The Arabic name given for Morocco by medieval historians and geographers is “al-Maghrib al-Aqsa”, translated as Furthest Westerly Kingdom (of the Maghreb countries, in North West Africa). Morocco is just 13km from mainland Spain. Its territory borders 3500km+ of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. It shares land borders with Spanish territory, Algeria and Mauritania.
The Atlas Mountains is a mountain range which stretches across northwestern Africa extending about 2,500km through Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and dissecting Morocco in two. The highest peak is Jebel Toubkal, with an elevation of 4,167m.
The Anti-Atlas range extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the southwest of Morocco toward the northeast to the heights of Ouarzazate and further east to the city of Tafilalt (altogether a distance of approx. 500km). In the south it borders the Sahara. It includes the Djebel Siroua, a massif of volcanic origin with the highest summit of the range at 3,304m.
An erg (also sand sea or dune sea, or sand sheet if it lacks dunes) is a broad, flat area of desert covered with wind-swept sand with little or no vegetative cover. The term takes its name from the Arabic word ‘arq’ – meaning ‘dune field’. Approximately 85% of all the Earth’s mobile sand is found in ergs that are greater than 32,000 square kilometres (12,000 sq mi). Ergs are also found on other celestial bodies, such as Venus, Mars, and Saturn’s moon Titan.
Iriqui National Park is the largest national park in Morocco and the only one in the Sahara Desert. Established to protect the biodiversity, flora and fauna across 123,000 ha of
south-eastern Morocco, and in particular to preserve the temporary wetlands of Lake Iriqui, at the heart of the desert (which support grazing of animals and migratory birds in winter).
The Sahara (‘the Great Desert’ in Arabic) is the largest hot desert and third largest desert after Antarctica and the Arctic. Its combined surface area of 9,400,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi) – accounting for substrates such as the Libyan Desert and the Sudan region – is comparable to the respective land areas of China and the United States. Many of its sand dunes reach over 180m (590ft) in height.
Erg Chigaga dunes are Morocco’s longest sand dune field, approx. 40km in length. Erg Chigaga is 90mins off-road journey (60km) across the desert terrain from the nearest village
(Mhamid El Ghizlane, see below) and sits within Morocco’s largest protected national park – the Iriqui National Park (see above), approx. 500km from Marrakech by desert piste and road (or 270km from Ouarzazate).
Temperatures not only in the Sahara but also in Marrakech, Ouarzazate and the Anti-Atlas mountains are in the 40s °C in summer (very high temperatures can start in June). In winter (typically January) snow in the mountains can close the high passes at times, or lead to unexpected delays and route changes. The weather conditions in the desert are prone to change quickly and never predictable. Windy conditions in the desert are common in Spring, however this is not the same as a full-blown sandstorm.
Morocco is home to one of the largest Acacia tree forests in North Africa (a reminder of the savannah that was present in the south of Morocco before the Sahara desert encroached). The resin of the Acacia tree (once crystallised) is added to tea in the south. Look out for the Acacia groves on the Draa Valley and near Foum Zguid.
The Dorcas Gazelle is endangered and you will be very lucky should you spot one in the Iriqui National Park when you visit Erg Chigaga. The Arabic word for gazelle is ‘rhazal’ and the village at the desert frontier, Mhamid El Ghizlane (pronounced rhazlane) is named for the ‘plain of the gazelles’. Keep your eyes open for their white tails, particularly amongst vegetation.
Our team are the last generation to have grown up as children in the desert, previously practising a way of life that was unchanged in centuries. Our parents kept farms and livestock in the desert (in Iriqui National Park as it is now) when water was freely available. That way of life became untenable two decades ago when the river to this region (the Draa) was dammed near its source and the desert encroached on farmland.
There are three UNESCO biosphere reserves in Morocco established to encourage sustainable development (the Argan biosphere, the southern Morocco Oasis and the Mediterranean Sea Reserve [with Spain]).
The imperial cities of Morocco are the four historical capital cities of Morocco: Fes, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat. The term was used from the 15th century to denote a self-ruling city that enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. An Imperial city held the status of Imperial immediacy, and as such, was subordinate only to the emperor, as opposed to a territorial city or town.
Camels in Morocco are known as dromedaries – camels with a single hump on their backs. These are very gentle creatures that are highly intelligent and extremely patient, the exception being the leaders of the herd, which can become aggressive if the herd is in danger. They have long thick eyelashes and very hairy ears as a protection from the sand. Full-grown camels can stand at a height of between 6 / 7 feet and their lifespan ranges between 25 to 50 years of age. Owners and locals respect them for their natures and their ability to survive in the desert with very little food and water. That amazing ability to survive the desert heat comes from being able to increase their own body heat.
Rock art is found throughout the Sahara, principally in the desert mountain and hill ranges, where stone ‘canvas’ is abundant: including the highlands of Adrar in Mauritania and Adrar des Ifoghas in Mali, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, the Tassili n’Ajjer and Ahaggar Mountains in Algeria, the mountainous areas of Tadrart Acacus and Messak in Libya, etc, as well as the length of the Nile Valley.
Explorations in the early twentieth century by celebrated travellers, ethnographers and archaeologists brought the rock art of Sahara, and northern Africa in general, to the awareness of a European public. More than 300 rock art sites have been documented in Morocco, mainly located in two areas: the High Atlas Mountains, and the Sahara desert region to the south and east. They comprise mainly engravings, which could be up to 5,000 years old, and include domestic and wild animals, warriors, weapons and scenes of battles and hunting. Antelope and cattle are the most represented animals in Moroccan rock art, although elephants and rhinoceros are common.
The traditional ‘kasbah’ of southern Morocco is the family unit of the wealthy classes and has varied forms and multiple functions. For the most part, they are country houses; the ground floor is used for agricultural purposes and the upper floors serve as living quarters in winter (upper portion) and summer (lower portion). Adjoining houses are reserved for agricultural workers. The kasbah can, however, also be a veritable palace-fortress, the seat of local power (e.g. at Telouet – it then takes on the dimensions of a small village).
Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, formed of a series of pise- (earth/mud) constructed dwellings and fortified walls, barely inhabited now, but some families have remained.
It offers a complete panorama of pre-Saharan earth construction techniques. The oldest constructions do not appear to be earlier than the 17th century, although their structure and technique were propagated from a very early period in the valleys of southern Morocco. The site was also one of the many trading posts on the commercial route linking ancient Sudan to Marrakech by the Draa Valley and the former Tizi-n’Telouet Pass.
Saffron is produced in Morocco in the foothills of the Atlas. It is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the ‘saffron crocus’. The crocus bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas. The styles and stigmas, called threads, are collected and dried to be used mainly as a seasoning and colouring agent in food.
Saffron is one of the world’s most costly spices by weight. Its aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet.