The Moroccan pre-Sahara begins as soon as you cross the Atlas to the south. It is not sand for the most part – more a wasteland of rock and scrub, which the Berbers call hammada – but it is powerfully impressive. There is, too, an irresistible sense of wonder as you catch a first glimpse of the great southern river valleys: the Drâa, Dadès, Todra and Ziz. Lush belts of date-palm oases, scattered with the fabulous mud architecture of kasbahs and fortified ksour villages, these are the old caravan routes that reached back to Marrakesh and Fez and out across the Sahara to Timbuktu, Niger and old Sudan, carrying gold, slaves and salt well into the nineteenth century.
Most travellers’ first taste of the region is the Tizi n’Tichka, the dizzying pass up from Marrakesh, and the iconic kasbashs at Telouet and Aït Benhaddou – an introduction that is hard to beat. Benhaddou is less than an hour’s drive from Ouarzazate, a modern town created by the French to “pacify” the south and one of the area’s few urban centres of any significance, buoyed in recent years by its association with the film industry. From here, you can follow the old trading routes: south through the Drâa to Zagora and the fringes of the desert at M’Hamid; or east through the Dadès to the towering Todra Gorge and, ultimately, the dunes at Erg Chebbi near Merzouga. These are beautiful journeys, the roads rolling through crumbling mud-brick villages and past long ribbons of deep-green palmeries as they stretch out towards the Sahara.
The southern oases were long a mainstay of the pre-colonial economy. Their wealth, and the arrival of tribes from the desert, provided the impetus for two of the great royal dynasties: the Saadians (1554–1669) from the Drâa Valley, and the current ruling family, the Alaouites (1669–present) from the Tafilalt. By the nineteenth century, however, the advance of the Sahara and the uncertain upkeep of the channels that watered the oases had reduced life to bare subsistence, even in the most fertile strips. Under the French, with the creation of modern industry in the north and the exploitation of phosphates and minerals, they became less and less significant, while the old caravan routes were dealt a final death blow by the closure of the Algerian border in 1994.
Although the date harvests in October, centred on Erfoud, still give employment to the ksour communities, the rest of the year sees only the modest production of a handful of crops – henna, barley, citrus fruits and, uniquely, roses, developed by the French around El Kelâa M’Gouna for the production of rose-water and perfume. Severe drought in the 1990s had a devastating effect on crops, including dates, and forced much of the male population to seek work further north, but since 2007 the water levels have greatly improved and the palmeries are returning to their picture-book lushness once more.