What the hell?!? Shortly before the top of the narrow, winding mountain pass, in a corner where one really shouldn’t be overtaking, our bus hits the door mirror of a French camper van (lots of those around, by the way; retired French people love spending their winter in Morocco’s warm climate without giving up too much comfort). Despite Supratours’ reputation as one of Morocco’s two most reliable and safe bus companies, the driver just goes on, as if he hasn’t just nearly pushed another vehicle into the ravine. As we head from Marrakech into the High Atlas and the temperature drops, we leave the dry steppes and drive through some dense forests. Higher up still, the vegetation thins out into fields of grass, and ultimately fields of stone with small, ball-shaped scrubs. Combined with the shepherds, the blossoming almond trees and the tiny villages of stone houses that blend into the environment, it reminds me very much of movies and documentaries of Tibet. Later, I find out that this very area has doubled as the Himalayan highlands in many films. I don’t know if it’s because of the altitude or the Southern position, but the sky is an intense blue unlike anything I’ve seen.
As we descend, the temperature rises again, but the trees and greenery don’t return; it’s still stony fields and tiny scrubs all around. I’m absolutely amazed by the sparseness of the landscape, the way the mountains turn into plains with zero vegetation, which turn into blue-purple mountains again on the horizon. If you’ve seen a desert in a historic movie, there’s a good chance you were looking at this little corner of the world; for instance Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and more recently my favourite TV series, Game of Thrones, have all been (partially) shot here. I hadn’t expected this part of the country – so close to the green Atlas mountains – to feature exactly the kind of epic desert landscapes I had been dreaming about.
I get off the bus in Ouarzazate, the center of Morocco’s movie industry, and take a minibus to Skoura, 40km away, for an unbelievably cheap 10 dirham (about one euro). Caravans coming from the other side of the Sahara, carrying gold, slaves, ivory and more, used a string of oasis towns in the Moroccan desert as stopovers, with each of these towns having several castles made with stones held together by a mixture of mud and straw (called kasbah or ksar), to protect the precious tradeware from bandits. Skoura was the last in this string of towns; here, the goods were transferred from camels to donkeys and taken across the Atlas mountains to the large cities near the coast. The main town is a depressing little desert thing, strung out along the road with nothing much happening. After some trouble finding my intended hotel (thx for the help at distance, Zjona!), I enlist a motorbike rickshaw (with a pickup truck-like rear instead of seats) to take me there. After just a few meters we turn off the desert road, and bounce along an unpaved track through the oasis and its palmeraie.
The contrast with the desert all around it couldn’t be greater; it’s full of palm, olive, fig and almond trees, buzzing bees, twittering birds, and the sound of water running through an ingenious irrigation system, and dozens of beautiful kasbahs. As the rickshaw comes to a stop at the hotel and I check into my room, I can’t help but have a huge smile on my face and let out an audible ‘wowwwww!’. Kasbah Aït Abou is a mud-constructed castle from 1825, with a six-floor tower of 25m high; probably one of the tallest mud-constructed towers in Morocco. My room is on the ground floor. My favourite feature is the windows, because the depth of the windowsills shows just how thick the walls are; I’m guessing about a meter, thick enough to block my phone signal! They keep the room nice and cool though, which is just as well as the midday temperatures here are already approaching 30 degrees, even though it’s only the end of february. The owner, M’hamed, is a descendant of the caïd (local chief) who built the kasbah. He and his wife are very friendly, although they are quite reserved; seem to feel that customers of the kasbah are mainly looking for quiet rather than interaction, and therefore don’t really engage in conversation much, even when I’m sitting in the courtyard.
It is admittedly a perfect place for some total relaxation, but personally I do enjoy a bit more interaction. I go out to explore the palmeraie a bit more. The palm trees with their abstract, symmetrical shapes, and the contrast with the organic shapes of the other trees, inspires a photo frenzy in me.
In between the trees, women are working in the fields of whewat and vegetables, their clothes more colourful than those on the other side of the Atlas; the influence of sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps? Some of the goatherds around here also wear turbans instead of hats or jallabas. It looks so stereotypically exotic that for a moment I think it’s a gimmick (I guess I’m still in my don’t-fall-for-the-tourist-trap mode from Marrakech), but I quickly and excitedly realise I’m now simply in a part of the world where turbans are, for some, part of their daily wear! There’s also a great difference in the attitude of the locals towards me; kids spontaneously greet me with a ‘bonjour monsieur!’, some young women openly mock me and my tourist behavior (taking photos left and right) and men spontaneously have a chat with me, just out of friendliness. It seems the local culture is much more open and relaxed than what I’ve experienced in Northern Morocco (there, I felt the spontaneous friendliness was often (but thankfully not always) reserved for friends or customers of someone the local in question already knew). After sometimes struggling with the closed, businesslike culture I usually encountered in the North, this is a revelation; this is the Morocco I was hoping to find. I do wonder if part of the change I’m experiencing is also because I myself am more relaxed now that I’m getting the hang of this whole backpacking thing, and therefore perhaps come across as more approachable? Whatever the reason, the combination of beautiful oasis setting and friendly interaction with the locals makes this easily my favourite place in Morocco so far.
Leaving Skoura, an American van from the 1960s, with electrical wires hanging out of the dashboard (I guess it needs regular repairs?) picks me up from the kasbah and takes me to the main village, where I have my first sept-place (aka grand taxi) experience. A sept-place is a shared intercity / intervillage taxi (usually a Mercedes sedan from the 1980s) that has a driver and six passengers (two on the seat next to the driver and four on the rear bench). The taxi only leaves when there’re six passengers, who don’t necessarily have to know each other. Each town has a place where the taxis gather, and each taxi has a fixed destination, so you get into the longest-waiting taxi for your particular destination and wait for it to fill up, which might be a matter of minutes, or take hours. I hear that in some West African countries it might also take a day or so. In this case it’s what I call a neuf-place: a Peugeot stationwagen from the 1970s with three rows of seats (two passengers get crammed into child-sized seats in the trunk). Thankfully it fills up quickly. I’m one of the four adult passengers squeezed into the second row, which makes this a really bad place to be in if you’re uncomfortable with physical contact with strangers (yes Lisa, I’m talking about you 😉 ). My destination is once again Ouarzazate, where I board the bus towards the Anti Alas, but that’s a story for another time 🙂