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A tour by camel offers a unique view of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes in southern Morocco at the edge of the Sahara Dessert near the Algerian frontier.
A tour by camel offers a unique view of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes in southern Morocco at the edge of the Sahara Dessert near the Algerian frontier. (Nancy Cook for the Boston Globe)

Subtle South reveals itself

Outsiders are buying up the Kasbahs

Email|Print| Text size + By Nancy Cook
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2007

KOURA -- We found the turnoff to a rural village in southern Morocco 20 minutes before sunset. We left the main road and wound our way through a maze of crumbling mud palaces, irrigation ditches, and children on rickety bicycles.

We saw a small, square sign for our hotel. Encouraged, we kept driving on dirt roads past palm tree groves and the white minaret of a neighborhood mosque. We were miles from the main road now, and it was getting dark.

We stopped the car and asked two women, their heads covered by scarves, if they'd ever heard of our hotel. They spoke French and Berber; we spoke English and Spanish. They gestured for us to keep driving, but it didn't seem possible that any place that catered to visitors would sit so far off the popular route. After backtracking and stopping again, the women and their small child squeezed into the back of our little rental car. Through a series of hand gestures, they guided us to a distant walled compound that turned out to be our hotel.

We pushed open a heavy wooden door and entered an oasis of plants, a swimming pool, chaise lounges, and candles. We sipped mint tea outside our room as the last bit of sun faded over the palm trees. The nature of this desert town, like much of Morocco, revealed itself.

Southern Morocco is a subtle place. Its towns are scattered about a rough landscape between the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains. The land resembles the US Southwest with craggy rock formations and high plateaus, but with sheepherders dressed in blue or striped Berber robes shooing their flocks from the highway's edge. The merchants here are less aggressive and less focused on tourism than those in the souks of Marrakech or Fes. Even the most popular destinations require some effort to find.

But outsiders are discovering the area, particularly after they tire of the big cities' tourist traps and snake charmers. The Oscar-nominated movie " Babel " was filmed in southern Morocco, as were older classics such as " Lawrence of Arabia. " Newcomers are moving in and renovating medieval mud palaces called kasbahs to turn them into monuments or hotels. No one is shocked by the sight of a rental car.

To get to the area, we flew from London to Marrakech and rented a car from Hertz. We used the windshield wipers to clear a coating of fine sand and set out, weaving through traffic worse than the Big Dig bottlenecks. I found myself saying, "Don't get behind that donkey cart."

We left the smog layer far behind and began winding our way deep into the Atlas Mountains , which separate Marrakech from the southern desert. We took our time through small villages with terraced fields and schoolchildren walking home. At one stop, we shared a box of dates with three men outside a cafe.

After most of a day's drive, with the sun setting, we reached the small town of Skoura, our base for two nights. We chose Skoura because it seemed more rural than nearby towns; it was also located in the heart of a zone nicknamed "The Valley of the Kasbahs," after the mud-and-straw structures that have been handed down within families since the 13th century.

Skoura's central location made other day trips easy. On our first morning, our hotel (the wonderful Les Jardins de Skoura ) arranged for a guide named Hakim to take us on a walking tour of the vast, agricultural oasis. We had gotten so lost the previous night that it didn't seem embarrassing or outlandish to ask someone to show us around for $12.

Hakim, a gentle man who knew only a bit of English, led us along footpaths that crossed groves and ancient farms where locals still cultivate almonds, olives, and dates. He showed us dry irrigation ditches and cracked fields. He explained that the lack of water drove many farmers and their children to Morocco's cities -- as well as to Spain, Italy, and France -- to look for domestic and factory work. The situation also affected the kasbahs; families abandoned them or turned them into tourist spots.

Although there were many kasbahs in the area, some in a greater state of decay , our favorite was Kasbah Amerhidl . Carefully restored, it had an array of ancient tools and instruments used by previous inhabitants, and it was peaceful enough that we could enjoy a thoughtful hour there without being hassled by people selling their wares or trying to act as our guide. One of the descendants of the original owners of the kasbah, Mohamed El Bouamraoui , spoke impeccable English and fashioned himself as a romantic poet. He willingly recited verses over tea.

To replenish our supply of Moroccan dirhams from an ATM, we drove back across a desert moonscape to the nearby city of Ouarzazate , ground zero for trekkers and four-wheelers from Europe who converge on the area (we saw almost no Americans during our 10-day trip). Ouarzazate boasts several European-style cafes that mostly cater to local men. A woman, even with a man, is likely to receive some stares.

If you just want a luxurious lunch with beer or wine, try the renovated Kasbah Ait Ben Moro on the main road near Skoura. It is owned by a Spaniard who runs an excellent kitchen.

Leaving Skoura after our second night, we again detoured from the main highway and drove up the Dades Gorge , with deep, rocky canyons and small mountain villages. The hillsides were dotted with hotels, where you could sip strong coffee on a patio and contemplate the valley below. A thorough exploration of either the Dades or the nearby Todra Gorge could easily consume a day.

We didn't have time. We headed east from the gorges and made a straight line for the Sahara. We drove for hours across empty, dry land, slowing for an occasional town. In this region, the Muslims seemed more strictly religious, and the women were completely covered in black burkas.

Still, even in the deep rural desert, we spotted satellite dishes atop ancient, eroded buildings. Cellphones appeared to work everywhere. We stopped for lunch across from a police barracks in one large town; plainclothes officers gambled inside the restaurant. We stayed on the patio.

Finally, in the late afternoon -- once again racing to beat a setting sun -- we drove through the vibrant crossroads town of Erfoud and left the pavement after another 10 miles. We sped across gravel, the rear end of our car fishtailing, and drove up to a funky hotel at the base of spectacular dunes.

It was just before dark when we set out on camels from the hotel and rode out across a landscape that seemed to rise like a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, peach-colored dunes sculpted by wind into soft curves. The camels were quiet and tall, much higher than riding a horse. The desert was very still, and the unhurried gait of the camels and the silence of the guide who led them added to the peaceful feeling.

Our camp, a haphazard cluster of brown felt tents, was already set when we arrived. A few tour guides snowboarded down the sand dunes. As it got dark, our guide served us a traditional Moroccan dinner of vegetable soup, chicken tagine, and oranges. We ate under a tent with two former Peace Corps volunteers and a Chilean man who worked in telecommunications.

The guides played the drums as after-dinner entertainment, and in the distance, we could hear another camp of Japanese teenagers singing what sounded like American pop songs.

We spent a fitful night shivering under heavy wool blankets as the desert temperature plummeted. The next morning we hiked to the top of a sand dune and watched the sun rise. We could see across hundreds of miles of flat, arid landscape, into Algeria.

After we wiped the desert grit from our eyes and drank some surprisingly decent coffee, we (painfully) mounted the camels and rode out of the desert just before the sun became too hot.

Nancy Cook, a correspondent for WRNI, Rhode Island's NPR news station, can be reached at nanmcook@hotmail.com.

If You Go

Car rental

Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, and Budget all have offices in Marrakech. Guide books list another half-dozen local agencies. Renting a car is expensive in Morocco. The cheapest we found among the international firms was a four-door Toyota Yaris from Hertz, at around $83 a day, excluding insurance. The main roads in Morocco are excellent and the drivers courteous . There are plenty of gas stations on the main roads, even in rural areas; warning: they take only cash. Off-roaders will want to rent an SUV, but the rates are more than $200 a day. If you don't want to rent, there are public buses. There also is a convenient network of "grand taxis," Mercedes sedans that cram in a number of passengers and carry travelers between desert cities.

Where to stay

Les Jardins de Skoura
Skoura, Ouarzazate
011-212-61-73-04-61
lesjardinsdeskoura.com
A well-run guest house with eight rooms and suites in a semi-rural compound, with views of the Skoura palmeries and the High Atlas Mountains. Rooms are decorated in Moroccan textiles and furniture and open onto tiled patios. The grounds feature a swimming pool, gardens, and tents for lounging with mint tea. There's even a donkey. Continental breakfast is included. The kitchen serves excellent lunch and dinner, with a creative take on the usual tagines and couscous. Double occupancy from $106 to $147 for the best suites during high season (April - May), $93 to $127 the rest of the year.

What to do

Camel tour, Merzouga
Hotel Auberge du Sud, Rissani
011-212-61-21-61-66
aubergedusud.com
An overnight camel tour of the Erg Chebbi dunes arranged through this hotel, including dinner and a night in a tent, cost s about $40 per person. If you are concerned about animal rights, the camels seemed a bit downtrodden. Bring warm clothes -- the nights get cold in the desert.

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