Saturday, April 24, 2010

Todra and Dades Gorges, Morocco

It’s late afternoon, and the sun is painting the rocks in their warmest colors.  We’re in our rental car, navigating a narrow road that winds down into a valley.  “Africa” by Toto comes on the radio, and we crank up the volume and yell out the lyrics, thrilled that it‘s a song we know, that it‘s about Africa, and that we are driving this very minute on African roads.  Turning the corner, there’s a fortress of a crumbling kasbah looming ahead of us.  Am I really here, really doing this, really seeing that? Pretty cool.

We spent three days driving in and out of Todra and Dades Gorges in the Atlas Mountains.  The area didn’t have a very detailed description in our guide book, so we didn’t really know what we were in for.  We followed tour buses into Todra Gorge, so we knew there must be something to see down there, but Dades Gorge was a bit of an afterthought, and such a hidden gem!  Incredibly beautiful, incredibly atmospheric.  I’ll say it again.  I love rocks.  And rocky landscapes.  And crumbling old fortresses aren’t that bad either…

Todra Gorge is a narrow valley carved over millennia by a meandering river.  Nearly vertical cliffs of red rock tower on either side of the river for several hundred meters.  A whole tourist village has sprung up near the cliffs to cater to the daytrippers and rock climbers who drive in and then drive back out.  We stayed for a bit and decided to get a different perspective on the cool geology.

We hiked into the stony, dry mountains towering over Todra Gorge, passing a herd of shaggy black goats and the boy in a red robe watching over them.  When a great view over the gorge opened up, we stopped to rest and a Berber girl approached and begged with sign language for something to eat, so we gave her four of our chocolate chip cookies, which made her smile.  On the way down, we lost the path and ended up verrrry carefully picking our way down an impossibly steep crevice with prickly thistles and razor-sharp rocks snagging at us the whole way.  Safely at the bottom and back on the trail, we turned around to look at the nearly vertical 30-ft wall of rock and had no idea how we’d made it down.

The trail descended into a picturesque village with a crumbling Kasbah (every village here has at least one) and a flourishing garden in the river valley.  A forest of palm, fig, and olive trees shaded plots of potatoes, carrots, mint, and peas growing on either side of the river.  Before coming to Morocco I didn’t think that oases were real, but now I know that lush islands of green really do sprout up in the middle of the desert wherever water bubbles to the surface.

We were the only guests staying at the guesthouse in Todra, and the owner sat down at our table with us while we ate dinner.  After dinner, he brought out two drums, handed Mohit one, and started to sing in Arabic and bang on his drum.  Two of his friends wandered in from the road, sat down, and joined in on the banging and singing.  When the song finished, one of them asked how we were finding Morocco.  Wanting to compliment their country, we both commented how beautiful Morocco is, how much variety there is in the landscape as we’ve traveled from the cities to farmland, from the mountains to desert.  Our new friend replied that Morocco is great for the rich, who can afford to travel and see all the beauty, but for the average Moroccan, life is hard.  It’s hard to earn a living, and near impossible to leave for better work.  He said he’d leave Morocco in a heartbeat to find work in Europe, but he can’t get a legal visa, and he can‘t afford to be smuggled in.  He scratches out a living selling scarves, jewelry, and small Berber rugs at a makeshift roadside stall at the base of the hiking trails.  I felt bad. I wondered what he thought our life is like.

We made our way further south to Dades Gorge, another narrow valley carved into red rocks.  Though the real attraction is the visually stunning 40-km drive into the gorge from the main road, winding through villages perched between huge rock outcrops.  Just past the gorge the road points steeply back uphill.  We stopped at the top for coffee and peered over the edge at the hairpin turns we’d just navigated!

On our way out of the gorges and on to Ouarzazate, Mohit was determined to find a large kasbah that was briefly mentioned in Lonely Planet, mostly because there’s a picture of it on Morocco’s fifty-dirham bill, so he figured it must be pretty cool.  We got hopelessly lost, asked for directions from a man who spoke no English (not so helpful), and had nearly given up when I finally spotted what looked like castle walls peeking over the top of a palm tree.  We headed in that general direction and the only way we could see to get over to the kasbah was to drive across a rocky, dry riverbed.  About halfway across in our poor rental car (no road, no four-wheel drive, possibly no spare tire??) we realized that perhaps we should have left the car and walked across.  Oops, too late.

The Kasbah was pretty amazing, even though the guy we paid to show us around was not (he swore he spoke English, sort of, and then gave most of our tour in French.  We translated about every fourth word and did our best to guess at the rest).  From what we gathered, the kasbah had been built in the 1600s by an Arab who constructed a fortress-like home to protect his family from attacks by the area’s nomadic Berber tribes.  He showed us the four separate kitchens for the four separate wives that had lived there (all married to the same man, who we figured, must have been fat with all that eating from all those kitchens!).

Driving our last stretch to Marrakech from Ouarzazate the next day, it was another beautifully sunny day, and I was in pure awe at the richness of color in this land.  Red rocks, red houses.  Yellow earth, yellow pottery at roadside stalls.  Glistening green fields and trees on the side of the road.  Brilliant blue painted doors.  The bluest sky I have ever seen.  A backdrop of imposing black mountains capped in gleaming white snow.

We both felt that our road trip through central and eastern Morocco was the highlight of our trip through the country.


  1. Hi Kate, amazing blog! I hope you don't mind but I'm looking to drive from Merzouga to Marrakesh with my partner in September and am hoping you can can answer a few questions: Where did you start your driving trip from, and was it easy to hire a car and how much did it cost? Were the roads easy to navigate and did you have an english speaking nav man? Thanks so much :)

  2. Hi Carly-

    We drove from Fes to Merzouga and then from there through the Atlas Mountains (Todra etc) and then on to Marrakech.

    We rented the car in Fes. Navigating out of the city was a little tough, but once we made it out, there are not a lot of choices for roads through rural Morocco so the navigation was straightforward. We drove ourselves, no guide. I don't remember the cost, it was 5 years ago.

    Merzouga is pretty rural. We stayed on the outskirts, so maybe there were amenities we did not see, but my sense it it might be difficult to rent a car starting there.

    Good luck, Morocco is a beautiful country. Enjoy!