I was Lawrence of Morocco

Amar Grover follows in the steps of James Bond, Cleopatra and Jesus as he explores the most filmed desert locations
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The Independent Travel
Asleek sports car with snake skin markings comes face-to-face with a real snake in the desert. The car sheds its outer layer to reveal a leading manufacturer's latest model, hot off the production line. The snake slithers away. An Eskimo huddles in furs amid the golden dunes, pretending to shiver, surrounded by snow, which is really salt.

Welcome to Morocco, film location extraordinaire. The south of this wild country has attracted a wide range of film-makers for decades. As one guidebook puts it: "Landscapes are routinely fantastic and cheap, exotic-looking extras are in plentiful supply."

Hence the A-list of directors, movies of varying quality and third-rate actors. But Morocco likes it like that, and for the most part has seen off competition from Tunisia and Egypt. The country is safe and secure. And it's startlingly beautiful, as my week-long pilgrimage to this natural film-set proved.

I was standing in Ait Benhaddou whose kasbahs - fortified towered houses which dot the southern oases - have seen more film crews than most. They're readily identifiable in Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth and have just formed the backdrop for Steven Spielberg's Dream Works' Gladiators. Other films made there were Lawrence of Arabia and The Man Who Would Be King.

Ideally one should come to Ait Benhaddou in the early morning or late afternoon, before or after the tour buses and jeep convoys. Beyond a shallow river and fields of wheat rise several toffee-coloured kasbahs with crenellated towers. Behind rear the first bare folds of the High Atlas mountains. Both film companies and Unesco have had a hand in rebuilding and restoring the town, but only a few families remain now, eking out a living from the land and tourism.

Some 35km south-east lies Ouarzazate, a functional town whose Atlas Studios form the base, if not the backbone, of Morocco's film industry. As one outdoor set teeters on the edge of collapse, another is readied for the next production. I strolled from what was once Cleopatra's barge to the palaces of ancient Egypt, as conceived by the ABC Network for its four- hour Cleopatra. Around the corner stands a mock Tibetan house, with gleaming golden buddha ensconced inside. This was made for Martin Scorsese's Kundun, which tested Morocco's shifting scenery to the limit. For Jewel of the Nile, producers found the required number of palm trees, and James Bond larked about in a reasonably convincing Afghanistan in The Living Daylights.

By now I wanted a break from film-set Morocco. I made for Ouarzazate, past its enormous kasbah and into the Dades Valley. Brochures prefer to call it the "valley of a thousand kasbahs" but at first you might wonder where exactly they are. The road undulates across a bleak stony plain, High Atlas to the left, faint Jebel Sahro to the right. Camels graze on thorny scrub and shepherds suspiciously eye each passing car.

Skoura's impressive kasbah pokes out just above date palms. These southern kasbahs are built from pise, a sort of mud-clay, and without maintenance they would dissolve in the annual rains. During feudal Morocco's tribal wars, enemies would divert water channels to crumble a rival's foundations. Today's enemy is neglect, though one can hardly blame the locals for building more comfortable (yet uglier) homes or moving on to find work in the cities.

I was shown Ben Moro's central shaft, known as the eye, and three floors of plain rooms with their corner towers. In ancient times animals were stabled at the bottom, with stores and kitchens on the second floor and sleeping quarters on the breezy third.

Ten minutes' walk away stands Kasbah Amerhidl, a spectacular complex of lengthy walls and towers cut with geometric patterns. The kasbah is immortalised on the country's 50 dirham banknote. Not only that. My guide produced a carton of orange juice. "Voila!" he said, pointing at the graphics. "Amerhidl!" And the film connection? That was The Bible, an Italian docu- drama.

Interspersed with plots of wheat and beans, the palms, fig and olive trees comprising this oasis hide many more kasbahs. One has been converted into an inn. Mr Slimani welcomed me with cups of absurdly sweet mint tea. Long after dusk, as I tucked into a hearty mutton tagine, two Spaniards arrived. For some reason they were trembling with fear, and I never found out why. Perhaps they'd seen too many films. Later under clear skies and a thousand twinkling eyes, dogs howled, drums throbbed, people shrieked, and Skoura seemed fabulously sinister.

Some 50km east at the foot of the High Atlas lies El-Kelaa M'Gouna, centre of Morocco's rose-water industry. Though you can visit a handful of factories I was more tempted by the Vallee des Roses. Its piste, the unsurfaced but motorable tracks found all over Morocco, follows the M'Goun river valley until it tapers into a sheer canyon piercing the Atlas. Several villages mark the route, their flat-roofed houses piled on shafts of rock while trees blushed with the first pink blossoms. A col above Bou Tharar village has the finest view of all.

Another piste heads east to Ait Youl in the Dades Gorge. Here is some of the most accessible and exciting scenery of the High Atlas. Extraordinary rock formations at Ait Arbi and Tamnalt (where they are known as the "Hills of Human Bodies") form the backdrop to several villages and half-ruined kasbahs.

The gorge deepens appreciably by the popular auberges of Ait Oudinar. With an upgraded piste as wide and smooth as any surfaced road, many visitors now drive on to Msemir village. Spaghetti bends wind high above the river and then you squeeze through a defile. Beyond lies a succession of forbidding valleys and canyons with implausible swirling patterns and shark-tooth cliffs.

Todhra Gorge has the edge. At its mouth by Tinerhir, a dense ribbon of palms spills into the stony desert. The road funnels towards a defile, almost every bend affording impressive vistas of villages, minarets, and camels.

For a final taste of the cinematic desert I headed east towards Erfoud and the huge Tafilelt oasis. Once the terminus of trans-Saharan trading routes, Tafilelt has been in decline most of this century and its diseased palms don't bode well for the future. Drought, of course, has often cursed the region but when Bertolucci came for The Sheltering Sky it had not rained for eight years. Just days before his crew showed up the heavens opened, walls burst their banks and roads were blocked or submerged.

The main draw for visitors to this area is Erg Chebbi, a 25km swathe of dunes that match most Westerners' image of the Sahara. In fact neither The English Patient nor The Sheltering Sky used them but just about any other dune-laden film or advert you can think of has.

I paused at the dented fuselage of the plane featured in the film of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. The dunes were mesmerising. I ran about aimlessly, switching character as I went: Lawrence of Arabia, James Bond, a shivering Eskimo. I had finally made it into films.

MOROCCO

GETTING THERE

Amar Grover flew to Morocco as a guest of British Airways and its independent carrier GB Airways (tel: 0345 222111). Return Apex flights start from pounds 313.90.

Best of Morocco (tel: 01380 828533) arranges inclusive tours and personalised itineraries, including car hire.

WHERE TO STAY

Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate, Boumalne du Dades, Tinerhir and Erfoud have comfortable hotels for tour groups and cheaper alternatives. In Skoura, the gorges and Merz, the accommodation is basic.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Atlas Studios charge an entry fee of Dh10 (70p). See opposite page.

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