The desert and oasis of Morocco

Posted by Liz Kruesi
on Friday, November 08, 2013

Vegetation grows in the desert oasis regions of Morocco. This site was on our way to the Todra Gorge. // Liz Kruesi
During the past couple days, I’ve explored some of the desert oasis area in Morocco. I’m traveling with a group from Astronomy’s travel partner, MWT Associates. Yesterday we drove to the Todra Gorge, a canyon carved by the Todra and Dades rivers. The walls on either side of the gorge are some 500 feet (150 meters) tall, but the opening itself is closer to one-tenth that.

We saw beautiful vegetation in the region, due to the generous amount of water (which is hard to come by elsewhere in the desert).  The area had fig trees, alfalfa, fava beans, pomegranate bushes, and a variety of palm trees — including date palms.  I certainly hadn’t expected to see lush vegetation so near the Sahara desert. You can tell how relieved weary travelers would have been once they saw such an oasis. (And, why those who lived nearby fought to keep the land.)

The drive to the gorge was incredible, too. And getting there showed us just how experienced our bus driver is. We followed a narrow two-lane road along hairpin turns up and down the Atlas Mountain region for hours. We saw villages with buildings made of sun-dried clay mixed with straw — these structures blend into the hills and mountains in the region.

A large kasbah flanks the entrance of the Ksar Ait Benhaddou. We walked through the walled-in group of buildings and looked at various art and crafts that villagers had on display. // Liz Kruesi
We also visited the Ksar Ait Benhaddou on our way to the gorge. This is a group of buildings surrounded by a wall. Within the group are a few kasbahs, which is a common structure in this country. It’s basically a walled house that has an open area as you walk through the main entrance and then four towers, each with rooms to live in. This specific Kasbah has also been a setting for a few movies; one of the most well-known is Gladiator. (Fun fact: The city we’re currently staying in, Ouarazarte, is known as Moroccan Hollywood. Many movies have been filmed in the area, like Babel, Rules of Engagement, and The Mummy.)

Throughout our Moroccan travels, our guide has reminded us often of the many different tribes that live in the country. While there are four major groups, the total number is in the hundreds! Tribal members are known as berbers and they make up about 40 percent of Morocco’s population. Each tribe also has its own symbol. Members of the tribe marks it on their hand-made products (like tents and kasbahs) and tattoo the symbol  onto girls as they reach puberty (to distinguish which tribe she “belongs” to).

We also visited a huge rug store run by the Tuaregs tribe on our drive yesterday. Known as the “blue men,” some of the berbers explained the different types of rugs common in the country. It was interesting to learn how they use these rugs — they sleep on them, sit on them, and use them as a carry-all while traversing the desert.

Tomorrow we leave this geographic region of the country, but not before exploring a fossil and meteorite location. And then in the evening we get to ride camels in the dunes as we view the sunset. Many of us are looking forward to that experience!

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