THE ROAD BEST TRAVELLED Part 4: Sightseeing the Route Des Kasbah: Skoura to Tinghir

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It’s hard to be anything other than a morning person in Morocco. Around 4:15, the first call to prayer drifts gently over rooftops. To me, it sounds like, “Come ONNNN, sleepyhead…” Then the real call to prayer comes around 5:30. Yes, I admit, more than once I’ve whispered to myself, “Thank goodness I’m not Muslim,” and burrowing deeper into the duvet. But it really doesn’t matter, because honestly, if it isn’t the calls to prayer, then it’s the crowing of the neighborhood roosters, or the complaining donkeys, or the dogs. Those damned dogs. Barking half the night. What did they find to argue about out there at 3:00 in the morning? One or two would get going, then another few would join in until, one would give a howl or a yelp, and then they’d fall into general muttering, and things would be quiet again for a while.

Resistance is futile.  Once the piercing sunlight slices into the room, there’s nothing for it. Time to get up. Our riad is in a quiet neighborhood in Ouarzazate. I can hear people scuffling purposefully in the street, whirring past on bicycles, sloshing water and rhythmically sweeping steps. A few muttered words, and a child is sent off to fetch fresh bread for breakfast.

Ah, breakfast! I slip into my clothes and head for the terrace where places have been set for us. There are carafes of strong coffee and hot milk and freshly squeezed orange juice. We also ask for mint tea. There is a basket of French baguette chunks, a plate of lacy Moroccan beghrir pancakes, jewel-bright strawberry and apricot preserves, shallow dishes of honey and olive oil, and small bowls of spicy olives. Oh yes.  And that ubiquitous “cheese product”: La Vache Qui Rit. The glue that holds Morocco together, I swear. We munch away in the soft warm air…

And then the road beckons.

As beautiful and dramatic as yesterday’s trip through the Atlas Mountains was, it’s also tiring when you have to travel slowly because of the narrow road, switchbacks, and slow traffic. Today promises a very different experience.

The road northeast to the Erg Chebbi desert from Ouarzazate is long, straight, and flat, passing as it does through a broad interior plain between parallel mountain ranges. So while the road itself makes for easy travelling, it is also scenic and offers many opportunities to stop for breaks. (And you know how the best scenery leaves you at a loss for words, so this is less of a story than a guide to the pictures…)

Skoura is where the route truly begins. Scarcely 30 km from Ouarzazate, Skoura is nestled in the midst of an enormous flourishing palm oasis of some 20 square kilometres. The “Thousand Palms Oasis”, a UNESCO-protected site, is fed by two seasonal rivers. The vast date palm groves also support significant biodiversity in the region, and as you hump along the dirt track that passes for a road through the oasis, you’ll be surprised at how many other kinds of plants and trees you’ll find in the understory… almonds, mandarines, pomegranates… just see what you can find. Here and there, you’ll also spot local people, usually women, working alone or companionably in small groups, tending the small hand-tilled irrigated vegetable fields of the local people. Literally every square inch is under cultivation, and some of the fields are so very small it’s a wonder they don’t cultivate them with a dinner fork.

Because of its proximity to big-sister Ouarzazate, Skoura’s special attractions are often overlooked. The Kasbah Amrdil is a fine example. Whereas a visit to the Kasbah Taourirt in Ouarzazate offers insight into the world of the upper classes, the smaller Amrdil offers insight into the daily lives of the common villagers. It is also more like a museum with its displays of tools and artefacts of daily life: age-old tagines, olive presses, ornately carved spice cabinets, ingenious animal keeps.

The road from Skoura to Boumalne de Dades is also referred to as the Route des Kasbahs because of the numerous old kasbah ruins scattered across the landscape. In truth, a great many are now little more than heaps of rubble, but even so, many still stand in skeletal testament to the significant level of trade and general habitation that once would have characterized this region. Many little towns still bustle away at the base of the old crumbling walls, and it’s even possible to see where old walls have been shored up and built into or onto, given a new lease on life in sheltering another generation of inhabitants. In a way, they remind me of sunken ships whose derelict hulks gradually crust over and find a new lease on life in providing “reef”-like habitat for new generations of species.

At Kelaat M’Gouna, the kasbahs give way to the Valley of Roses, named for the intensity of the cultivation of the damask rose through the M’Goun valley almost as far north as Boumalne de Dades. I’ve written about this area before (May 16, 2017). There are over 4200 kilometres of bushes in production – yes, kilometres of bushes! – yielding approximately 4000 tons of petals each year.  Extracts of the rose are transformed into hundreds of products including perfumed oils, waters, and soaps, and lotions. I swear, you can smell the shops selling them before you ever see them!

Boumalne de Dades is another great spot to linger longer instead of making a bee-line for the desert. It’s a clean, modern little “red” city that reminds me a lot of Ouarzazate. Unlike Ouarzazate, however, much of it is perched precariously upon the contours of a canyon instead of being set out on a wide plain.  Boumalne marks the gateway to the Dades Valley to the west, a region that is much appreciated by hikers and trekkers.

But you don’t even have to leave your vehicle to see one of the valley’s most astonishing attractions: the Monkey Fingers rock formations! These bubbly rocks are aptly named, and so dramatically different from the craggy striated canyons that are so typical.

…Like the Todra Gorge, in fact! This canyon just out of Tineghir is a mecca for visitors. The character and mood of the rocks changes with the sun: sometimes they are a mellow beige-pink, other times deep red, and later in the afternoon, mauve and taupe. There’s a little hotel here, accessible only by driving through the river to get to it! It’s also a great spot for a picnic or an invigorating walk. One last good stretch before the desert!

It’s just past Tineghir that there are two options for going into the Erg Chebbi desert: a south-ish route crosses to Alnif and then up to Rissani, or continue up to Tinejdad, and cross eastward to Erfoud. That’s what we’re doing… going to visit friends and family… find a nice terrace under the stars for dinner… and fall asleep to the beat of someone’s Berber drums.

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