For many travellers the real Moroccan experience starts in the deep south: an ancient land of fortified villages (ksour), crumbling castles (kasbahs) and sun-baked oases.
...continued from South & Sahara page.
The road south from Marrakech winds up through the oleander and pine forests of the Atlas mountains to the 7,400-foot Col de Tichka. From here you can make side-trips to Telouet, to visit the kasbah of the Glaoui (immortalized in Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas) and to the even more picturesque Kasbah Aït Benhaddou, famous from the film Gladiator. Finally the road descends onto the plain of Ouarzazate - the gateway to the south.
The difference in landscape, vegetation and architecture is immediately apparent. To the north, the Dades river follows a ribbon of walnut, silver birch, fig and almond trees, past mud-brick fortresses and eerie rock formations, to the Dades Gorge. Near Tineghir, the even higher Todra Gorge has opportunities for birdwatching, trekking, rock-climbing and wildlife-spotting. The road peters out at Merzouga and the spectacular sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.
South-east of Ouarzazate is the Draa Valley, dotted with watchtowers, forbidding gorges and lush oases. For centuries, the valley was a stopping place for caravans returning with gold, slaves and salt from the great trading capitals of the Sahara. After several miles of scrubby landscape the road takes you to M'hamid and the isolated dunes of Erg Chigaga.
A desert expedition can be the trip of a lifetime. Many people opt for a camel trek: romantic, but guaranteed to result in a sore bottom. An alternative is a 4x4 safari. You don’t have to rough it, either. Sleeping under the desert stars is now available as a 5-star experience, complete with bed-linen and showers.
A peaceful town with a palmeraie, Erfoud is famous for its fossils and dates. You can buy fossils in every shape and form, from a trilobite keyring to a polished basin of fossil-filled black marble (this might be tricky to take back on the airplane). 50 kilometres further on, at the foot of the majestic Erg Chebbi dunes, Merzouga is a great place to camp under the stars and experience the absolute silence of the desert night.
Once used as a base for desert safaris, Ouarzazate is now making a bid to be a destination in its own right. Strategically located within reach of some of the finest ksour (fortified towns) and oases of the south, Ouarzazate is also famous as the centre of the Moroccan film industry.
Site of the iconic sign ‘Timbuctu 52 jours’, the desert outpost of Zagora has been a caravan halt for at least 500 years. You can shop for jewellery with Berber, Muslim and Jewish motifs in the nearby mellah of Amazraou. If you’re feeling energetic, a climb up the Jebel Zagora will give you a splendid view over the Draa Valley.
M'hamid is a small desert town about an hours drive south of Zagora and the place from where the real desert fun commences! The stepping off place for desert camps at Erg Chigaga and other areas of the Sahara. Can be dusty when there is wind and I have experienced a major sand storm in M'Hamid once which I have to say was quite scary. This little gateway town to the Sahara is a very exciting and beautiful place to visit. Beyond stretch 4,800 kilometres of desert.
Freelance travel writer, Susannah Osborne, travelled to Marrakech with Lawrence of Morocco in September 2012, writing for the Financial Times.
When travelling around Morocco it is not (contrary to common belief) necessary for women to ‘cover up’ out of respect for local modesty traditions. Morocco is a very mixed society with Moroccans who dress as westerners and more traditional families dressing in a more traditional way.
The only areas of the country where it is advisable for women to cover up their legs and shoulders would be in some parts of the High Atlas Mountains (very remote areas) where the locals are rarely visited by foreigners. It is highly unlikely that you will be visiting these areas on any holiday arranged by Lawrence of Morocco.