THE ROAD BEST TRAVELLED Part 5: Beyond the Desert: Ziz Valley to Midelt/Fes

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Today, we’re driving one of my very favorite routes: Erfoud to Fes, and I’m on the hunt for pictures. This route is seldom written about. It’s true that the route to the desert from Marrakech through Ouarzazate and up through Skoura and Tineghir has many rewarding and well-publicized attractions like Ait Ben Haddou and the Todra Gorge. But they’re just that: well-publicized. For straight scenic beauty and variety in landscape, I think this route to Fes is at least as interesting – possibly more so.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time we head out, and we’ve deliberately chosen a late departure. We’ll only go as far as Midelt tonight, because there are certain places I want to photograph in “different” light. Typically, we’re almost always getting on the road shortly after breakfast, which means I’m always going through various parts of the country at roughly the same time of day, so the light is always pretty much the same. I wonder if you’ve noticed? There are a few pictures that I’ve posted where you might have said to yourself, “Now, if only there had been light on that wall…” Yes. Me too. I’ve said that, too. So now I’m going to try and get just those particular ones…

Patient Imad. He rolls his eyes at me, but only a little, because he knows what I’m talking about. He LOVES my camera, and he’ll often take off with it if I’m busy doing something else, like lounging around the pool! I’m happy to share: he’s got The Eye and takes excellent pictures. In this way, he’s a real resource to our clients when he’s driving them: he knows all the really good spots to stop for pictures. And since he knows the satisfaction of getting a really great shot, he’s also patient about stopping wherever people want if they see something interesting.

The 80 or so kilometres from Erfoud through the provincial capital of Er Rachidia to the smaller city of Rich tracks along the rim of the deep Ziz Valley. Strictly speaking, it follows the contours of the Oued Ziz (Ziz River), but you seldom see the river itself – not until you get past Er Rachidia, anyway. The valley is dense with date palms; the “river” is a lush green wall-to-wall carpet bounded by the steep craggy canyon walls, stretching as far as you can see. Here and there, a curl of smoke rises out of the “green”, or a flat patch of emerald-green irrigated field appears where the palms thin out, the only signs of human presence. And yet, there are actually many people living in the valley, essentially all of them farmers, working the palm groves and the little vegetable fields tucked in between.

The Ziz is a significant and reliable source of water, and it’s easy to see how it has supported community in the region for millennia. The proof? …Well, THIS road could easily compete for the name “The Kasbah Route”! For my money, this is a true boneyard of old kasbahs, never mind what they say about the route from Skoura to Boumalne. The old ruins are much closer to the road here, possibly because they were built advantageously in proximity to the river. They not only add scenic value to the route – you see more of them – but it’s also a LOT easier to get right up close to these ruins. They’re seriously photogenic! Poor Imad – I’m in-out-in-out all along the road, because the light is GREAT!

(HINT: If you’re doing a road trip in Morocco and plan to hop in and out of the car for photos, wear closed-toed shoes. You’ll be landing on dry rocky/gravelly shoulders that are likely to be littered with broken glass, thorny scrub brush… in other words, perfect SCORPION habitat! They’re hard to see, too. Maybe also spider habitat. I’m not totally clear about spiders here. I’m serious about this.)

Are you a little tired from reading only about the road? I bet you are. Well, there’s another series coming about specific sites on and off the beaten path, but it’s time for coffee, so we’re going to stop at a little spot that’s certain on the route, but not many people stop because they’re hell-bent on getting to Fes.

Source Bleu de Meski is a small palm grove (and village) whose claim to fame is the natural warm-water springs that are channelled into a shallow swimming pool adjacent to the town square. There aren’t any dramatic falls or anything, and for that matter, the springs aren’t all that warm, but it’s still a picturesque spot by the river, and there are the ruins of a large ksar across the river. (A ksar is similar to a kasbah in that both are within fortified walls, but a kasbahs are typically characterized by a palace or castle belonging to the ruling family, while ksars are typically fortified villages. However, villages tend to grow up around castles, so there is quite a bit of mushiness around the distinction.) Meski has a campground popular with Europeans, and there’s a nice four-hour trek along the river to Ksar Oulad Aissa with fabulous views of the Tafilalt region.

NOTE: If you visit, DO NOT swim, wade, or otherwise have contact with the river water, here, or anywhere else on the east side of the Atlas Mountains. The bilharzia parasite is still prevalent here. Do what we do: stop for coffee, or if the time of day is right, have a picnic, then head back on the road…

Although the landscape flattens out around Rich, it isn’t long before the road begins its ascent into the Middle Atlas Mountains. I think that’s where we are… it’s hard to tell. It could be Kamloops. It could be Sedona. It could be the Grand Canyon. It’s red. It’s gold. It’s purple. It’s craggy, it’s scrubby. Car-sized boulders perch precariously above the road. It’s achingly beautiful.

It’s now too dark for photos, so time to stop. We’re in Midelt, a small nondescript little place that nevertheless has a couple of pretty good “country inns”, Morocco-style. We spy a rotisserie loaded with golden chickens drooling with juices, glowing like a beacon in the growing dark… there’s DINNER!

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