Further into the Atlas

From Fez we drove to Midelt, a small town remarkable for its location on high plains between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountain ranges. On the way we passed through Ifrane, an alpine-style mountain resort. Usually at this time of year the whole area would be covered in thick snow but as we were later told, the weather is changing in Morrocco and this year has there had been no skiing in Ifrane at all. On the ski fields goats and donkeys grazed placidly, we stopped next to a collection of boarded up restaurants and stalls, a sign optimistically read ‘ski village.’ In the midday sun it was boiling, only one stall-owner remained selling peanuts to feed a nearby troop of monkeys.

We had initially planned just to overnight in Midelt on our way further south but as soon as we arrived we decided we decided to stay and spend a day exploring the surrounding countryside. The following morning we set out in search of ‘the devil’s jaffar’ a gorge around 15km from Midelt someone had told us about over dinner the night before. Unfortunately the hastily drawn map we had been given turned out not to be very accurate. ‘The devil’s jaffar’ was clearly a name which had been dreamt up by an imaginative tour guide, since no one in the tiny Berber villages we spent the next few hours driving around had the slightest idea what we were going on about. Still, it was interesting enough just to observe village life; elderly men reclined in the shade of mud walls, women in straw hats and brightly coloured tunics rode slowly past us on donkeys heavy-laden with crops. Eventually we found the unmarked track which led to the gorge, apart from the occasional goat herder we had the entire place to ourselves. We drove along the its edge, following the gorge to its narrowest, rockiest point where we parked the bike and scrambled down.

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From Midelt we drove around 250km to Tamtattouchte, a small village just before the entrance to the Todra Gorge. The drive was undoubtedly the most spectacular yet. We got off to a slow start after the sat nav decided to reroute us from the perfectly good sealed road we were on and instead take us down kilometre after kilometre of bumpy gravel track. Knowing that much worse was to come on this trip we decided not to view it as a setback and it was impossible not to enjoy the big skies and views of snowy mountains, which seemed to rise up as if from nowhere. Once back on tarmac, the road wound its way along the bottom of a valley in-between the High Atlas mountains before beginning its dramatic climb up and over them. The final section before the summit was heart stoppingly steep, at one point I made the mistake of glancing down over the 30cm high  wall that was somehow supposed to stop us plunging over the edge. There was nothing; just a sheer drop to the valley floor hundreds of meters below, without so much as a jutting bolder or rocky ledge to break the fall. In spite of my generally good head for heights it was enough for me to experience the strange, slow, somersault of vertigo.

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Now up in the mountains, the road continued its spectacular snaking path, passing a bright blue lake fringed by tall grass. As we neared the gorge the mountains changed, before they were speckled green with scrubby trees, now the landscape was barren and rocky but if anything more beautiful. The mountains were strange; marbled in swirls and stripes of orange, red and grey, the colours especially vivid against the blue sky. Something about their rounded humps, with rocks jutting out in long, curved ridges, reminded me of the scaled backs of crocodiles emerging from water. The last hours drive before we reached Tamtattouchte was the most stunning; a glorious winding decent, the road clinging to the edge of the mountainside and a final spectacular view out over a deep canyon, flooded with silvery light of the late afternoon.

We arrived at our campsite in early evening and after pitching our tent realised we were short on cash and supplies for the morning. We figured we could just about make it the 20 or so kilometres to the nearest town and back before night fell. What we hadn’t realised is those 20km would take us right through the centre of the Todra Gorge. It turned out to be the best way to see the gorge, the setting sun cast dramatic shadows against the orange limestone, adding to the sense of foreboding. The towering walls of the gorge reach up to 400m in places and in comparison we felt  very small and insignificant. We were completely alone, at the deepest part of the gorge there were signs of the coach loads of tourists who would arrive the following day, but for now the souvenir stalls were closed and the parking bays empty. By the time we reached the town it was already nearly dark and we realised we would driving back along the narrow and zigzagging road through the gorge in the pitch black. It was an amazing experience, there was no moon and so the only light was from the faint beam of the headlights. It was not possible to see the walls of the gorge, though you could somehow feel their looming presence in the darkness. The only way to tell where they ended and where the sky began was to trace the line of the stars. 

The following day we drove to the Dades gorge. It is really a series of gorges, amidst rust coloured mountains, strangely shaped rock formations and tiny Berber villages. The highlight for us was a particularly dramatic section of road which follows a series of incredibly steep hairpin bends to the top of the gorge.

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