The Draa Valley follows the pathway of the Draa river as it winds down from the High Atlas mountains, through the gravel lunar scape of the Anti Atlas, and into the hammada and desert plains, where it finally seeps out into the sands of the Sahara. The stretch between Agdz and Zagora is 100km long and the richest section of the valley, home to lush palm groves, agricultural water courses, and stunning kasbahs - the ancient baked mud strongholds which were once the seats of local tribal lords.
Many of them still stand in proud splendour on the rocky hillsides, looking down over the palmeraies, home even today to local communities. Some have been renovated and converted for the tourist trade; but largely they remain working buildings, the centre of the villages lining the Draa.
Over every hill along this stretch there has been a new wonder, another dramatic sight; one can only imagine what a paradise the oasis of the Draa must have appeared to the camel caravans coming out of the long desert route from Mali.
I guess we'll know how they felt in a few months.
Beautiful as it undeniably is, at this time fo year there is very little attraction in discovering the Draa on foot. Were it not for the fact that we are now only three days' walk from M'Hamid and the end of the first stage, I think we would be cutting it short and returning at a more sensible time of year; trudging through the midday heat with the summer winds howling up from the desert is pretty close to hell on earth. We try to rest under some shade for the five or six hours when it is really bad (fifty degrees centigrade) and walk only in the morning and evening, but it can make for a long day - particularly if it is just too hot to sleep during the rest time, which it often is. To walk the thirty - thirty five km we need to in order to get to wells and food sources, we are drinking ten litres a day each (we only carry four, now, or it is counter productive) - and they are usually either luke warm or hot enough to make tea from. It is bliss when we get to a village well and can have a long, cool drink. So much more satisfying than hot water.
The second day out from Agdz we had a typically long, hot day, and stopped for a good rest. We walked on into the evening cool and then right into the dark, when the breeze is merely warm rather than searing and the sky is high and clear with the desert stars. It was near midnight when we decided to cat nap by the roadside; we clambered through a dried up water culvert pipe and over a gravel mound until we found a peaceful little clearing. I guess the upside about the heat is being able to sleep wherever takes your fancy; we just spread the mats out and crashed in our clothes for a few hours until the dawn.
The valley is at its most beautiful in the late afternoon, when the dying sun turns the mud baked buildings into fiery tones of orange and red, and the jurassic mountains behind are thrown into softer relief, the shadows revealing the contours on their sides hacked out by centuries of water flow. They rise up over the thick palmeraies and wide riverbed, creating an immense, ethereal picture, quite a contrast to the harsh white heat of the day. It is nice to come upon a dramatic turning in the road at that time - like where this old ruin stands, about thirty km from Zagora.
Zagora itself is an old military town of the French colonial era. It is the last stop before the desert settlement of M'Hamid, which is where the road ends altogether. Everybody in Zagora has a camel for hire, and on our way into town - when, let me assure you, we were in little mood for being hustled - every would-be bedouin in the vicinity tried to sell us a tour. Neither of us had the energy to explain that the desert trek we have in mind goes rather beyond the obligatory "sunset and sand dune" day trip they would like us to pay an extortionate sum for. Not that our reticence deterred them at all; I guess it must be incredibly frustrating watching all that money just walking away from you. They certainly pursued us with astounding persistance.
We are resting again for a couple of days before the final three day march. Resting and hydrating ourselves thoroughly is the only way we can cope with the conditions; every local we meet shakes their head in amazed disbelief when they realise we are walking, and tell us it is impossible this time of year.
They say "impossible" and I just think of Karl Bushby. I put his link in again here as it doesn't work for some reason on the last page, and this is one man who truly deserves a link and all the support he can get.
Not impossible. Just bloody hard.