A high road well travelled

Crossing the Moroccan Sahara is exhilarating - the Atlas mountains tinged mauve and amber. And the kasbahs rock, says Amar Grover

We swerved round the umpteenth bend and into the path of a young lad brandishing fossils. "Monsieur arretez!" he yelled as we sped past yet another tray of minerals, tinted quartz and ammonites. Instead of buying half a mountain we were keen to get across one.

We swerved round the umpteenth bend and into the path of a young lad brandishing fossils. "Monsieur arretez!" he yelled as we sped past yet another tray of minerals, tinted quartz and ammonites. Instead of buying half a mountain we were keen to get across one.

The Tizi 'n Tichka, or Tichka Pass, is one of several notching the High Atlas Mountains south of Marrakesh. In a land blessed with splendid scenery, this lofty route into the Moroccan Sahara is as exhilarating as they come. We paused among "Boutiques de Mineraux" to admire the tortuous road wriggling through dun hills and glittering ravines. "Un cadeau, monsieur?" said a familiar, panting voice at my side. That same lad now held a beautiful polished stone in his palm; and promptly named a price I couldn't refuse.

Across the Tichka there's a change in colour scheme, the mountains' southern flanks tinged mauve and amber. The south is renowned for its kasbahs, or ksour, large fortified homes or villages with crenellated towers. Built with pise or sun-dried mud-bricks, they are among Morocco's definitive sights. At Telouet, 20km off the main road after the pass, stands one of its most intriguing, a crumbling line of ramparts and bastions topped with storks' nests.

This was the seat of the Berber Glaoui brothers, fin de siècle tribal rulers who guilefully became Pashas of Marrakesh. Their French-backed dynasty collapsed in 1956 with independence. Since then their rambling palace has lain virtually empty, a despised symbol of oppression and collaboration. Its highlight is a knot of chambers with walls of zellij, elaborate mosaics of coloured tiles, and beautiful incised plaster. Doors and pillars, too, are delicately worked. Little has been restored – nor was it ever really finished – and the notorious, labyrinthine dungeons were all but unnavigable. Today sheep and goats are stabled in its more accessible nooks while youths play football in the shadows of its murky past.

The main road winds down the Imini Valley past stacked villages whose brilliant green fields are offset by stark cliffs and mountains. While Telouet has the history, Ait Benhaddou, a short detour near Ouarzazate, has the looks. It's a magnet for film crews, with movies such as Jesus of Nazareth, The Man Who Would Be King and Gladiator having, in part, been shot here. Across a shallow river rise a cluster of toffee-coloured ksour, their tapering towers etched with geometric patterns. The snow-tipped High Atlas fill the horizon. Unesco and even a few film companies have had a hand in restoration. Most of its narrow lanes are now paved, so occasional rains are less likely to dissolve the pise walls. A few remaining families live off tourism, beckoning visitors to look around their homes. Most houses have a central shaft or courtyard, and three floors of rooms and corner towers.

Beyond the ksour's walls and small fields of wheat, the river meanders through the broad valley and on to a scrubby emptiness. It drains into Lake El Mansour Eddahbi, which in turn feeds the Vallee du Draa, among the most fabled of Morocco's southern valleys. Despite droughts, depopulation and unemployment, traditional life endures.

South-east of Ouarzazate and over the last ridges of the Anti-Atlas, the Vallee du Draa snakes all the way to Zagora and the first tentative dunes of the Sahara. When Moroccans speak of the "green serpent" they mean the Draa's ribbon of palms rather than reptiles. The main appeal of this route are the ksour lining the fertile valley. Tamnougalt, a few kilometres beyond Agdz, has some of the most atmospheric. We left the road here to stroll through a delightful oasis of gurgling channels and twittering birds. Men worked the fields while chirpy children flitted from grove to grove. Nearing the sheer mud walls of its interlocking ksour, it was hard to tell where one ended and another began. Open lanes became tunnels, then lanes once more.

The road to Zagora, 90km south-east, is lined with slender oases of lush palmery. Ksour, too, are plentiful, many set at the foot of mountains with surreal, swirling patterns. Among the hottest towns in Morocco, Zagora used to be a major staging post for caravans to Timbuktu. That old-world trade in salt, gold and slaves is long gone and hard to imagine now amidst the smart hotels.

We pressed on to Tamegroute, once an important Draa town and home of an influential spiritual brotherhood. Their legacy is a library of korans and textbooks, minutely illustrated or written on hides and many graced with ancient, beautiful calligraphy. Oddly, the mentally ill flock to the nearby zaouia, or saint's tomb, hoping for a cure. You see them moaning or rocking in its courtyard.

The first real dunes, ones you feel like climbing or playing on, appear near Tinfou. Almost invisible in noon's glare, they're fired by the evening sun into a mesmerising glow on the bleak stony plain. Here, more or less nowhere, stands the Repos du Sable, a quirky hotel with artist owners and their sons who are desert safari connoisseurs. Loungers line an arcaded courtyard sprouting palms and oleander. Its languor was irresistible. "C'est le desert, mon ami," said the waiter, making their swimming pool seem even more surreal.

Crossing the Jbel Bani and rejoining the shrivelled Draa, the road ends at Mhamid about 80km south. Rivulets of sand dusted the tarmac. When the wind rose we paused in bonnet-length visibility. Several campsites line this route – mud-walled compounds with bedouin-style tents and self-styled "Touareg" who fix desert trips for days or even weeks. Beyond Mhamid, a bleached edge-of-the-world place, stretches molten sky and scoured desolation. For some, the journey has only just begun.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there: the most convenient airport for the Atlas Mountains and Essaouira is Marrakesh. You can fly there non-stop from Gatwick on Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361, www.royalairmaroc.com) or from Heathrow on GB Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com); fares start at £237. Amar Grover flew to Marrakesh courtesy of STA Travel (0870 160 6070, www.statravel.co.uk). A week's car hire with Hertz (08708 48 48 48, www.hertz.co.uk) is £267.

Essaouira is about three hours from Marrakesh, and is also easily accessible from Agadir. British tour operators who offer packages in the town include CLM Morocco (020-7735 0123) and Best of Morocco (01380 828533, www.morocco-travel.com). Orson Welles stayed at the Hotel des Iles (00 212 44 47 53 29). Modern-day visitors may prefer one of Essaouira's restored Riad hotels such as the Villa Maroc (00 212 44 47 61 47, www.villa-maroc.com) or the Riad Al Madina (00 212 44 47 59 07, www.riadalmadina.com).

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