BY KITTY MORSE
I first travelled as a child with my parents along Morocco”s mythical Kasbah Trail, the narrow ribbon of asphalt that links a string of crenelated kasbahs (fortified Berber villages) in the shadow of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains. In the twenty-first century, this “Road of One Thousand Kasbahs,” as travel brochures sometimes refer to it, has become one of Morocco’s prime tourist destinations.
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I have driven across the desertic expanses of the Tafilalet countless times, the latest in April 2019. The mere thought of viewing the pre-Sahara plains stretching into infinity always rekindles my sense of excitement. I am no longer among the “privileged” few. The “trail” of old, where Sahara-bound vehicles were an anomaly, now ferries a daily stream of tour buses that often cover the exotic two-hundred mile stretch in one day from the northernmost point at Erfoud to its southern end at Ouarzazate.
On one of my visits in the late 1990s, a plume of white water surged from the Sahara floor and arched over the heads of awed onlookers, who stared at the “miracle,” mouth agape. Many had walked the eight miles from Erfoud to view the extraordinary sight, a first, that King Hassan II, father of present-day King Mohammed VI, had named “The Gift from God“. Sadly, the waters never proved potable. To this day, only a rust colored stream gurgles timidly onto the dry soil. Yet, the hope of tapping into the life-giving water table springs eternal. On my latest trip, water bubbled feebly onto the bare soil, though the miraculous “gift”— water suitable for irrigation — had yet to materialize and quench the thirst of this bone-dry landscape.
My latest journey along the Kasbah Trail, better known for its desert panoramas than for its flowing streams, began in Erfoud, once a major crossroad for trans-Saharan camel caravans that originated in the Sudan and Guinea. While Erfoud prospered, only scattered ruins remain of neighboring Sijilmassa, birthplace of the reigning 1000-year-old Alaouite dynasty. The historic outpost welcomes archaeologists from around the globe to unearth Sijilmassa’s legendary splendors.
Erfoud once thrived on the cultivation of Medjool dates, the main sustenance for Tuaregs, the Blue Men of the Sahara, so called because the natural indigo blue dye of their turbans rubs off onto their skin. A traffic light regulates traffic in Erfoud, though life in the oasis follows the same rhythm it has for centuries. Donkeys laden with bales of mint trot along narrow paths delineating tidy family plots of alfalfa, fava beans, or squash. Many women drape a corner of their black haik over one eye, as is the custom, and will turn their back on photographers. On my last visit, our goal was to reach the dunes of Merzouga, about an hour south, by sunset. We parked our car in Erfoud, and transferred to the air-conditioned van awaiting us at the Hotel Xaluca. Yallah! Let’s go!” cried out our turbaned driver, before stepping on the gas in a cloud of sand.
He soon had us zigzagging off the narrow ribbon of asphalt to race his colleagues across the chaotic landscape — the floor of an ocean dating back 350 million years. The area is a paleontologist’s dream where local quarries abound in prehistoric sea creatures. When I was younger, I too picked them off the desert floor, and helped myself to petrified cephalopods, ammonites, or trilobites. Indeed, professional digs not far from Erfoud yielded the entire skeleton of Spinosaurus, a giant of the Cretaceous. Nowadays, only certified establishments such as Manar Marble fossil and stone factory in Erfoud, are licensed to commercialize the black marble slabs studded with fossils.
Local drivers, though equipped with GPSs, often navigate the vast emptiness by intuition. We raced past recently erected hamlets, most of them built to accommodate the hundreds of employees who cater to the multitudes eager to spend a night or two under goat-haired Bedouin tents. The long drive concluded at a sight forever stamped in my memory: Erg Chebbi’s wave upon wave of towering, marmalade-colored dunes looming above the infinity of the desert.
A gathering of giant black moths hugged the ground like a mirage on the horizon. What looked like a wainscot of gargantuan Lepidoptera — upon closer inspection turned into a dozen goat-haired tents. A small herd of tethered camels (technically one-humped dromedaries) crouched on the sand, each mount awaiting a rider. Individual handlers helped us climb atop a recalcitrant beast who reacted with a grunt, as though reluctant to unfold its front legs, then the rear.
The handler, dressed in the blue gandoura (long, sleeveless garment) of a Tuareg, clucked sweet nothings in the beast’s ear while I clamped on for dear life. The man made sure I was safely astride the animal’s neck before our threesome fell into step with the “caravan” that plodded up a steep dune. More disgruntled sounds from the camel reached me a few yards of the peak. I dismounted with a jerk, and sank knee deep in the sand. A slow ascent up the sandy incline brought me to the top just in time to catch the sun melt over the desert.
The beauty of the scene left me teary-eyed. Whispers reverberated among the sandy hillocks like echoes from a deep well. Conversation ceased as we witnessed the sun’s multi-colored descent. I had to dab at my eyes to watch a small lizard-like creature disappear with a soft swish in the sand. No wonder Merzouga is today one of the country’s most sought-out destinations.
The camel ride had left me wobbly-kneed. I staggered to my tented room, an extension of the Xaluca hotel chain. Thankfully, each tent came equipped with a hot shower and an individual toilet. Refreshed in body and spirit, I followed the kilim-lined path to reach the dining area, to savor a bowl of steaming harira, cumin-flavored lentil soup, succulent mechoui (spit-roasted lamb), and mounds of couscous, the Moroccan staple, smothered in saffron-scented broth, chunks of beef, and fresh, seasonal vegetables. After the meal, I couldn’t resist poking my nose into the adjoining “kitchen” where the chef and his assistant had prepared our multi-course diffa, feast, using a simple Butane burner and rudimentary utensils.
“Couscous mezzian! Couscous very good!” I showered the cook with compliments. He smiled broadly and offered me a glass of mint tea.
“Bismillah!” he invoked, as we clinked glasses. I left my host to enjoy a solitary walk under millions of twinkling blots. In my wake, a trio of Tuareg musicians strummed softly on their goat-skinned instruments. The night sky, dark as squid ink, was splattered with stars and the Big Dipper felt almost within reach. A dog’s bark somewhere in the darkness followed me all the way to bed.
The first rays of the sun outlined the dunes in a golden hue when I stepped out into the quietude of a desert sunrise. The experience was short-lived. Daylight soon flooded the landscape, setting the compound astir. Soon, I joined the others gathered around a breakfast of fresh orange juice, coffee, and an assortment of pastries. This would sustain us until the oasis of Tinerhir.
My husband and I first explored the Tinerhir palm grove while on our honeymoon, when ancient kasbahs in various stages of disrepair clung to the sides of the miles-long palm canyon. Today, no square meter is left undeveloped. Most jolting is the forest of barabool, a phonetic rendition of the French word parabole, satellite dish. Happily, despite a recent drought, gurgling seguias, irrigation ditches fed by the melting snows of the Atlas, meander through vegetable fields and blossoming orchards. Unchanged is the clip-clop of donkeys echoing under the green cathedral of palms.
Puffs of fragrant smoke rise from beehive ovens holding round loaves of anise-scented hobz (bread), an essential component of the Moroccan diet. Women in traditional haiks, bend at the waist to weed family plots, heavy silver bangles clinking on their wrists. Others cluster around the communal well to fill amphoras. Tinerhir and the Todra Gorges remain a popular departure point for four-wheel drive vehicles to set forth on unpaved “pistes” (dirt roads) leading into the heart of the Atlas Mountains.
We continued southward to Boumalne du Dadès. Once a rather downtrodden kasbah clinging to a boulder-strewn hillside, Boumalne has morphed into a thriving commercial center thanks to its spectacular location overlooking the oasis. Dwellings new and old reflect the colors of the surrounding landscape, standing like paper cut-outs against the green swath of the Dadès Valley. My hotel balcony, once again at a Xaluca hotel, offered an unobstructed view of the luxuriant palm grove. That night, a slender crescent of moon hung above the green sentinels like a comma in the universe. The muezzin’s (Muslim prayer-leader) early morning call to prayer was the only sound to shatter the silence.
On set days, the hustle and bustle of a weekly souk creates a traffic jam along the kasbah trail, as it does in El Kalaa des Mgouna. Desert souks possess an aura all their own. Tribesmen from the surrounding plains gather to trade in dates, dust, and dromedaries. As a teenager, I loved to mingle with the women in elaborate headdresses decorated in silver amulets, to listen to them haggle over the price of an eggplant or a live chicken. I still do. As always, clusters of men wait patiently amidst the general cacophony for the services of barbers/bloodletters, in the hope that the loss of a few ounces of blood would maintain them in good health and protect them from the oppressive heat.
Under another tent, a small pile of fractured dental roots advertises the prowess of the itinerant dentist. But El Kalaa’s main industry is the cultivation of Damascene roses. In May and early June, the air is awash in the scent of blooms, and baskets overflowing with delicate pink flowers occupy an entire section of the souk. Indeed, France’s best-known parfumeurs rely on the annual harvest to create some of the world’s most expensive scents. Each May, El Kalaa, hosts a rose festival and gathering of the tribes which attracts visitors from around the world.
Co-operatives specialized in the distillation of rose water line the road on the way out of town. Most are run by women who band together to manufacture and market their products. One member of El Kalaa’s Co-operative Agricole Touterroir, clad in colorful kaftan and headdress, proudly showed off the factory’s modern distilling apparatus and the drying oven lined with trays of rose petals. The gift shop was crowded with Japanese and Italian travelers, who, like me, stocked up on rose-scented creams, lotions, and balms. As we drove away, a group of young men pushed small leis fashioned from fresh roses through the open windows: “Les roses! Vingt dirhams!” (about USD2.50) they called out as we inched our way along..
Ouarzazate, at the southern end of the Kasbah trail, was once a stronghold of the French Foreign Legion. No trace of a fort survives. Instead, you can get a glimpse of life inside a kasbah at the restored Kasbah of Taourirt, in the heart of town. Film buffs will recognize Taourirt as a location for the Sheltering Sky, inspired by Paul Bowles’s book of the same name. A few kilometers away, more sun-baked visitors mount peaceful assaults against the imposing Kasbah of Tifoultoute.
The derelict Kasbah offers commanding views of the surrounding landscape. Tifoultoute belonged to the Hadj Thami al Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakech, “Lord of the Atlas”, until 1956, the year Morocco attained its independence. My maternal grandfather, a diplomat who served under the French Protectorate, often dealt with Hadj Thami, and he used to regale us with tales of this fierce Berber overlord who, at the turn of the twentieth century, claimed many of these kasbahs as his individual domains until they were united under the present dynasty.
Present-day Ouarzazate has long-lost the aura of a remote desert outpost. In the early 70s, when my husband and I stayed in the oasis’s only government-run “auberge,” our room overlooked the desiccated landscape that surged into eddies of dust whipped by umbrella-toppling winds known as chergui or sirocco. This mecca for the jet-set now boasts its own international airport, and hordes of weekend visitors fly in from Paris or Madrid to play golf on emerald-colored greens.
Movie studios have turned the town into a Moroccan Bollywood. Numbers of blockbusters were filmed in the surrounding desert, such as Gladiator, The Man who Would be King, Game of Thrones, Black Hawk Down, Ishtar, and others too numerous to mention. Local hotels display old movie props, as they do at the elegant Bèrbère Palace. Escapees from European winters cluster in air-conditioned condos, and backpackers hoping for “the adventure of a lifetime” seek the shade of cyber cafés. Visible from miles around is the enormous tower of Noor (Arabic for “light”) the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station (OSPS), 10 miles out of town, the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant that covers 450 hectares.
Though Ouarzazate technically marks the end of the scenic trail, I like to continue on to the historic Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, today a World Heritage Site, a dozen miles south. This entire ksar, another Glaoui possession in the late 1800s, has been restored to its original state, mainly to serve as a movie set and living museum where tribe members double as actors, recreating agrarian activities of old. The terrace of one of the cafés across the Oued Mellah river from the imposing structures affords an unobstructed view of the iconic arched gateway and 11th century agadir, or communal grain silos. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself hop-scotching across the slippery rocks to reach the other side. A new bridge now stretched across the dry river bed. In a strange twist of fate, the road that meanders through Morocco’s pre-Sahara plains, ended, for me, the way it began: in the contemplation of water. Though the landscape of my childhood has undergone dramatic changes, the Kasbah Trail still retains a timeless appeal.
Kitty Morse is a food and travel writer who was born in Casablanca. She is the author of ten cookbooks, five of them on the cuisine of her native Morocco. Her latest, Mint Tea and Minarets: a banquet of Moroccan memories was published in 2012. It was selected “Best Book Arab Cuisine” by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. www.kittymorse.com.