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On my travels – Atlas Mountains, Morocco

As winter started to bite in the UK, I decided to head for warmer climes and fulfil a long-held desire to visit Morocco and in particular the Atlas Mountains, the highest mountain range in North Africa and gateway to the Sahara desert beyond. As this was my first trip to the area I didn’t have a specific plan other than to try and get acquainted with the mountains and the villages of the Berber people who call them home.

Our base for this trip was the city of Marrakesh, famous for its medina (old town) with its vivid mix of sights, sounds and smells. The souks of the medina are worth a photography trip of their own although beware many local people don’t like to be photographed so you will occasionally get yelled at! The legendary square of Djemma-el-Fna is the locus of most evening activity and is the starting point for a souk tour.

Djemma el Fna square Marrakesh at sunsetWhen it comes to the souks, it’s best to just abandon the maps and allow yourself to get lost, you will anyway! The myriad stalls selling every manner of food, material and gift are an assault on the senses, but you can’t fail to be amazed at the skill of the local craftsmen, whether its working with metal, glass, wood, or leather.

SUT_5695 As much as I enjoyed Marrakesh, I’m much more comfortable in the wild places of the world, away from the great mass of humanity. Time to head up into the mountains, which are visible from the city like a great glittering rampart to the east.

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I was surprised just how green some areas of the Atlas range are (more so on the seaward side) but even on the eastern slopes facing the desert there are numerous rivers and streams, fed by snowmelt which help retain plenty of trees and plants.

Tizi n'Tichka pass, atlas mountatinsIt’s a very different story at the top of the Tizi n’Tichka Pass, at an elevation of 2260m above sea level. The road switchbacks crazily through an arid, almost lunar landscape, but the scale is breathtaking.

On the far side of the pass we left the main road to follow the small P1506 route which leads via the village of Telouet down the Ounila Valley to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou. If I have one travel tip for Morocco it’s to drive this road, the Berber villages which lie every couple of miles are simply breathtaking.

high atlas village

Above is the village of Tiguidert, just a small cluster of houses, a mosque and a more fortified building (most likely for food storage). The High Atlas villages haven’t changed much in the last 1000 years, the Berbers being the native people of the area long before even the Arabs arrived.

SUT_5195-EditBeyond Telouet the road turns south and carves its way along the valley walls of the Ounila river. I love this place more than anywhere else in Morocco, colour appeared in strata, green on the valley floor, red/gold for the arid valley walls and azure blue for the sky above. It leant an amazing, timeless quality to the place.

Ait Ben Haddou

Finally as the valley flattens out and just before the P1506 rejoins the main road south to Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Sahara, this part of Morocco gives you one final jewel, the “ksar” or fortified city of Ait Ben Haddou. Much used by film makers (especially Ridley Scott) this amazing ancient city looms over the surrounding landscape in movies and TV shows like Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Lawrence of Arabia.

To be honest, like most famous landmarks, it’s an absolute tourist trap, but getting off the beaten track in this part of North Africa brings much greater rewards. I want to return to Morocco for more adventures in the desert, the Atlas Mountains definitely stole a little piece of my heart.

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