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.
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.