Disaster follows disaster in our catastrophic world, whether linked to climate change, war, or in the case of Morocco, two days ago, seismic unrest. With a magnitude of almost 7 on the Richter scae, this was a powerful earthquake – and is still being followed by aftershocks. From Marrakech it affected a huge, area of the Atlas mountains west to Chichaoua, southwest to Taroudant and southeast to Ouarzazate, and parts of the Draa Valley. The destruction can only be massive. As I write, fatalities number over 2000 but we all know that’s the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve travelled around much of this breathtaking country on and off for nearly 50 years, altogether leaving me stark memories of arid, dun-coloured mountains with villages huddled in their shadow, brilliant colour, oases, charming (though sometimes pushy) people, tempting roadside food-stalls, and beautiful ksar (castles) of mud bricks in spectacularly remote locations.
My most recent trip five years ago took me south of Agadir – a modern town notorious for its almost total destruction and 15,000 dead after a dreadful earthquake in 1960. That trip took me to another hidden corner, well worth seeking out – read about it here.
Distances are sometimes draining, but there’s always something to catch your eye – or camera. Unfortunately for this post, many of my most memorable landscape photos date from pre-digital days so now gather dust in voluminous slide folders – yet to be digitised along with hundreds of others.
The epicentre of the earthquake was in the Atlas mountains halfway between Marrakech and Taroudant. 18 years ago I stayed in this blissful though impoverished area to escape the heat, hustle and tourists of Marrakech. After taking a share taxi we found ourselves in a delightful Berber village near Ouirgane – perfect for trekking on the edge of the Toubkal National Park and with a few decent hotels. I remember our guide taking us home to introduce us to his mother who lived in a typically basic mud-brick affair with a beaten earth floor. No doubt it is now all rubble.
Years earlier, with a couple of friends, I drove south of here over the dizzying Tizi N’Test pass. At the time (I’m talking 1990) the road was a grueling, bumpy affair – no doubt subsequently improved but now shaken to bits by the earthquake. At over 2000m, the pass offers vast, dramatic panoramas and, yet again, an occasional ksar perched on some strategic outcrop. Near here, I remember we searched for the caretaker of a 12th century Almohad mosque that non-Muslims could visit. A huge key opened the door – serene inside, impregnable outside. What remains now?
The Draa Valley
Southeast of Marrakech, past Ouarzazate, a dusty town known for its film studios that has also suffered damage, unfolds the magnificent Draa Valley. This escaped the worst, but it still deserves mention for its great beauty. Read more about it in my post here focussing on kasbah hotels. Beyond this sinuous valley lies Zagora, then it’s the Sahara – a fascinating and testing drive which I wrote about for the Independent – here
South to Taroudant
Either driving east from Agadir or south from the Atlas epicentre you come to Taroudant, a crossroads in southern Morocco. Not surprisingly I have returned again and again. Inside its seven-kilometre necklace of walls studded with bastions, a hive of activity reigns: donkeys, souks, food-stalls, smoking kebabs, informal restaurants, handicrafts and some sublime hotels. The one I stayed in twice over, located on the more peaceful outskirts of town, is Dar Al Hossoun, a stunning oasis of landscape design and Moroccan crafts.
From what I gather there are more than 450 fatalities (and counting) in the province of Taroudant, though the town itself escaped the worst, only leaving a few cracks here and there. No doubt there are more in Marrakech and of course the rural villages in between that are difficult to access. Aftershocks continue as I write, and tourism in that central region will grind to a standstill. Morocco will take a long time to recover but memories are precious. If you haven’t been already, put it on your list for the near future. The Moroccans will need our help.