Category Archives: Travel beyond Marrakech: Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert

The Atlas Mountains: Ouarzazate and the Draa Valley

River at the base of the Draa Valley

River at the base of the Draa Valley

Leaving Ait Benhaddou, it is then about 32 km to Ouarzazate, just south of the High Atlas mountains and home of the Atlas Film Studios, reputedly the largest studios in the world, (open to the public daily). It was here and in the surrounding countryside that Lawrence of Arabia, was filmed, and more recently, Hollywood classics such as Star Wars, Gladiator and The Mummy. Ouarzazate, known as ‘doorway to the desert’ is at the intersection of the highly scenic Draa and Dades valleys, and if time is limited, it’s difficult to decide which one is better to visit. The journeys along the valleys each take 4 – 5 days and both exhibit outstanding mountain scenery, picturesque kasbahs, ksars, and lush oases clustered along on the river banks. We started with the Draa valley as we wanted to travel south for our first ever sighting of the Sahara Desert.

Through the Draa Valley to Zagora

The Sahara desert starts near Zagora (Marrakech to Zagora approx 360 km, at least 12 hours’ driving). The road to Zagora passes high into the Atlas Mountains. Up to Agdz (c. 60 km) the scenery is dramatic but bleak. Thereafter the road descends into the verdant Draa Valley. The land is fed by melting waters from the Atlas Mountains and is richly cultivated with fruit trees and vegetables: we saw apricots, almonds, dates and pomegranates. All staples in Moroccan cooking, sweet and savoury.

Draa Valley, at the base of the Atlas Mountains

Draa Valley, at the base of the Atlas Mountains

A carpet of palm trees extends for up to a mile across the valley floor on either side of the river Draa, providing livelihoods for a string of towns and villages along its route. Michael Palin (‘Sahara’ again) captures it well: ‘It is, in effect, one long oasis, with glimpses of silver green water amongst the trees, and brightly coloured clothes drying on bushes, through which flocks of black goats pick their way. The valley provides the best dates in the world, so they say…’. And indeed, copious quantities of date palms grow here – at least 30 varieties varying from honey-coloured to almost black. They flower in springtime and fruit is harvested from September. Small boys sell them along the streets from home-woven baskets.  All around are also small patchwork fields of wheat, onions and bamboo (use for roofing houses); and flowering oleander along the tracks.

Marrakech to Ouarzazate via Ait Benhaddou

The most important Ksar to visit en route to Ouarzazate is Ait Benhaddou. It is around 180 km from Marrakech, situated 7m up a minor road off the route de Ouarzazate. From Ait Benhaddou, the journey is then 32 km to Ouarzazate. It’s definitely worth the diversion.

The ramparts at Ait Benhaddou4

The ramparts at Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou is perched on the side of a craggy hill which looms out of a palm-fringed plain. The remains of a defensive wall crumble along the ridge of the hill. This provides a great vantage point from which to study the assemblage of tapering towers, decorated in geometric style and crowned with stepped merlons. It comprises one of the most spectacular collections of Kasbahs in the whole region. ‘A multitude of picturesque towers rises from a rocky bluff overlooking a wide dry river bed, at the top of which are the prominent ruins of an agadir, a fortified granary, its bastions now so eroded by the rain they look like melted candles’, so wrote Michael Palin in ‘Sahara’. 

Towers of Ait Benhaddoulast, Atlas Mountains

Towers of Ait Benhaddou, Atlas Mountains

For the historian, the motifs which ornament the sides of walls and towers have an additional appeal above their aesthetic satisfaction. The general form of the buildings is said to derive from the ancient city of Sanaa in Yemen, while specific motifs, such as the aforesaid merlons have their origins in the Ancient Near East.  Ait Benhaddou deserves its status as UNESCO world heritage site, which should ensure its protection and preservation – and indeed there is a reassuring amount of building restoration happening all around.

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Because of its beauty and relative accessibility, it’s a popular film location. But there are only a few families still resident. It’s possible to identify a typical house consisting of a kitchen, a bed and sitting room and occasionally a separate living room. Narrow stairs climb into the roof area used to hang washing, house cages for pigeon (a great delicacy in Moroccan cookery) or chickens and sometimes a goat shed.  

Like Marrakech, there are now hotels and riads springing out of the ruins, and it’s only to be hoped that they don’t spoil the character of the place.

Leaving Marrakech: first encounter with the Atlas Mountains

If you are travelling across the mountains you’ll soon become familiar with Ouarzazate. The town sits at the gateway of routes across the Atlas Mountains, as it provides access to both the Dades and Draa valleys. You pass once through Ouarzazate as you travel west along the Dades river. Then return to the town before heading south to Zagora and the Sahara desert. Then finally north through Ouarzazate en route back to Marrakech. An alternative, perhaps more logical, route is a long circuit through the Atlas mountains. But the roads don’t look promising on the map and it’s impossible to calculate how many days it would take.

First visit to the Atlas Mountains

First visit to the Atlas Mountains

Ouarzazate is just over 200 miles south east of Marrakech; approximately 5 – 6 hours’ drive. The road meanders up into the mountains, and for a while until the mountain ascent the route is flanked with elegantly shaped eucalyptus trees providing some limited shelter to the succession of heavy-laden donkeys and horses with carts.  At various strategic points, usually near panoramic views, clusters of stalls are weighed down with fossils, purple and rose amethyst, selenite crystal, desert rose gypsum and a selection of heavily dyed minerals. Small boys linger by the road, dangling dead lizards, swinging them speculatively in the direction of passers by.  Apparently the creatures are stuffed ready to hang in houses, where their scent will deter snakes and scorpions.

Atlas Mountains

Clusters of pise (rammed mud) houses appear dotted along the valleys from midway between Marrakech and Ouarzazate. Older buildings lack glazed windows – in their place are ornamented wrought iron grills or wooden mashrabiyya screens on the outside (presumably a security measure) and heavy wooden shutters within. Sometimes the openings are outlined with a band of white paint. Many are in a state of decay, but some are being restored just in time, before they melt back in the ground. Even so, the effect resembles a film set as buildings seem to grow from the living rock around them.

Leaving Marrakech: Heading for the Atlas Mountains

Although Marrakech is often described as ideal for long weekend holidays, this ignores the city’s great potential as a base for trips into the Atlas mountains. Journeys can take from a couple of days to several weeks, depending on how ambitious you feel. And nothing is greater than the contrast between the bustle of Marrakech and the tranquility of the mountains. From a practical point of view, most places (certainly all those which will be mentioned) are accessible in an ordinary car. 

Morocco Atlas Mountains Ksar Ait Benhaddou

Ksar Ait Benhaddou in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Travelling in April (when the climate is similar to a warm Spring in England) we found that we could turn up in towns and find a hotel without pre-booking – most rather basic but clean. There were plenty of opportunities to enjoy (if that’s quite word) camel rides, 4-wheel drives into the desert and trekking, but we didn’t have time.

To get a taste of this trip, you can glance through the photographs which I will be posting over the next few weeks. Hopefully they’ll encourage you to explore this spectacular landscape, peppered with Ksars (fortified villages) Kasbahs (fortified houses with crenellated towers), oases and culminating in plunging canyons or burning desert.