MOROCCO TRAVEL DOCUMENTARY | The Grand Moroccan Roadtrip
Morocco – From wind-sculpted sand dunes to snow-capped mountains, sophisticated architecture to vibrant souks, Morocco is a pendulum swinging between bustling activity and the stillness of the desert. No matter if on or off the road, on strenuous summit hikes or the back of a camel, adventures and mishaps await the daring traveler. 8 weeks, 10.000 kilometers and a wealth of sounds, sights and smells - this is the Grand Moroccan Roadtrip. Our journey through Morocco started by disembarking the ferry in the large port of Tanger Med. Swiftly leaving the harbor behind, we drove through the undulating far north of the country until arriving in Chefchaouen.
Chaouen - as it is called by the locals - is widely known for the blue color of its buildings. There are several theories, as to why the city was initially painted blue, ranging from the soothing effect of the color, to its representation of the sky and heaven. Others simply say, it was done to attract visitors - a strategy that definitely worked. Most of the Medina can solely be explored on foot, as the steep alleyways are too narrow for vehicles. Needless to say, this helps tremendously in creating an atmosphere of calm.
Having had our fair share of this Blue Pearl of Morocco, we headed towards the nearby Talassemtane National Park. To our surprise, we soon found ourselves looking at massive rock walls. Their reddish color provided a beautiful contrast to the green of the vegetation. Originally, the park was created to protect the last of Morocco’s fir trees.
Today, it is mostly known for its hiking trails though. Several of them lead along emerald mountain streams. Alas, their natural beauty is often tainted by human pollution. Our destination was no less than the Bridge of God, a large rock arch spanning the deep gorge. Surrounded by the smell of countless riverside restaurants, we decided to try out some typical Moroccan dishes for lunch.
While the river had already been impressive earlier, the views improved even further as we continued towards the coast. Soon after, we arrived at the shore of the Mediterranean which we would hug for the next couple of days. Of course, we regularly stopped to take in the scenery, marveling at the winding seaside road, the numerous fishing villages as well as the interesting shapes of the coastline. As so often in the past, we found one of our favorite sights by following a small off-road trail. Framed by snowy peaks and towering above a little village, this former fort used to protect the nearby settlements.
5 km later, the trail ended - and we suddenly looked onto Spain. Now, the Spanish mainland is of course more than 100 km away, but this little peninsula officially belongs to the European nation. Originally an island, a massive storm swept big amounts of sand into the former strait, creating the shortest land border between two countries on earth.
Steadily pushing east towards the Algerian border, we passed some heavily eroded badlands before ending up on a dilapidated coastal road. We eventually arrived at Cape Three Forks, where an old lighthouse marks the northern end. All day long, the dark clouds had been an indication already but soon after leaving the cape, the rain finally broke through. Luckily, the sun was back the following morning. Strolling along a large sandy beach, we enjoyed the thunderous sound of the waves. Just a short walk away, the Moulouya river mouth provides an excellent opportunity to watch the local fauna.
Among the many birds, the long-legged flamingoes were the most striking. Having explored the entire length of Morocco’s Mediterranean coastline, it was time for us to head into the desert. With each southbound kilometer, the large clouds retreated further and soon, we marveled at the first tiny sand dunes along the road.
To thoroughly immerse ourselves in the seclusion of the desert, we left the highway behind, bound for the wilderness of Eastern Morocco. A few minutes into the drive, we passed the derelict buildings of a former train station - a first indication of the unforgiving landscapes we were to encounter. Meanwhile, the sun was getting low on the horizon, tinting the landscape in a marvelous red color. Minutes before the sunset, we pulled up next to the track to set up camp, ready for our first night in the desert. After a chilly night with temperatures as low as -4° Celsius, the next day brought us overcast skies and sandy trails.
Nonetheless, the scenery was fascinating, as it continued to change in quick succession. That change is also evident on a grander scale, as the countryside is in a constant state of flux. Wind and weather relentlessly shape the land, crafting elaborate works of natural art in the process. The ripple patterns on the sand dunes are both eternal and ephemeral, a truly intriguing juxtaposition. Continuing through this remote part of the country, we did not see another car for two days. Instead, we marveled at landscapes that are rarely visited and mostly unspoiled by humans.
Furthermore, the off-road trail was a lot of fun to drive, turning this into one of our favorite parts of the entire trip. More than 100 km of desert solitude, taken in at a leisurely speed, provided us with a never-ending array of natural wonders. One moment, we’d be surrounded by low shrubbery eking out a living on sandy soil whereas the next we would drive through the apparent desolation of a stone desert. Instilling a sense of natural simplicity, it is exactly these types of landscapes that we yearn for when embarking on a roadtrip.
The further we drove southeast, the closer we got to a range of mountains many of which were crowned with a fine dusting of snow. Back on a tarred road, the kilometers started to fly by, helping us make good progress towards the easternmost settlement of Morocco. Surrounded by Algeria on three sides, the small settlement of Iche is a literal oasis in the desert. The local inhabitants cultivate date palms and practice farming on small irrigated fields. Aside from a single tarred road leading in and out of town, all other tracks in the vicinity are gravel, many of which are heavily corrugated.
Normally, this would be the perfect spot to get the drone up in the air to get a nice aerial shot of the vehicle moving through the landscape. But because Morocco entirely bans the import of drones and all my requests for a permit were duly ignored we now have to use our feet to get a similar bird's eye perspective. As we continued to head south, we drove through an arid landscape that was characterized by rugged peaks, dry riverbeds and peculiar flora. Scientifically known as Anabasis, these dwarf subshrubs are also referred to as desert cauliflower, even though in our opinion, desert broccoli would be much more fitting.
Forming dense hemispherical cushions with numerous small, leathery leaves, these bizarre plants survive both hyper-dry periods as well as the hardships of cold winters. Upon approaching the oasis Figuig, we first had to pass one of the regular police checkpoints. Similar to Iche, Figuig is surrounded by Algeria on three sides. Made up of seven villages, the oasis is well-known for its large palm grove that comprises almost 200.000 date palms. For centuries, a sophisticated irrigation system has allowed the local population to survive in this otherwise inhospitable environment.
The main crop of the oasis is, of course, the date, which is exported in the millions. These deliciously sweet fruits are rich in healthy minerals while also being nourishing, earning them the nickname Bread of the Desert. Heading back inland again, we drove straight towards a storm with dust devils whipping across the desert. And then, something almost unbelievable happened. It started to snow.
Big white flakes fell down from the sky. With every minute we stood outside to take in this incredible spectacle, the snowfall intensified. Soon, a thin blanket of snow started to veil the red rocks, transforming the landscape entirely.
The next day started just as impressively, although with sunshine instead of snow. Driving through this landscape, the existential importance of water becomes evident. As the literal source of life, its presence or absence determines where humans and animals can survive and thrive.
Whereas most of the countryside seems utterly barren, the riverbeds, although apparently dry, bring forth a wealth of vegetation. Already in awe with the scenery, our mouths dropped open even further when we entered an especially imposing gorge. With the steep walls towering above, this was one of the most spectacular roads in Morocco. After every single bend, a new panorama opened up, each more impressive than the last. But even upon leaving the gorge behind, the views did not stop, as the following mountain plateau was equally breathtaking. A regular means of transport in these remote areas are donkeys and mules, which can often be seen carrying extensive loads.
Saying that, if vehicles are used, they are loaded up just as much. Leaving the mountains behind for the moment, we drove southeast, heading back into the desert. The entire landscape around us is littered, with what appears to be giant molehills.
However, these earthy mounds aren't exactly of natural origin. They are the above surface remains of an elaborate irrigation system. In fact, each of these mounds is the result of sinking a shaft to create an underground waterway that would supply the nearby oases with a steady flow of water. Built roughly 300 years ago, these so-called Khettara were always constructed in slightly sloping terrain. Instead of spending a lot of resources on laboriously drawing up water from a well, this way the tapped groundwater took the path of least resistance, flowing directly into the oasis.
A little while later, we started to approach a horseshoe-shaped mountain, that once was a fortress. A gravel trail leads all the way to the top of the hill, from where a wonderful view opens up. This is a perfect spot to take in the vastness of the surrounding desert from an elevated position. With the day drawing to an end, we continued to drive east until we approached the large sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.
The following morning, we got up in the dark to experience the sunrise over the dunes. For that, we switched our 4x4 to what our guide jokingly called an 8x8. Perfectly adapted to this desert environment, Arabian camels have very wide feet that allow them to easily walk on sand. Packed into countless layers of clothes due to the freezing temperatures, we rocked back and forth while steadily being carried uphill. Roughly one hour in, we gave the camels a well-deserved rest and continued on foot.
And our timing could not have been better. Within moments, the sun climbed above the dune crest, casting a warm light on us and illuminating the landscape. Half an hour later, we returned to our camels, which, in the meantime, had busied themselves with ruminating. Even though camels are no true ruminants, they too have developed a chambered stomach that allows them to ferment their plant-based food to extract a maximum of nutrients. Once everyone was ready, our camels got up with all the grace they could muster. Needless to say, the dunes had not seen the last of us.
Stretching for more than 20 km from north to south, Erg Chebbi offers plenty of opportunities for exploration. Countless sandy trails surround this sea of dunes, while experienced off-roaders can even attempt a direct crossing. In the afternoon, we scouted for a suitable spot to sleep. Satisfied with our find, we took on the uphill climb. Our camp was nestled away among the dunes, fully immersing us in the sandy ocean of the Erg. Bewitched by the scenery, one dune in particular caught my attention.
Its curving ridgeline was too tempting to resist, and so I soon found myself drawn towards it. At first, the sand was fairly compact, which allowed me to make good progress. That was all about to change though. The higher I climbed, the more the sand started to give way.
The thing about these sand dunes is that they are extremely beautiful to look at especially from afar but then, climbing to their crest is absolutely arduous to say the least but now there is only willpower between me and the top Eventually, I made it to the summit where I was rewarded with a jaw-dropping view. Rising as high as 150 m, the dunes of Erg Chebbi are simply majestic. Particularly interesting was, how the size of the dunes alternates between fairly small and absolutely massive.
Even more intriguing, however, was watching the growth of the shadows. The perfect addition to this contrasting play of light and dark, were the sand’s ever-changing ripple patterns. Before long, the sunset was near and the dunes were once more bathed in a soft light. The next morning, we completed our circumnavigation of Erg Chebbi, passing many tourist camps in the process.
Soon after, we embarked on one of the most well-known desert trails of Morocco. Especially fun to drive on were the large salt pans. Their smooth surface was the pleasant counterpart to an otherwise bumpy trail. In fact, most of the time, the track was rough, particularly when passing segments of stone desert. Taking a detour from the main trail, we made our way to a lost city in the middle of the desert.
Sitting on top of a large rock, the settlement is said to have been a retreat of independence fighters during the French occupation. Other than that, not much is known about the former village, which of course, made it all the more exciting to explore. Regardless of its history, the countryside around the settlement was immensely beautiful. Continuing through the vastness of the stone desert, we fully embraced the remote loneliness of the landscape. Whereas we barely met another human, Arabian camels were a frequent sight.
Also known as dromedaries or one-humped camels, these hardy beasts are known for their extreme tenacity and perseverance. Without domesticating them, man would have been incapable of conquering the desert. Several adaptations enable these animals to thrive in an environment where others succumb to thirst and hunger. Aside from bushy eyebrows with extra-long lashes to keep out the sand and the ability to forego drinking water for two weeks, it is the structure of their mouths that truly sets them apart. Their tough, flexible lips move independently of one another, allowing them to feed on thorny bushes. Their teeth grind food against their hard palate, while the inside of their mouths are full of cone-shaped structures called papillae.
These move all the spiky thorns vertically down their throats, without poking them in the process. While young calves will occasionally nibble on some grass, they generally prefer their mothers milk. Following a pregnancy that lasts 15 months, female camels give birth to a single young. Within hours the offspring is able to walk, staying close to its mother for the next 1 - 2 years. Returning towards the main trail, we passed a lot of shrubby vegetation on a pleasantly sandy track.
Shortly after, the large Lac Maider appeared in front of us. This massive salt flat can only be crossed in dry conditions. Luckily, not a single cloud was in sight. Up until this point, the trail had always provided us with some visual interest. However, the next part was characterized by an all-embracing monotony. As if casting a spell on us, the profound nothingness of the landscape cleared our minds of all thought.
It was only the incessant rattling of the car that eventually broke our hypnotic trance. At some point, the scenery started to change again, with hills and trees celebrating a comeback. Because the trail runs just a few kilometers from the Algerian border, travelers have to pass several military checkpoints along the way. Following a long day of driving, we needed to conquer one more mountain pass before we could set up camp. With every meter we went up, the view started to improve as a large valley opened up in front of us.
Our camp spot provided us with a staggering vista, albeit at the cost of a very windy night. After traversing another rocky section the following morning, we soon found ourselves in a landscape that somewhat reminded us of southern Namibia. We didn’t linger long though and instead pushed on until arriving at Erg Lihoudi. This dune field is not as quite spectacular as some of the other Ergs, but it is an ideal playground for all those getting their tires sandy the first time. But even without an off-road vehicle, a visit to the area is time well spent. On a windy day, travelers can witness nature’s relentless pursuit of altering the landscape.
In a show of natural craftsmanship, the wind effortlessly picks up sand particles, and carries them to faraway places. Seeking a path that would lead us even deeper into the desert, we left Erg Lehoudi behind, and followed rarely-traveled trails towards Erg Zaher. Rising far above all others, the largest dune of Erg Zaher is known as the Lion’s Dune. Its crest is an ideal spot to gain a perspective of the extraordinary surroundings. Despite the seemingly inhospitable bleakness of the landscape, life always finds a way.
Impressively resilient grasses take root in even the highest dunes. Although in this case, the years of drought definitely have left their mark. Much more alive are the restless darkling beetles that can often be found wandering around. As generalist omnivores, they forage for anything ranging from decaying plant material to small insects. However, from time to time, they need some gentle guidance to avoid being flattened by a car.
Once the beetle was taken care of, we tackled our steepest dune to date. For the entire day, our path led us through a wonderfully remote wilderness, with sand being the all-encompassing element. Offering both natural variety as well as plenty of driving fun, this track easily ranks among our all-time favorite off-road adventures. Whereas a 4x4 is likely the fastest way to explore the landscape, those preferring to travel more slowly can also hike with camels. In doing so, you will gain a deeper understanding of the hardships that previous generations faced living in an environment as unforgiving as the desert. If, however, you travel by car, make sure that it has enough power, as the regularly occurring sections of bull dust require all the strength it can muster.
The hidden ruts are surprisingly deep and this is definitely not a place you want to get stuck in. On the plus side, driving through this dust-topia looks absolutely epic. Soon, we started to head towards Erg Chegaga, the largest dune field of Morocco. Compared to Erg Chebbi, Erg Chegaga is much more pristine as it is far away from everything. This especially applies to the southern end, where only the occasional off-roader or guided group finds their way. Therefore, the vast sand sea is a perfect escape from the complexities of modern life.
Time seems to stand still in this otherworldly landscape. Searching for a secluded camp spot, we drove straight into the dunes. Of all our camps in Morocco, this one was by far the most tranquil. After collecting a bit of dead wood, we started a fire which only added to the calming ambience. Enjoying each others presence in this desert solitude, Anna was overcome by emotions and as a result, even shed some happy tears.
Hugging the southern flank of the Erg, we continued to drive over countless dunes the next day. Eventually, the sand gave way to an enormous salt flat which we crossed in a fairly straight line. Embarking on a small side trail, we soon stumbled upon a herd of donkeys.
This particular group consisted of more than 15 individuals, which were peacefully feeding along the road side. In the wild, donkeys spend a considerable amount of time foraging for grasses and shrubs each day. Other than camels, they are dependent on water, especially during winter, when most of their food is dry. Spotting a well in close vicinity, we sprang into action to supply these good-natured animals with a refreshing drink. If you ask us, the donkeys were rather pleased with that decision. Not far away, we discovered a number of stunning rock formations along the trail.
Over the course of millennia, the soil was slowly eroded, leaving behind only the hardest rock. Several interesting shapes such as a slim spire can be found in this area. Early the next morning, the landscape was especially beautiful.
At first, the scenery was tinged in a red hue, but as the sun rose, the color started to change to orange and eventually golden. Serenaded by a flock of trumpeter finches, this marked the wonderful ending of our week-long desert adventure. Over the last seven days, we have driven more than 500 km on remote offroad trails.
Now that we are about to hit tarred roads again we of course need to re-adjust our tire pressures. But there is one more thing we need to check and that is the air filter as that may have accumulated quite a bit of dust during the last days. And indeed it had! Having explored large parts of eastern Morocco, it was now time for us to head inland. After a short stint on the highway, marveling at an enormous mountain massif, we headed up a gravel road passing right below a rock wall. Taking this mountain shortcut - which as every good shortcut took much longer than the main road - we eventually arrived at our destination, the rock carvings of Aït Ouazik.
Dating back around 8000 years, the engravings give a detailed picture of the local fauna at the time. Considered to be one of the earliest artistic expressions of modern man, petroglyphs were often used to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. Even though this particular site was rather small, it was interesting to gain a glimpse of Morocco’s long human history. A little further east, where the desert meets the mountains, many wilderness trails provide impressive vistas.
But for us, it was time to climb up an even more imposing rock mass. Sticking to small backcountry roads, we slowly ascended the high passes of Jbel Saghro. This mountain range is of volcanic origin, which is easy to imagine when seeing all the dark rock. Entirely blocked from the Atlantic Ocean by higher peaks to the west, the area is extremely dry. Nonetheless, the desolation of this harsh landscape has an intriguing appeal. Even more interesting, however, were the Arizona-like rock formations.
Setting up camp below one such monument, we enjoyed the afternoon sun on the landscape. Suddenly, the silence of the scenery was interrupted by a chorus of bleating. High up on the rocks, a shepherdess attentively watched over her flock. In rural Morocco, livestock farming is the backbone of the economy. No matter how remote a place, there is always a herder with their animals nearby. Carrying on, our trail led through a landscape of red rocks and green grasses.
In the distance, we could even make out the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas. Much smaller but equally as fascinating were the Barbary ground squirrels we spotted between the rocks. Just a short drive away, the town of Tinghir lies in the foothills of the High Atlas. The city is known as the gateway to a massive limestone river canyon.
Undoubtedly an impressive sight at its narrowest point, we felt a little overwhelmed seeing so many other people. Leaving the most popular stretch of the gorge behind, we steadily drove uphill, enjoying the canyon scenery all by ourselves. To stretch our legs after days of driving, we decided to go for a little walk. Even though it was properly cold, braving the chilly conditions quickly paid off.
Well-hidden in a mountain valley, this formidable rock arch was quite the sight. Looking around us, it was obvious that we had gained altitude as a dusting of snow covered the surrounding peaks. Enjoying the perks of a freshly tarred road, we made good progress, until the asphalt suddenly stopped. The track that followed is the last remnant of what used to be a very hazardous drive towards the Dadès Gorge. In our case, the adventure was amplified by the sudden snowfall. Aeons ago this entire area lay at the bottom of the sea but due to tectonic plate shifting, the Atlas Mountain Range was lifted up.
Eroding the sedimentary rock over thousands of years, the Dadès River carved out an impressive canyon. In some places, the walls of the gorge reach as high up as 500 m. A third gorge in the area is known as the Valley of Roses.
Compared to the other two, it is much less visited while still providing wonderful views. Traditional villages fringe the riverbank in a truly idyllic setting. In the fields, women can be seen cutting reed grass to make baskets and other handicrafts. Taking another of our notorious shortcuts, we ended up on a long and slow gravel track. Okay, let's be entirely frank. This is not exactly the route I anticipated this to be This is an extremely steep mountan pass with very narrow switchbacks of course gravel, big stones and dropping down quite steeply on this side but yeah, we are just taking it slowly now and I think we can see a tarred road in the distance.
On the plus side, the scenery was absolutely staggering. The same was also true for the villages further down the valley. Many of the buildings were made with the traditional rammed earth construction technique. For that, natural materials such as sand, clay and straw are compacted into a formwork.
Optically, the resulting buildings fit perfectly into the landscape. The next day, a massive rain front moved in which would bring precipitation to most of the country. The rainfall was so heavy, that within a short time, the formerly dry riverbeds started to swell into raging torrents. It didn’t take long until even the highway was submerged, resulting in several road closures.
With such heavy flooding occurring on day 1, and 5 more days of rain in the forecast, we decided to push south as hard as we could. Our goal was to leave central Morocco behind and drive straight towards Western Sahara. Politically, this region is a disputed area, with both Morocco and the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic laying claim to the land. Whereas in the past, bloody battles were fought over this stretch of virtually empty desert, today tourists can visit the coastline unimpeded. The only sign of this unresolved conflict are the many military checkpoints. After passing through the regional capital Laâyoune, which is home to 40 % of Western Sahara’s population, we embarked on an 800km long journey towards the Mauritanian border.
Outside of town, we were quickly embraced by a desolate, sand-swept nothingness. Despite its size exceeding that of the UK, Western Sahara is sparsely populated. Experiencing the utter hostility of the landscape first-hand, that did not come as a surprise to us. Naturally, whenever the opportunity presented itself, we stopped to take in the view. Along large parts of the coast, the Atlantic Ocean batters the land, carving out an impressive cliff edge in the process.
In general though, a roadtrip through Western Sahara is rather monotonous, as the scener does not change for hundreds of kilometers. Despite that, the city of Dakhla is popular among tourists, as the nearby lagoon provides perfect conditions for wind-sport enthusiasts. With roughly 300 km left to go, we continued south on this Highway of Emptiness until arriving at the border with Mauritania. We've made it.
We've made it to the far south of Morocco, because right here, from this point we can see the border to Mauritiania. And the road continues on to West and Central Africa but this is an adventure we will keep for another day. For us, this point means turning back around heading back north and exploring the remaining wonders of Morocco.
Driving in the opposite direction, the landscape still looked very much the same, but we continued with a sense of achievement, having made it to the far end of the country. Tucked away behind a small sand dune, we set up camp after another long day on the road. Always following the coastline north, we eventually arrived at the Assalama shipwreck. The ferry used to connect Morocco with the Canary Islands until it ran aground in 2008. Despite Morocco’s pleas, the Spanish company owning the ship has so far failed to clean up its mess.
Not far away, Khenifiss National Park is home to the biggest coastal lagoon of the country. The site is well-known as a winter habitat for migratory species which flock here in the thousands. A different kind of flock, overland campers, equally cherishes this area. And frankly, we couldn’t imagine a better spot to wind down. Setting up camp atop the cliff, we took in the perpetual movements of the tide. In fact, we liked it so much here that we stayed for 2 whole days.
Bidding farewell to Western Sahara, we continued along the coastline, until arriving at Ksar Tafnidilt. The former castle sits on top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding landscape. Entirely protected by battlements, this fortress offered plenty of space during an armed conflict.
Even though many of its walls have collapsed, walking around the ruins was still impressive. The Ksar is also the starting point of an exciting off-road trail, for which we teamed up with Ina and Jeroen from the Netherlands. It didn’t take long until we were heading up a steep hill section. At times, the surface of the track was covered in decently sized rocks, requiring us to drive very carefully.
Roughly 30 km into the journey, we arrived at the mouth of the Draa, where the longest river of Morocco empties into the Atlantic Ocean. From there on, the trail followed the coastline, passing many military huts and fishing settlements in the process. At several points, we stopped above the cliffs and looked out onto the ocean. Most of the time, the trail was rocky, but occasionally, sandy sections had us hop around even more. The previous week’s rainfall had also left its mark here, much to the delight of some camels. As we carried on, sand dunes started to cover what was previously the trail.
And then, for a single moment, Lady Fortune was distracted. Despite our low tire pressures, a sharp rock managed to rip open the side wall of our rear tire, leaving a nasty gash. This left us no other choice but to change the tire. While we were still busy working out a suitable strategy to jack up the car on sandy soil, three locals showed up and saw our predicament. Immediately knowing what needed to be done, they expertly directed us before throwing themselves in the dirt without thinking twice.
Eventually, the tire came off and our spare was put in its place. As quickly as they had appeared, these good Samaritans vanished again, leaving us extremely grateful for their selfless willingness to help. Because we had missed our low tide window on the following beach section, we decided to look for a nice camp spot between the sand dunes. Today, we were reminded of a very important lesson again which is, that when you are traveling through the wilderness not everything will always go according to plan and that is exactly what happened to us today when the side wall of our tire was ripped apart by a very sharp rock But as so often in these situations, they may leave you a bit scared, or angry or fearful but in retrospect, they absolutely make the best stories to tell. Spending the rest of the day in good company, we simply relaxed in this marvelous location. Refreshed and with high spirits, we set out the following morning.
Following a little track down to Plage Blanche, we soon arrived on the large open beach. With the Atlantic to the left and sand dunes to the right, we smoothly glided over the vast beach. Aside from the occasional fisherman, the 40 km long Plage Blanche was entirely deserted. That very seclusion can be dangerous though. Timing the tides is important as you don’t want to get stuck with the water coming in.
While we barely spotted another human, we came upon massive flocks of sea gulls. The only way to leave the beach at its northern end, is by driving up a steep hill. But, with four-wheel drive and low-range engaged, we crawled up the rocky incline with ease. After saying farewell to our travel companions at the ruins of Fort Bou Jerif, we had all the sea salt washed off from our car. Continuing to head north, the landscape started to change in front of our eyes.
The vegetation was not as sparse any more, as many different species can be found in this habitat. The most prominent plant of the region is the Argan tree, which almost exclusively grows in Morocco. The tree’s fruits are used to produce the highly sought after Argan oil, which is known for its many health and beauty benefits. Heading further inland, we soon approached the Anti-Atlas, the southernmost part of the Atlas Mountain Range.
One of the most famous settlements in the area is Amtoudi. Aside from its scenic location, the village is best-known for its two Agadirs which are expertly built as extensions of the rock face. Both date back more than 500 years and were used as retreats during times of conflict. When driving through the Anti-Atlas, traditional villages are a common sight. Even more impressive, however, are the towering rock walls that often flank the road. On a windy day, dust devils whip through the dry riverbeds and clouds whizz past the highest peaks.
The Painted Rocks near Tafraout, on the other hand, were oddly surprising. Far from being a natural phenomenon, they are the work of a Belgian artist. Now, art is very much subjective, and in this case opinions differ widely. While the color undoubtedly highlights the individual rocks, the artificial coloring still feels somewhat misplaced.
Leaving the rocks behind, our GPS guided us through the very narrow alleys of a nearby village. At one point, it was a matter of only a few centimeters. On our way back to the coast, we took in the natural colors of the wonderful countryside and even spotted a lion’s face in a rock wall.
Even though there are no more real lions in Morocco, there are still plenty of birds - and Souss-Massa National Park is a great place to see them. More than 275 bird species have been counted in the area. The best place to spot some of them is along the Massa river.
Scanning the bushes, we first discovered a European stonechat. Closer to the ground, a lark was preening its feathers. The great cormorant and the white-breasted cormorant, on the other hand, were busy drying their wings along the shore. In the meantime, both plovers and sandpipers foraged in the mud.
The largest birds we spotted were grey herons and flamingos. While the former mostly stood around, the latter were much more active, often performing their iconic stamping dance with which they feed on invertebrates and their larvae. Still heading northbound, we then followed the coastline until arriving in Essaouira.
The history of the town goes back more than 3000 years. During that time, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans, among many others, controlled the sheltered harbor. In 1506, the Portuguese captured the city and immediately started to fortify it.
Fascinatingly, their rule lasted less than 5 years but their impressive battlements along the seashore have stood the test of time. Today, the entire old town of Essaouira is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next to tourism, fishing still plays an important role for the local economy. Striking in that regard are the countless blue boats that can be seen in the harbour. North of town, the landscape is mostly dominated by agriculture and industrial sites.
Still, the occasional nice view of the ocean opens up. Much more pleasant, however, is the quiet lagoon of Qualidia. Fully intending on enjoying the finer things in life, we checked into La Sultana Oualidia, a 5* hotel with direct access to the lagoon. Staying in a tastefully-decorated Lagoon Suite for the next two nights, our intention was to wind down after the long weeks of driving. Culturally interesting for us, was the Moroccan art we found in the room. The delicately hand-painted ceramic plates were especially intriguing.
Another highlight was the private outdoor terrace, which offered us a wonderful view. Sitting down outside, we enjoyed an assortment of sweets alongside traditional Moroccan tea, while listening to the chatter of the birds. To discover the hotel grounds a bit more, we went on a tour with the manager. One thing we immediately noticed was the constant singing of the birds. Combined with the distant roar of the waves, this made for quite the calming environment. The magical ambiance was further intensified as soon as the sun started to set.
The next morning, we started our day with a very ample breakfast. Following that, we went to the Spa to experience a Moroccan hammam treatment. On first glance, a traditional hammam and a soothing massage are quite the contrast. Because, on the one side, you have the element of coarseness and rougness of the hammam which literally means scrubbing away old skin, and then on the other side you have the soft touch of the massage which will make you feel reborn again afterards but if you put the two together you get a truly phenomenal experience.
We spent the remainder of the day by watching the birds in the garden and in the lagoon. Especially at low tide, the mudflats are teeming with different species. All of them have a common goal though, which is catching something to eat. This Eurasian Whimbrel used its long beak to search for small crabs - a strategy that evidently works very well. The contrast between the tranquility of Oualidia and the hectic bustle of our next destination could not have been more pronounced. Welcomed by a cacophony of noises, with sirens wailing, cars honking, policemen whistling, shoppers bartering, muezzins calling, street hawkers shouting and musicians playing, our initial impression of Marrakech was sheer chaos.
Undeniably, the city is busy, over-stimulating, and perpetually surprising. The rapidly beating heart of Marrakech can be found on Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square within the walls of the Medina. Tourists and locals flock here in the thousands, listening to story tellers, watching snake charmers or simply soaking in the atmosphere.
Following that, most visitors dive head first into the world of the souks. These market places consist of countless individual shops selling everything from food to clothing, souvenirs, carpets, and a zillion other things. The turmoil on the narrow alleys is further amplified by scooter drivers constantly trying to squeeze through. Generally speaking, the city is not a traditional sightseeing destination, but more of a feeling to be experienced.
Nonetheless, there are sights worth visiting. Premiere among those is the richly decorated Kasbah Mosque which was constructed during the 12th century. Dating back to the same time, the nearby Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest house of prayer in all of Marrakech.
In comparison to both mosques, the Bahia Palace is a recent addition to the cityscape. Finished in 1900, the palace was the home of the sultan’s Grand Wazir. Today, the site is extremely popular among tourists, who mostly come here to marvel at the intricate art work. To process all the impressions of the day, we retreated to our accommodation at La Sultana Marrakech. The luxurious hotel is located within the walls of the Medina and consists of a total of 5 riads. Originating from the Arabic term for garden, a riad describes an inward facing building with a rectangular courtyard that usually has a fountain in the middle.
Our room was part of Riad Bahia, a dream in white with such elaborate craftsmanship that we were left speechless. The local artists responsible truly created a masterpiece. Of course, the other four riads were equally dazzling, each in their very own style. Every detail captured the historic royal opulence, befitting the status of Marrakech as an imperial city.
A garden above the roofs of the city, the rooftop terrace offered countless opportunities to relax. From up here, we calmly watched the frantic activity of the souk below. Looking in the opposite direction, we not only discovered the Kasbah Mosque but also the Saadian Tombs. Regarded by historians as part of the golden age of Moroccan architecture, this royal necropolis is esteemed for its lavish decorations.
While marveling at the garden below, we suddenly heard a familiar noise. Nesting high above the hubbub of the city, a pair of storks welcomed each other with their iconic bill-clattering. Being migratory birds, many storks spent the winter in Morocco. Building their large nests on rooftops or even on the city wall, they are a popular photo motif.
When they are not out looking for food or building materials, they can often be watched preening their feathers. As soon as the temperatures become unbearably hot in the summer, many people from Marrakech flee to the mountains. Less than 70 km away, the high peaks of the Atlas promise not only cooler temperatures but also scenic views.
In winter, however, most of the peaks are covered under a thick layer of snow. That of course did not deter me from attempting to climb Morocco’s highest mountain, Djebel Toubkal. Because the hike can only be done with a certified guide, I was accompanied by Abdurrahim. As soon as we had passed the shrine of Sidi Chamharouch, the trail was entirely covered in snow. This has turned into a really arduous climb much quicker than I expected because most of the trail is on snow this time of the year and so every step, is really tough but I think the lunch break is waiting just ahead and that is really what keeps me going at this point Well-fed and somewhat rested, we continued our trek up the mountain.
Soon, however, I was back to puffing like a grampus. Luckily, the spectacular scenery granted me many excuses to pause. 10 km and 1400 m of altitude after setting out, we arrived at the hut where we would spend the night. To my surprise, I was far from the only one on my way to the summit.
Sharing a dorm with 20 other hikers, resulted in a less-than-restful night. Getting up shortly past 4 am didn’t help much either. Only guided by the light of our head lamps we set out to tackle the remaining 1000 meters of altitude. Eventually, the sun started to rise, immediately illuminating the mountainside in a breathtaking color. The higher we climbed, the windier it got, which is not a surprise as we were now above 4000 m. Many heavy steps later we made it to the summit, where a group that had started even earlier was just leaving.
I am tired, I am exhausted and I am cold but I am also standing on the highest point of Morocco and even though this was a really strenuous hike the beautiful sunshine and the views absolutely make it worth it but the wind up here is still pretty brutal so I think we'll only linger for a couple of minutes before heading back down again but, what a day to be alive! At 4167 m, Djebel Toubkal is the king of Moroccan mountains, offering unparalleled views of the Atlas Range. Having enjoyed the view for a while, it was time to head down again, as we intended to walk all the way back to the start of the trail. Reunited with our car, Anna and I continued our roadtrip by driving along the western flank of the mountains.
Along the way, we passed many traditional villages which often sat scenically above rapidly flowing rivers. One way to cross over to the eastern side of the mountains is by taking the Tizi’n’Test mountain pass. The narrow and winding road leads all the way up to 2100 m, before it starts to drop down on the other side. From here on, our plan was to stick as closely to the Atlas Range as we could, while slowly starting to drive north.
Most of the time, the small settlements we passed were rather quiet, but on market day, they definitely come to life. Transporting back all the new purchases sometimes requires a bit of creativity. Throughout the day, we frequently stopped along the roadside to take in the wonderful scenery.
All of the trails in this region offer staggering views which makes a roadtrip a very worthwhile endeavor. Outstanding in that regard is the road leading past Aït-Ben-Haddou. The village is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque in the entire country, but what makes the scenery even more intriguing is the contradiction between palm trees and snow-covered mountains. Further up the road, the views were no less beautiful. Because most of the settlements are built out of rammed earth, they harmoniously fit into the wider landscape.
Nonetheless, many of the houses are slowly falling into disrepair. The reason is that clay buildings require constant maintenance without which they will be worn down by the elements. However, similar to elsewhere, many villages suffer from an exodus of the younger generation, bereaving them of their most capable work force. Driving past fields of blooming trees, we definitely felt the coming of spring. Once we had crossed over another Atlas pass, we paid a visit to Morocco’s highest waterfall. Dropping a total of 110m, the cascading Ouzoud Falls are most impressive after winter.
The surrounding area is very touristy, but several restaurants offer a great view of the falls and the nearby gorge. Experiencing some troubles with our car, we made the tough decision to leave the mountains behind. That did not stop us from exploring Aguelma Azigza National Park though. Once again, we got to know an entirely different side of Morocco, as the park is heavily forested with Atlas Cedars. Now seeing this type of behaviour from me or any reasonable human for that matter is pretty surprising and yet, it is this exact behaviour that we have witnessed countless times while traveling through Morocco Locals mindlessly throwing out trash of their car windows or while walking along the roadside and as a result, it is pretty tough to find any spot around the country, that is unspoiled by garbage but even worse, the trash of course negatively impacts the local flora and fauna as some animals will try to eat any of the scraps that are left A prime example of the negative impact are Barbary Macaques.
These monkeys are both smart and dexterous, having learned to investigate human trash whenever possible. What they should be feeding on, however, are plants and insects. Their regular diet includes everything from grass to fruits, leaves, seeds or bark as well as snails, spiders and beetles. Sadly, the Barbary macaques of Morocco face an uncertain future, as habitat loss severely threatens their long-time survival.
Unaware of the predicament their species is in, the youngsters mostly concern themselves with frolicking around. Plunging back into the bustle of a souk, we also visited Fès, another of the four imperial cities of Morocco. Segmented into different branches of economy, it was the metal souk that really captured our attention. However, the city is mostly known for a different type of industry.
The tanneries of Fès are one of the most photographed subjects of the country. Famous for their many stone vats which are filled with different colored dyes, the labor in the tanneries continues in a century-old fashion. First things first, the hides of sheep, cows, goats and camels are de-haired in the surrounding buildings. Following that, they are soaked in a series of tubs with white liquid.
This is done to further clean and soften the tough skins. For this purpose water and salt are mixed with other ingredients such as pigeon feces and quicklime. After two to three days in the white vats, the hides are ready for the next step, for which they will be moved to the brown tubs. There, they are soaked in another liquid that contains a dyeing solution. Natural materials, such as henna for orange or indigo for blue, are used to create the intended coloration of the leather.
Another option to dye the leather is by applying the tincture manually. This is for example done with hides that are colored in a saffron hue. Once the hides have been cleaned, softened and colored, they are left out to dry, before being sold to craftsmen for further processing.
Despite the pungent smell, it is highly interesting to watch the comings and goings of the tanneries. However, the picturesque scenery is deceiving, as tanning is nothing less than backbreaking work. Each day, the workers climb into the liquid-filled vats to stomp the hides or to prepare them for the next step of the process. A visit here definitely leaves one with a new appreciation for the amount of work that goes into each piece of leather.
During the last days, we had steadily driven north through Morocco’s inland, but now it was time to head towards the coast again. Along the way, we paid a visit to the archeological site of Volubilis. Initially founded by Berbers, the settlement later developed into an important city on the fringes of the Roman Empire. During the second century, a large basilica as well as a triumphal arch were built here. However, in 285, the city was conquered by local tribes and never retaken by Rome. Nonetheless, the memory of the once powerful Roman Empire still runs strong.
Whereas most of the houses were either destroyed by an earthquake or demolished for new buildings, many mosaics have survived the centuries. A sign of the former prosperity of the settlement, these detailed artworks depict a variety of mythical and everyday scenes. Continuing west, we drove straight to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Of all the cities we explored during this trip, Rabat was the most beautiful. Its superb location along the Bou-Regreg River, combined with the well-kept historical buildings make this a great place to visit.
One of the prettiest sights was the Kasbah of the Udayas, a former citadel that is known for its white buildings and blue doors. From there, it is just a short walk to the Atlantic Ocean, where the waves perpetually break on the rocky shore. While Rabat also has many modern buildings, its most famous landmark is the Hassan Tower. Built in the late 12th century, the building was supposed to be the largest minaret in the world.
However, when the ruling Caliph died, construction on the entire mosque stopped, leaving the tower standing at 44 m high. And then, on our very last day, we once more looked at the green hills of northern Morocco, as we made our way to the ferry. After 8 weeks and 10.000 kilometers, having explored all corners of the country, it was time for us to say farewell. No matter if navigating the bustling world of a souk, conquering a snow-covered summit, or simply trying to breathe on a dusty off-road trail, traveling through Morocco is rarely a walk in the park.
However, it is the challenges we overcome that make us grow as humans. Our time in the desert taught us the incredible resilience of mankind, and how, if we really want something, we can achieve anything. But above all, we learned that, in order to be truly happy, we don’t need much more than good company and an appreciation for the wonders of our planet.