Morocco and the Sahara by motorbike

Yes... Sahara!

When I was younger, one of the customers of the pizzeria where I used to work was an old Moroccan carpenter. He once told me the story of a group of American tourists who got lost for three days, venturing too far into the desert beyond the mountains. Since that time, I have often imagined what it could have been like to climb the Atlas Mountains and go further until you see the Sahara desert. That fascinating empty and forgotten expanse that few people travel and even fewer visit.

Almost thirty years later, I decided to make use of this little dream I had as an idea for a motorcycle trip through one of the most fascinating and yet easy to visit countries in North Africa.
Let me tell you the obvious, Morocco is very popular destination for tourists, explorers and holidaymakers of all kinds. Its cities are amazing, its climate is gentle and along the coast there are a number of seaside resorts teeming with surfers.

Fez and Marrakech

Most of the tourists arriving from Europe flock to the main cities: Marrakech, Fez, Casablanca, Rabat, the cute blue town of Chefchaouen. Agadir, Essouira or one of the popular sea resorts on the coast. As for my trip, the main idea was to take a tour that included a few of the most popular cities but above all a tour across the Atlas then down towards the desert on the other side, and then finish with a few days of relaxation on the coast.

Flying to Fez from Italy was particularly easy, and the couple of days spend there were definitely a good idea: Fez has an amazing Medina, the old center of the city, with a maze of tiny streets winding through small markets and beautiful palaces, where it’s not unlikely to get lost.

But actually my motorcycle journey was starting in Marrakech, not only a beautiful city but also a perfect point of departure for visiting the Atlas and the regions beyond. If you intend visiting the Atlas and you are not coming from the north, the best access point is from Marrakech through the Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass.

Tizi n'Tichka and the Atlas mountains

The road winding up to Tizi n'Tichka pass.

It’s been fairly easy to get there, the road was good and fairly straight  up to a village called Taddert. Then it climbed up, going through a series of hairpin bends. Up on the mountain pass there wasn’t much apart from a café and a few stalls, however the view was amazing. In contrast to the lowlands facing the Atlantic around Marrakech and most Moroccan cities, it didn’t take long for the place to turn into a barren region with the only green spots relegated to the bottom of some valleys.

Somebody suggested considering an easy and rewarding detour through the Ounila Valley. You could find a fork with a road going down to the left short after the after Tizi n’Tichka. The Ounila Valley was a strange place: a red canyon carved by a river coming down from the Atlas with a series of modest looking villages made of the same red stone, inhabited by Berbers, one of the many ethnic cultural groups of Morocco. The Kasbah of Telouet, located in the largest village of the valley, was something really worth the detour.

Aït Benhaddou

One of the main tourist attractions at the very end of the valley was Aït Benhaddou, a fortified village on the caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. A myriad of films have been shot in Aït Benhaddou and I clearly couldn’t wait to get there and spend a few hours walking up and down the narrow streets of the village, from the top of which you could enjoy a splendid view over the surrounding desert.

The Dades river valley

My plan for visiting the regions beyond the Atlas offered two main options: the Dades and the Draa valley. The two rivers flew down from the mountains forming two beautiful valleys, slowly diverging and heading towards the desert. Before sinking and disappearing into the underground, the two formed very long oases, stretching for hundreds of kilometers towards two sandy deserts, Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga.

The endless oasis along the Draa river.

The oasis was a beautiful sight in an otherwise completely barren land: a green palm grove stretching uninterrupted along the bottom of the valley. Not a single straw of grass grew beyond its borders. I had developed my plan: I intended to head towards the less touristic but larger Erg Chigaga, close to the border with Algeria and at the end of the Draa valley. But before that, there was something I thought was worth a detour along the Dades river valley.

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The Dades gorge

The Dades river is the northernmost, it stretches horizontally towards one of the most visited areas of Morocco: the sandy desert of Erg Chebbi. I had in mind paying a visit to Erg Chebbi too but as all the other sandy desert spots in the country, it was far and almost at the border with Algeria. Still, I wanted to take a quick tour around the Dades valley. The road was unexpectedly comfortable and winded along the palmtrees of the valley. It was frequent coming across children with baskets selling buckets of pink roses on the road side: the valleys around the village of Skoura are known for the cultivation of this particular kind of rose, used to make the well know rose water. I stopped for the night at a very nice hostel resembling a Kasbah that had a terrace with a fantastic view over the green valley and the snow-capped mountains.

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Not far from Skoura, next to a village called Boulmane Dades lied the entrance to a spectacular gorge. The road was climbing vertically with a series of sharp hairpin turns to a deep canyon carved whose vertical walls were just a few steps one from another. Having time and energy, you could have continued along the valley to the rural mountain villages and come back through the fascinating Todra valley, but it was time for me get on the road toward Erg Chigaga.

The Drâa river valley and Zagora

In theory, you can cut through the flat, desert plain that separates the Dades and the Draa rivers. However, while the road along the valleys were surprisingly good, I wasn’t so sure what to expect from those in the dusty and sparsely populated plains. Going all the way back to Ouarzatate was a pleasant ride though. The largest town in the area, which housed some famous film studios and the weirdest solar power plant I have ever seen (like a giant pillar collecting the light reflected from a thousand mirrors, so hot it could be seen shining at night from miles).

The Draa river valley was apparently not very different from the Dades one. Along the road you could come across Kasbahs, villages entirely built in red desert stone and ruins of Ksar, fortified villages on the caravan route to Marrakech. The last town you could find before the last few villages and the void of the desert was Zagora. One of the cutest places and a great example of how life in a palm grove could be, was the palm grove of Amrazou: a maze of small roads going though ksour, dry stone walls, irrigated gardens and trees. I spent a nice hour getting lost there with my motorcycle (until I eventually… got lost).

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Erg Chigaga and the Sahara

“The dunes get transformed by the wind but the desert always remains the same.” Paulo Coelho.

After Zagora there was a single road venturing into the desert, through some dusty villages towards the very last one, where the road ended: M’hamid. The wind constantly blew, bringing sand and dust on the road but all in all the journey was safe. Most of the life in the tiny and dusty village of M’hamid was connected to tourism. It wasn’t difficult to find somebody willing to organize a desert tour for you, from hotels to more improvised and unlinkely folks. Fortunately, the hotel were I met an Italian friend with whom I shared part of this trip was offering tours with one night in a beautiful camp somewhere among the reddish dunes of the Erg.

 

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I have to say I had considered venturing into the desert to the first oasis by myself, with my rented BMW F750GS. Not doing it was a good idea. As you could see in my video, the track through the desert was absolutely not easy to follow and probably at risk of being swallowed by the sand. Not to mention the risks of getting stuck and falling in a place where nobody could help.

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Most of the people living in M’hamid were desert nomads: Touareg from Mali or Saharawi, like the nice guy who brought us to the camp, driving with ease though the barely recognizable track.

Amost all tourists head to Erg Chebbi, the sandy desert more north, at the end of the Dades valley. But I was happy with my choice of chosing Erg Chigaga instead: it’s a much larger one, with red and yellow dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. And they are the tallest you can find in the country, reaching up to 200m.

The Toubkal mountain park and the Ouirgane valley

After the desert, it was time to start heading back towards Marrakech where I rented the bike. I had a plan for a much larger trip, but as usual, some stops had to be removed from the plan. Essaouira and a couple of days relaxing by the sea were the last stage of my journey. In the middle, I decided to add a stop at the Toubkal national park.

A Berber village on the way up to Tizi n'Tamatert pass.

The Toubkal massif is a group of the highest mountains in Morocco, a summer resort popular among hikers. I just had a couple of day for relaxing and enjoying some views around a village called Imlil, with absolutely no chance to embark on a days-long hiking around the muntain. Nevertheless I attempted a quick one, I could manage to get just to the first pass but I could enjoy a nice view of the valley and its rural Berber villages.

Red badlands around the nice Ouirgane valley.

Essaouira and Sidi Kaouki

Unlike almost all other countries of North Africa, I could say Morocco is a safe place to go around. There are very few areas where a trip is not adviced, mostly in the north by hearsay. It’s quite frequent to come across police patrols checking people along the road, even if they usually never stop foreigners, it’s a good idea to keep a disciplined driving style. The road to Essaouira was quite long, but straight and absolutely fine. I decided to stay at a small beach hotel run by a Catalan guy. The village, Sidi Kaouki, that was mostly a line of hostels along the only road by the large, sandy beach was not far from Essaouira and most popular among surf lovers.

Large sandy beaches south of Sidi Kaouki.

The last three days went by sweetly in Sidi Kaouki: I tried surfing myself (first time), but after the first day spent falling and drinking ocean water, I decided it was a better idea enjoy some relax on the beach and eating some freshly caught fish at the hostel.

The harbor of Essaouira.

I spent there just half a day, but I have to say Essaouira was up to its fame: a very nice looking city, touristic as expected, but much cleaner and less messy that Marrakech or Fez.

No wonder why everyone goes to Morocco, I really enjoyed spending two weeks exploring it. It’s a country where it’s easy to go around and it has a lot to offer to a bike lover: colored and noisy souks, the endless Sahara and its valleys, mosques, ruins of Ksour and Kasbahs, lots of great cities and medinas to wander, mountains and beautiful beaches to relax. It’s been one of my easiest and rewarding motorcycle journeys.

A few insights from my trip: the rental experience at M2R Marrakech was very good, the F750Gs I rented was brand new. A couple places I suggest for a stay: Maison D’hôte Dar Panorama Skoura, Al Vent Sidi Kaouki

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