The High Atlas, Ouarzazate and Ait Ben Haddou
After a good nights rest it was time for another early start, a trend forming in our time in Morocco. We were dressed and packed, waiting in the small opening of the Riads reception, at 6.50am. The street noises we were used to, brimming over the high open top of the courtyard could no longer be heard, replaced by the constant chatter of small birds which dominated the early morning rooftops.
I felt refreshed by the chill in the air and tucked into one of the pastries we had bought the night before, accompanied by mineral water. Then came the knock on the front door. An old man greeted us and began leading us through the streets towards the Djmaa el Fna. We both assumed this was our driver for the day and began making small talk and offering him pastries. He declined and pushed on at a speedy rate through the empty street, unrecognisable from the night before due to the lack of swathing crowds.
We turned the corner from under the alcoved road, from shade, into the square lit by an overcast mornings sullen glow. Where stood rows of market traders before, now was home to a line of 4×4 land cruisers and scattered groups of tourists. They all seemed to be waiting for their various rides out of town.
Our escort introduced us as the English Pakistani’s to his friend who called himself Prince Naseem (who in fact did possess a strange likeness, plus a few pounds). His cockney impressions kept us amused until we were finally introduced to our actual driver for the day, Borjummah. A berber who was originally from Casablanca. He climbed aboard our silvery steed for the day, a rusting Land Cruiser Prado, and drove away from the groups who still remained, waiting. We have no idea why we were given the first car or the first driver, even after being the last to arrive at the pick up point but we shrugged it off and began getting to know our driver, who proved to be an absolute character.
The radio was broken, just like our ability to speak french, but fortunately Borjummah had a good grasp of english and a knack for breaking off into high pitched mimic singing every now and again. We had left town now and were on the lush flat plains south of town, the High Atlas looming ahead like a sleeping shepherd on the horizon. They were dark ridges, drenched in mist, much like the early morning plains we drove through, moisture in the air collecting on my face and lens as I perched my elbows on the open window of the rear left seat.
Before we knew it, the long straight flat roads of the plains became thin windy mountain roads as we began the slow windy assent up the side of one of the valleys, tearing into the side of the range like a deep wound on a fallen animal. The rocks were browns and greys, weathered in the wet by the climate that hit it from the north. The range a natural barrier, separating the desert from the lowlands approaching the sea.
We stopped for tea at a misty truck stop on the side of the road. By this time we were awake and slightly dismayed by the lack of visibility. Little did we know that it was all about to change.
Around 7 sharp bends and 3 near death overtaking manoeuvres later we came around the right side of a swooping valley wall and as we erupted onto the other side into a dazzling light from the clearing skys, we realised we were about to experience something that we would never forget. And as an intrepid nurse once said,
“None of the adjectives usually applied to scenery is adequate – indeed the very word ‘scenery’ is comically inappropriate.”
– Dervla Murphy
The only way I feel fit in expressing this journey, this drama unfolding as we slid our way up to 2,260m and then back down the other side into the gateway of the Sahara, is through pictures.
On the Saharan side, the greys and greens of the mountain side melted away into buttery yellows and mood setting oranges. This was the side that shielded the plains from the desert. Forged thousands of years ago, standing firm against decades of assault by sand through storms. The land became flat, yellow and barren, with the lush snow capped mountains in the background as a reminder of where we had just journeyed from.
Ouarzazate was quiet due to it being the day of prayer, Jummah. The film studio museum was closed for an hour or so, which gave us time for a well needed meal of lamb tagine on rooftop of the restaurant next to it.
The film museum was small and completely random, but worth the fun of exploring it at your own pace and messing around with various props just abandoned on the floors of sets from old middle eastern based movies that we had never heard of.
We visited a local tradesman who owned a rather large shop, tucked away down an alley way. He sold locally made products ranging from jewel encrusted mirrors to expensive leather slippers, but with our hand luggage restrictions, we made our excuses and left.
Next stop, Ait Ben Haddou. You will see from the pictures that it is an old fortress, used as a film set for such motion pictures as Gladiator, The Mummy, Kingdom of Heaven and Prince of Persia. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site but still is the home to a number of families.
Borjummah dropped us off near to the bridge on the other side of the Ounila river. It was a short walk across onto the other side which began with the steep ascent along the trader clogged streets of the old collection of buildings. Perched on a very steep hill, it made the perfect choice for any would-be smuggler or bandit to set up camp and maintain its defences. It is placed on what used to be the main caravan route from the Sahara into Marrakech and so held great importance in terms of trade and accommodation.
We meandered through the streets toward the top, feeling like we had been thrust into a movie ourselves. The peak had a single building, like a small keep, which must have had excellent foundations to ensure its safety under the high speed winds at the top. Nearly being blown off the top, we took our pictures, enjoyed the view and made a hasty retreat. For the brief minutes we spent up there, we could see beyond the yellow sands and red rocks, all the way to the white speckled mountains under a crystal clear laguna sky.
Back in the jeep, we woke Borjummah who had drifted off whilst we were away and took the same road back up into the mountains towards Marrakech.
The return journey was mesmerising, transfixed by the route we had taken in the morning, but in reverse and lacking the snow we had seen in the morning. It looked like a different landscape altogether.
As the sun died over the valleys ridges, we curled along, back onto the flat road leading into town and the train station.
The night train awaited us. We said goodbye to our host for the day, tipped generously (helping the karma side of things) and then made it into the station with plenty of time before our departure. With a serious lack of any restaurants in the area, we settled on KFC for a quick meal and then hastily boarded the train to Tangier.
It left at 9pm and would arrive at 7.30am the next day. We were bundled into our small cabin of 4 bunks, occupied both the top bunks out of a sense of safety and began the ritual process of going through the days pictures. The train trundled along like a mechanical worm and the orange lights of passing towns became streaks in the darkness outside of the window.
Another day ended and again sleep came with ease. The next day held even more as we had no idea how we were going to get from Tangier to our 3 day stop in the Rif mountains.