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Destination: North Africa

The Road Through Morocco : Going off the beaten track by bus, taxi and market cart into Berber lands and the rich red dunes of the Sahara

September 28, 1997|BRIAN EDWARDS | Edwards teaches a course on the literature of the desert at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind

FEZ, Morocco — Before I made it to the Sahara, I believed in the movies. Marlene Dietrich tossing her shoes off and disappearing forever into creamy folds of sand. The hapless couple of "The Sheltering Sky," decimated by disease and isolation in the Algerian desert. The Sahara, I thought, should be unreachable or, if reached, the place from which one doesn't return.

As I waded into the rich red dunes near Merzouga, I changed my mind. The staggeringly beautiful landscape, starkly desolate under a harsh African sun, was merely 1 1/2 day's travel from Fez. After piecing together bus rides to Rissani, the end of the paved roads in southeastern Morocco, I had stepped aboard a rickety old van that carried me over the last 25 miles of dust and gravel to the end of my route, near Morocco's border with Algeria. I was surprised it had been so easy.

I was looking for the romance of Morocco. On my Michelin map, I had planned my trip by tracing seemingly impossible roads to places with dreamlike names. I had only fuzzy ideas of what mode of transportation would take me there, but my imagination was titillated when solid lines gave way to dotted ones--unpaved, "impraticable in bad weather conditions," according to the Michelin map. The oases they led to must be precious.

I had been living in Fez for two months, researching Moroccan and French colonial architecture on a Fulbright grant. When the heat let up in late October, I decided to track down some of those points on the map.

In the summer months the heat in the desert is oppressive (it can get into the 120s), but from October to May the weather is perfect for exploring. November brings the date and olive harvests. In late winter, pink flamingos congregate near Merzouga. Spring features a brief but eerily gorgeous bloom. I gave myself three weeks to find my way around and budgeted $20 per day, although I could have made do with even less time and money.

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Fez is separated by two mountain ranges from the dry expanse of the Sahara. The bus from Fez to Rissani leaves just before dawn from the main bus station near Bab Bou Jeloud, the main gate of the old medina. It is a good rule of thumb in Morocco to arrive at any bus station at 4 a.m., since schedules change frequently but are always arranged around the cooler hours of the day. From Fez, the bus to the desert labors across the Middle Atlas mountains for five hours. It is only about 100 miles from Fez to the cooler altitudes of Midelt, where the bus stops for half an hour. But every hill and incline taxes its old engine, and each small town merits a stop. After Midelt the scenery becomes dramatic, as the bus strains over the craggy High Atlas mountains.

There are two types of buses in Morocco. The national line, called the C.T.M. (for Compagnie des Transports Marocains), has comfortable seats, makes fewer stops along the way and shows videos (usually early Van Damme or Schwarzenegger, dubbed into French or Arabic and with the volume set at blaring). The C.T.M. requires reservations and is generally pleasant, except when the ventilation system is broken.

Otherwise, a range of private bus lines--the mode I use most often--serve the desert in varying comfort. These can be cheaper (I spent about $8 to get from Fez to Er Rachidia, the eastern gateway to the Sahara), but they run on a less fixed schedule than the C.T.M. At the lowest end of the range, the buses are old and rickety. They are kept cool by ratty curtains and open windows and often depart late, having waited for a few more passengers to show up. Until filled to capacity, they will stop to pick up extra riders at any point on the route. And while the C.T.M. cruises by the Moroccan Highway Patrol, the private lines must endure occasional searches, which end after identity papers have been checked.

After climbing the High Atlas for another 3 1/2 hours, the bus descended through the spectacular Ziz Gorge into Er Rachidia, a sprawling desert city with a university and a range of basic hotels. I spent the night there to rest my back and so that daylight would illuminate the next segment of the trip.

After Er Rachidia, the land flattens out and a string of oasis villages hug the Ziz River. These fortified villages, called ksour in Arabic, are made of straw-laced mud and clay pounded until it sets. They are masterpieces of design, except on the rare occasion when it rains and they crumble. Constructed to shield residents from the sweltering sun, the ksour feel magically cool inside even when outside is an oven. It is possible to get off the bus at any one of them and wander through the shade-darkened alleys. I particularly recommend the village of Aoufouss, both for its size and its welcoming residents.

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Like all of southeastern Morocco, Aoufouss is a Berber town. On Thursdays, Berbers from the smaller ksour in the area come to Aoufouss by foot and on donkey to trade at its weekly market, so the town is accustomed to outsiders.

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