Last time we came to came Marrakech we were disappointed that we’d been unable to fit in a trip the High Atlas Mountains so this time we pre-booked. I read the blurb that Thomson gave online and whilst there were two trips that sounded remarkably similar, we opted for the one called ‘High Atlas 4×4 – Road to the Kasbah’s.’
Having had two very lazy days by the pool getting mindful we were now ready for our adventure so on Tuesday off we went. The day started with us waking up as usual to the sound of the 5am
call to pŵrayer from the nearby Koutoubia Mosque. We popped into the hotel restaurant to see 6 other adventurers having a rushed early breakfast too. Then we met up with our tour organiser in reception and got assigned to our 4×4 vehicles and Ahmed, our driver for the day. We shared our vehicle with a nice Dutch couple, Peter and his wife, who’s name I never caught but who had a terrible hacking cough.
We drove along to the hotel we stayed at last year and met up with the other 5 vehicles in our 4×4 caravan and met our guide Rashid.
Then we got on the road proper exiting Marrakech to the South East and heading to the mountains. The weather was pretty dull as we set off and as we started to gain a bit of height it got rather worse and soon we were driving in fog which got thicker and thicker. Hm..this looked like we hadn’t chosen such a great day to do this sight seeing trip..but never mind.
The guide wasn’t in our vehicle so we just had Ahmed telling us bits and pieces along the way….all of it in French which only the Dutch lady really unstood.
We climbed through a small town called Ait Ourir which had a market going on. This mostly involves lots of men with donkeys and carts having a gathering in the dusty, scruffy looking place. We carried on into more rural areas with olive groves and green grass before it started to get too foggy really to see much at all, including the car in front.
After about an hour we reached our first stopping point, a cafe with a viewing terrace and we couldn’t believe our luck when, just as we reached here the fog cleared and we emerged into the sunshine. The views were beautiful with lots of green hills around us but by the time we’d had a comfort break the fog had come back again and these views disappeared once more.
On we went climbing higher and higher up towards the pass at Tizi-n-Tichka. The fog cleared once more and the scenery started to change to forest areas with lovely pine trees including an area reserved for the Royal Family of Morocco to go hunting. We passed through the town of Taddert where there is a barrier that is put down in Winter when snow closes the pass.
We’d been able to see that we were heading up towards the snow and now it started to come into full view although nowhere near the road ..thank goodness.
I must admit parts of this road have become a bit of a blur after this. Suffice to say that we kept on climbing and the scenery kept changing. At times we were driving alongside beautiful fast, flowing rivers surrounded by prune and almond blossom trees, next we were driving through areas of arid red rock with boulders as big as houses and precipitous drops to the side of the road. The road is so winding that it’s impossible to count just how many hairpin bends it has. I am sure the Thomson blurb didn’t tell us all this! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the number of points along the road where there was either a serious rockslide that had been cleared to one side or the safety barrier to stop you going over, had actually gone over itself!
So,yes it is not for the faint hearted this trip and I was so glad that Ahmed seemed to be a very good and patient driver.
After another stop at a particularly precipitous point to take some photos, we reached the high point of the pass itself which is at a height of 2260 metres (7415 ft). At one point up here they were repairing the road. They closed the hairpin bends down to just one lane with one cone !
Soon after the pass we took a turn off the main road (‘main’ road LOL) and followed the sign to Telouet. This road was even more winding and now the Tarmac had obviously run out. Now we really did need the 4×4 and I realised that I have just not been putting my Rav 4 through its paces back home! Ahmed clearly enjoyed driving on this stretch and seemed to speed up. Oh goody…
We now started to travel along a remote valley which became more and more scenic as we continued. We passed through some amazing mud villages. The first main stop was at the village of Telouet itself which has a largely abandoned old Kasbah. We learned from Rashid about the meaning of the word Kasbah. Basically it seems to be a sort of fortress, generally with 4 tall four-sided towers and made of earth obviously. This particular Kasbah was very important apparently back in the day but perhaps not as far back as we might have thought. It was in fact the stronghold of the Glaoui tribe in the early 20th century whereas the scenes that were before us today were positively biblical. The place is still occupied by descendants of this moorish tribe who have much darker skin than the Berber race around here. The main fortress, however, is in such a state of disrepair that we weren’t able to visit- only taking pictures from afar.
After this stop we carried on along the valley following the route of the Wadi Ounila where the scenery continued to be absolutely stunning with different kasbahs and villages along the way. It’s very fertile up here and we passed plantations of palms, olive and fig trees. In some parts though it was just rock the colours of which were continually changing. In places red, yellow, more white and even purple. One particular stretch of the road was just gravel and we even forded a river at one point and balanced along a makeshift bridge at another.
Our next stop was to admire another village which I think was called Anemiter. It’s red mud buildings seemed very well preserved as they hung over the River Ounila.
Finally, we reached our main destination which is the UNESCO World heritage site of Ait Benhaddou. It’s famous for being one of the best preserved kasbahs in the whole region. But it’s claim to fame goes way beyond that as it has been used in lots of movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator and much to Jane’s joy more recently in the TV series Game of Thrones. For those fellow GoT fans it represents the fictional city of Yunkai where the Khaleesi went on her travels in search of an army and those ever elusive ships in series 3. Jane was very excited about this and strode about in her ‘I am not a princess, I am a Khaleesi’ t-shirt just like her heroine Daenerys Targaryen (minus her dragons).
The site stands on a small hill on the far side of a river and to get across to it we had to negotiate some stepping stones. The river was not deep but quite fast flowing and some nice local lads were there to hold our hands for a small price of course. Jane and I decided we would manage without and made it. However, we saw two chaps slip and fall in, one of whom did it in spectacular style as he tried to save his camera bag. Oops.
After this we had a little climb up around the Kasbah which really hasn’t had much done to preserve it which is why all the film producers love it. It was also quite hazardous walking around as a result of this and another poor chap took a tumble. Health and Safety is really not an issue over here.
It is quite stunning and we could clearly see how it had been made from just mud, timber and bamboo.
On our return to the village we went back a more sedate way across a proper bridge! This took us close to our restaurant for lunch where we had some nice Salad, bread, omlette and chicken skewers. We felt we deserved a beer but much to the disappointment of Jane and the Belgian lads we’d sat down with, this was a dry town!!
After lunch Rashid told us that we would then take a drive to the town of Ouarzazate which is pronounced ‘war-zazat’. This was a turn in completely the wrong direction from Marrakech but it seem that there are plenty of reasons to visit. Here are just a few:-
1) it is known as the Gateway to the Sahara (which we did not visit)
2) it has a big film studios here (which we did not visit)
3) Rashid’s friend has a carpet shop here (which unfortunately we did visit)
However, the main reason that Jane and I were pleased to have had this little detour was so that we can say that we have been to a place with a name pronounced ‘War-zazat’.
We had driven 220km to get to this point and by now it was about 4pm and Rashid told us that it would now take 200km drive of four hours to get home. Oh my goodness ….and what a drive. To start with we went along a new bit of road until we met back up with route N9 where earlier on in the day we had turned off to Telouet. This bit wasn’t too bad but then we had to retrace our steps all along this winding, precipitous road back upto TnT pass. Of course it began to get dark and Ahmed, who had by now been driving for about ten hours, was rather impatient to get home. We kept getting stuck behind slow trucks or vans and he couldn’t wait to get past them. It was quite honestly pretty terrifying and Jane was sitting in the front. Poor thing. I, meanwhile, was cramped up in the very back of the van trying my best to test the brakes. As we got lower down not only was it dark but it began to rain. Oh great ..slippy roads as well now.
It did finally take us the predicted four hours to get back into Marrakech but instead of taking us back to our hotel Ahmed decided it would be nice to take us to see the Palace. He drove along very slowly blabbing on in French ‘Regarde a la droit….Regarde a gauche….’ We have no idea what we were supposed to be regarding but frankly we weren’t interested. We wanted a well deserved beer in the bar!
Finally, he gave up and took us back to the hotel. We gave him a great big tip as even though on the way back he got a bit impatient, he really was a very, very good driver.
So there we have it a 420km round trip and this must have been one of the most scenic drives in the world. In the bar later I equated it to having a day trip upto the Lakes back home, having a bit of a drive up Wrynose Pass, and then coming home again same day. Is that what tourists do? Crazy.
The long and winding road
Rock the Kasbah
Made from mud
Us on the road to the kasbahs
Jane at Ait Benhoudin
Khaleesi at Ait Benhoudin
Julie in the Kasbah
She is not a princess…