Off the tourist track, Morocco's southern coast offers sand and solitude-and miles of rocky trails
Far from the pricey resorts and trendy spas of Marrakech and Casablanca lies a simpler, more traditional slice of Morocco-the region known traditionally as the Mogador, on the country's south Atlantic coast. It's a region of semi-arid Mediterranean valleys, windswept coastlines, and miles of unspoiled beaches. We had a chance last winter to 'wheel the backcountry of this largely untouristed landscape, and found plenty of unpaved byways worth exploring-especially if rocks are your thing.
Base camp for our adventure was the seaport city of Essaouira (roughly, "Ess-ah-wee-rah"), a white-walled settlement on a rocky outcropping bordered on three sides by the Atlantic and home to some 60,000 souls. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC and occupied in later times by the Romans, French, and Portuguese (who ringed the town with battlements in the 16th century, all still intact), the city was an important trading post and bridgehead for successive waves of European colonizers. More recently, the town has served as a magnet for hippies and rock musicians (Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley both spent time here), and it's still a haven for artists, intellectuals, and freethinkers throughout the Arab world.
At the heart of Essaouira is its medina ("town," or city center), a labyrinth of narrow walkways and cobbled back alleys that plunge the traveler into a sea of sensory overload. Storefront windows filled with hand-thrown pottery, carpets, and woodwork tempt the bargain-hunter, and the air is filled with the sinewy sounds of Arab pop music played over loudspeakers, the barking of vendors hawking their wares in outdoor stalls, the muezzin's call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Take a deep breath, and one inhales the smells of fresh-caught fish on a grill, whole lamb turning on a rotisserie, the sweet spice of teas, and dried herbs piled high in wicker baskets at an open-air souk.
The medina is tiny, barely a quarter mile from one end to the other, and while its layout seems chaotic to the outsider, it's actually a tight-knit ordering of subdistricts arranged by ethnicity, profession, and the like. Even so, we'd have surely gotten lost in the maze of souks were it not for a helpful local guide (who shivered uncontrollably during our twilight walk. "It's freezing," she said of the 60-degree weather; "It never gets this cold here!" Our colleagues from Michigan, in shirtsleeves, chuckled). After a hearty tagine and a good night's sleep, we were awakened at dawn by a morning call to prayer, and after breakfast we headed out for the Mogador backcountry.
Leaving pavement a few miles south of town off the N1 Highway, a well-manicured blacktop that parallels the shoreline from Essaouira to Agadir, one can find myriad unmarked roads that snake into the foothills of the lower High Atlas, the spiny mountain range that bisects the country diagonally. Venturing deeper into the mountains, the roadbed eventually turns into bumpy stretches of washed-out asphalt before giving way to loose dirt and shelves of exposed bedrock. Here, in the high country, you wend your way slowly down narrow tracks-in places, more like goat paths-bordered by rough-hewn stone walls, past tiny clusters of farmhouses and fields with shepherds tending their flocks. One also becomes aware that you are sharing the trail with dozens of camels, sheep, goats, and children-this is their main thoroughfare, after all-so it's important to keep your speeds down and stay alert. In the higher elevations, farms give way to pine and cedar forests, and snow is not uncommon in the winter months.
Further inland, the trails grow sandier as rocky hills give way to broad valleys and highland plateaus dotted with small farms and vineyards (a new crop, courtesy of the French, and one well suited to a Mediterranean climate and sandy soil), groves of almond and argan trees-and if you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of one of nature's best examples of local adaptation, the tree-climbing goats of Mogador. The region is also interspersed with oases, their locations marked by dense green marshes and stands of date palms, natural springs, and waterfalls-and depending on the season, the occasional stream crossing.
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Overall, the predominant topography in the Mogador is what the Moroccans call haroucha-a rock-littered soil that makes agriculture a challenge, trails rough and bumpy, and four-wheel drive a necessity in places. In our time in the backcountry, we encountered numerous small "rock gardens," drop-offs, and wash-outs that required a pliant suspension, slow and steady throttle, sturdy sidewalls, and a fair amount of ground clearance.
In Morocco, you don't need to drive deep into the Sahara to find sand dunes, and the beaches south of Essaouira are filled with steep slopes of blowsand and miles of empty coastline. This is a great place to enjoy a picnic, fly a kite, comb for driftwood, or simply air it out and enjoy a high-speed run down a wide-open shore. The beach here is a mecca for surfers too; depending on the trade winds and the time of year, 15-foot swells beckon the adventurous boardsman.