Morocco – The Draa Valley to the Sahara

We set off from Taliouine rested and scrubbed and took the road east, with the surroundings slowly becoming more and more desolate.  The mountains were initially of stony rock and then gave way to sandy nothingness interspersed with the occasional oasis.

The bleak road from Taliouine to Agdz

The bleak road from Taliouine to Agdz

It made the descent into the Draa valley all the more rewarding, as finally we encountered palmeries and blossoming almond trees in the fertile river valley.  We stayed a couple of nights in Agdz (pronounced Ag-dez) where we explored the palmeries and neighbouring villages on our bikes.

The highlight in Agdz was the neighbouring settlement of Tamnougalt, across the wide Draa river, and once the capital of the region.  It is topped by a ruined Kasbah on the hillside and the village itself, once an assembly of families administering what was regarded as an independent republic, is a wild maze of mud walled buildings, interwoven with dark, enclosed passageways and virtually unchanged in centuries.  We were guided around the kasbah here (in this case Kasbah meaning walled residential quarter rather than a palace) which is still lived in and we were glad of the guide as would have still been trying to find our way out!!

From Agdz we took the road out of the valley and headed towards the Sahara.  It was pretty bleak going, particularly where the road passed a cobalt mine, meaning the heavy mine trucks had virtually destroyed anything resembling tarmac.  Our efforts were rewarded by the magnificent Erg Chebbi dunes, rising out of the black stony desert (known as the hammada).  The Erg Chebbi dunes are giant sand dunes lining the Algerian border; they are the best of the dunes Morocco has to offer, and certainly worth the trip east.  We’ve spent a few days here, admiring the dunes as they change from orange, to pink to white throughout the day as the sun rises, and hiking up to the top of the tallest one for amazing sunset views.

Morocco – the foothills of the Atlas mountains

We spent the next morning visiting the tanneries of Taroudant – according to the guide book, much cleaner and tidier than the famous tanneries at Fez, but a complete assault on the senses!  The tanneries are outside the beautiful town walls on account of their smell – not only rotting meat, but the leather is cured in cattle urine and pigeon droppings!  Luckily I commented on the fact that I was battling with the smell and we were presented with some fresh basil leaves to hold to our noses!  Not a pleasant experience, with dogs and cats eating up the remaining meat from carcasses and various animal body parts lying about the place.  Needless to say we declined to visit the slaughterhouse over the road.

After stopping at, what we realised afterwards was, a ladies patisserie and coffee shop (it’s men only at the outside seats of all the pavement cafes) which caused great hilarity amongst the owner and all her friends, for some coffee and pastries to reignite the senses, we got on the road to Taliouine.  We stopped en route to explore a nearby crumbling kasbah (feudal family castle), sadly rather ruined by the new addition of a restaurant aimed at tour groups and added in an awful modern style to the beautiful crumbling exterior.  It was used as the setting for the French film of Ali Babar and the 40 Thieves and luckily we discovered the nearby spring, from which there were magnificent views of the back of it.

Taliouine is the centre of various co-operatives for growing saffron; indeed it is the only place in Morocco where saffron is grown.  Sadly the growing and harvesting seasons are September and October, but we visited the small saffron museum and bought some – it is sold in 1 gram packages and is highly valued not only for colouring and flavouring, but also for its medicinal purposes (thought to cure snake poison to rheumatism!).

We’ve spent the 2 days here in Taliouine exploring the neighbouring kasbahs by bike.  Taliouine is nestled in the foothills of the Atlas mountains on the Draa river, which is beautifully fertile and the floodplains are filled with cherry orchards, olive groves and beautifully terraced fields where the saffron flowers are grown.  The neighbouring kasbahs are in varying states of repair and it was fantastic exploring each and getting shown around by the local villagers, who are very proud of the kasbahs and enjoy practising their French and even, in some cases, English.  The shout goes up as soon as we are spotted and kids come running from all directions, often on their own bikes and we then have company for a few kilometers, usually racing us and showing off their skills, before they wish us “au revoir” and return to their village.

The campsite is in a great setting adjacent to the river bed, with lots of cherry trees and dramatic sunsets over the mountains, with atmosphere created by the competing calls from two different muezzins (the singer calling prayer in a mosque) on either side of the valley.  We rewarded ourselves today with a scrub and massage in the hamamm here, heated much the same way as the Roman baths, with a big fire outside to heat the tiled floor.  It was rather frightening at how much dirt was scrubbed off Leigh, and Atmad took pleasure in showing me just how much Leigh was in need of the scrub!

Morocco – On to Taroudant

After nearly two weeks we were sad to say goodbye to the campsite outside Taghazout – we will certainly miss the wonderful Paradise Valley, with its empty silence broken only by the occasional bird song, comical braying ass and Berber children shouting “bonjour” or “bon bon” while minding their small herds of goats and sheep.  We will also miss our friend M’hammed, who delivered fresh strawberries, raspberries, macaroons and sweet pastry delights to our tent each afternoon!

We left the Atlantic and paradise valley and set off this morning for the bustling town of Taroudant, in the fertile Souss valley region and at the foot of the Atlas mountains.  The road out east from Agadir was lined with date plantations, orange orchards and even trees!  Taroudant, once the capital (back in the 16th century), is a wonderful walled city with a laid back feel.  We got lost in the winding back streets and explored the two souks, the Souk Arab, filled with Tuareg and Berber jewellery, tajine pots and leather babouches (Moroccan slippers) and the Marche Berbere, filled with spices, vegetables, olives and clothing.

We later enjoyed soaking up the evening atmosphere, when the whole town descends on the two main squares and the streets become a whirlwind of bicycles, scooters, horse drawn carriages and pedestrians.


Morocco – Taghazout – getting out and exploring

"Paradise Valley" near Taghazout: site of our infamous 5 hour ride, this view taken on the 5 hour hike

“Paradise Valley” near Taghazout: site of our infamous 5 hour ride, this view taken on the 5 hour hike

We’ve spent the last few days exploring the ocean, the back roads and the hill tops.  The surf has been quite big, so we’ve learnt a few lessons in how to survive being dumped by big waves!  We also have got to know the “mountains” behind our campsite, having taken a wrong turn on the bikes and ended up on the bikes for 5 hours in the heat up and down various mountain passes (with only 2 bananas each to keep us going!).

Just before the first of the mountain climbs up out of Paradise Valley

Just before the first of the mountain climbs up out of Paradise Valley

Then today we joined a hike organised by an ex French military man staying in the camp, which was also a 5 hour affair, again up and down the mountains!  As the youngest and only English speakers on the hike, we were affectionately called “les jeunes” by all the French and my fairly basic French was put to good practice, as none of them spoke English.

And there is always time for Leigh to organise cocktails – a refreshing end to tough days!

Another cheeky cocktail evening - Tom Collins with a Moroccan mint twist

Another cheeky cocktail evening – Tom Collins with a Moroccan mint twist