Adrian Mourby
Last updated: 27 May, 2013

Roadtrip over the Atlas Mountains

Follow Adrian Mourby on his dazzling journey through the inner parts of Morocco.

Day 1: Fez-Midelt
From Fez to Marrakech via Sefrou, Midelt and Ouarzazate. Those names conjoured up images of long camel trains and noisy spice markets but reality was somewhat different. True, Sefrou turned out to be an old walled city surrounded by olive groves where an ageing hippie tried to tell me about a visit from the Beatles, but my next stop, Ifrane, turned out to be an alpine-style resort. At 1,650m above sea level, it’s where King Mohamed VI goes skiing each winter and its wooden chalets are bizarrely reminiscent of the Alps.

Pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I headed south east up through an area full of old flooded volcano craters known as The Lakes District. By nightfall I had crossed a snowy ridge to make it down on to the Plateau de l’Arid where I found a bed in the French garrison town of Midelt.

Day 2: Midelt-Ouarzazate
My hotel was an empty concrete block that must have seemed pretty cool when it opened in the 1960s. Now it was just cold. At 4am it was even colder. By 7am I was up and eating baguette for breakfast. From here I drove in blinding light up a winding new road to a pass known as Col Talghomt. It was 1,907 metres above sea level, windswept and even colder.

I coaxed my unhappy car across this wide red empty plateau, sighting goatherds, the occasional crumbling mud building and at one point a new mosque powered by solar panels. At a low rise settlement called Ait Balasahne (the tribe of Balasahne) I stopped to check the map and a Balasahne woman who had been carrying a bundle of sticks came running towards me, as did her son. They wanted diram for photos. I duly took two and handed over some cash, but more mothers arrived with their children, all  pressing on me and asking for money. Time to move on.

Dropping down into the Ziz Gorge to head towards Er-Rachidia, I was overawed by the sight of this raw chasm cut by the river into the Atlas Mountains. It was as if nature had put on an exhibition of how violent and magnificent she could be.

At the bottom of the gorge I stopped briefly at an isolated roadside hotel called Kasba Dounia for coffee with the manager, Abdul, and the owner, Mustapha, who was very keen that I should stay. Mustapha told me that every  September near his hotel the Berber tribes hold a great “fiancée” ceremony. I should come back and see that.

There was no radio in my little red hire car, so I sped in silence past the Hassan-Addakhil dam, the city  of Er-Rachidia,  the oasis town of Goulmima and the fortified town of Tinerhir. Now it began to rain, quickly creating orange puddles where there had been sand before. Lorries splashed by and covered my windscreen with mud. I was glad when I made it to Rose Valley and the rain petered out.

Rose Valley if famous for the rosewater it produces by harvesting cuttings originally brought back by medieval pilgrims to Mecca. I stopped briefly at an old oasis town called Skoura just to stretch, but a man in waiter’s jacket  palled on to me and insisted that he should show me around. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer, even when I got back into my hire car. In fact he actually jumped on to his bike and cycled after me, gesticulating.

As the sun began to set I wove across an undulating landscape that dropped down first to the Royal Ouarzazate Golf Course with its palm trees grouped round the fairways and then into the old French Foreign Legion town of Ouarzazate itself. I arrived at my hotel dishevelled and desperate for a big hot bath.

Tomorrow I would be driving over the Tizi-n-Tichka Mountain Pass to Marrakech.

Day 3: Ouarzazate-Marrakesh:
The next morning I headed down along the wide boulevards Ouarzazate to where a sculpture of sprocketed film marks the city’s edge, and the location of Atlas Studios, centre of the Moroccan film industry. Huge Egyptian-style figures lined the outer wall. I turned off at a sign for the Oscar Hotel and, because nothing was being shot this day, managed to get shown round the Gladiator Bar, the Cleopatra Restaurant (both named after films shot in Ouarzazate). Then we went in search of the sets. I passed a catapult from Oliver Stone’s Alexander, an airplane from Jewel of the Nile, a Tibetan house from Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. On the horizon I could see the walls of Jerusalem from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.

Next I headed into the Atlas foothills to look for the village of Ait Ben Hadou, passing a number of roadside pottery stalls with snow-topped mountains ahead of me. Then the road dipped down and below were a series of oasis villages and at the end of the chain Ait Ben Hadou, which rises from the ground like a giant sandcastle.

This walled village is like something from Biblical times and indeed was used in Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth. Today it has UNESCO World Heritage status.

Soon I began my final ascent over the Atlas Mountains, geading into a narrow valley in the direction of  Marrakech. The valley grew steep and narrow and the mud-Kasbah style of housing was now replaced by building in stone. Soon it started to snow. The Tizi-n-Tchika Pass reaches a height of 2,260m. Crazily there were men out in the snow selling large rock crystals. They lined the road and would step out into my path to try and get me to stop and buy.  As my car complained about the gradient I kept on, stopping just briefly at Iloud, a mountain town consisting of an old kasbah and a small French settlement. There was a café called Chez Mimi so I bought a coffee, cleared the car windscreen and gave its engine a rest.

The descent to Marrakech was down the Ghdat Valley and the snow was so heavy I could hardly see through the windscreen. At one point, braking in order to avoid a stream that had burst its banks, I stalled the car and it would not start again, the engine had flooded.

Eventually I was able to coax the machine to roll down the road and start the ignition, but the journey off the mountain was hair-raising as the drop below was hundreds of metres with no crash barriers.

Suddenly the snow stopped and sunlight was dazzling. The drop below was still alarming but everything was green, vibrantly so. Stretching before me, an avenue of plane trees led all the way to Marrakech.

I drove to the airport and picked up my wife who had arrived for the weekend. Together we completed the journey into Marrakech and that night dined in Jemaa el-Fna in a restaurant that overlooked all the foodstalls, water sellers and musicians that line that vibrant square. We drank Moroccan rose wine and ate pigeon pastilla, lamb tajine and chicken couscous. I had not seen any camel trains but there below us was the spice market of my dreams and I felt I really hadearned my supper.

Adrian Mourby is an award-winning writer and producer, who was recently one of the five finalists for the award of UK Travel Journalist of the Year.