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On to the Dunes – Morocco

November 14th, 2023

After a pretty quiet night at the campground outside Fez (where 18 other vehicles were also spending the night) we showered in the ablution block, emptied, dumped and filled our tanks and went on our way.  Today we are heading sort of northwest to the outer most edge of the Roman Empire!  Now we’ve seen a great deal of Roman ruins but this being what it was, we had to go!

Volubilis is a partly-excavated Berber-Roman city in Morocco situated near the city of Meknes that may have been the capital of the Kingdom of Maurentania, at least from the time of King Juba II.

Built in a fertile agricultural area, it developed from the 3rd century BC onward as a Berber, then proto-Carthaginian, settlement before being the capital of the kingdom of Mauretania. It grew rapidly under Roman rule from the 1st century AD onward and expanded to cover about 42 hectares (100 acres) with a 2.6 km / 1.6 mi circuit of walls. The city gained a number of major public buildings in the 2nd century. Its prosperity, which was derived principally from olive growing, prompted the construction of many fine town-houses with large mosaic floors.

The city fell to local tribes around 285 and was never retaken by Rome because of its remoteness and indefensibility on the south-western border of the Roman Empire. It continued to be inhabited for at least another 700 years, first as a Latinised Christian community, then as an early Islamic settlement. In the late 8th century it became the seat of  Idris iban Abdallah, the founder of the Idrisid of Morocco. By the 11th century Volubilis had been abandoned after the seat of power was relocated to Fez. Much of the local population was transferred to the new town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, about 5 km / 3 mi) away.

The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in 1755 and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes. It was not until the latter part of the 19th century that the site was definitively identified as that of the ancient city of Volubilis. During and after the period of French rule over Morocco, about half of the site was excavated,  revealing some of the more prominent public buildings and high-status houses were restored or reconstructed. Today it is a UNESCO site, listed for being “an exceptionally well preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire”.

We drove a “shortcut” route directed by our Organic Maps app (our GPS does not work in Morocco as it’s only Western Europe).  Once we left the highway outside Fez, the paved part of the road became just wider than a one lane road so often when meeting other vehicles we had to put the right side of Minou on the dirt/gravel shoulder.  Then we hit four kilometres of real dirt road through a very rural area before reaching some very pot holed paved road and it got better as we approached the holy city of Moulay Idriss.

Then we hit highway again for about 500 metres before the last 1.5 km stretch was bad pavement.

The site had a couple of tour buses at it but it’s so large we didn’t feel the crowds.  A guide approached us after we paid our 70DH ($7) entry fee and we decided to hire him but we should have confirmed he could do it in good English.  We asked him for an English tour and he said yes but it turned out as soon as he heard Fran could understand French, his sentences were either all in French or a combination of both.  It was a little frustrating as his accent was not good either.  Oh well, it only cost us 100DH and we helped out a local.

There were temples:

houses or rather the remains of them:

private baths:

a large public hamam,  canal water ways, an aquaduct:

a good number of mosaics:

The columns of a capital building:

and a Triumph Arch.

This was a pretty good visit and we did not regret making the detour west on our way south.  The extent of the Roman Empire and what remains is quite fascinating to both of us.  We drove through the city of Meknes without stopping and began to actually head south.

Today the temperature reached up into the very high 20’s C / mid 80’s F in this area.

We continued on south on the RN13 (we are heading to the dunes near the border with Algeria) and climbed up to 1500 m / 4921’ into the small town of El Hajeb and then continued a little further past Azrou to where the barbary macaques live in the wild.  There is a picnic area here where we wild camped.  We saw some of the monkeys on the drive into the small area and Doug went for a walk after we parked and saw these:

We did not pass through any tunnels today but we did go through one police check point.

It’s a little cooler up here at 1700 m / 5571’ and it only reached 24C / 75F but it sure cooled off overnight – when Doug went for his run it was barely 5C / 41F!  We hope to spend tonight a little lower down….

It was again a beautiful sunny day that warmed up to about the same as yesterday.  We did climb to over 2200 m / 7217’ at one point today in our drive.

As you see from the picture below, Morocco has lots of mountains and the majority are considered part of the Atlas mountains (you can see the Rif mountains in the north).

One thing we’ve noticed here in Morocco is that cell reception is very good unless you are waaaaay off the beaten path or sometimes in a mountain pass for just a few seconds.  The main national roads (so far) are all 4G with 4 bars.  A second thing that we’ve noticed is that, at least on the highways we’ve been on – lots of national roads – there are very few tractor trailers.

We decided to drive to about halfway to the Erg Chebbi Dunes today.  It’s nearly 400 km / 250 mi – so too much for one day for us.  We did manage to get diesel at 14.01 DH (we’ve seen it as cheap as 13.99) and filled up.

Along this drive we passed seven police checkpoints and were actually stopped only once.  It seems Minou was doing 70 kmph in a 60 zone and they gave Doug a ticket for 150 DH ($15) on the spot and he paid it.

Fran found a wild camp next to a gas station with a large parking lot and although it’s not super close to the highway, there is still some road noise (nothing that can’t be reduced by a pair of ea plugs) but it’s not a super busy highway this far south.

Friday morning, we were on the road shortly before the sun came up and continued further southeast reach the dunes.  We went through one last mountain pass in the Atlas Mountains that reminded us of Highway 128 near Moab – tall reddish cliffs with a river at the bottom.

We made a few stops once we began to reach the “palmeries” (a place where date palms and other things grow – sometimes referred to as a an oasis).  These stretch along the Ziz River and provide water to date palm groves and many little “ksars” (mud home villages sometimes within a Kasbah) where people live and cultivate the dates and other produce.  This stretch of palmeries is said to be 125 km / 77 mi long but the highway does not follow it completely.

We stopped a few times for photos and took video while driving.

Date palms reach up to 30 metres (100 feet) in height, growing singly or forming a clump with several stems from a single root system. Slow-growing, they can reach over 100 years of age when maintained properly. Date fruits (dates) are oval-cylindrical, with colour ranging from dark brown to bright red or yellow, depending on variety. It can take 4-8 years before a tree begins to bear fruit.  A mature date palm can produce 70-140 kg / 150-300 lbs. of dates per harvest for 7-10 years. Containing 61–68 percent sugar by mass when dried, dates are very sweet and are enjoyed as desserts on their own or within confections.

There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in Arabia from the 6th millennium BCE. The total annual world production of dates amounts to 8.5 million metric tons (9.4×106 short tons), countries of the Middle East and North Africa being the largest producers and consumers. Dates are “emblematic of oasis agriculture and highly symbolic in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religions”.

Dates are naturally wind-pollinated, but in traditional oasis horticulture and modern commercial orchards they are entirely hand-pollinated. Natural pollination occurs with about an equal number of male and female plants. With assistance, one male can pollinate up to 100 females. Since the males are of value only as pollinators, they are usually pruned in favor of fruit-producing female plants. Some growers do not even maintain any male plants, as male flowers become available at local markets at pollination time. Manual pollination is done by skilled labourers on ladders, or by use of a wind machine.

We stopped in the small town of Aoufous which was supposed to be a fine example of these ksars, but we’d see better examples on the road here.  There is a Thursday souk here so we missed it by a day.

Then we stopped in Erfoud to see a cool little shop where they sell items made by black marble only found in the Atlas Mountains.

Fossil Black Marble is a captivating natural stone that boasts a dark gray background, creating an air of mystery and elegance. This remarkable marble is distinguished by the presence of large and well-preserved shell fossils, which provide a unique and eye-catching feature to its surface.

Quarried in the Atlas Mountains, specifically in the Souss-Massa-Draâ region of southern-central Morocco, Fossil Black Marble is a product of the ancient geological processes that have shaped the earth’s crust over millions of years. The fossils embedded within the stone offer a glimpse into the past, telling a story of the area’s prehistoric marine life and creating a sense of timelessness in the present. Each slab of Fossil Black Marble is a unique work of art, with the distinct patterns and variations in the fossils making every piece one-of-a-kind.

We browsed the shop; first is a room full of large items including dining room tables:

a table top full of trilobites!

And then you go downstairs to the small stuff:

Here we picked up a few gifts for Christmas and a sample for ourselves to add to our rock collection that we have in storage.

Then it was on to Merzouga to the dunes – our destination for today and probably a few days.  Fran had found what seemed to be a great camping place in an “auberge” (inn) that had so many great comments on both iOverlander and park4night.  Arriving at La Gazelle Blue, Mohammed met us, told us to pick a spot and then gave us a tray with tea to enjoy on his roof top terrace with a view of the dunes.  His auburge is right at the edge of them.

Erg Chebbi  is one of Morocco’s several ergs – large seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand.  In places, the dunes of Erg Chebbi rise to 150 meters from the surrounding hamada (rocky desert) and altogether it spans an area of 28 kilometers from north to south and up to 5–7 kilometers from east to west lining the Algerian border.  Whether it is part of the Sahara desert or not, is up for dispute – there is not difinitve answer as the sand here is said to be river deposits and not connected to the Great Sahara desert, but it is located within the geographical boundaries of the desert.  

Although rainfall is not very common, in 2006 flooding adjacent to the dunes destroyed many buildings and killed three people.  Erg Chebbi’s proximity to the tourist center has led to the erg sometimes being referred to as the “dunes of Merzouga”.

After enjoying our tea, we met the couple parked next to us; they are from Italy and have been to Morocco before and we picked their brains and they gave us some suggestions. There is one other camper in the lot and later in the day two more arrived.  The place can take a few dozen, so by no means is it full.

Mohammed has a good set up here; there are hot showers, running water toilets WITH toilet paper and soap, an area with sinks for washing dishes, and the roof top terrace.  Of course, there is dumping of black and grey and fresh water.  He also offers dinner options if you so choose.  There is an area beside the reception room where he serves what his wife makes.

After getting settled, we had breakfast and then went for a walk into the town of Merzouga.  It is quite small, not especially pretty  and very touristic with many shops and restaurants, apparently 70 hotels/auberges (many of the latter allow motorhomes to park inside their walls).  We bought a bit of fruit and then went to find the “oasis”, we found on the map.  While we got to walk through a palmery, we never found the source of the water for the canal running through it.

We walked back via different route and then got home.  It’s lovely and quite warm here so we’re back in shorts but it cools off nicely for sleeping.  If you are in the direct sun in the afternoon, it’s quite hot (reaches 30+C / 90’sF).   We have our awning and patio with chairs out beside Minou and we hung our beach blankets off the awning to create more shade.

Morocco does not recognize daylight savings so the clocks did not change when we got to Africa.  The sun comes up around 7:45 and goes down around 6pm these days here on the eastern side of the country.

After spending the afternoon at Minou, we went up to the roof top to watch the sun set; as we were about to head back down everyone else joined us but we didn’t stay long as we were getting hungry.

Doug went to dump our cassette this afternoon and one of the hinges broke on the door where the cassette is stored.  We’ll have to get that repaired.

Getting here we passed through three checkpoints and one tunnel.

Next morning at 8, just as we were getting up, Mohammed showed up at the door with fresh bread and some Moroccan pancakes.  The Italians had told us he would do this but as we don’t eat breakfast, we saved it for later.

We got dressed, had tea and headed out to hike the dunes.   Fran got Doug’s hiking sticks out and these helped but her knees were already hurting about half way up.

Seems we took the long way up but by the time we got up, we had the place to ourselves. (Some people had gone up to watch the sun rise.)

Views along the way: (see pic above too)

Views from the top – we walked to two peaks:

Views on the way down:

It was a bit of a hard slug up for Fran but she made and coming down the other side was super easy and fun:

Now the dune area is not so huge from up here and we could see the 4×4 vehicles tootling around and decided that we could see as much as they could from up here so we’re going to pass on a tour and save 4x4ing in the dunes for another time in a bigger area probably in Jordan.

We could see how much the colour of the sand changes with the light.  By the time we got to the edge of town where we were camped, we looked back and it was not so orange looking:

Upon returning to the auberge, Mohammed was outside and Doug asked him about getting the hinge fixed on the cassette door.  He said he has a guy that helps out Rv’ers and he’d send him over later.  The fellow showed up about a half hour later, removed the door.  It was all done it about 20 minutes.  When he returned Doug asked him about getting a better seal around the outside cubby (which he’d repaired last year but wasn’t holding) and he set off to see what he could find.  That was repaired to Doug’s satisfaction 30 minutes later and the fellow did not want to take any money – even for parts!  However, Doug, of course, insisted and gave him a fair amount.

On one of Doug’s walks, he was able to get close to a number of camels, resting in town (they take people into the dunes if you hire them):

For sunset tonight, we again went up to the terrace and today were joined by the Italians beside us, another young Italian couple, Lawrence and Alexandra,  as well as a British couple, Melanie and Rich who were on their way through Africa all the way to Cape Town – more power to them!

Today is Independence Day in Morocco so this evening there were way more people watching the sun go down and during the evening there was plenty of music but for the most part it stopped at 9pm.

Sunday morning, Doug went for his long run (did a half marathon – the longest he’s done in a while), Fran watched the sun rise and did her yoga afterwards.  It was another beautiful day.  We did a little next steps planning and decided to stay here until Tuesday.  It’s just so relaxing and the views are so awesome.

Fran went for another short walk in the dunes (not up to the big ones) and enjoyed the solitude.

There are many little sets of footprints in the sand:

We had our monthly call with KEGS today and then had a call with Serena and Kurt – they just got back from their honeymoon in Belize and they loved it so it was fun to hear all about it.

Monday was not quite as hot as it’s been but still very warm; the sun shines ALL the time and we love it.  Five of the six campers left this morning so we had the whole place to ourselves.  We walked and enjoyed relaxing before the driving days commence again.

Life is good!

In the afternoon a Swiss couple arrived so we were no longer alone.  That night we walked into the village for dinner, craving burgers but not having high expectations.  We went to the Trans Sahara restaurant and they had them on the menu and while they weren’t the best burgers we’ve ever had, they more than passed muster and hit the spot.

After another quiet night (if you don’t count the double “call to prayer” in the mornings in this town) we did our morning routines, received breakfast from Mohammed, showered and packed up.  This morning, sunrise was more colourful than usual as there were a few clouds in the sky:

Fran had taken care of filling our water yesterday, Doug dumped the cassette and then went to pay for our four nights – less than $10 a night for all the services we needed!  We drove out of the camp to the grey dump, took care of that and were on our way.  It was a little hard to leave this little paradise!

Today we drove northwest to city of Tinghir, northwest of Merzouga:

we have seen many an overloaded hay truck which looks like it could tip over if it turns too quickly
in honour of the holiday in a roundabout
provincial gates

to see the Todra Gorge palmeries.  Definitely worth the drive:

At one point, we parked and Doug found us a path down so we could walk in the palmery and it was so peaceful.  We could see some woman tending to their gardens amoungst the date palms and hear children’s laughter.

It was a nice stroll and on the way back up we saw these very appropriate gates on a property:

As it took us about 200 km / 125 mi to get here, that was enough for one day.  Fran found a wild camp 20km / 12 mi on the other side of the city on a side road about a klick from the highway.  The road to it was paved and our only company was a donkey; there were colourful cliffs all around us and we chilled for the afternoon.  We are now up higher again; at Merzouga we were around 700 m / 2296 ‘ and now were at double that at 1400 m / 4593‘.  The sun is still shining, it’s warm and there is a thin layer of clouds above us – can’t complain.

Today we passed through only one police checkpoint without being stopped and managed to get diesel at 13.78 DH a litre – $5.15 USD a gallon.