It’s a long road to Merzouga

It’s a long road to Merzouga

Fez was the last big city on our itinerary. We left early in the morning and had a long drive to the town, or rather village of Merzouga, which lies on the western border of the Saharan desert.

Yesterday’s tour of Fez, while enjoyable, was at a frantic pace as there were many important places to see in just one full day. The bus ride would take up a lot of my day, but I was looking forward to “taking a break” by simply soaking in the landscape. There weren’t many stops, I had to take photos through the window of the vehicle. Of course, a lot of the shots were scrapped, but some of them can give you an idea of what a beautiful road we were traveling on.

During this crossing of the Middle Atlas to Merzouga, I didn’t make any great discoveries. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity to see the beautiful landscapes for which this region of Morocco is famous.

After an hour’s drive, we reached the small town of Midelt, the “Apple Capital”.

Interestingly, Moroccan cities often use traffic circles to place a symbol of what the city is known for. Usually there is a nice little garden around the symbol, often with a fountain and special lighting. Attractive Midelt roundabouts have featured large apples.

5While apples are the main crop in this region, walnuts, apricots, plums and pomegranates are also grown in large quantities. And sheep grazing.

The road along the Middle Atlas passes at an altitude of 1200-1400 meters above sea level. But Morocco is a southern country, so even in late October the weather is almost summer-like. Snow covers the highest peaks of the High Atlas, but this much higher mountain range lies to the south, where we will arrive only in two days. Famous is the cedar forest that grows along the road that connects the towns of Azrou and Ifrane. This forest is home to the Berber Magotho macaque, an endangered species.

In Gibraltar, where these macaques moved from Morocco, there is a belief that as long as at least one monkey lives on the rock, the city will remain British. Well, let’s say, I wouldn’t touch monkeys, but Anglo-Saxons are clearly an alien element in Gibraltar.

Almost all the buses stop in this cedar forest. The macaques are not shy at all and happily grab fruit from us while lazily scratching themselves with the other hand. Obviously, the monkeys are quite used to the tourist buses and see us more as a source of food than a threat.

The Middle Atlas Mountains’ Ifrane National Park is situated right in the middle of them. The national park, with a total area of 500 square kilometers, was created in 2004 to promote and protect endangered species of flora and fauna.

Thanks to the large number of lakes and rivers, the Ifrane Park is considered the main water reservoir in the country. The park’s noble soils are covered with beautiful forests of Mediterranean oak and cedar groves. This region is less popular with tourists than the High Atlas, although it is very picturesque.

Although the Middle Atlas is lower and generally less rocky than the High Atlas range, it has several peaks over 3,000 meters, with the highest peak being at Jebel Bou Nasser (3,340 m).

South of Midelt, the landscape began to change. At some point, dense forested slopes were completely replaced by bare sand-colored mountains and flat stretches of land with sparse houses, mosques, or brightly colored schools.

Moroccans use mountains with flat, wide vantage points as a place to create Arabic inscriptions in white script, but sometimes we also saw Berber symbols.

As we progressed towards the Ziz River Gorge, date palms, both wild and cultivated, became more and more common. Medjool dates are considered the most desirable. We saw several roadside stalls selling bunches of dates, whereas in the markets they are sold by weight without the accompanying stalks.

The Ziz River originates in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco and after 282 kilometers flows into … nowhere. The river flows towards the Sahara and just gets lost in the sands.

Along the river there is a general rule of water rights under which every village and villager has the right to use and extract Ziza waters. Generally, water is diverted by canals on flatter terrain for irrigation of palm groves and other crops, as well as for domestic use.

Considering we were in the dry season, the Ziz River, which can be very full, was now more like a puddle, but the view of the gorge is still quite beautiful.

The abandoned remains of mud-brick villages are sometimes found along the river banks. Houses made of this material deteriorate over time and instead of repairing them, families build new ones or move away

For quite a long time we drove along the Ziz River valley, which winds between high plateaus carved by the river, which sometimes resemble the American Southwest. I’ve never been there, and have no desire to visit, but we’ve seen plenty of Hollywood productions in our time.

But what you probably won’t find there is the huge Palm Canyon. Thousands and thousands and thousands of palm trees winding their way down the canyon floor. As far as the eye could see, there were palm trees growing in every direction, making it look like a huge green river flowing below. This is the largest palm grove in all of Morocco, and it is truly breathtaking.

Soon after Palm Gulch, the landscape changed again. The ground was sandy and rocky, dotted with small green bushes in places. The colors and textures were constantly changing.

We continued along the dry plateau, which was getting drier as we went along… And then… we saw the Sahara dunes in the distance for the first time! And the town of Merzouga, where we were to spend the night.

Merzouga, a small town on the border of the desert, is a real highlight of the trip and is included in the fixed program of almost every tour in the country. It is the right place if you want to make a desert tour with a camel ride, perhaps also with an overnight stay in the desert. Merzouga is a tiny town of 500 inhabitants, and people here live almost exclusively off tourism. The village is located right on the edge of the desert, is quite spacious and consists entirely of typical clay buildings. The seemingly unassuming tourist hotel turned out to be quite comfortable considering its location.

On the roof, just above each room was a panoramic platform from which you could look out over the nearby dunes.

And the poetic expression “the desert begins right outside the door” took on a literal meaning here.

The main dune tour was the next day, and we spent the rest of that day on a four hour jeep tour around the neighborhood of Merzouga. They showed us Hamlia, a very small village located on the edge of the Erg Shebbi sand dunes near the Algerian border. The village is only 7 kilometers from Merzouga. The village has about 80 houses and is home to about 300 people.

The Gnawa live here, an ethnic group whose ancestors were brought from Central and West Africa as slaves across the Sahara in caravans.

Several local “country bands” are based in the village at once, introducing tourists to what they believe to be the music of their distant ancestors.

Or maybe they are. Listening to them is the duty of all tourists, as well as giving at least one dollar for a CD and taking a picture with the bandleader.

Then we went to the black volcanic desert. A very interesting place with impressive panoramas as far as the horizon.

However, I never understood why volcanic desert in the area where the nearest volcano is several hours away by airplane, but the fact remains that under my feet were really hard rocks, far from sand.

Here, on the edge of a black desert landscape, is the Mifis mine. The French government was keen to exploit Morocco‘s mineral wealth, and this mine at Mifis was just one of several significant mines that played an important role during the era of the French protectorate. However, mining here is now virtually abandoned.

There was once an administrative town and a military post here.

The minerals extracted were used both in Morocco and as part of the lucrative French export business. The mines provided jobs and income for many people, but that was a long time ago.

Some of the old French mines are still in operation today and are another landmark of the region. These hard-working men have to work every day in pits up to 50 meters deep, surrounded by toxic smoke from pre-mining machinery. Tragic.

And I never really understood what was being mined there, as I was bad at geology even at the institute. We, geodesists, are free birds, so we didn’t understand why we were taught some mysterious words about undergrounds for two semesters. So I can’t determine what is being lifted from the mine in a bucket. Considering that one bucket in 5 minutes, 12 buckets per hour and 120 per day, the extraction is clearly not of strategic importance. Either it’s for nothing, or the raw material is very valuable.

The former strategic post is located on a high plateau with a huge panoramic view of the flat rocky sea and the mountains on the horizon – already Algeria. We were told that not far from this area is the Valley of the Turtles, where fossils of huge prehistoric turtles that lived here millions of years ago can still be found. But they didn’t show us.

Finally, we stopped near a tabor of Berbers.

Here they live in their prehistoric huts along with goats, sheep and working donkeys.

Although satellite dishes and solar panels were spotted on the huts.

Traditionally, the hospitable Berber women won’t let you go without a cup of local tea.

Thus ended the day’s move to the Sahara. Into the sands we dive tomorrow.

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