Crossing
NORTH AFRICA

Where Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean come together in a powerful mix.

To us, North Africa doesn’t “feel" like Africa.

 

Is has a character of its own that is different from what we have experienced south of the Sahara. The variation here is in many ways greater, and the influence from the outside and convergence of cultures is very visible.

 

All contrasts here are great – poverty and opulence, hospitality and aggression, fierce sand dunes and snowy mountains – but all contracts are memorable, too.

 

We have been a couple of times to North Africa and spent more than three months here. To us, this is a place with the best of many worlds. A place where Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean come together.

Location: Morocco & Tunesia, during +2 months

Picture this: It was 6 PM and the sun was about to set. We were sitting on the open-air terrace overlooking a vast market square, our stomachs screaming for more couscous and chicken. We could hear the sound of numerous Islamic Maghreb prayers that was being performed from the 8 or so mosques in the neighborhood, merging together into a fascinating, loud, almost explosive sound… as if the world was about to end.

 

Immediately after, the silence was striking, but then we could hear voices from the market square. They were Arabic, Berber and Senhajn speaking natives.

 

We left the terrace and walked out into the market square. Snake charmers played oboes to calm hissing cobras. Henna tattoo artists talked to passersbys. Water-sellers in fringed hats clang brass cups together, hoping to drive people to drink. 100 chefs had arrived with grills in tow, cueing musicians to tune up their instruments.

 

We saw faces from all over Northern Africa: Siwans, Tuaregs, Cyrenaicans, Kabyles, Shawias, Mzabites, Riffians, Ghomarans, Brabers, Shluhs, and Zenatas.... This was Djemaa el-Fna, the biggest market square and open-air hoopla and halqa (street theatre) in North Africa. A place that hadn't been sleeping since it was the site of public executions around AD 1050. A place which name means “assembly of the dead”.

This was from our diary from early entries into Morocco back in 2005. For most people, a trip to North Africa focuses on one of three activities: seeing the splendors of the imperial Moroccan cities, hiking in the High Atlas Mountains, or going into the greatest desert of them all – the Sahara. We've done all three things. Check our page on climbing mountains in the High Atlas.

If you simply love the Sahara region check out our journeys to The Sudan and the Red Sea region.

 

Selected pics from the journey:

Our travel through the region
Our travel through the region

From the Atlantic coast, into fertile valleys and wine land, over the high Atlas Mountains, into the Sahara, via desert and barren plains in Tunisia, ending up at the Mediterranean Sea

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Journey kick-off: Tangier in Morocco
Journey kick-off: Tangier in Morocco

Our journey was kicked off in Tangier on the Strait of Gibraltar separating Europe from Africa. Mentally, this was a great place to start at "the tip of Africa". It was worth exploring the medina that climbs up the hill inside the city as well as the kasbah. Tanger was also a nice introduction to the fantastic Moroccan kitchen that we would enjoy for the next month in the country.

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Casablance fish market, Morocco
Casablance fish market, Morocco

Rabat and Casablanca are difficult to aviod when we travelled south as all traffic seems to go though both metropols. We did stopovers in both places. Rabat obvously had a great medina, kashbah and flea markets selling carpets and leatherworks. In Casablance the Hasan Il Mosque and port area was the most interesting parts. Other areas in Morocco are much more interesting and also more value for money for the backpacker on a tight budget.

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Villager in Oualidia, Morocco
Villager in Oualidia, Morocco

We continued south reaching the relaxed little fishing village of Oualidia, hugging the edge of a gorgeous crescentshaped lagoon. The locals here was very frindly and talkative (French), and it was a good place to do a stopover, simply relaxing in a hammock in the lagoon and reading a few books while feasting on local seafood. The was a cheap Moroccan tent camp just outside town.

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Port of Essaouira, Morocco
Port of Essaouira, Morocco

Exploring the maze-like media town of Essauoira on the wild Atlantic coast of Morocco. Full of white washed houses, a labyrinth of narrow lanes, tiny artisans workshops, and a busy port this was a good starting point. There are many good bduget options in town and several nice hammams to wash off the salt water or travel dust. A good walk was along the impressive Skala de la Ville sea bastion build along the cliffs (picture).

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The blue Port of Essaouira, Morocco
The blue Port of Essaouira, Morocco

The entire port was bustling with ship-builders and blue fishing boats set in the town's ramparts. Very charming. This is also a good spot to watch the sun go down.

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View of Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh
View of Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh

We had several meals here, flying in and out of Marrakech. In day time its full of stalls and people from all over North Africa; with its wild and colorful characters, Djemaa el Fna will stop at nothing short of bedazzling. In the evening the square quickly turns into one of the world's busiest open air restaurants. The foods is amazing.

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Barber in Marrakesh, Morocco
Barber in Marrakesh, Morocco
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Into the High Atlas Mountains
Into the High Atlas Mountains

It was in March and it was still quite cold and winterly. The mountains were covered in fresh snow. We drove to the mountain village of Imlil in the Toubkal Valley, where we started a longer winter trek into the High Atlas Mountains. We had bought food in the local market to bring along, and our backpacks weighted 35 kilogram each as we needed to survive for a week in the mountains. See our Trekking page for more on our spectacular mountaneering trip into the mountains.

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Farmer in Ourika valley, Atlas Mts
Farmer in Ourika valley, Atlas Mts

Ourika valley was one of the more charming valleys during our trek around Mt. Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains.

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Berber village of Ouirgane
Berber village of Ouirgane

After our week-long trek into the High Atlas, we crossed the mountain chain, driving along small roads and visiting several villages along the way.

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Mud brick city of Ait-Ben-Haddou
Mud brick city of Ait-Ben-Haddou

Having crossed the High Atlas Mountains we entered the Ounila Valley to visit one of the most beautiful sights in Morrocco: Ait-Ben-Haddou, which is a ksar bordering the Sahara. A ksar is a group of earthen buildings surrounded by high wall; it's a traditional pre-Saharan habitat.

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Kasbah mud buildings
Kasbah mud buildings

We spend a whole day in Ait Ben-Haddou, which may also be described as a so-called kasbah - a walled fortress. It used to be on the on the Sahara Trade Route between the Mediterranean coast and Timbuktu or the Western Sahara. The site is great to explore, walking around in a mud-brick labyrinth build like series of sandstone colored towers and walls

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Berber woman serving tea
Berber woman serving tea

During a home visit in the Ouarzazate region, near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains,

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Ouarzazate
Ouarzazate

Gateway to the the small cities and oases of south-east Morocco, large gorges, and the road to Sahara. Crossing the Atlas and getting into this part of Morocco felt like crossing into a completely different world, another country, dry, arid, wild, mysterious, and with that special 1001-night atmosphere

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Dades Valley, Morocco
Dades Valley, Morocco

One morning we went up very early and trekked the whole day through Dades Valley, which provides some of the the most spectacular scenery in Morocco: wild spectacular canyons, as in this picture at Dades Gorge, with kasbahs built into the rock overlooking the river below. This arid landscape, with its large canyons, rocks, palm trees and mud buildings, is like a "mini-Yemen" in Morocco

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Farmer in Dades Gorge
Farmer in Dades Gorge

We were able to hit the wednesday marked day in Boumalne du Dadés, where a few hours was spent pottering about, watching locals bringing goats and local produce to the market. There was also a nice market nearby in Msemrir village.

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Valley of 1,000 Kasbahs
Valley of 1,000 Kasbahs

Dades Valley area, Morocco. There were so many excellent hikes in the areas so we spent a few days here, walking new paths every day and relxaing and smoking waterpibe in the evenings. The trekking routes to El-Kelaâ M'Gouna, to the hidden Sidi Boubar Gorge, and Aït Oudinar village can all be recommended.

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Biking through Todra Gorge
Biking through Todra Gorge

After staying in the Dades region, we thought we'd be tired of valleys and gorges, but we weren’t. So, we continued to Tinehir and from there to the Todra Gorge, laying a the end of a very beautiful valley with old Berber villages and stunning palmeraies. The gorge is created by a massive fault in the plateau dividing the High Atlas from the Jebel Sarhro, with a crystal-clear river emerging from it. It was greate to bike the entire length of the Todra Gorge.

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Tinghir palm oasis
Tinghir palm oasis

We continued eastbound by local transport towards the great Sahara, and stopped overnight in the oasis of Tinghir (aka Tinerhir)

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Road to Sahara
Road to Sahara

After exploring the High Atlas region and its many dramatic valleys, we discussed whether to travel down to the Ziz valley or simply to travel deep into the Sahara - and we ended up choosing the latter. This involved 1½ days of transport through Er-Rachidia, Erfoud, Rissani, Merzouga and into the socalled Black Desert on the borders with Algeria. In the picture, we are approaching Merzouga village where the Sahara begins.

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Local in Taouz, near Merzouga
Local in Taouz, near Merzouga
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Merzouga kasbah style village
Merzouga kasbah style village

Merzouga was a windswept, remote and charmin little village on the Saharan border set in a magical landscape. Although small the village had general stores so we could plan the camel trek into the Sahara. We planned a 3-day camel hike.

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Mehndi (Henna) painted on hands...
Mehndi (Henna) painted on hands...

...of local woman in Taouz, near Merzouga.

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View of the Erg from Merzouga
View of the Erg from Merzouga

The Erg Chebbi is Morocco's only genuine Saharan erg - one of those huge, drifting expanses of sand dunes that typify much of the Sahara.

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Camel trek across Erg Chebbi
Camel trek across Erg Chebbi

The dunes themselves was fascinating, changing colour from pink to gold to red at different times of the day.

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Lose yourself in themysterious dunes
Lose yourself in themysterious dunes

...of Erg Chebbi. It was a great place to appreciate the immense, clear desert sky.

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Climbing up the highest dune...
Climbing up the highest dune...

...during sunset.

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Into the Black Desert
Into the Black Desert

On day two and day three we continued into the so-called Black Desert on the border with Algeria. Here, we switched between riding the camel and simply walking.

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Sunset in the desert during day two
Sunset in the desert during day two
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