Once into the High Atlas mountains, the road weaves through eerie moonscapes that manage to combine the red hue of Australia's Kimberley and Pilbara regions with high flat-topped valleys of rock that recall Monument Valley in the USA. The driving is hot, dusty and draining – at least, it is in June – but it's worth it, for the High Atlas are home to the famous kasbahs and ksars of ancient Morocco1.
Ever since hearing about the kasbahs of Morocco's deserts, I've wanted to visit them. I love castles, fortresses, citadels and anything else that evokes scenes from the likes of Tales of the Arabian Nights or (in my imagination) Lord of the Rings, and if they're in the desert, so much the better. I'm not sure why, but this combination, especially when combined with Islamic architecture, makes me go weak at the knees, as I'd found in India at places like Mandu and Jaisalmer. And just over the High Atlas, at a place called Aït Benhaddou, is the best-preserved desert ksar in Morocco. I was drawn to it like a rock seller to the sound of a car engine, and we rolled into the village after driving some 200km through the hairpin bends of the mountains.
The ksar at Aït Benhaddou is simply stunning. As the locals will gleefully tell you, it's regularly used in adverts and films, the most famous of the latter being Orson Welles' Sodom and Gomorrah and David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia; indeed, to keep its appeal for filmmakers, it's been restored and maintained while others have crumbled into the dirt from which they were made, and the result is a truly amazing sight.
We arrived in mid-afternoon and decided to explore straight away, heading off through the village in the general direction of the ksar, which sits on the opposite side of the Oued Ounila (oued is the Arabic name for river). Within about two minutes of hitting the streets we'd picked up a little boy who insisted on being our guide, but although he was annoying (mainly because we knew he'd want money for invading our personal space), he wasn't the biggest irritant. That honour goes to the sirocco.
The sirocco is the name given to the desert wind that blows from the Sahara, and when we visited Aït Benhaddou it was having a really good day of it, churning up the sand and hurling it down the river valley that we had to cross to get to the ksar. Imagine skydiving in an oven, with someone hovering 30m below you, throwing handfuls of sand and grit in your face every 30 seconds, and you're close to the sirocco experience.
If you've ever wondered why the Berber people of the Sahara wrap their heads in scarves, leaving only a tiny gap for their eyes to peep out, then after a few minutes in the sirocco it's bloody obvious. I doubt they sell many exfoliating creams in Morocco – standing outside does the trick quite nicely.
But it's worth the hurt to see sights like the Aït Benhaddou ksar, which rises out of the desert like something straight out of desert folklore. Its squat towers and small-windowed buildings are exactly the same red-brown colour as the surrounding desert (not surprising as they're made from the same stuff), and wandering the streets of the ancient citadel is like stepping back in time. It's also surprisingly cool and an excellent shelter from the wind, which kicks back in again as you escape from the shelter of the dwellings and onto the top of the ksar.
As desert experiences go, it's difficult to beat the feeling of sitting on top of an ancient castle, looking over the same hills, valleys and oases that the ancient Berbers would have surveyed from their fortified town. Although ksars are built from sun-dried clay and mud (known as pisé) and don't last very long in the rain – if left untended, your average Berber ksar would be in ruins after 50 years – it makes no difference that they aren't completely identical to the ksars of ancient times. The atmosphere is completely authentic, and as far as I'm concerned that's the most important bit.
1 The isolated castles and fortified towns of the desert, respectively.