Out of the High Atlas and into the Sahara
Since the 4th century, caravans of thousands of camels have been led by Berbers across the Sahara into North Africa, taking 52 days from Zagora to Timbuktu.
We had two camels, four days, and a 4WD.
MARRAKECH TO Fes via MERZOUGA
This post maps our most unforgettable trip: 1500km across Morocco from Marrakech to Fes. Over four days — and with our mate, Hicham, blasting Mambo Africa — we drove through the High Atlas Mountains, the Todgha and Dadès Gorges, and the Valley of Roses, before trekking into the Sahara to watch the sun rise and fall over the dunes.
We hope this photo journal will inspire your own trip to Morocco, and give you an idea of what to expect from a visit to the High Atlas Mountains or the Sahara.
Marrakech was initially overwhelming, but after a few days we were familiar with its topography — the souks, the alleyways, the snake charmers. We had become comfortable navigating the old Medina, in spite of hustlers who like to tell tourists that every road is closed. It felt as though we’d only just settled into the dusty rose city when we were up and moving again.
DRIVING THROUGH THE HIGH ATLAS
As we left Marrakech, the ridges of the High Atlas Mountains were a faint line in the sky. Nothing will compare to seeing them at 100km/hour, passing from blue to red.
THE ‘DIFFICULT’ PASS
We drove through the mountains via the windy roads of the Tizi n'Tichka pass, the highest in North Africa at 2260 metres. ‘Tichka’ is the Berber word for ‘difficult’, and roads in this area are some of the most dangerous in Morocco. While they’ve improved the conditions in recent years, our route was still riddled with blind corners, sharp turns, and dirt stretches.
Berber villages are peppered along the Atlas mountainside, blending into the cliffs. We passed one of the oldest settlements at Taddart, where houses built with stone and earth date back over 200 years. A local described the area to us as both good and sad; good in that long-standing traditions of food, dress and ways of life have continued, but sad in that there is little development — no schools or hospitals — and many now choose to move.
STOPPING AT THE KASBAHS
To reach Ouarzazate for the first night, we travelled along the Road of 1000 Kasbahs. These fortresses are unassuming from the outside, but palaces within. Among the ruins, we explored the luxurious hall and harem of the Kasbah of Telouet which took 30 people three years to decorate with tiling, stucco and stained glass. We pored over the walls which had been intricately coloured with saffron, poppy flowers, indigo and henna.
As Trans-Saharan trade peaked from the 8th to 17th century, the Kasbahs were an important stop for camel caravans carrying salt from the desert. Salt was at the centre of trade between ancient civilisations on an enormous scale. Standing at the Kasbahs, we found it difficult to imagine caravans as large as 10,000 camels passing through.
PASSING Between THE GORGES
Some of the most incredible scenery can be found in the Dadès and Todgha Gorges. There was something breathtaking around every corner — blunt drops into deep canyons, rivers of palm trees through the Skoura Oasis, and beautiful Andalusian architecture on dramatic cliffs. After driving through the gorges, we spent the second evening on a rooftop in Tinghir, watching kids play soccer in the street and listening to the city’s call to prayer.
In tourist capitals like Marrakech and Fes, we quickly found ourselves surrounded by shops selling handmade Moroccan goods. However, we were rarely able to meet the makers. Along the way, it was important to us to meet with creators, and even more so to support womens’ co-operatives.
We picked up goods from many villages specialising in argan and rose production. Morocco is the only place in the world where argan trees grow, and Persian roses are harvested in profusion from the Skoura oasis. We spent the most time in a women’s co-operative near Todgha with Berber carpet makers. The art of carpet weaving is generally passed from mother to daughter — there are many traditions informing this practice, and stories are told within the patterns.
INTO THE SAHARA
On the third afternoon we arrived in Merzouga, a small village known as the doorway to the desert. We trekked out on camel back, led by Berber men who had prepared warm tents and a huge feast for the night. In Erg Chebbi, the sand dunes reach over 100 metres, and our camp was fairly isolated between them. Lavish carpets made paths between the tents, leading into areas where we met other travellers and talked to our guides over large pots of tajine. Some were boys in their late teens, others were old men. The nomads know the desert like no other.
At night we took mattresses and blankets into the dark and struggled to pull them up the steep dunes. It was impossible to take a step without sliding back just as far through the sand, but we eventually made it to the top. With the camp far behind us it was dead quiet, and we were alone between mountains of sand and a magnificent expanse of starlight.
By this point we had been travelling together for nearly 100 days, but in the middle of the desert we talked about the past three without compare. The trip had given us a glimpse into certain points in time which were extremely far from our normal lives, and it’s hard to describe the intrigue that we were left with. To us, travelling from the High Atlas into the Sahara was exhilarating because it was so new, but it is of course underpinned by long histories, well-travelled routes, and centuries of tradition.
There was something about seeing the galaxy so exposed that night — of knowing that it’s constantly burning and infinitely expanding, but we follow the same stars like breadcrumbs.