The Road To Ouarzazate
The sun rose scarlet over the red city. As sound lags sight when one goes fast enough, so is there a lag in the desert between light and warmth. Slowly heat seeped back into the ancient stone and Marrakech once again came to life, the sunlight shimmering off the High Atlas Mountains.
After breakfast at our riad, the Captain and I took to the roof to gain a vantage point on our surroundings. This was our first look at Marrakech in the daytime, and the uncertainty of the night before had wilted under the African sun leaving only anticipation in its wake. To the south, the grand Koutoubia Mosque dominated the skyline. Long a place for booksellers and scholars, it now commands the plaza adjacent to Jemma al’Fna in the center of the medina.
We had to be in Ouarzazate by nightfall and the imposing colossus of the High Atlas lay between us. As a result, our stay in Marrakech was limited, but we decided that we still had enough time to visit the red city’s legendary souks. Rather than trek back to Jemma al’Fna and enter from the south through the main entrance, we decided to find a way in from the northwest. Although still a little turned around from the previous night (I had to help him find the car), the Captain managed to find an entrance to the souks down a small alleyway just southeast of the college of Mohammed V.
The souks of Marrakech have changed little since the days when the great trans-Saharan caravans carved their way through the desert sands and snow capped peaks between the red city and Timbuktu. Saffron, gold, and wrought iron still line the edges of the souk’s narrow paths, just as they did hundreds of years ago, and the cries of vendors echo off the dusty stone in Arabic, French, and Berber. In some cities souks and bazaars seem out of place, a vestige of the past existing in a strange dichotomy with modern skylines. In Marrakech that contrast does not exist. The souks are a seamless extension of the cities’ heart.
As we strolled through the constantly branching labyrinth of shops and stalls we passed vendors selling lanterns, carpets, and berber jewelry. Leather babouches, or slippers were a common sight, dyed in scarlet, indigo, and (most commonly) bright canary yellow. The Captain haggled with a jewelry merchant while I breathed in the enchanting smells of cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon brought aloft by the surprisingly warm wind. My husband bought me a necklace and an ornate jewelry box to keep it in, as well as a wrought iron key hundreds of years old. Made for the wooden locks that were common in the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, they can still be found in the souks, just be prepared to haggle to get a decent price!
After we checked out of our riad and fired up our silver Peugeot, I looked over the route before us. Morocco has several large mountain ranges, all created from ancient tectonic collisions: the Middle Atlas in the center of the country, the High Atlas near Marrakech, the Rif on the northern coast, the Anti Atlas on the edge of the Sahara, and small portions of the Tell and Saharan Atlas that stretch east into Algeria. The High Atlas has the tallest peaks in all of North Africa, and it was these snow-capped sentinels that lay across our path to the southeast. From Marrakech there were three routes to Ouarzazate, the nearest city on the southern side of the High Atlas. The most direct was the Tizi n’Tichka, a straight shot southeast. The summit of that route, however, is the highest in all Morocco at over 2000 meters. The High Atlas passes often close due to snow in the wintertime, and since the Captain and I chose to go in early February, winter storms were a distinct possibility. If the Tizi n’Tichka was closed our secondary plan was to head southwest over the Tizi n’Test. The Tizi n’Test is lower than the Tizi n’Tichka, but the roads are even more tortuous. Even without snow, it often takes 8 hours to travel just 140 miles from Marrakech to Taroudant, the city on the leeward side of the pass. Should both passes be blocked, we had only one other option, and that was to head southwest to Agadir on the coast and then skirt back eastward on the N10 highway. Since Agadir is in the opposite direction of Ouarzazate, taking this third route would require driving through the night and was regarded as our absolute last resort.
As the Captain edged the car out into the sea of people, motorbikes, donkeys, and taxis I marveled again at his driving ability. Driving a strange car in a strange country can be taxing, but to do so in a cramped space in a stick-shift car with barely a hair’s breadth between you and the car or donkey next to you is downright nerve-wracking. Thankfully, flying jets must give you a cool head under pressure as the Captain handled it with aplomb. That being said, unless you want a true baptism by fire, all but the most daring should avoid renting a car in Marrakech, especially inside the medina. Once outside, the drive improves considerably and towns like Ouarzarate are positively tame by comparison. With its omnipresent slew of taxis, Marrakech has a multitude of travel options and car rental should be undertaken only if necessary to get to places farther afield.
As we left the chaos of the medina behind, the first order of business was to get petrol. The gentleman who gave us the rental car spoke almost no English, but he did manage to point to the gas tank (which read half-full) and say “empty” while shaking his head. The Captain tried to ascertain whether he meant no it’s not empty or no it doesn’t have half a tank. Unfortunately, that particular language barrier couldn’t be breached and we had to take our chances. The Captain was still reasonably sure the man had gestured that there was indeed fuel, so we both laughed when the liters kept adding up at the gas station. When it finally stopped, we realized that we had been running almost on fumes! It was a good thing we stopped early on as Africa is not a place you want to run out of gas in.
We headed east toward the Tizi n’Tichka, hoping to find it open. Sunlight glistened off the snowy massifs as we watched the red brick walls of Marrakech disappear to the west. Soon the terrain began to change, with the ground becoming more rocky and the palm trees giving way to more hardy arboreals like junipers and atlas cedars. As we passed small villages and shepherds corralling their flocks, we began to notice roadside vendors selling rocks, minerals, and fossils of all kinds. The High Atlas is a geologist’s paradise and amethyst, malachite, and lapis lazuli abound in its rocky outcrops. Geodes with glistening crystals of red, black, and yellow dotted the small mobile stands. Soon the road began to weave a tortuous path, twisting and turning back on itself through endless switchbacks. Vehicle traffic ranged from large busses and oil tankers to motorbikes, small taxis, and bicycles. The road was narrow but well paved. The Captain often had to push the Peugeot to the max to veer into the opposite lane and pass slow moving traffic before the next bend in the road obscured what lay ahead. As the road grew steeper and the scenery more striking, we passed an open gate indicating that the pass was open. A good thing too, as the sun was already beginning to arc toward the western horizon and the Tizi n’Test is not a pass one wants to traverse at night. The Captain downshifted and hugged the curves of the twisting pavement. Left, right, and left again we climbed until the peaks of the highest mountains of Morocco seemed to pierce the very veil of the sky itself. As the road crested, we reached the Col du Titchka, 2260 meters above sea level. To the west lay fertile terrain and the red city of Marrakech, to the east, the rocky slopes of the Anti Atlas and the mighty Sahara itself.
Ouarzazate is often referred to as the gateway to the Sahara, but to characterize it as a desert town is misleading. In fact, it clings to the southern slopes of the High Atlas, and the beauty of their snowy summits dominate the town. Its reputation as a gateway city stems not from its raw proximity to the desert, but rather as its closest bastion of civilization. In actuality, Ouarzazate is a charming town whose wide streets and laid back pace were a refreshing change from the madness of Marrakech. Long a favorite of the movie industry, Ouarzazate’s stunning vistas and proximity to the Sahara have made it Hollywood’s go-to choice for exotic locales. Alexander, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and pretty much every movie with a desert in it have filmed scenes in or around Ouarzazate. When not catering to the rich and famous, the city is very low-key; the souks are local, charming, and devoid of tourists; the kasbahs sparsely populated, but stunning. It is when the studios lie empty that Ouarzazate embraces its other identity, one that has defined the city for centuries, long before its affair with Hollywood: that of a base camp. Some towns like Zagora and M’Hamid lie closer to the sandy Saharan wastes, but it is Ouarzazate that combines the supplies, the riads, and the ease of access to truly earn the title of “The Desert’s Door”. As the Captain turned the Peugeot off the main highway toward the center of town, the sun slipped below the peaks of the High Atlas. To the east lay darkness, the thrilling promise of the unknown, and the greatest desert on the face of the Earth.