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June 24, 2017 / oneworld82

From Fez to Erg Chebbi through the Atlas Mountains

While cities are great, nature is even better. After all, we’re talking about Morocco here! Consider this: desert is what people usually associate with this wonderful country (together with, perhaps, couscous and Marrakech), and so it was only natural that we decided to take the long way around from Fez to Marrakech, driving to Ifrane, Azrou, Midelt and along the Oued Ziz to Erfoud and then Merzouga to spend a night in a Berber tented camp in Erg Chebbi; continuing then through Rissani and the Tafilalt oasis to Tinerhir and the Todra and Dades Gorges; ending the journey on day three in Marrakech going through Ouarzazate and splendid Ait Benhaddou. What a trip! The scenery would change from green valleys, to cedar forests, to snow-capped mountains, to water reservoirs in the Ouad valley, to desert oasis, to sand dunes as high as mountains in the Sahara, to the dizzying walls of the Gorges du Dades, to the cinema studios of Ouarzazate, to the out-of-this-World architecture of Ait Benhaddou, to, finally, the majestic sights of Marrakech.

I won’t lie – in three days we did a lot of driving and it was decently tiring. Yet, I am glad we did it, as we really got to experience a lot of Morocco, from rural to nomadic life.

While we booked this as a private tour, we ended up being with four Indonesian girls, although we had our own car and driver. We didn’t mind at all the arrangement, as the girls were very nice and accommodating (they were spending a year in England studying abroad).

The climb to the middle Atlas was steep and scenic. The green valleys surrounding Fez gave soon way to a more alpine landscape. We soon reached Ifrane, a Swiss-like town atop the Middle Atlas featuring proper Alpine architecture (it was built by the French as a resort town). A famous private university is housed here, and the feeling is of a glitzy mountain resort, Moroccan style.

Ifrane

Snow was almost everywhere here, although it was almost all melting away; as surprising as it might be, Morocco has ski slopes and skiing infrastructures.

We kept driving until we reached the Azrou national park, home to a large cedar forest. I can really say these trees are impressive (and beautiful). Morocco is blessed with abundant quality wood, and contrarily to Lebanon (where cedars have all but disappeared) the country still has a decent number of them (and they are protected as well). The air up here was definitely chilly – Azrou sits at around 1400m above sea level (around 3,300 ft high).

We kept driving through the mountains – the landscape was lunar, with sparse vegetation and only a few nomads (with relative flocks of sheep and goats) around. We definitely were in a very different part of Morocco now, and we were clearly entering Berber territory.

We started descending from the mountains, and around 12.30pm we arrived in Midelt, a provincial capital that feels more like an outgrown town than a city. We stopped by a roadside restaurant for lunch; this is one of the few things we did not like of this organized tour: luncheons and dinners would always be at mediocre, overpriced restaurants for tourists. In fact, for the next three days the food would not be memorable at all.

The sun here was hot, and the landscape was now arid. After lunch we drove on towards Erfoud, and the sights along the road were spectacular. Right before the military base at Errachidia (we are not far from the Algerian border here, and as you might be aware, the two countries are not exactly on friendly terms), the Barrage Al Hassan Addakhil is a fantastic blue mirror surrounded by rocky desert.

Not far past Erfoud, between the villages of Ouled Chaker and Ksar Jdid, a most amazing oasis along the Oued Ziz enclosed in a somewhat deep canyon provide some great photo ops. The views were amazing – we really were in the Sahara!

Around 5pm we arrived in Merzouga, a dusty outpost at the fringe of the desert that in years past survived on trans-Saharan trade while today tourism is the main source of livelihood. A few hotels provide camel caravans into the majestic Erg Chebbi, where various Tuareg tented camps happily host tourists overnight.

The trek to the camp lasts around a hour – and seeing the sun setting over the dunes – with nothing but sand surrounding you – is simply remarkable. The quiet and scale of the dunes (and the cute beetles crawling seemingly out of nowhere to the top) give pause to think and reflect – too often we are caught in our busy life and have no time to slow down, to relax, to think. I have to say mea culpa for this as well, as I left an easy, relaxed life in Italy to follow the American dream. Sure, money and professional success are great – but how I wish I had more time to spend with my fabulous wife and daughter instead of having to worry about work or fixing the house or buying the next new electronics… But I digress.

We arrived at the camp when it was almost dark, and after some tea we were served a nice dinner in a communal tent with harira and chicken tagine – the food here was actually decent. The camp was almost completely dark – only a bonfire gave us some light, and we sang and danced until around 11pm. The starred sky, by the way, was spectacular.

The tent where we slept was basic, but it did the trick for the night. We woke up at 6.30am and we climbed one of the (very) tall dunes behind the camp to savor the spectacular sunrise from high up. It was very chilly before the sun came to warm us up – it was still March after all and the thermal excursion between day and night is very marked here in the desert. After we got back to the hotel we had a simple breakfast of bread and honey (plus coffee) to get us going for the second day of this comprehensive road trip.

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