Travel Day: Across the High Atlas

Travel Day: Across the High Atlas

Looming large on the southern horizon is the High Atlas with Toubkal (4,167m) the highest peak. Another facet of Morocco’s geography awaits to be discovered.

First the Marrakech Plain is crossed with its extensive areas of irrigated olive groves. People are seen everywhere; sitting, walking, talking, playing, cycling and working. Small settlements are encountered with fruit and vegetable stalls, informal cafés, tiny shop frontages, tele-boutiques and family-run workshops. But soon the road climbs, twisting and turning as the High Atlas foothills are encountered.

Berber communities live in the mountain valleys, their clay pisé buildings blending into the natural landscape and clinging on to steep mountain sides. Extensive, deep, water-eroded gullies, thickly-wooded hillsides, irrigated valley floors, upland terraced plots, labour intensive farming, sheep pastures, exposed rock strata are some of the sights along the way. All along the route there are rock and fossil sellers who are trying to add to their family’s income.

The higher you go, the more dramatic the landscapes. The origins and sceneries of this fold mountain range is clear to see with strata, folds, screes, rock pedestals, incised meanders all to be spotted.

Lunch is taken in Taddert, a tiny but bustling service centre for travellers that stands 1,350m high. It’s the original 24/7, hence the glorious mix of cars, lorries, buses, 4x4s and minibuses all stopping for refreshment (the donkeys too!).

Soon it’s the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, the highest road point in the High Atlas at 2,260m. To reach it, the road continues to rise in ever-increasingly tight turns and severe zig-zags from Taddert. Now you’re well above all human activity and the ‘bare bones’ of the High Atlas are revealed very clearly.

At our specially selected viewpoint, the mountain panorama looking north, east and west is breathtaking. All around are the immense, bare peaks of this area of the High Atlas with their steep, deep, water-eroded V-valleys. Rock strata are easy to identify and the fact that these rocks were once sediments at the bottom of an ancient ocean can really be understood, almost felt. You really do feel ‘on top of the world’ here. 

Having crossed the watershed of the High Atlas, a descent is made to the lower plateaux lands around Ouarzazate. On the higher ground, animal herders can be spotted and women carrying bundles of gathered firewood on their heads. At lower levels, Berber communities reappear, their buildings made of mud and straw walls and bamboo and mud roofs, with long projecting gutters. However, satellite dishes are in increasingly evident as well!

A stop is made overlooking a typical village to identify its features (mosque, minaret, water tank, school) and assess its geographical advantages that allow the land to be so intensely farmed eg. for almonds, apples, vegetables, carrots, potatoes. Villagers are sometimes met and a great deal can be learned through our empathetic engagement.

However, rivers here can be violent. During heavy rains they can experience frighteningly powerful flash floods, a topic that can be fully appreciated when huge water-rounded boulders are seen resting on the floor of the river channels.

Travelling on downwards, the landscape opens out with more extensive vistas. With the ever-lowering altitude and lengthening growing season, plus more dependable water supplies, date palmeries begin to dominate the agricultural land use.

The day ends in prosperous Ouarzazate, an important route centre and service centre situated in the Dadès Valley, in the centre of an intensively farmed region. Ouarzazate’s Taourirt Kasbah is a well-conserved fortress in the centre of the town and an additional option for the day.

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