Morocco is a world-class place for road trips, with everything from precipitous mountain passes to dusty desert pistes, a journey in this magical land is just as exciting as the destination.
One of our favourite drives is a little-travelled loop to Telouet, between the Tizi n Tichka Pass in the High Atlas and the well known rocky desert town of Ouarzazate beyond. It is fairly simple to find (just hang a left when you near the bottom of the south side of the pass), but as it ideally requires a 4×4 and puts a good hour on a trip to Ouarzazate, most people give it a miss. That’s if they even know it’s there in the first place!
First stop…Tizi n Tichka Pass
As the red city of Marrakech becomes just a distant memory in the rear view mirror, the road south is lined with scrawny goats, gasoline barrels and small barefoot children running around chasing chickens. Watch out for King Mohammed’s royal park which is used for wild boar hunting. The beasts themselves never make an appearance for us despite much neck-craning in the back of the car.
The journey up the pass generally includes fending off persistent locals trying to flog amethyst rocks and recently picked bunches of flowers (with a suspicious similarity to weeds) to tourists who have stopped in laybys to appreciate the view.
Tizi n Tichka Pass, MorocoAt 2260m the spectacularly windswept Tizi n Tichka is the highest major mountain pass in north Africa, although slightly less hair-raising than it’s sister Tizi n Test Pass to the west. We always stop at the top for photos, where a Berber vendor with a twinkle in his eye once offered hubbie 10,000 camels for me. Hubbie considered the offer for far too long.
Once you’ve zig-zagged over the peaks and patiently meandered down the switcbacks to the bottom of the pass, look out for the left turn to Telouet (about 4 miles from the top of the pass), and the next visual treat of the day, the Ounila Valley.
Leaving the comfort of the main N9 road, the road snakes through the geologically phenomenal rocky landscape of the Ounila Valley. Sealed in places but rough piste in others, the road passes through adobe brick villages (including Telouet, and our favourite, Tamdaght) and cave riddled gorges, until it reaches the famous ksar of Ait Ben Haddou, which everyone will recognise from films like Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. It finally re-joins the N9 a few km’s north of Ouarzazate and is well worth the effort.
The valley used to be one of the main caravan trade routes from sub-Saharan Africa through the High Atlas to Marrakech. Towering sandstone cliffs, crumbling kasbahs, glistening salt mines and arid hillsides greet you at every corner, and the colours of the rock are nothing short of astounding, banding like obscure rainbows the length of the peaks, with the reds and oranges glowing invitingly in the sun.
The jewel in the crown is the former headquarters of the legendary Glaoui family, the Berber village of Telouet, just under an hour from the N9 turning. Built in the 1800s and abandoned as recently as 1956, the crumbling Kasbah gives a fascinating insight into the Glaoui regime, and the family that rose to power in the south of Morocco during the late 19th Century.
Enchanting with it’s superb mountainous backdrop, the kasbah can be visited for DH20, and is definitely worth it for the intricate zellij tiled interior, and the panoramas from the upper terrace across the valley.
Telouet also makes a great lunch stop, and a chance to rest those cameras (well, maybe). Auberge Telouet is a good option, where you can sit comfortably in the berber tents (or inside during winter) and enjoy a cold drink and a surprisingly good tagine. It’s situated halfway between the Kasbah and the main street of the village, with a large parking area below.
If it’s a Thursday, stop off to browse the weekly souk in the main street – you will most likely be the only tourists there and it’s a great spot to get a feel for local market life.
Continuing south along the Saharan caravan route the road passes through dramatic gorges, several with a lush green oasis nested down below.
Berber villages cluster together on the hillsides, some teetering dramatically on the cliff edges, not far from trogladite and grain loft caves in the rock beneath. The road winds slowly south eventually reaching Ait Ben Haddou, and then Ouarzazate. We tend to stop at a fantastic rocky desert hideaway in the village of Tamdaght, 20 minutes before you reach Ben Haddou, at our favourite guest house ever – Kasbah Ellouze.
So how long does the detour take?
The standard journey on the N9 from Marrakech straight down to Ouarzazate takes between 3 and 4 hours, depending on how many photo stops you want. Add on another hour or so for the detour via Telouet, which is only really recommended for 4×4 vehicles, unless you don’t value your suspension and are a good mechanic.
They say that travel is all about the journey just as much as the arrival, and in this case it certainly rings true. A beautiful route through the mountains which just has to be seen to be believed.