Sunday 26 May 2013

o : Drâa Valley

The Drâa Valley, near Agdz

Dear o,

The sun has just set over the Drâa Valley and we’ve pointed Archer towards where it will rise tomorrow.  This contour of green oasis walled in by the desert-brown and volcano-black mountains has been a crossroads of humanity for thousands of years, though at times you feel like you’re on Mars.  I wish you could have seen some of the things I have seen in the past 24 hours. 

I have to admit, I don’t really know how to properly describe all of this to you.  I’ve tried to be careful not to give you a blow-by-blow retrospective itinerary or some scribbled sheets from my travel diary.  I’d rather make a point with each letter, illuminate one thing and spread the wings of language from there.  But sometimes all I’ve got is the simple story of the journey we’re on, and my bald attempt to recreate some of the beauty and learning along the way.

Archer Gets a Boost
Back outside of Casablanca we met another couple going overland, Chris and Celine, who accompanied us into the city, shared some whisky and politics as our first guests around a mosquito-candle for a fire, and sold us some new heavy-duty coils to give Archer some more clearance.  In Agadir we had them installed along with some new shock absorbers, and the difference in handling is outstanding.  More revealing than a smoother ride over speedbumps, however, and more telling than our increased fuel efficiency, were the old shocks, once removed.  Rust had bored holes through them and covered their outsides, and while the interior piece of stainless steel looked as good as new, it was a wonder we had any shock absorption at all.

Chris and Celine are heading back to Europe but plan to start their trans-Africa overland trip this summer.  Check out their website at

Our old front shock absorbers

Waiting on DHL
The reason I write to you from the Moroccan semi-desert and not somewhere in Mauritania or even Senegal, is DHL, who were supposed to deliver our carnet de passages from England a week ago.  I don’t want to bore you with our story of waiting and calling and confronting incompetence – yes, I have written to them – but that’s why I’m here, and not there.

Morocco is one of the foremost destinations around the world for making films.  The limitless golden dunes of the Sahara, the ruined or not-so-ruined kasbahs built on hills or mountainsides, the mudbrick towns, the Berbers who seem to stroll along from another century, the impossibly vibrant colours – all of these, and any combination thereof, is many a filmmaker’s wet dream.  And Ouarzazate is the heart of it.

Culturally, geographically and historically distinct from Ouarzazate are the ruins of Volubilis in northern Morocco, not far from Fez.  Al and I visited this ancient and impressive Roman outpost on our third day in Morocco (Day 24 overall), and at the city gate met an American geographic photographer who was waiting for people to clear in order to capture the live painting of the countryside the imperial Romans had framed with their stone archway.  He had just been to Ouarzazate on a tour bus, and his review was summed up with a ‘meh’ and a shrug.  He’d taken the studio tour and learned about Gladiator and Indiana Jones in the rolling sand, visited the kasbah, taken photos, and said it didn’t amount to much.  All I had seen of the film mecca were photos of the red kasbah over the desert, and Al had never heard of it.  So Ouarzazate became the part of the plan that we crossed out in order to get to Taghazout a little earlier, and hopefully (vainly) to get our carnet de passage a little sooner.  When the DHL delay hit the weekend, we suddenly had a couple extra days.  More Taghazout surfing?  More Agadir café-hopping?  No, we took them to Ouarzazate, and beyond.

There are two kasbahs in Ouarzazate.  The famous one from all the photos, directly across from the movie museum on the gentrified main street, is the crumbling and expansive Kasbah Taourirt.  Despite its volatile structure, the front block-towers seem like they have been placed by a child-giant playing around with huge pieces of mudbrick Lego.  The interior, which costs 20 dirhams per person to visit, doesn’t match the outside splenour, which is not to say it’s a disappointment.  Parts of the glorious Alhambra in Granada (Spain) feature the same tiny windows with wooden shades, low ceilings and lower ports, winding, angular, pasted-white walls, and the maze of turns and staircases and rooms you missed on the way up.  There is only one room inside Taorirt that attempts the same artistic feats of the Alhambra, with its intricate geometrical patterns carved into the wood and stone (geometry remains the preferred Muslim form of expression, as in the distant past all representation of nature was banned); but the cool and cloistered impression is the same with both.

The other kasbah is Tifoultoute, also ancient, crumbling and formed of mudbricks in which you can see the straws of hay still poking out.  But Tifoultoute in the afternoon sun, across a river without water and a growth of palm trees, is somehow more foreboding and otherworldy than Taourirt, or for that matter any other castle I’ve seen.  Like a European castle it has a keep with four points, descending structures rising and complementing, a military height and static aggression.  But where a Welsh castle feels alive with light, a Scottish castle feels alive with ghosts, and an English castle feels alive with the National Trust, Tifoultoute feels like it has never lived at all, at least not on the earth.  The brown-and-red stones seem like they have been released from a Martian cliffside, the passageways are hollow with or without visitors, and the whole structure seems to reach up and away from whatever vantagepoint you choose.  It is as if there is a special law of quantum mechanics just for Tifoultoute: the observer changes what is observed; and unobserved, the thing may not exist at all.  I have to wonder if it is still there.

Kasbah Tifoultoute

We drove from Ouarzazate towards its broad, out-of-nowhere lake in search of a place to spend the night.  After some four-wheel driving to and along the shoreline, we found a spot with a view of Lake Ouarzazate, yet another ruin, this one on an island.  Al and I made our first fire of the trip from deadwood along the rocky beach, watched the sun set and turn the island kasbah into a brilliant orange, and ate our first meal cooked by our any-fuel mini-stove.  It was a fantastic night already.

“Look!” said Al.  I turned up my chin from the surprisingly decent beans and saw a yellow-grey glow on the horizon over the lake.  The full moon was rising.

We took photos, talked about it, savoured it in silence, tried to imprint in our memories the bright cratered globe ascend over the black and windless lake.  It might sound trite to say that I saw the full moon rise over a lake in the desert and that it was sublime.  I could whip up some words and maybe wrap the moonrise in a story with a twist, but I don’t want to fake it.  I saw the full moon rise over a lake in the desert, and it was sublime.  If that’s not enough, okay.  But if I was Caspar David Friedrich I could make that moon reach down and grip your spine.

Moonrise over Lake Ouarzazate



The Valley
This morning (Day 38) we decided to drive towards Zagora, and then find a different, less-beaten way back to Agadir.  We curved around Ouarzazate and its lake, and drove up into the Anti-Atlas mountain range.  The drive to Ouarzazate was something, but this was something else: oasis after oasis huddled around streams that you cannot even imagine being there, let alone see; canyons of black volcanic rock so smooth that in certain glints of the sun they look like glaciers of oil; mountain surfaces that could only have gotten that way if gone over by a Titan’s comb; steep dives into red rock and stony surfs.  And then, first a glimpse and then a full view from the top of a mountain pass: a valley of the deepest, lushest green, cornered by brown desert cliffs, stretching on towards the Sahara.  This was the valley of the Drâa, Morocco's longest river, which once connected Marrakech with Timbuktu by trade and war. 

We drove past Agdz, which had some of the friendliest and happiest Moroccans/Berbers I’ve encountered, and for sunset found a spot on the edge of a rocky plateau, overlooking the valley.  We ate watermelon for dinner and couldn’t stop looking.

And now, as I write, guess what?  The moon is rising, just peeking out now, from the mountains which edge this eccentric valley from the Sahara. 

The Drâa Valley

We’re not going back to Agadir.  We’ve decided to drive to Casablanca Airport, find the DHL office, and sit there until someone gets so sick of our playing cards by the reception desk that they finally just hand us our parcel with the carnet de passages and send us on our way.  The route will be exciting and challenging, and should take the whole day: to cross both the Anti-Atlas and the Atlas mountains, and then the great plains north of Marrakech – to go north in order to go south.  It’s about time.