Ait Benhaddou, valleys and gorges

Photo: Bijoux Fatima Berbere Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Snake eye

After Marrakesh I planned to visit Essaouira on the coast but with nothing but rain in the forecast I decided to head for the desert instead, and joined a 4-day sightseeing trip that was leaving from my riad the next day. Our first couple days took us through Ourika Valley, up and over the High Atlas mountains, through Dades Valley and Todra Gorge.

I was really excited to hit Essaouira but I checked the weather forecast the night before leaving and it said 100% chance of rain for the next few days, which didn’t sound like the best time to visit a beach town.

The staff at my riad had offered a 4-day excursion to the desert including an overnight camel trek, so I checked the schedule carefully to make sure I would be able to get online somewhere for a teleconference at noon on Monday, and it seemed doable if I bailed early on the last day of the trip.

So I decided to forfeit the deposit I had put down on my hostel in Essaouira and join the camel trekkers. (as I noted to my coworkers, I was really just hoping to use “my camel broke down” as an excuse for missing a meeting)

I am not a big fan of organized tours, but one thing I’ll never get tired of is the male/female ratio typically on these trips: this one had two couples, then me and eight cute girls. (once Icelandic, the others all American I think)

When I looked at how I wanted to spend my time in Morocco I actually planned to skip a lot of the sights visited on this trip (the High Atlas mountains and various stuff nearby) because I have amazing mountains at home and while I’m here I would rather visit deserts and crazy markets and other stuff I can’t see at home.

But to get to the desert we had to travel up and over the mountains, and the terrain and sights were actually pretty cool — definitely a good way to spend a rainy day. Our itinerary took us from Marrakesh to Ait Oudinar in the Dades Valley on the first day, via Ait Benhaddou.

Photo: Breakfast view Photo: Village Photo: Tizi-n-Tichka Pass

Ait Benhaddou is a ksar (fortified city) thought to have been established in the 11th century to control the caravan route between the Sahara desert and Marrakesh. The ksar contains a number of well-preserved kasbahs (fortified castles), and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has made appearances in a number of movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, and Gladiator.

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou

When we arrived this friendly guy came up to see if we wanted to pet his snake.

Photo: Snake eye

We entered through the new city; less than 10 families still live in the old city across the riverbed.

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou

To gain access to the old city we had to enter through one of the family’s houses, for a small fee. They served us mint tea and almonds in a room that had been used during the filming of Gladiator, and showed us around their house.

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Gladiator room Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Berber house Photo: Gladiator crew pass

Then we poked around for a while on our own. When I was reading about this place I was trying to figure out how much time I would want to spend here (one day or two?); I found the few hours we spent here today was enough. I’m sure there’s more to see than what we did but I think any more than half a day here would be too much. (It’s so hard to tell these things before you get there…)

Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou Photo: Ait Benhaddou

We had an excellent lunch at a place in the new city, then we were back on the road, stopping for the night in Ait Oudinar.

Photo: Dades gorge Photo: My room

That night we had a group dinner followed by some Berber drumming but in the short break after dinner I was freezing so I made the mistake of crawling in under some blankets in my room and once I was there I didn’t want to leave, so I went to sleep and missed the excitement. (it was really cold there, due to the altitude of the place I guess)

The next day we hit the road after breakfast; it was sunny out but still chilly.

Photo: Auberge Les Gorges du Dades Photo: Frosty car Photo: Camping Ait Oudinar

On the way out of town we stopped to help some kids clear debris that had washed onto the road from a riverbed over night; our driver gave them a few dirham and I pictured them shoveling the rocks back onto the road after we left (that’s what I would do if I were them)

Photo: Road clearing Photo: Road clearing

The morning’s drive was pretty scenic… I’d like to come back through here at my own pace. It would be fun to do a mountain biking trip through here as well. I decided not to try to do one on this trip, for the same reasons stated earlier. (I can do that at home)

Photo: Village Photo: Bijoux Fatima Berbere Photo: Village Photo: Village Photo: Village

By 10am we were at Tinerhir, a few km from Todra Gorge.

Photo: Tinerhir Photo: Tinerhir Photo: Tinerhir Photo: Tinerhir

Todra Gorge is a canyon in the plateau south of the High Atlas mountains, 300m high at its narrowest point. Lonely Planet calls it one of the highlights of the south. It was pretty but not that interesting in my opinion. It looked like a good place to hike and climb; I saw maybe a half-dozen people there with climbing gear.

Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Todra Gorge Photo: Hotels

After Todra Gorge we continued east to Erfoud, had lunch, stopped for supplies then continued south to Merzouga where we started our camel trek into the massive sand dunes at Erg Chebbi.

More pictures from today and yesterday…

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