Morocco – Marrakech

We took the beautiful “route of almonds” out of Tafraoute towards Agadir, driving another magnificent pass which wound its way for miles along the Atlas mountains, past a series of fortified villages, before finally descending towards the coast.

From there we headed north up to the outskirts of Marrakech to the most fantastic campsite, which can only be described as 5 star!  With the snow covered mountains a mere stone’s throw away and a flat cycle ride into the centre of Marrakech, we have settled in for a few days.  We spent the first unwinding at the pool and then ventured in to explore the maze-like souks and soak up the atmosphere of the old medina.

Today we headed to the beautiful Jardin Marjorelle, in the heart of the new town.  Designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle, who lived there from the ‘20s to the ‘60s (and subsequently bought by Yves Saint-Laurent, who fell in love with Marrakech) and planted an amazing botanic garden of cacti from all over the world, it is a haven in the madness of modern Marrakech.  The house and various pavilions dotted in the 12 acres of garden are painted deep Yves Klein blue, with pots of bright yellows, oranges and reds showing off cacti and bougainvillea.  From there we explored the rest of the area on the bikes, taking in various galleries and design shops – a real contrast to the souks and squares of the old town.

Morocco – Tafraoute

We’ve spent the last few days just outside a town called Tafraoute, nestled in a valley in the Anti Atlas mountains.  We both feel that this is the most beautiful part of Morocco we have visited so far; the town surrounded by glowing orange mountains and strange outcrops of granite bolders.  We’ve spent our days here exploring the surrounding Ameln Valley, a valley below the rocky orangey-purple Djebel el Kest mountain, containing about 26 small Berber villages in the foothills of the mountain, all about to celebrate the almond harvest; and viewing the surreal “Pierres Bleues” or “Roche Peinture”, rocky bolders painted by Belgian artist Jean Verame back in 1984.  Assisted by the local fire department, Jean hosed about 18 tonnes of blue, red, black and green paint over a large area of rocks.  They are now pretty faded (pictures from the ‘80s show the blue as dark Yves Klein blue, now a light turquoise) but have a certain charm among the naturally red granite bolders and rocky outcrops.

We also took a wonderful day trip in the car exploring what many describe as the most beautiful part of the Anti Atlas (and we certainly agree); up a steeply winding increasingly desolate mountain pass with views back over Tafraoute and the villages in the Ameln Valley and then down hairpin bend after hairpin bend on the other side before reaching a magnificent gorge leading to a fine oasis, the tiny road lined with palm trees with the backdrop of the magnificent red crags above.

Morocco – On to Sidi Ifni

Typically, the morning I mentioned that we’d had nothing but sunshine and bright blue skies for a month it clouded over.  We were grateful as it ensured that our hike through the canyon was pleasantly cool but the next morning we woke to the patter of rain and a blanket of snow covering the Atlas mountains – I guess it is winter after all!  We decided against cycling the pass through the gorge (as hadn’t brought any winter kit with us) as planned, and instead, once the rain stopped, packed up and headed back south in search of warmer weather.  We drove down south to one of the great Southern Oasis routes, known as the Tata circuit, taking us through vast emptiness and the now familiar stony hammada interspersed with magnificent palmeries and oases.  After an overnight stay in Tata, we carried on west back to the coast, and gradually left the desert behind, greenery provided in the form of cacti and prickly pears.

At last we saw the ocean once again and headed to the art deco town Sidi Ifni.  The town was a Spanish enclave until 1969 and is now a laid back place filled with white and blue fading art deco buildings.  Unfortunately the campsite wasn’t great and the sea rather uninviting with huge crashing waves, so we decided to stay just one night.  We soaked up the atmosphere, enjoying the architecture and the coffee bars.

We decided to head on back to the mountains, the Anti Atlas this time, stopping at Legzira beach for a morning walk amongst sea-worn rocky archways and Atlantic sea mist.  The road up in to the Anti Atlas is quite breathtaking; initially quite flat, with the bright green of prickly pears covering rolling hills and then climbing to a steep pass with rocky outcrops and less and less vegetation.

Morocco – the Dades Gorge

After exploring the palmeries in the Todra gorge valley we moved only 75 kilometres south-east, to the Dades gorge.  Completely different to the Todra gorge, it narrows substantially and has a steep climb consisting of a number of tight hairpin bends.  There are amazing rock formations in the valley and we drove the gorge and then spent the next day hiking through a smaller canyon just across from our campsite, between amazing formations known alternately as “the body rocks” and “the monkey’s fingers”.  The hike was challenging: crawling under bolders, scaling small sections of rocky cliff and jumping stepping stones in the parts where water flowed.

Morocco – The Todra Gorge

We enjoyed our time staying next to Erg Chebbi, but the sand got the better of us and we decided it was time to head back towards the mountains (not before the obligatory shot of Cali in the dunes of course!).  We stopped to refuel at the local patisserie to keep Leigh’s sugar levels up (sadly they had not yet finished baking the pain au chocolat, which we had sampled the day before: chocolate is obviously a rare commodity as each pain au chocolat has only 1 chip of chocolate in it, but they’re still good!!).

We took the scenic route, following the valley, lined by Kasbahs and palmeries, and eventually giving way to miles of hammada (the stony black desert, which Leigh remembered all too well from the Marathon des Sables).  We are currently staying just on the edge of the Todra Gorge, cut out of from the valley into the high Atlas mountains.  The Todra river is lined with a magnificent palmery, stretching all the way from the gorge itself for about 12 kms or so.  We explored initially on foot, being shown a meandering route through the palmery, up to a ruined kasbah and across to a spring flowing into a pool where a shoal of sacred fish swim, a dip in which is said to cure infertility!

The next day we set off on the bikes through the gorge itself and on to the neighbouring village of Tamtatouche, where we stopped for coffee and chatted to the owner and his beautiful niece, Nadia.  The berber people here are rosy cheeked and the little girls are all gorgeous.  The gorge is a trench through the mountains, an, at times, extremely narrow cleft in gigantic walls, which seems to change colour as the sun moves.  This was probably our most spectacular cycle ever in terms of scenery, through the amazing gorge and relatively car free – just the occasional goat and donkey to contend with.