has been fortified since the 11th century. None of the current buildings are believed to date from before the 17th century, but they were likely built with the same construction methods and designs as had been used for centuries before. The site’s strategic importance was due to its location in the Ounila Valley along one of the main trans-Saharan trade routes. The Tizi n’Tichka pass, which was reached via this route, was one of the few routes across the Atlas Mountains, crossing between Marrakech and the Dra’a Valley on the edge of the Sahara. 

Today, the ksar itself is only sparsely inhabited by several families. The depopulation over time is a result of the valley’s loss of strategic importance in the 20th century. Most local inhabitants now live in modern dwellings in the village on the other side of the river, and make a living off agriculture and especially off the tourist trade. In 2011 a new pedestrian bridge was completed linking the old ksar with the modern village, with the aim of making the ksar more accessible and to potentially encourage inhabitants to move back into its historic houses. The site was damaged by the September 2023 earthquake that struck southern Morocco. An early assessment of the damage reported cracks and partial collapses, with risk of further collapses.

We continued further upriver from here:

A ways further north of here we stopped to see a pretty dilapidated Kasbah at Telouet which we’d read was worth a stop.  This was also on the caravan route mentioned above. It is in pretty sad shape and in our opinion, the stop was not worth it but we got a few interesting shots:

Fran found us a wild camp about 5km / 3mi out of Telouet at 1700 m /  5578’ and we settled in for the  night.  Today was cooler reaching maybe 19C / 68F.  Another camper joined us before dark.

Today was a one police checkpoint today without being stopped.

We awoke Friday morning to cold!  It actually dipped to 1C / 29F and it was cold in Minou.  As we are not going to be able to refill our propane in this country (we filled before leaving Spain) we are trying to minimize the use of the furnace, actually trying not to use at all so we decided, let’s just get up and go!

Our destination to today was the famous city of Marrakech (aka the “Red City”).  In order to get there we had to drove back north through the Atlas mountains via the Tizi n’Tichka pass with a summit of 2260m  / 7414 ‘ .  It’s the highest major mountain pass in North Africa.

Marrakesh or Marrakech is the fourth largest city in Morocco. It is one of the four imperial cities of the country.  It lies in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

The city was founded in 1070 as the imperial capital of the Almoravid Empire. The red walls of the city, built in 1122–1123, and various buildings constructed in red sandstone afterwards, have given the city the nickname of the “Red City” or “Ochre City”.

After a period of decline, the city was surpassed by Fez. Marrakesh comprises an old fortified city packed with vendors and their stalls. This medina quarter is a UNESCO site. The city is one of the busiest in Africa, with Jemma el-Fnaa being the busiest square in the continent, and serves as a major economic centre and tourist destination. Real estate and hotel development in Marrakesh have grown dramatically in the 21st century. Marrakesh is particularly popular with the French, and numerous French celebrities own property in the city. Marrakesh has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco, with some 18 souks.

Come sing along with Crosby Stills Nash – Marrakech Express

♫W0uld you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair

Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth my mouth, my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellebas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All on board the train
All on board the train
All on board ♫

Approaching where we parked inside the city:

Like most big cities, there’s no great place for motorhomes.  Fran found a place both on iOverlander and park4night that is a large L shaped parking lot that has the short end of the “L” for larger vehicles and they offer power at an extra fee.  For 150 DH – about $15 a night, you can hook up, have access to water, use the toilets (and dump your cassette in them) and drain your grey tank.  It’s quite close to the Medina part of the city so really, it’s pretty good.

As we approached the city, we had already found a self serve laundry (we figure once we get further south, laundry might be harder to find in the smaller coastal cities so we may as well catch it up) and Doug dropped Fran there while he went to grab a parking spot.  Washing was 45 DH ($4.5) and drying was 15 DH for 15 minutes so not too bad and much less than we’d paid in Fez.

When Doug got Minou all settled (dumped, parked and hooked up) he walked over and help her fold and we walked back.

One thing we’ve had a hard time finding in this country is broccoli – we only saw it once at the last Carrefour and it was quite yellow.  There was a Carrefour about 3 blocks from the laundry that we saw on the drive in and Fran walked over while the clothes were washing and lo and behold they had fresh stuff and they had berries which we also often cannot find.

After the laundry was all dried and folded we walked back together, had brekkie and then Doug went for a run (since it was so cold this morning he put it off and it was too cold for yoga for Fran too) and Fran did her yoga.  Then we walked into the Medina for a bit just to check it out.

At the first square we visited, Place Jemaa el-Fna (which means “the last square” or “The place where everything ends”), we saw snake charmers (see pic above):

This is supposed to be the busiest square in the city but while we were there, early afternoon on a Friday, it was not crowded at all.

We had a short list of things we wanted to get here in Marrakech (including our usual country souvenir) so we walked around for a bit but didn’t really find anything.  We checked out another square called Place des Ferblantiers which is full of cafes and artisan shops:

And then when to the Bahia Palace but opted not to check it out after reading the signage.  We then walked back to Minou stopping at a pharmacy to get some cheap medications we wanted.

There are about 10 other campers here with us so far and room for more.  It was a 1 checkpoint day.

Saturday morning, we dawdled some before heading out; it was cool and overcast and we wanted to walk around the souks doing some shopping when it was a tad warmer.  Doug went for a walk around 9:30 while Fran caught up on website things.  When he returned around 11 we went out to walk.  It was still overcast but a bit warmer.  The sky never completely cleared today and only went up to 21C / 72F but it was comfortable.  Most of the other ten or so campers left this morning so including us, there’s only three today.

We walked into the medina through the largest souk in Marrakech and did some shopping.  When we reached the far end of the main drag we stopped for some lunch at a roof top place overlooking the famous former Islam college: Ben Youssef Medrasa.

We wandered through many different areas of the souk:

We finished our shopping on our way back and then felt like a treat; now many sweets here in Morocco are very sweet with honey and no chocolate so Doug googled around us and actually found a Baskin & Robbins! So off we went for ice cream and ate far too much.

Tonight (Saturday) it was much busier in the parking lot car wise – no new campers that we noticed and Sunday morning it seemed like it was a symphony of the Call to Prayer – like all the mosques were taking turns and it seemed to last a good 30-40 minutes – not super loud but just enough to be distracting and somewhat annoying before the sun came up.  Now since the sun is coming up later and later since we got to Morocco, they are beginning to let us a sleep a little bit more each day.  The first call of the day occurs an hour before dawn.

After exercising, showering and tea time, we left Marrakech.  We are going to head south now and are not really sure how far but we’ll see how it goes.  We want to be in Casablanca no later than the 13th of December to meet up with Christine and Mark before they begin their Moroccan tour on the 14th.  So today we decided to take a final drive through the Atlas Mountains (our third) through the area where the earthquake happened 2.5 months ago (a 6.8).  There is a different and faster route but not as scenic.  The roads are open we hear and the scenery is worth it.

So we headed out around 10 hoping to make it by mid-afternoon to Taroudannt – 223 km / 140 mi – we know it doesn’t sound like it should take long but we will be climbing and there will be lots of switchbacks and we don’t know for sure the condition of the road.

Click  here  for more photos of this part of the blog.

About 56 km / 32 mi into the drive we begin to see damage from the earthquake.    The epicentre of the quake was about 50 km / 30 mi from this highway.

The road (RN7) is supposed to be paved but it’s not great to start with and there is a lot of debris on the sides of the roads, sometimes the road is barely a lane wide and we see damage in the villages.

We also see a lot of tents that look like refugee camp tents and at one point we did pass a camp that had a sign saying it was an “earthquake victims camp”.  You could see porta potties and small mobile buildings that were probably showers etc.  (It felt a little intrusive to take these pictures so we tried not to take photos of people.)

At the town of Ouirgane, we saw lots of fallen down homes/buildings:

We did talk to a local when we stopped to eat breakfast and he messaged Doug later about his situation – not good and he claims the government is not quick to dole out the promised money and rebuilding help.  So sad.

When we reached the summit of the mountain pass at Tizi n’Test (2111m / 6925’) we met another fellow who also began messaging Doug that night claiming that he’d lost five members of his family to the quake – it was weird that he’d not told us this when we met as he did invited us for tea. (2,900 people died in the quake)

We arrived in Taroudannt by 3 and after parking in what was supposed to be a huge pay lot, but no one was around (and we were the only camper there) we went for a little walk to check out the city’s walls and some of the city gates.  The entire medina is within the walls and the walls are about 7km long with many gates.  There is even a former Kasbah within its own walls within the city walls but it is no longer around.

While the temperature here is warmer than Marrakech, the nights are about the same. We went through 6 checkpoints today – no tunnels.

We had a pretty quiet night and remained the only camper in the lot and the next morning, still no one came to get any money (it was supposed to be 20DH ($2).

We took this video leaving the city to show the extent of the city walls:

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We left before 9 and made it to Tiznit, before lunch.  The Canadian fellows, Jeff and Stuart, we met on the ferry coming to Morocco had been here at this campground and although they didn’t rave about it, it was a good stopping point and they have Wi-Fi – Fran is way behind on some internet stuff and hopes to catch up.

Here the temps are warmer and we love it.  It should hit about 25C / 77F today and cool off to around 10C / 50F so great for sleeping.

Targua International Camping has quite a few sites and offers power, water, Wi-Fi, a washing machine and of course, bathrooms and showers.  They have many people (mostly French) here who are getting work done on their motorhomes too (or maybe even spending the winter as some looked pretty settle in!).  There’s an Irish fellow named Brendon (who was a teacher in Brampton, ON and receives an Ontario Teachers Pension) next to us who’s been here about three weeks and is getting quite a bit done – his 26 year old vehicle looks brand new!

The price is 105DH (about $10.43USD) per night and it’s away from the main part of town so quite quiet it seems.  Abdul, the guy who runs it speaks good French, little English and little Spanish but we managed to communicate.

We have now decided we will head further south as there’s a national park down near the border with the Western Sahara that has North Africa’s only desert lagoon and it looks like a good place to see more dunes in the real Sahara.  It will add some miles to the driving, but we hope it will be worth it.

Today was a two checkpoint day without being stopped.

So Tuesday morning we were up earlier than normal and after exercising, showering, doing dishes and having tea, we left the campground around 8:45.  We headed south through Guelmim which is a large administrative city in this area and after passing through noticed they are twinning the highway to make a 4 lane road from Tiznit all the way down to Dakhla which is over 1000 km / 600 mi south of here.

We passed through two mountain passes today – one at 978m / 3209′ and one at 1089m / 3573′ and we think we’re finally out of the mountains.

The landscape is a whole lot of nothing but not uninteresting to us – reminded us of the coast of Peru but with some brush.  At one point we saw a “caravan” of camels in the wild:

We stopped in Tan Tan for lunch and here’s the roundabout at the north end of town that greets you:

And before leaving put 300 DH in the tank so as to be sure we had enough to get back here expecting that prices further south would be more due to lack of civilization.

We hit the coast just after the Tan Beach and stopped for some pics:

Well we were surprised!  Just before and in Akhfennir the price of diesel was at 11.90DH instead of nearly 14 DH per litre so we filled up as we are not sure how much further south we will go than the national park.

Before Akhfennir we stopped at the Devil’s Hole which was cool but even cooler were the cliffs.  The hole is quite large and it’s got a hole in one wall where the water comes it and it appears to be trying to create another on the opposite wall.

We walked the cliffs and watched this:

Next the Sahara Desert!

The Sahara Desert spans North Africa (see map). With an area of 9,200,000 sq km / 3,600,000 sq mi, it is the largest hot desert in the world and the third-largest desert overall, smaller only than the deserts of Antarctica and the northern Arctic.  The Sahara is mainly rocky hamada (stone plateaus); ergs (sand seas – large areas covered with sand dunes) form only a minor part (around 25%), but many of the sand dunes are over 180 m / 590’ high. There are salt flats, gravel plains and even mountains where snow has been recorded. According to botanical criteria the northern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the northern limit of date palm cultivation and the southern limit of the range of esparto, a grass typical of the Mediterranean climate portion of the Maghreb and Iberia.

You can see from the map above that the Sahara (the beige and brown shading) shows up in the far south corner of Morocco and touches the border in the south east.  The desert spreads all the way over through Egypt and on past Saudi Arabia.

First stop, the national park that is a wetland desert lagoon:

Khenifiss National Park is a national park in the southwest of Morocco, located near Akhfennir on the Atlantic coast north of the border with Western Sahara. It was established in 2006. The area of the park is 1,850 square km / 710 sq mi. The national park was created to protect desert, wetlands, and coastal dunes.

The park was first created as a natural reserve in 1960, and in 1980, it was classified as a wetland of international importance. In 1983, the natural reserve was transformed into a Permanent Biological Reserve, and on September 26, 2006, the national park was created.

The park includes a coastal portion, the Khenfiss lagoon, the biggest lagoon in Northern Africa and the inland portion, is located on desert plateaus. The lagoon is also an important bird nesting ground. Ruddy shelduck, marbled duck, and Audouin’s gull inhabit the lagoon permanently, and a big number of species migrate here in winter. Every year, about 20,000 birds stay in the lagoon area in the winter season including flamingoes.

We arrived at the park around 3:30 and found a place to park – the camper area is huge and we were the first ones here so we had a good pick.  We chose a spot with a view and then went for a walk on the set pathway.  Unfortunately there are no dunes right here but plenty across the lagoon.  (this is making us want to go further to get into the Sahara dunes tomorrow!).

There are supposed to be a lot of birds here and we saw heron and gulls and there was a big flock of flamingoes across the water and the odd one closer in.  Even with Fran’s 80x zoom it was hard to capture them on film:

There is a small dock here with a few small wooden boats but we’ve read nothing about tours.  We did see one boat come in with a few people who had umbrellas, a picnic basket, chairs and a couple buckets of fish.  Not sure if they were actually locals but they did speak French and did not look Muslim.

Around the dock looking down from the cliffs we could see small schools of fish:

Today we passed through 8 checkpoints including one where we got a speeding ticket for doing 82 in a 60 zone (cost 300DH $30USD) – we both must have missed that sign as we were looking at this overloaded van:

We often see these overloaded hay trucks too:

Only one other checkpoint actually stopped us and just wanted to see passport and vehicle registration.

We managed to enjoy  a cloudy sunrise at this location the next morning:

In the morning the tide was still low and we couldn’t see the flamingoes at all.  Our plan today was to find some dunes in the Sahara!  We did not want to go as far as the border with Western Sahara so we’ll see.

Side bar:  we’ve mentioned that we’ve been really impressed with the cell coverage here in Morocco.  Even here in the middle of nowhere we have four bars!

We had about a 20 second batch of misty more like fog rain shortly after we left on our search for dunes in the Sahara Desert.    Just after that we passed an area where they are mining for salt:

We began to see dunes on either side of the highway on and off but kept hoping for closer and bigger ones.  We decided the tiny city of Tarfaya would be as far as we go.

It’s at N27.939734, W12.92773 and 42 km / 26 mi from the Western Sahara border but not quite as far south as we were on Gran Canaria in October.  Here’s Fran standing in the Atlantic pointing to the Canary Islands:

The town was founded by a Scot named Donald McKenzie (who called it Port Victoria) in 1890 and here he built a fort which is now called “Casa Mar” and it sits in the water on a rocky sand bar:

The town is pretty dead and very dull looking but the beach was nice to take a walk on – wide beach with the tide really low:

Click here   for more photos of this part of the blog.