Moroccan Desert Adventures and Old Kasbahs

After the untouched beauty, calm and peaceful surroundings of the Amellago Gorge, we were a little subdued by the Todra and Dadès Gorges. We drove through many hotels and available rooms signs, souvenir stalls only stopping for green teas in the Dadès Gorge at Le Nom de La Rose. The friendly young waiter welcomed us and spent time to show us the way to Merzouga and the Erg Chebbi dunes on our map. Our waiter told us they were the most accessible ones by walk or camel rides from town. He recommended us an auberge /camping place, Le Petit Prince too (click on the name to read our short review). He asked us to leave some of his business cards there; we weren’t sure we would make it, but said we would try. After all, he had spent more than half an hour with us when the only thing we had bought were two hot drinks!

Lunch by the side of the road in the Todra Gorge, when there's still room...

... As the Gorge gets narrower...

... And narrower!

Palmeraies in the Dadès Gorge.

Nearing 7pm in the Dadès Gorge. We drove a few kms passed the Gorge and parked alongside the road for the night.
After a night a few kilometres passed the Dadès Gorge, little by little, the terrain got more arid. We were in the middle of nowhere with nothing for miles, but just sand and stones. The landscape reminded us of the vast dry landscapes of the American Wild West in California and Arizona. Instead on speeding down to get to Merzouga and try camel riding, we decided to off road it and spend the night in the desert (read the short review of our wild camping spot, second bullet under "Morocco"). A few 4x4 desert and camel tours combined with auberge signs had started popping up alongside the road too. Was our final destination going to be more a tourist trap than the exotic camel ride picture at dusk?... Our night in the wilderness would give us food for thought. Alone, hundred metres off the main road, no cars nor trucks could be heard.

Reminiscence of the vast landscapes of the American Wild West.

An arid and stoney plateau for miles.

A scene from Mars?

Advertising can be found anywhere... In the midst of this "science-fictionesque" backdrop, a nomadic tent offering desert tours.

A couple of teenage boys cycling holding on to each other in Erfoud, Road 70.

As the evening draws on, Erfoud's streets are bustling with men hanging around in bars and women going home to prepare the evening meal.

Finally stopped for the night (See review of wild camping spot). Off a dirt track off the Rn13. We are very much in the middle of nowhere!

Izzy, The Motorhome can have a rest.

As we were about to set off early in the morning, a man stopped his car in front of us. First annoyed, I relaxed as he told us about his campsite, 7km further up on the track we’d driven on off the main road. Although pushy, the picture of a quiet camping site in the middle of the desert with a pool and restaurant he painted us sounded relishing. He was also adamant we could drive there with our motorhome as two other campervans had done it the day before. We finally told him we would think about it. As he drove off, we both knew we wanted to give it a go, but weren’t certain we could make it there – the dirt track looked quite sandy in parts. But others had made it there, why couldn’t we?! 

In the morning, just before the man stopped us.

Could we make it?...
We braved it... And failed! I would have loved to say Izzy (The Motorhome) had managed to pull through, but it wasn’t to be. All of a sudden the track seemed to be entirely covered by sand, a lot of it. Too far into it; we could neither go back nor forward. The wheels kept spinning, spurting a lot of sand. Stressed and anxious, we didn’t know what to do; we were stuck. Out of nowhere, a young Moroccan on his moped appeared asking us where we were trying to go. A posh 4x4 pulled near us too, a Canadian family and their tour guide started helping us – English, French and Arabic were being spoken all at once whilst we were desperately trying to dig the sand underneath Izzy’s front wheels. Half an hour and many failed attempts later, the young man on his moped and a couple of his friends spoke in Arabic with the tour guide. The posh 4x4 drove off with the family – they had to go. I felt insecure and powerless. I didn’t trust the three young men.

“Moped Man” took the lead and immediately asked me to “say a price”. He started explaining that they couldn’t help us for nothing and had to earn a living. Speaking fast and abruptly, he kept repeating the same things over and over, “Come on, say a price!”. Flustered and anxious, I blurted out 100dirhams!. He started speaking more loudly, telling me this wasn’t enough at all. I kept saying that I didn’t know and that he should have proposed a price in the first place. Speaking in French to the Moroccan men and translating back in English to Jamie whilst Moped Man would still be talking in the background was too much. The whole event had lasted nearly two hours. I couldn't keep cool anymore. I lost it and cried and shouted at him... After a few minutes, Jamie managed to calm me down. I offered 300 dirhams; 100 dirhams each?. We finally had a deal! One of them left and came back with a carpet and shovel within five minutes. After a few more efforts and one of them taking the wheels for a few minutes, we finally pulled out!

This was the longest and, still is, the most stressful event we experienced on our trip. It wasn’t a nice encounter, but it has taught me to keep cool in such situation. Being in a state didn’t help me and Jamie and could have potentially put us into danger/more trouble.

Drained, we just wanted a nice place to stay where we could relax. Finally en route to Merzouga, the wind was blowing. It was the start of the sand storms season. The tiny stone particles were everywhere – a fine thin layer covered all surfaces, equipment & utensils; every inch was adorned like the young beach users who discovers sand in their swimming trunks for days. At first glance, Merzouga was very much a tourist trap. Auberges and hotels with a few spaces for motorhomes were all cramped. In between all the advertising signs and places to stay, unhealthy-looking camels were ‘roaming’ in small fields with their legs tied together. We didn’t want to stay, but needed to chill out after our desert adventure.

Le Petit Prince seemed the obvious choice now. As commercial and jam-packed as the others, it had, at least, been recommended to us. Jamie managed to manoeuvre Izzy at the back of the small busy campervans’ parking site, full of big and shiny homes on wheels. 

Dunes galore!

Le Petit Prince's camels' enclave just behind their motorhome parking site.

The sand was fine there, but parts weren't that clean... Adorned with camel poo and rubbish.

The nicest camels we encountered in Merzouga. Sadly, many were tied at their ankles, looking dirty and unhealthy.

Finally sat down at their courtyard terrace, we recognised the tour guide and the Canadian family. On their two-weeks holiday of Morocco with their 13 year old-boy, Merzouga was the base of their ‘real-Morocco’ discovery tour. Not so pretty Merzouga enabled them to explore many neighbouring sites; the gorges and palmeraies, the desert and its dunes, Ouarzazate and its (film) studios... For the many who only have a few days to visit Morocco, the desert town is a convenient place. Given the choice, I would choose ‘Chez Moha’, especially if you have kids and they are old enough to endure a few car journeys.

Tafraoute was our next destination. Arid plateaus, sand storms, beautiful palmeraies, old villages and ancient kasbahs (Moroccan castles and palaces passed down from dynasties for centuries) were the discoveries along the way on the RN13 to M’Hamid through the Drâa Valley. We had to stop en route to take photographs of some of the most unforgettable and magnificent panoramas. We off roaded it again, read the review of our wild camping spot in the Drâa Valley (third review from the top under "Morocco"). It felt fantastic to be free to park in the middle of these tableaux.

Morocco's "Dust Bowl"?

Pretty town entrance on RN9, I think this is M'Hamid.

One of the other main towns on Rn9, could this be Zagora?

A common early morning road scenery; kid walking to school, a mum with the family mule carrying palm leaves to weave baskets and sale them.

A very old town and its new mosque still off the main road, Rn9. Old towns, villages and kasbahs are a common backdrop of the Drâa Valley.

Our pretty wild camping spot in the Drâa Valley (read our review), off the Rn9 before Timerdite towards Agdz.

The river still exists in parts...

Further up the bank, young boys enjoy fishing whilst their mums wash the laundry in the river.

Jamie on the bridge leading to our camping spot. Here, we can see the other side towards the main road, Rn9.

The river bed bends and pass through a small town. Here, the river's completely dried up. People not only walk on it, but drive too.

A very old ruined kasbah sitting in the middle of the Valley.

People say it may be 800/900 years old!

Having always enjoyed visiting old and new monuments, I hadn’t fully realised how culturally spoilt we are in Europe. Most countries in Europe have managed to preserve their heritage with public, private and charitable funding for years through two world wars and conflicts. Governments and private members have also become more savvy in protecting and sustaining such heritage. Visiting the monuments and old kasbahs of Morocco, it dawned on me that not all countries had been so lucky. Even though the Moroccan government had realised it could cash in on its monuments for tourism, it doesn’t mean it has and want to share the necessary public money to help preserving, renovating and improving them when more pressing matters may need attention first; roads, sanitation, healthcare buildings, schools and government buildings.

21st century Moroccan families who have managed to keep their own kasbah are few and far between. Jamie and I were lucky enough to speak and visit three different ones with three unique stories to tell, but with one common thread – all of them had had to rely on their own resources to conserve their heritage. Without any experience, they all had had to be creative, business savvy and patient to start their lifelong commitment in preserving not only their family heritage, but most important of all, their country’s history.

1. Casbah Caïd Ali, Asslim near Agdz. Probably the most business savvy family of the three.  They have the most experience as they have built up their reputation for a few years now. They seemed to have had more contacts and resources too which may have helped them a little bit more to start with. They realised that opening the Casbah to the public wasn’t enough to pay for conservation works to be done. Quickly enough they converted part of the building as a hotel and its neighbouring ground as a campsite. They genially attracted architecture and engineer students to not only learn about Moroccan’s unique building methods, but get their hands dirty and participating in the Casbah Caïd Ali’s conservation works. Since a few years, they also house a music festival every year attracting international attention. The camping site is pretty, but was very busy: read our full review of Casbah Caïd Ali.

The Casbah in its full glory as it can be seen from the campsite.

The courtyard with its fountain and arcade all around it.

One of the fine examples of the bedroom doors around the courtyard showing incredible ebonist skills.

The ceilings were also examples of the finest carpentry skills.

Part of the Casbah has been restored to its original glory. Here is an ornamental painting adorning the ceiling of one of the governmental rooms.

Small window from which women could spy on what was happening in the courtyard.

Another fine example of a painted ceiling. What a modern pattern and use of bright colours!

And a great example of detailed Moroccan handpainted tiles.

The magnificent view from the rooftop terrace of the Casbah!

2. Kasbah Tamnougalt. After visiting Casbah Caïd Ali in the morning, Jamie and I cycled to Tamnougalt where the young and humble Hassan welcomed us in his family’s 16th century old-kasbah. Any repairs and expenses have to be agreed by all the members of Hassan's family. A big family; agreeing on even the smallest things can be a long and painful process. Even though the Kasbah has gained international fame and recognition - part of the old Ksar was used in The English Patient and Babel - the government has been very quiet. Hassan has had to rely on his family's resources and private funding. In the past five years, he has taken it upon himself and learnt various trades (carpentry, painting, roofing etc) to do part of the conservation work. Hassan also welcomes students from each corner of the world to work on the ancient building.

Another old kasbah en route to Tamnougalt!

The weather was beautiful and the road was so quiet. It was an idyllic cycle ride in the Drâa Valley.

An old ruined village just before Tamnougalt.

Tamnougalt Kasbah from the main square.

The welcoming handmade entrance sign.

Passed the front gate, we walk through courtyards and narrow corridors.

One of the two beautifully preserved courtyards.

Tilt your head up and this is the view!

Inside, the beautifully preserved building work.

The intricate ceiling.

Up on the second floor.

Fine example of traditional Berber motifs painted on wood.

View from the top.

A lot of work still needs to be done on other parts of the Ksar.

The small sign welcoming us in the other section of the huge Tamnougalt Kasbah which houses the small traditional folk museum of the palace.

The other preserved courtyard where women cooked, washed and made things.

A labyrinthine way out.

Back on the bikes.
3. Glaouli Kasbah, Taliouine. Omar welcomed us and opened his family house for us to explore. After 22 years of legal process his family managed to get the Kasbah back from the government and finally start much needed conservation work. With the decoration skills of his French wife combined with Omar and his brother's building skills, they have managed to convert part of the Kasbah as a beautiful auberge (Escale Rando) where guests can enjoy sunbathing on their rooftop terrace and traditional homemade Berber dishes. Even though we couldn't stay for the night, Omar spent time with us sharing his family history and tales. Jamie and I would love to come back one day and stay there!

Part of the Kasbah that hasn't been restored next door to Escale Rando's entrance.

We explored this part of the Kasbah before realising we could have tea and coffee at Escale Rando.

A lot of work still needs to be done on this part of the building. It is definitely a lifelong commitment.

The beautifully preserved section of the Glaouli Kasbah, home to Escale Rando run by Omar and his wife. 

A view of their pretty courtyard/garden/allotment for the rooftop terrace.

A well conserved section of the building with intricate details.

Omar showing Jamie one of their pet turtles! Having pets and animal welfare is not common in Morocco, but customs are changing.