Logistics are fun when you travel. It is handy to know both where you are and how you’re going to get to your next location at any given time. So it was when we realised that we were in Marrakesh, Morocco, with a flight out of the capital, Casablanca and the desire to go to Fes that we noticed we had a bit of ground that needed to be covered. Being in this fun travellers pickle had us researching options of how to cover the 389 kilometres (242 miles) that lay between Fes and us.
Google being the new mum and all, we gave it a run for its money with “Marrakesh to Fes” being typed and many tabs being opened. Our research paid off and our ‘what next?’ pondering lead to our next move being the cherry on top to an already spicy and culturally wonderful experience.
Booking with Atlas Desert Tours, we were set up with our own personal guide and private 4WD, all for a very reasonable price. Meeting Hassan in the main square of Marrakesh we were greeted by one of the nicest people you could meet and made to feel at ease completely. Our tour would cover the many kilometres to Fes, via the Sahara Desert and other noteworthy locations. Come; let me take you on a drive through Morocco!
Day One: Atlas Mountains, Aït Benhaddou and Dadés Gorge
Heading to the High Atlas Mountains through the impressive and all natural Tizi n’tichka pass, a mountain with an elevation of 2,260m, we weaved around sharp bends as we climbing higher and higher, passing by traditional Berber villages that are said to date back to prehistoric times. Inhabited by the Berber (indigenous people to Northern Africa west of the Nile River) these villages baffle the mind. For me, I found it amazing that people still live in such a community.
I liken the Berber villages to those I have seen in Africa that are distanced from the main city and where children have to walk kilometres upon kilometres to get to school (if they even have the opportunity to go). However, these communities are generally built into the mountains using mud and rocks.
Seeing any UNESCO World Heritage Site should be considered an honour, as there is a reason they have been placed on ‘the list’ – be it the natural wonder, unique architecture or the historic value and recognition of needed protection, World Heritage Sites are valuable to us in understanding a part of life that once was. Aït Benhaddou is one such example, with its earthen building surrounded by high walls showing any visitor traditional pre-Saharan habitat.
Being able to walk to the highest point of this settlement gave us a great view back over the town and surrounding terracotta earth. Ait Ben Haddou is so impressive that it has been featured in scenes from Gladiator, The Bourne Ultimatum, Game of Thrones, American Sniper and so on.
Concluding the day driving through Dadés Gorge, via Ouarzazate (the Hollywood of Africa), our eyes were again greeted with more that sums up the wonder of Morocco. As the local saying goes: ‘the wind has a son who lives in Boumalne, which is why he rips down this valley to visit him in winter.’ The Dadés Gorge looks like the sand stricken wind, which has covered a black snake as it was trying to slither to shelter, has constructively beaten it into shape.
Though this road is harsh, you can still see Berber villages, dates and fig orchards and Kasbahs lining the valley. Hotels can also be found among the aforementioned, ours included!
Day Two: Todra Gorge and Merzouga
Winding away from Dadés Goege, we were now in for a treat as we headed toward Todra Gorge but not before viewing Tinghir and the surrounding valley from a greater height. Throughout our drive we would often stop while high in the Atlas Mountains to view what was around us. Among the mauve, caramel and blush tones of the mountains we could see lakes of green palms and village settlements sporadically located where the water level was high enough to support life.
Reaching Todra Gorge, a rock climber’s paradise, we were dropped at one section of the pass in order to walk through to a designated pick up location. I imagine God tapping His finger on a section of this gorge (pre gorge, obviously) and the orange limestone simply splitting in two to form a 300m deep fault, which is anything but a fault in creation.
The deep river ravine is a stunning Moroccan must-see and one that can be enjoyed for any length of time you wish to give it.
Before entering the gateway to the Sahara Desert we stopped at a little trading hub for locals to witness animals being auctioned off. I know these practices happen around the world, but seeing it live for some reason was difficult for me. With the heat, dust and often piercing animal cries we wove through areas where food was laid out on sheets for people to buy. Suffice to say, this was an eye opening experience.
Reaching the village of Khamlia we were welcomed by the local men and treated to a cultural performance known as Gnawa; music of formerly enslaved black Africans who integrated into Morocco. The music is based around ancient African Islamic spiritual religious songs and rhythms. Spine tingling in nature, the experience involved cultural drumming, dancing and eerie vocals and I found myself almost unable to drink my Moroccan tea due to being too mesmerised.
Day Four: Fes, via many valleys, Azrou and Ifran
Wait, did you pick up on that? Yes, I did skip day three and for good reason. The Sahara Desert needs its own post, which will be up soon!
Weaving through the Atlas Mountains and through various valleys and gorges, we slowly began to head toward Fes – the final stop on our tour. We were given two words of expectation: apes and Switzerland. Naturally we were slightly confused but even more so excited!
The gibber (vocab for the sound of an ape) coming from the cedar forest we were entering was ear piercing and it wasn’t long before we had apes of varying sizes approaching us for food. The apes near Azrou are #blessed with greedy tummies that are accustomed to being fed constantly by the throng of tourists who come and go throughout the day.
You can buy food from the vendors around the forest but it is important to note that your time here will be short, as it doesn’t take long for the food to miraculously disappear!
On the road again we headed to Ifrane, commonly known as ‘the Switzerland of Morocco’, and learnt of a town that gained its roots in the 1930s from the French, who at the time governed the country of Morocco. Upon gaining its independence, the Moroccan Switzerland began to boom with local wealthy Berbers who sought the clean air, tree lined streets and snow-covered fields during the winter – a nice change from their drier occupancies in Marrakesh, Fes and Meknes and so on.
After a solid few days of go-go-go, we were slightly exhausted and spent the following day watching The 100 and ordering in – the pizza and Pringles were a treat! The Hungry Jacks (Burger King) the following day also found a good spot in our tummies.
Realising we may never return, we had to stretch ourselves and move from our low laying position. Walking through the old town we were able to gaze at the famous blue gate of Bab Boujeloud, stunning with its mosaic blue tiles. Continuing through some of the souks and historical medina, it became clear to me as we strolled through the Bou Jeloud Gardens that while it was nice to see greenery and enjoy the shade of the trees, we were done. So done in fact that by the time we reached the buzzing mall, with air-conditioning, we flagged a taxi and were taken back to our riad for a lay down! The heat, the heckling and the spices…they had all finally taken their toll!
Reaching the airport in Casablanca by train, we were ready for a welcome change. The train is a convenient way to get to Casablanca airport, however it is advisable to book a train that arrives an hour earlier than you originally intended to be at the airport by. The trip costs roughly AUD20-20 (MAD150) and takes a little under 4 hours.
I’m not going to lie but boarding the Air Arabia plane did have me looking at Kieran in fear. Without sounding culturally insensitive, we were the only white people and I did, for a moment, think we were going to die. The fact that we landed safely in Istanbul to a round of applause from our fellow travellers proved to me that it didn’t matter how much travel I had done and how much cultural immersion I’d had, I still fell to being a cultural idiot at times and needed a reboot.
الله يمسك علي خير
- Travel with someone (preferably a male if you’re female)
- Hands down you need to do a tour with Hassan and Atlas Desert Tours – it’s flexible, friendly, fully informative and fun! You can’t go wrong with the 4 F’s!!
- Smile and be friendly, for the locals are super nice and willing to help you
- In saying this, in souks be prepared to bargain and walk away with nothing (unless you want to be ripped off at times)
- Spend two days (at least) near/in the Sahara Desert as opposed to a fly in/fly out itinerary
- Do a hamam (traditional bath)
- Go to the tannery in Fes (I hear it is a must)
- Trust unknown airlines – I found our flights on Skyscanner
- While I am all about Airbnb, Booking.com have great dials for Morocco and the riads are beautiful