Zagora and the Sahara:
Leaving Tamtatouchte village, we continued south through a gorge that became narrower and narrower until we were driving through a narrow gap with the cliffs rising to 300m sheer above us. The Gorges du Todra is a massive fault in the plateau and separates two mountain ranges, the High Atlas on one side and the Jebel Sarhro, the Black Mountains, on the other. A cool clear stream runs through the gorge and you are through it almost as soon as you enter. As we left very early, hardly any of the roadside traders catering to the huge tourist trade here were open and their stalls looked bare and empty, mere skeletons when not covered with colourful goods for sale.
Ruined mud buildings and Kasbahs line the roads once down out of the mountains. The desert was stony for the most part, with sandy dunes occasionally dotting the landscape: first signs that the true Sahara is getting closer.
A left turn put us on the road due south to Zagora. Date palms line the road through the Vallée du Drâa, a wide ribbon of palmeries, villages and Kasbahs . The Drâa is one of the longest rivers in Morocco, originating in the High Atlas and heading across desert country theoretically to the Atlantic, but in reality disappearing into the sands. Here in this part of the valley however, the river is water-filled and locals even fish with simple bamboo rods. To see the palms is to know why it is called the 'million date palms'.
A quick taxi ride into town from the camp brought us into the town. Not just a million date palms, but also a million watermelons! The large green fruit filled the back of every van, car and truck. Many were spread out on the pavement with some sellers having just one or two to sell, while others had teetering piles on offer. We bought some meat at a butcher (which was tasty but tough) and stocked up on fruit and veg at the little market. While wondering where to buy some spices, a helpful local, decked out in flowing robes and turban wrapped around his head, offered some advice: do not buy the spices from the market; they will give you the Marrakech Express - you know what I mean? Indeed we did not want any variant of the M.E. and followed him down some back roads to the old part of Zagora which had … a spice shop. Here the very helpful shopkeepers sold spices and herbs as well as dyes and cosmetics like creams and oils. Hard to resist and we bought a few supplies to keep us going!
To get back to camp, we followed the Berber's directions for a short cut and headed through the old town. Again we were accosted by a friendly Berber, this one riding (or rather walking) a bicycle and with an almost toothless smile. In broken French from both sides, he asked all about us and volunteered much about himself. In particular, he had a garden right near the 'Camping' and he would love to show it to us. So off the road we went, following him through a maze of dirt tracks all bounded by mud-brick walls enclosing gardens and cultivation: sometimes some goats, sometimes vegetables, some date palms and so on. We were thoroughly lost and just had to keep following. Eventually his garden which he showed us with pride: beans, herbs, date palms, lucerne for the donkey. He jumped around picking a huge bunch of coriander from one part of the garden and parsley from another. He stripped a large leaf from a palm frond and tore it into thin strips and proceeded to weave a gazelle! Photos all round and then he offered to show us the local Kasbah which has been turned into an artisan centre for silver the next day. We arranged for him to meet us at 5 the next afternoon, Insha'Allah. For reasons that shall become obvious we couldn't make it unfortunately.
Next day, Paul and Liz and the two of us had booked a 4-wheel-drive trip into the Sahara, just a little more to the south from Zagora. As we drove south through increasingly dusty and drab villages, the wind picked up and sand was blown across the road in true sandstorm blasts. We reached the end of the line; the road simply stopped and all ahead of us was the Sahara with only others' wheel tracks to show the way.
We saw it all: hard desert with black stones and no vegetation; yellow, sandy dunes with the sand being whipped over the top blowing the dune along the ground; claypans of grey hard surface; coatings of white salt covering rocks and dry riverbeds; an oasis with water bubbling up through the sand and into a channel affording the goats a drink in the harsh environment. Tadpoles even seemed to thrive in the cool, fresh pool. We saw camels in small herds, some Bedouin tents set up for lavish tourist experiences in the middle of nowhere and exactly three other cars. The wind was constant companion and less than pleasant. A light cloud cover, however, probably saved us from extreme temperatures. Paul mentioned that the only thing we hadn't done was to dig ourselves out of the sand. Five minutes later we were doing just that: the Land Cruiser was bogged in very soft sand and we all had to get out, dig the sand away and then push! We obviously escaped the Sahara alive to tell the tale. Then Paul mentioned he hadn't spent an overnight in the desert…
After more than six hours, we were ready to head back. We all wanted a shower to wash off the fine sand sticking to our skin and all through our hair. But no, once we hit the main road back, we were taken off on side tracks through narrow, dusty alleys in little villages, through date palms and gardens and henna crops. We had left at 9 that morning, we returned at 7 in the evening: a long, long day, but wouldn't have missed it for quids!