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The sun is beating down, sand wisps across the empty road, we’re in the desert, in Merzouga. We’re on the way to Tinghir where we’ve rented a private room for the night. Tinghir is the home to one of the most famous spectacles of nature in Morocco, Todra Gorge. Not to mention a vast oasis around the river Todra with lush green palm groves, a host of abandoned Kasbah’s and plenty of hiking, climbing and general adventuring opportunities.
First things first though, how do we get there? Not by bus. There are no busses to Tinghir, we’ll have to take a Grand Taxi. Apparently though, they do not go directly. Tinghir is approximately 200 kilometres away from Merzouga. We’ll have to take a bunch of different taxis to get there.
Merzouga is in the south east of Morocco, some 50 kilometres away from the Algerian border. Gradually we are working our way back to Marrakesh on the classic Morocco tourist trail, where we will finish our hitchhiking adventure. Marrakesh is still 560 kilometres away so some stops are in order. First Tinghir and then Ouarzazate.
Our hotel organises a private taxi for us to Erfoud. In Erfoud we leave the petit taxi at the Grand Taxi station, where we wait for the next collective ride to Tinjdad. It’s a long wait here and the Grand Taxi MC (there’s always one guy organising) keeps apologising to us and promises that it will go and it won’t be too long. We’re not fussed, going with the flow is how you survive in Morocco. An hour goes by before we’re cruising down the desert highway on our way to Tinjdad. Hot air streams through the windows as the barren and inhospitable landscape wizzes by.
At Tinjdad we get directed to our Mercedes ride. So far we’ve had the luxury of fairly modern rides. This one’s a classic. And the driver ain’t leaving until every inch of it is full. Only one of our rucksacks fits in the boot so the other goes across our laps while we both share the passenger seat. It’s full alright. Who’d have though eight people could fit in this thing with two 70+ litre rucksacks, not to mention all the other passengers’ luggage.
As we drive into Tinghir, the dry red Atlas mountains rise from the desert floor. In stark contrast, the wide valley carved from the river Todra is brimming with palm trees, plants, shrubbery and fruits. It’s a paradise. A paradoxical paradise.
Morocco never ceases to amaze. It’s truly a land of adventure and wonder. From the main square we walk to our hotel, Maison d’Hôtes Retour Au Calme. It’s very close, roughly two minutes, thank the lord. It’s been quite the day of travelling.
We settle into our room, drink a mint tea and head straight back out for the last light of the day and to grab something to eat. This dude here is grilling corn around the back of the main square so we ask him how much. He looks us up and down, grins and quotes a price about five times higher than what a local might pay. I can see him thinking: How much more can I get away with charging. We like his cheeky smile and it’s still pennies so we cough up and enjoy that sweet and salty BBQ’d corn.
After food, we resign to our room to do some planning. We need to figure out how we’re getting from Tinghir to Ouarzazate tomorrow evening so that we can maximise tomorrows activities. Ideally we want a full day exploring before we have to leave for Ouarzazate. Luckily we find a bus that departs in the evening. It takes 3 hours. It’s going to be a long day but it will be worth it.
At the time of writing this article the busses seem to have changed. The CTM bus from Tinghir to Ouarzazate now departs at 8:45 AM, Supratours at 6AM and 12PM. Check the latest schedules when you are planning: CTM & Supratours. The journey takes about 3 hours.
Now that’s all sorted we catch some sleep so we can get up and out early in the morning for exploring.
We’re up bright and early. Our hotel orders us a Petit Taxi and we head to the mouth of Todra gorge zipping by the oasis below. It’s a 13KM walk from the hotel. We don’t have time to walk there and back, deciding instead to start at the gorge and trace backwards. This will give us plenty of time to explore. We exit the taxi at the car park.
Be aware, it can get very busy here, especially on weekends. It’s a mighty spectacle and well known throughout Morocco and the world. However, don’t let that deter you: most people pass through only spending a few hours in the area. There is much more to see and do.
The red limestone walls rise up to a whopping 400 meters in some places, almost vertical. The final 600 meter section of the canyon, just before the river flows into the wide oasis basin are the most impressive. This is the section most people visit. As the river enters the canyon, the width is as little as 10 meters with a mind blowing height of 160 meters. It’s an impossible gateway to a lost kingdom.
Walking through the canyon is truly awe-inspiring, and without sounding like a broken record it feels like a landscape from Lawrence of Arabia. This place is truly wondrous, it’s the size, the vastness, the emptiness, the palette and the contrasts.
At the back of the canyon we explore ravines, climb rocks and attempt to befriend wild goats. Naturally I climb a rock a little too big and get scared and stuck for a while. A winding trail piques our interest, it curves up beside the gorge no doubt leading to the top, surely offering impressive views. As usual, we wish we had more time. Saving the hike for a later day we head back in to the Gorge.
A concrete road runs through the gorge, we can’t help but wish it didn’t exist, especially with concrete remains scattered in the river, even though it does create a quite ominous scene through the camera lens.
From the extremely narrow entrance the gorge widens where some buildings occupy the left bank. Hotels or homes, we’re not sure, they are however, quite important looking. Fancy arches, regal walls and entrances. Perhaps they belonged or still belong to someone important. If any can enlighten us, please do!
In the hotter months you will find people picnicking on the banks and even in the river itself, with portable tables and chairs precariously placed in the rapids for that novelty lunch.
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Heading back towards Tinghir, once through the final 600M of the gorge, the steep walls begin to glide down to the valley, the river splits into many sections, each meandering through the wide flat basin. In some parts the red rock walls of the valley are still tall, but not narrow anymore. The river has carved a huge basin and in turn, fertilised the land. There is green as far as the eyes can see. It’s as though we have been transported to a totally different continent and climate. But amongst all the green, and the life, the arid mountain background serves to remind you where you are, the desert.
Maps.me is useful here. There are many trails snaking through the valley, after all, it’s a lifeline for the local people who have taken advantage of the water. Irrigation channels known as Seguias expand the reach of the river Todra, providing all the nutrients necessary to grow palms, apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, peaches and almonds, amongst others.
Plots of land in the groves are managed by tribes and there is a sophisticated community-run system to distribute the water between plots, taking into account droughts and distances from the source. These systems also help to reduce tribal conflicts. Read more about this fascinating system here.
Through the palm groves we hike, via lush grassy meadows, glistening with a luminous lime green, through dense tunnels of palms and shrubbery. We precariously balance on concrete Seguias as ice cold fresh water streams past our feet. At various sections we cross the river on tree trunks carefully anchored with stones and rocks. These are not huge trunks and therefore require some due diligence when crossing!
In the fields we spot various locals tending to their crops with worker animals in tow. These lands support the locals and provide them with the means to make a living. Water is the giver here, with locals even doing their laundry in the river. Women are adorned with colourful dress, harmonious with the landscape and interestingly, not a man in sight. It appears women do the grunt work here. We’ve seen this again in the Pontic mountains of north eastern Turkey, where women do the intensive labour of tea picking.
As the day progresses and the sun edges closer to the horizon, golden light streams through the palms multiplying the beauty of this important valley. And yet, the valley keeps on giving, there is more.
As we meander around a corner, on a steep cliff side, rising above the palm trees, is a camouflaged Kasbah. It blends into the lime stone walls in a way that can only be described as deliberate. A Kasbah is a sort of fortress. There are many of these fortresses, or Kasbahs through the valley and the majority of them appear to be completely abandoned.
There is not much literature around these relics of the past, at least online anyway. If you search for information you will mostly receive hotel listings. All we can say is that there are many and they are incredible. The architecture is sublime, the colour, the imperfect symmetry, the rudimentary shapes and lines, the arches and engravings and the odd job towering placements. The closest resemblance that comes to mind is an elaborate network of densely constructed sand castles, and truly, exploring cultivates the same excitement a child experiences from building a masterful sandcastle on a beach.
In many of the Kasbahs you can roam freely, climb and explore to your hearts content, just as we do.
Soon we realise how little progress we have made. Having absolutely miscalculated the beauty of this place, we got caught up in adventure. In order to make up time we decide to head back to the road, where we can make way a little faster and also be closer to potential taxis, if it comes to it. We make one last detour to a viewing point noted on the map and my god what a great decision it is.
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As we arrive at the view point a vast panorama opens up with striking arid mountains flanking the sand coloured Kasbah and minaret of Tinghir. Whilst the lush green palm trees catch fleeting sunlight, a mighty storm brews above, accentuating the menacing manner of the barren landscape in the distance. The contrasts of the landscape and elements are what makes this place so mesmerising. I’m desperate to take photos of the rapidly changing scene but a local man from a house runs over and invites us for tea, he will not take no for an answer and even recruits his wife to help. Although we are immensely excited at the offer of hospitality, we really don’t have time, we need to get back for the bus. The lady shouts: Come, now! Where are you going? Come! It will be okay, come!
We snap a few pics and insist that we really must leave, rushing back towards our hotel where we grab our rucksacks and make for the bus, to Ouarzazate.
Tinghir does not have an airport. Most likely you will be coming from either Marrakesh or from a desert excursion in Merzouga (which also doesn’t have an airport). Check Skyscanner for flights to Marrakesh or our previous post on how to get to Merzouga.
To get to Tinghir from Merzouga you will need to take a collection of Grand Taxis, read this post from the beginning where we describe how to do it. Essentially you will take a Grand Taxi from Merzouga to Erfoud, another to Tinjdad and one final taxi to Tinghir.
In order to get to Tinghir from Marrakesh you will need to take a bus. CTM & Supratours are the main operators, but as of writing they are not stopping in Tinghir. You will need to get off in Elkelaa Mgouna and take a Grand Taxi the final 70+ KM’s. See Rome2rio for a breakdown and up to date schedules. Also consult the CTM & Supratours websites directly.
You could also drive or hitchhike. We would have liked to hitchhike but did not have enough time for the waits and uncertainty.
We stayed in a private room at Maison d’Hôtes Retour Au Calme – it was very cheap at less than €20 a night for both of us. It looks to be even cheaper now, around €15. It was a little cold and there was an extra charge for using the heating which annoyed us a little, but since then we have found many properties do the same, even expensive apartments in Tuscany.