at the southern end of Zagora on the other side of the river is the you must have seen it already hill or mountain of Zagora.
From it you can have spectacular views over the valley with its palmeraie for miles, jazzed up snazzy kasbah hotels such as the Asmaa before you and if like me when i was up there a beautiful view with a rainbow over the whole lot.
Half way up the jebel are the remains of the Almoravid fortress from the 11th century which can be explored. The modern day fortress at the top belongs to the army and is offlimits.
Its recommended to head off up there early in the morning before it gets hot but also while the sun is still rising for its most attractive lighting. The views are pretty spectacular from well below the top. The lonely planet has written that you can drive up but i couldnt find any driveable access road. Now though that there a hotel being built on the far side that should make the incline more accessible.
Otherwise take the road to the left past Hotel Asmaa which goes towards and past Camping la Montagne and take the piste road to the right.
and then walk back through the palmeraie.
22 km south of Zagora is the ksar of Tamegroute which was once the seat of the brotherhood of the Naciriyin who came from Iraq and settled in the ksar in the 17th century and were renowned for keeping the peace amongst the Draa Berber tribes.
I had an excellent tour of this place 3 years ago with a guy who offered to guide us around for 20 dirham and this time stopped only to buy some lovely green Tamegroute pottery on my way to Chigaga.
Id recommend allocating an hour for this interesting place with its Koranic library which has manuscripts as old as the 12th and 13 th century - inlaid with gold and made with gazelle hide! and a good tour of the ksar to see how people live there, so many in seemingly a small place, together as a community. Also theres the famous green pottery of Tamegroute and very interesting to learn about the kilns and the traditional methods the locals prefer to continue with to heat their kilns to 1000 degrees in their pottery making.
Theres also a modern kiln as a joint enterprise by donation from a company in Japan to support the local cooperatives.
After driving along about 5 km of flat and stoney terrain to the left comes into sight an orangeish dune of sand in the distance - quite unusual really - and this has been named the 'dunes of Tinfou'.
There are camels there at the ready for the tourists who want to take their maybe first ride 'by camel in the desert' and there are also possibilities for overnight stays for sunset and sunrise in the desert with bedouin tent and meals and typical drumming entertainment. (see also Riad Ksar Malal for excursion contacts).
Of the many ksars around the Draa Valley and Zagora - traditionally and historically designed for security against marauders ie village communities still living as individual families in separate houses with their own living areas enclosed within one main outer enclosing defense wall with main gate or entrance way that would be locked each night with a guardian or night watchman.
When staying at Riad Ksar Malal which is a new and lovely riad hotel that has been renovated from part of the ksar take the well worthwhile time to have a roam around the ksar. The best way though is to have one of the staff guide you around - particularly as one of their excursions such as a 2 hour or so walk around the nearby area through the ksar and down to the palmeraie a few minutes away and villages that are in the area.
There are good views over the ksar from the roof of Riad Ksar Malal as well which is particularly nice for sunrise or sunset views and pics.
From Zagora down to the 'end of the road ' at Mhamid is tar seal road so you can drive down to there and then get a 4 wheel drive excursion from Mhamid out into the desert.
Its approximately 56 kms from Mhamid and possible to have a trip taking you there and around the dunes and then back or the whole overnight or several day thing with a stay in a bivouac there with meals, entertainment - ie sunset over the dunes, sunrise, drumming and singing, camel rides etc.
I got taken for several hours out past the hamada (the stoney desert) which is also very photogenic out to and around the Chigaga dunes, a visit to see the bivouac and then back via the camping ground oasis where Desert Dream actually had a huge group of bikers riding around.
We got to see all sorts - these bike riders, 4 wheel drives riding big dunes, camels, goats and sheep, donkeys and bedoin families living and working out in the desert. We even gave a wizened old desert herder a lift - interesting with his big smiles and listening to the conversing going on between him my driver and guide.
Ive been many times and much love the Merzouga sahara of Morocco but had never yet been to the desert of Chigaga about 45 kms definitely 4x4 road from the end of the tar seal at M'hamid.
The drive from Zagora down to Mhamid takes between an hour and an hour and a half - there are lots of sections where you can get speeds up to 100 km per hour (or just quietly higher!!) but theres a lot of sections of narrow road and blind corners requiring care and slower speeds.
With the stopping to see Tinfou and slowing down for photos of villages and countryside and photo stops such as from the Jebel Bani and Beni Selmane look outs and the police check road block it takes longer than one would think for the distance of only 96 kms.
The kasbah and village of Oualad Driss is also worth a stop for a few photos.
And then you start to see sand as you approach the town of M'hamid.
96 km from Zagora is the town of M'hamid on the edge of the Sahara.
Most happenings here - camel trips.
Weekly souk/market day is on Mondays.
Overnight camel trips end up mostly in Erg Lehoudi with 100m high dunes 10 km northeast of Mhamid. An array of tours and treks is available as are personalised trips and requests. Other possible destinations include the Iriqui oasis which isnt far from Chigaga, or the smaller dunes at Mesouria. You could also consider a 14 day trip to Rissani!
Or 4x4 for an excellent tour and trip to the dunes of Chigaga about 56 km from Mhamid.
Since the ksar village has not been lived in for 20 years the mosque in the ksar is also able to be visited which is also an interesting opportunity to take, as there are few mosques open to non-muslims
(consecrated or working mosques in Morocco open for visits for non-muslims are only the stunning Hassan II in Casablanca, and the Tin Mal mosque on the Asni road near TizinTest)
There was a 25 metre deep water well to provide water needed for washing for those entering the mosque and it currently had bats flying around in it, (which to my delight showed up for the picture!!),
the old bucket using for either heating water or storing water was also still in the ruins of the mosque and when i suggested to Abdel my guide ifrom Riad Ksar Malal that it would make a nice accessory for displaying plants or something in the riad garden he replied that it couldnt be removed from the mosque!
See also the prayer hall and its horseshoe pillars and the mihrab - and the hole in the ground where Abdel said the money or 'treasure' of the community would be kept for safe keeping where thieves or bandits would not dare to take it from.
As much as the camel thing has become rather commercialised -
when we see them in obviously strategic places such as the palmeraie or near the airport(!!) in Marrakech, on many beaches, maybe we groan and think just to catch tourists -
i think we still do get a kick out of seeing camels, especially out in the desert, and get quite excited and get our cameras ready -
or is that just me!!
I think its great to get cool camel and people and donkey shots - to capture the local life in the area we are visiting and portray it even if just for personal looking back over later!(again and again..!)
so heading off from Mhamid out into the desert where it started looking flat and barren with miles of flat hamada/stoney desert or flat sandy terrain around us and ahead of us,like there was going to be nothing really to see until Chigaga, and then seeing quite a number of camels, that when asking about the vegetation and whats able to eat it or what camels are able to eat and get shown only one particular grass out of a variety because all the rest is bitter and inedible! - shows how harsh the environment is for sure!
Even later when at the Chigaga dunes there were lots of green bushes with large leaves i was told that they are inedible to even the goats who i always thought ate almost anything!
But we started seeing camels, occasionally with foot ties to stop the compulsive ones from taking off, and occasionally a camel keeper. Out further we saw more camels, quite a number of occasions saw donkeys, (out walking but as if they had a mission and direction they were headed for), and then also goats and a few bedouin huts or houses.
and we even picked up one camel man and gave him a lift to the oasis camp. and if the donkeys in a long line were with him they seemed to be happily heading off to the one destination without him.
Really it was quite surprising just how much animal and human life is still living out around the area. and at the bivouac camp even a cat! (tho like in Australia they live anywhere and everywhere!?)
This sign has moved from its perch several times, the latest - from in front of the huge Prefecture or Administraition building to the other side of the road - apparently as they are building a new road from Zagora to Foum Zguid.
From the days of trans-saharan travel when camel caravans travelled between Timbuktu and the ancient city of Sijillmassa - (Rissani) - Zagora with its oasis and plentiful supply of the staple food of dates - has been an important stopping centre. Hence the 52 days by camel in the direction of Timbuktu!
The road ends at Mhamid and then you can do an excursion by 4x4 vehicle out to see the sahara desert - which takes about 45-60 minutes of fairly heavy going driving to get out to but along the way you get to see changing landscapes of heavy sand piles to dry and hard terrain or stoney desert - with camels and their keepers, or bedouin families that live out there having family time in the cool under trees away from their desert homes, or even donkey caravans! and goats. all out there in the harshness but surviving.
you can just go out for an afternoon trip to drive around and see the dunes or stay the night in a bivouac camp and be fed moroccan meals such as tagine and be entertained with local drumming and singing - anything really - take a camel and keep going for a weeks trek even - stay out separate away from the tents and have a private night under the stars - whatever your ideas or desires are discuss them and see whats arranged into reality for you.
but you will certainly see some lovely sand and dunes - that roll on for miles.
If like me you drive with maps that show the scenic routes then you will see that on the Zagora to Mhamid road that the section from Jebel Bani through the town of Tagounite and over Beni Selmane pass to Mhamid is marked as a scenic route.
My various guide books refer to Tizi Beni Selmane, with an altitude to 747 metres, as 'dramatic' with good views to Jebel Bani and surrounds.
Id not been south of Tamegroute so i wanted this time to see this scenic route to Mhamid! When you see the flat flat terrain that is the terrain between Tamegroute and around Tagounite the jebel Bani range certainly stands out as dramatic and you can see that the road takes you over ...
There are excellent views from both the pass over Jebel Bani and the Beni Selmane pass - from the pass at Jebel Bani/Anagam you can see over to the dunes of Tinfou.
The old kasbah at Amezrou 2-3 km south of Zagora, on the road to Tamegroute and M'hamid, is a huge rambling part ruined kasbah with a 17th century mellah ie formerly lived in by jewish silversmiths making jewellery before leaving for Israel in the 1940s.
There are still 3 remaining workshops here run by muslims who are able to show the traditional methods they still practice. Mostly fibulas are made ie the tiangular silver brooches that berber wear - one below the right shoulder if they are not married and two, one on each side, if they are married or divorced.
5 km from Mhamid is the village and kasbah of Oulad Driss which made a picturesque stop along the way.
Especially as it was harvest time of the wheat so that made for interesting photos with people out in the fields cutting wheat or piles of wheat around town and countryside.
In the village is a house-museum which i didnt have time to visit this time.
After an unsettled few hours sleep, I got up as light was breaking. Leaving our tent, I wandered off over to a sand dune, to enjoy the peace and quiet, to view the sunrise, and feel the warmth of the sun.
It was quite pleasant sitting watching the changing light, with only the background noise of my fellow campers in the distance behind me, with intermittant snorts and movement of the camels.