We pushed our backpacks into the corner of our small private room in “My House” Hostel and headed back out the door for a short evening walk. Just that morning we left Merzouga after a week in the driest hot desert in the world. Now, only a 4.5-hour bus ride and 30-minute shared taxi ride away, the air is still dry. Heat is visible as it ripples the air rising from the sun-baked rocks around us.
The cliffs of the Toudgha Valley rise high creating magnificent walls jutting into clear blue skies.
Don’t miss the video at the very end (just above the blue door) that will let you visualize the journey with us.
The Oasis Paradise
We left the hostel and descended to the valley floor. Red earth and rocks beneath our feet transformed into rich damp soil covered with vibrant green crops. Barley waved delicate spikelets in time with a cool breeze.
Maybe it was the intense heat above that made descending into the cool air of the oasis below feel like bliss or maybe it was the swaying palm trees. Birch trees fluttered their silver underleaves like whispers of riches welcoming us into the palace we just entered. Cool air rises from the river that feeds this little piece of paradise.
Narrow mounds of clay and mud separate each paddy. These mounds control irrigation and provide passageways through the valley. At first, they seemed like a maze, but once we recognized the pattern we were able to retrace it on our return.
A figure in the field beside us stood and smiled as we passed then continued his peaceful cultivation.
Greetings in Morocco
An old man on a donkey appears on the mound ahead of us coming our way. Two younger men are following closely behind. We find a place to sidestep without trampling on crops. He stops and greets us in every language. Trin answers with the corresponding salutation.
“Allemand?” the old man wants to know.
That’s a first. Nobody would mistake Trin for a German. Well, almost nobody.
It’s a common exchange here, a friendly local game to guess our country of origin. In the souqs or the more touristy areas, it’s an easy way to engage you before hitting you with their spiel. Often, they would just call out various international greetings. Trin often gets a Nihao or a Konnichiwa, which amuses and irks him at the same time.
But this man has no ulterior motive than mere nicety. So Trin lets him off the hook after the second try (Chinois), shakes his head, and says “Philippines.”
Typically this causes the other person to pause as he goes through his repertoire of responses in his head. Finding no match, he would repeat the name slowly, as if he were tasting the word in his mouth. Then he would do what presently the old man on the donkey does, except that the old man never hesitates.
The old man breaks into a smile and exclaims, “Welcome to Morocco!”
They continue on their way at the pace of someone at peace enjoying views around them from the passageways of their palace home, one in which everyone is welcome.
The sun hung low in the sky its rays softened and touched the fields sideways. Poppies catching the light glowed among the barley. Wheat gently bowed in homage to the breeze along the narrow mounds of what felt like the gardens of a palace.
We were drawn forward by the beauty, the cool air making light our steps. Before we knew it we were miles from our hostel and the sun was taking its last bits of light from the land.
We climbed out of the paddocks to the road that leads back to our little town. Heat poured down off the rocks above, while cool air emanated from the valley below. We were in the middle land where the two had not yet mixed. It was both hot and cool at the same time. When a car would pass the two stirred currents would swirl around us.
We made it back to our guesthouse just after the last call to prayer sounded from the minaret. The short walk had gone on to become an 8.5-mile excursion. Time for bed, we had a long hike planned for the following day.
Early in the morning before the busses and crowds arrived, we started our hike on the Toudgha Loop. The road just beyond our hostel leads straight through the Toudgha Gorge. Cliffs rise abruptly from the valley reaching heights of 1,312 ft (400 meters) and allowing space for a river and a road at its base.
Along the road, vendors were already hanging their wares from strings attached to the cliffside lining the gorge. They were getting ready for the hordes of people that will wander this short path between the cliffs.
The height is impressive but within five minutes we had already walked to the other side of the gorge. At the far end, we began our climb up and around through the mountains behind the gorge.
Berber Goats and Donkeys
The desert hills were sparsely dotted with small scrub brushes. At just the right angle a light hew of green was visible from the culmination of the brush. Mostly the hills appeared a reddish brown and barren.
A flock of goats and sheep wandered around the hillside above us, their Berber shepherds barely visible among their lot.
A few donkeys loaded with wares herded by a couple of women and their children were heading down the trail. We continued our climb stopping only for a brief drink of water under the occasional shade of large boulders.
Where the trail veers over a saddle between two mountains a second trail headed straight up. It was an out-and-back with viewpoints at the top. It was a beautiful day and we were loving the mountains. We took the path without preamble, to climb to the top and wander around all the viewpoints.
At the mountain’s peak, I looked out over miles of exposed rock creating designs on the mountains. The shrubs that lay distanced from each other lying low to the grown became invisible. I pondered the nomads who live in the area moving camp based on the season. They and their livestock wander these trails and I wondered how they survive in this environment.
Just wander and stop to smell the …. goats?
We sat on a rock outcropping to study the landscape and enjoy the cool breeze drying our sweat from the hike up. A small herd of goats nearby wandered over to us. They had long black hair that shimmered in the sun. Their adorable little faces were irresistible.
One of the little ones wandered close wagging his tail in the air and pointing the top of his head towards Trin. It stopped and stood before Trin expectantly. Trin gently reached out and scratched the top of its head. The goat’s tail went wild. Another came over to me head bent slightly to the side as if showing me where to scratch. He gently pushed into my hand and then lifted his front hoof as if I got just the spot.
These beautiful goats most likely belong to a local Berber. We could see a few tents in the valley below us and thought they might belong to the shepherds there. The tents are perfect for the nomad life, easy to disassemble and move with the season. The goats seemed like they were used to being loved and cared for. They trusted us and expected nothing other than a friendly scratch.
About 82 Kilometers west of Todgha is the town of Tamellalt where we stopped to explore the Dadès Gorges. Our lodging sat just above another valley oasis that would be the starting point for most of our hikes over the following days.
Each morning we sat on the terrace where breakfast was served and watched the clouds play in shadows over the Monkey Fingers on the mountains. Trin captured these clouds in the first moments of the video below.
Trin and I like to take our time when exploring nature. We like to wander and get lost, even though with all the local maps downloaded on Maps.me we aren’t truly lost. Maps.me works offline using GPS. Since we rarely purchase local SIM cards or data, this app is perfect for us. Our lodging is always way-pointed so we at least have a direction to head to if necessary.
Update: Maps.me now charges a fee if you need more than 10 downloaded maps. Since the writing of this article, we have switched to Organic Maps. All our pins can be ported over. Currently, Organic Maps is free.
Slot Canyons in Dadès Gorge
At Dadès Gorges, we packed a lunch and headed off early each morning with no deadline to be back. We like to take side trails or wander off when something ahead looks interesting.
The slot canyons between the Monkey Finger rock formations kept us busy and entire day. They are different than the slot canyons of Utah, but fun all the same.
The Guides will Find You
“Bonjour!” came the greeting out of nowhere.
We turned and saw the man standing behind us with a big smile and asking where we are going. He wanted to be our guide for the day.
We politely said no thank you, that we were just out on a walk. Eventually, he left us alone. Soon another man popped up seemingly out of nowhere offering to be our guide. It wasn’t until we were miles outside of town that they stopped popping up.
If you would like a guide, don’t worry they will find you.
We took the trail over the ridge that follows Dadès Gorge on the first day. Along the way, we stopped to sit on a rock outcropping and watch a herd of goats go by. Little ones wandered over to us for attention bleating as they approached.
Serpent du Dadès
About ten kilometers up the road from Tamellalt the road snakes its way up through another gorge of the Dadès River. Our plan was to catch a ride to the top in a local minibus and then walk back down the road. The bus that we got on turned around two kilometers short of the Serpent du Dades. Apparently, we had taken the wrong one.
Change of plans, we hiked to the top instead. It was a pleasant day with a good breeze and we loved the views.
We continued walking further along the road to catch a few more viewpoints.
An area to the right caught our fancy so we took a trail off into the mountainside. There we found a little secluded cave to rest and eat lunch. The coolness of the rocks made comfortable chairs and the breeze cooled us down. Our viewpoint was the expanse of the mountains. We stayed and enjoyed the view for a while before hiking back down to catch the same bus back to our lodging.
Monkey Fingers Surrounding the Gorge
Just outside our lodging is an expanse of curiously shaped rocks called the Monkey Fingers, or what the locals call The Cliffs of Talmat. They are unique rock formations that look like the digits of a monkey’s hand if you have a good imagination.
Another oasis rests in the Tamellalt Valley. It is just as much an escape from the heat as the paradise in Toudgha Valley. The birds sing their merry tunes and bees hum as they pollinate and fulfill their part of the life cycle.
A Berber Welcome
We reserved three nights in Tamellalt at Maison D’hote Amazir (from bookings.com), but there was so much to explore we kept extending for another night. The locals are kind and reserved. After staying almost a week they started to open up a bit.
Ramadan ended while we were in Tamellalt and our host made us dinner, for free without our petition. It was an absolutely delicious chicken tajine with vegetables and lots of flavors.
All other nights we ate at the Cafe Aicha just 400 meters down the road. It has outdoor seating with a view of the Monkey Fingers. By the fourth night Aicha, the owner and cook, gave me a hug when we walked up. She even invited Trin into the kitchen to participate in the cooking of our meals. On our final night, we said goodbye and she shed a few tears. It was touching.
Bonus Technical Details to find Dades Gorge from Tamellalt
You may wander through the paddocks in the valley for a bit before finding the trail that goes up through the Dades Gorge. Here are a few turns that are easy to miss. You will also know you missed them when someone pops up and offers to show you the way.
The climb up
Around GPS point 31°26’53.9″N 5°58’15.3″W it appears that the trail ends at the river with no bridge. A cliffside that drops into the river will prevent going forward unless you want to wade across. At this point backtrack a little (or just mark the coordinate above) and look for a small four-sided roofless structure hidden in the brush. Follow a little gully into the structure and climb up through it to the rocks above. From here you can navigate around the backside of the cliff and continue on the trail.
Go Straight Over the Third Bridge
Further down the trail, you will cross a bridge at GPS point 31.449893, -5.967437 the main trail appears to continue beside the river. However, just after crossing the bridge go straight instead and follow a dry river bed into a tree canopy. This will lead directly to the opening of the narrow gorge.
Once you enter the gorge follow the narrow crevice and enjoy. At one point it might seem like a dead end, just backtrack a little and you will see a slope that you can climb to the right (if you are headed back towards town).