The Drive To Erfoud

Today’s journey takes us to Erfoud, on the edge of the Sahara desert, via Ifrane. We are crossing the Middle Atlas mountains and the High Atlas Mountains into the desert.

In order to be fair to all travelers in the tour group, seat assignments on the bus for the long distances that we travel between towns are rotated for each such day of travel. Today we have the benefit of being able to sit in the second row of the bus, offering us a open view of the road ahead of us. This picture was taken on our way out of town.

As we were leaving town, Youssef started giving us a little bit of background about the nature of Moroccan society. He said that the Berber society was matriarchal. (I should note that I have not found any article that actually confirms this.) He talked about the topic of the treatment of women in Morocco. He said that there were a few issues of interpretation and implementation of Islamic law which have resulted in the treatment of women as second class citizens in some Arab countries. A couple of the specific issues in this regard relate to 1) the fact that polygamy is allowed in Islamic law, and 2) how divorce is handled in islamic law. Morocco has apparently been on a path of reform in this regard for a while, the efforts in the more recent past being championed by King Mohammed VI. Here is an article with excerpts from a speech he gave in 2003 in this regard.  I also found this interesting article written in 2013 that covers a broad range of subjects regarding Moroccan society. There is a specific section on the status of women. We were told that women participate in all aspects of the economy. We did encounter women policemen on a few occasions, dressed as professionally as their male counterparts, and without any additional head coverings.

The first mountain range we entered were the Middle Altas mountains. Ceder, pine and oak grow here. The major towns in this section of the drive were developed by the Europeans, more than likely the french, and the architecture reflects this.

We encountered a few checkpoints along the way during the drive that day. I took this picture at one of the stops later in the day.In general, you find checkpoints like this throughout the country. They are apparently meant to thwart attempts to carry weapons that could be used in terrorist activities – primarily related to the situation in the Western Sahara. As far as I could make out, terrorist activity seemed to be non-existent in this part of the country at this moment in time. The countryside seemed peaceful. People did not appear to be on edge. The thought occurred to me that these checkpoints could only serve as an annoyance to locals going about their business. Our bus was let through most of these checkpoints without further examination. We are not supposed to take pictures of the police. It became an issue at one checkpoint where an officer suspected that a person on the bus had taken his picture. Things were sorted out quickly.

Our first stop was at Ifrane for “Happy Time”. Ifrane is a ski resort town. The roofs of the buildings are very different from those in other parts of the country for a very good reason! We had a few minutes to walk around town. Here is a picture taken at a location in town that has become popular with tourists. From what I read, there is no particularly important reason, historical or otherwise, for the presence of this lion. It is not a memorial.

As we were leaving the town, Youssef educated us about the use of guns in Morocco. They are apparently very strict about it. Civilians cannot own guns. Police are not normally allowed to carry guns, and if there is a discharge of a weapon and somebody is hurt, there can be severe repercussions – even for the police.  But there is also an armed presence of security personnel on the street that we encountered, with units of three people, one of them military. They are apparently there for purposes of preventing terrorist acts, and they are forbidden from responding to other local problems. I did not even try to take a picture of such a group of armed personnel – for obvious reasons.

We entered the land of the nomad Berbers soon after leaving Ifrane. There are still Berbers that live their old lifestyle and move around freely. Land ownership laws are different in this part of the country. We came across a few isolated small settlements where a few families live together.The one below looks more permanent.
We also saw other isolated individual Berber homes. Wealth, in this society, is measured by the lifestock that one owns. The people do not own motorized vehicles, and move around using their animals. There are towns where the people go to to trade their lifestock. Sometimes they have to take the bus back to where they live. It is difficult to provide school education to children in this kind of a setup.

We stopped to see barbary apes.The aggressive barbary apes in Gibraltar are descendants of the ones in North Africa. In contrast to their Gibraltar cousins, the ones in Morocco seemed to be quite mild mannered in the presence of the tourists.

These are pictures taken during the drive that morning.

Despite the look of the place, agriculture is prevalent in these parts. They grow apples, peaches and pears.

Every now and then the open spaces were interrupted by busy towns that we drove through. There always seemed to be something or the other going on on the streets in these towns. We often saw groups of young people. In some cases it was obvious that they were kids going to school.

Most of the street stalls in the particular town we were passing through in the picture below seemed to be stocked with apples!

We passed through another town where the weekly market was going on, but I was unable to snap any representative pictures.

We saw vehicles transporting cattle.On one occasion, we even saw cows being transported on top of a vehicle.

We stopped for lunch at a rest area in an isolated section of the road between the two mountain ranges we were crossing that day.

We drove by the town of Midelt. Its theme was the apple.There was at least one more such piece of advertisement for the town, with a differently colored apple, at a second roundabout in town. According to the Wikipedia article, MIdelt is one of the highest large towns in Morocco. They apparently have a week long apple festival once a year. There are other cities that have their own annual week long celebrations in honor of the particular fruit they are known for.

We drove through town without stopping, negotiating the many traffic roundabouts. Incidentally, Morocco is country of traffic roundabouts. It is the preferred strategy for handling road intersections almost everywhere in the country.

We passed many forests of ceder trees. Ceder is used extensively for construction and other purposes.

Another section of the drive featured wild dogs beside the road waiting for food handouts from trucks. Apparently, they are quite friendly. I believe there is a story related to how the dogs began to make their appearance here, but I do not remember it.

The landscape becomes more spectacular as you approach the High Atlas mountains from the high plains. There are the isolated villages and settlements with the mountains in the background. The buildings are primarily in the adobe style. Most of the space is open land with agricultural farms.

The streams and river beds were all dry.The rainy season is from December to February according to Youssef.

It was a spectacular drive over narrow winding roads as we climbed into the mountains.We drove through canyons.There was a lot of road widening work going on through the mountains. Narrow roadways that originally wound their way around the sides of mountains were being shortened by cutting straight through the mountains instead.

It had already been a long day of travel, but Youssef urged us not to tire of the drive since there was more to see.

We were driving along the Ziz river during this section of the trip, and we would continue to do so all the way to Erfoud. The Ziz valley lay next to us for certain sections of the drive,and then below as we climbed to higher elevations – higher into the mountains. The green trees and homes that we saw at the bottom of the valley as we gained elevation caught my immediate attention!The trees in both of the pictures above are date trees. There has been a transformation in the vegetation since we left Fez in the morning.

We were told that many caravan paths through Morocco passed through the Ziz valley.

We drove past a lake created by a what is the largest dam in Morocco.The Barrage Al-hassan Addakhil produces hydroelectric power. It also supplies water to surrounding cities. As is obvious in the picture, the water level in the lake was low.

We passed a town called Errachedia soon after the lake. It is apparently a big military base. The map shows that it is not too far from the border with Algeria. The town looked deserted for the most part. The picture below shows the entrance to the town.

Youssef informed us that in this area of Morocco, Kasbahs were not forts, but were fortified houses for extended families. Fortified towns are called Ksars. Errachidia used to be called Ksar Es Souk.

We passed through another section of the road where we could see the greenery of the Ziz valley once again. It was full of date trees and villages, some fortified. The area covered was huge. Beautiful!

Youssef talked about the nature of the date tree. I found it very interesting but I did not take notes that would help me remember the details. What comes to mind is the fact that humans fully manage the cultivation of the trees including the pollination process, not depending on natural processes and the bees in this regard. The ratio of the female to male trees is quite large. This is managed deliberately because the dates only grow on the female trees. And there are ways to differentiate the male and female trees by their looks. They mainly grow Medjool dates in Morocco.

We passed adobe buildings that appeared to be in states of disrepair, perhaps abandoned. We were told that this was not the case. Because adobe is basically mud, these building need to be rebuilt every so often. There is a time of year to do this. The building lies unoccupied during that time.

We passed a few Berber cemeteries. The bodies are buried on their right side with the head facing Mecca. The marker on the grave site is a flattish piece of rock, and all of the rocks face a particular direction relative to Mecca.

Not the least of the interesting pieces of information that Youssef provided was the fact that they have iguanas in this area.

We were staying at a Berber Kasbah that night at Erfoud. We arrived there in the late evening. We had covered quite a distance that day, and traveled across different geographical areas and climate zones, crossing two mountain ranges in the process. We were now at the edge of the Sahara desert!

The Kasbah Xaluca Maadid was certainly another unique place to stay at. The vibe was that of a resort, but the accommodations were of a Moroccan Berber style. The place had a dated feel to it,with mementos of visits from celebrities of the early movie age to be found in the big and ornate reception area. Some Hollywood history seems to have played out in these parts, with movies having been filmed with the Kasbah as a base. Movie stars must have stayed here. Apparently, filming of parts of the new Indiana Jones movie, currently scheduled for 2023, will happen in these parts.

Just as at every other hotel we we have stayed at thus far, we got mint tea as a welcome. Dinner was buffet style. We crashed out early after a minor bit of drama regarding the lock to the door of our room. We could not get out of the room easily once we were in it! It took a couple of attempts to get somebody to fix the lock. Youssef was constantly joking about Moroccan time – in terms of how quickly things get done, and how prompt Moroccans were. Sure enough, we were told that somebody would fix the problem in a couple of minutes, but the issue was only addressed after we came back from dinner, after we contacted the staff once more.

It had been a long day. The next day would turn out to be an even longer one.

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.