Where the kasbahs star

The mud-brick forts of the High Atlas fended off invaders for centuries - until Hollywood came along, writes Lee Atkinson.

A KASBAH is a bit like a lamington: fancy-looking and full of promise on the outside but a bit bland, boring and empty on the inside. Or at least the one I'm sitting in is. On the outside it's a fairy-tale concoction of crenellated ramparts, pointy-tipped towers and red pise (rammed earth) parapets decorated with ancient Berber symbols carved into the walls.

Inside, however, it's just a set of dark and dank empty rooms linked by an equally dark and dank winding staircase. Still, it's a great place to sit on the floor with your back to the wall and a glass of mint tea as you discuss the merits of Spanish A-league football with the owner's son and a welcome rest stop on a day-long walk though the Valley of the Roses.

The Vallee des Roses is a tight slithering valley in the stony High Atlas Mountains of central Morocco, better known as the Valley of 1000 Kasbahs. In spring, the terraced fields that hang above the threaded M'Goun River will be a riot of pink blooms that will strike a stunning contrast to the orange, purple, yellow and red banded mountains.

But we're here at the tail end of winter and the dense hedgerows of wild roses are just bare thorny bushes, although the pocket-sized fields are thick with the green shoots of young barley and broad beans and the almond trees are swathed in snow-white blossoms.

As we trek through the fields, we pass tiny women bent double under impossibly heavy loads of firewood strapped to their backs (I tried to lift one, much to the hilarious delight of the women but could not stand under the weight, let alone walk for hours up and down hillsides), diminutive donkeys laden with equally heavy loads and cheeky school kids on their way home for lunch. We wander through remote Berber villages where all the buildings are the same colour as the mountainside they cling to - they are after all, made from the same mud - and the old women have chin tattoos that match the symbols carved into the walls of the houses.

Each village clusters around a ruined kasbah or ksar - the fortified houses and watchtowers that speak of a tumultuous history of fending off invaders - and a mosque. Brightly coloured carpets covered in geometric designs hang from window ledges, goats bleat from rooftops and chickens squawk from behind mud brick walls. Our day-long trek is just one highlight of a five-day journey across central Morocco, from Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara not far from the Algerian border to Marrakesh, along a route nicknamed the Road of 1000 Kasbahs.

We'd set off in the midst of a Hollywood-style sand storm, badly tied makeshift turban tails swirling behind us in the wind, our ears, eyes and nostrils full of the red-gold Sarhara sand, watching the massive desert dunes reshape themselves as our convoy of camels lumbered to our Bedouin camp for the night.

By dawn, the desert is calm and beautiful and we hit the road that flanks the snow-capped High Atlas, leaving the now serene sands behind, taking time to walk through hidden gorges and peer down from hill-top vantage points at oasis-like palmeraies - river valleys full of date palms - that dot the otherwise barren desert landscape, before reaching Kelaa M'Gouna and its beautiful valley of roses.

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We spend two nights here in a Berber house with great views, dodgy plumbing and some of the best home-style cooking we find anywhere in Morocco.

At Ouarzazate we wander through the partly ruined Taourirt Kasbah. Once the home of the former Pasha of Marrakesh - who, legend has it, was famous for his thousands of slaves and hundreds of wives - the rambling kasbah still features beautiful painted ceilings from the 17th century. These days, the labyrinthine dungeons are out of bounds but much of the rest of the complex has been used as a movie backdrop. In fact, Ouarzazate is Morrocco's Mollywood and the surrounding countryside with its sand dunes, palm-filled valleys, snow-capped mountains and fairy-tale like castles and kasbahs has stood in for Tibet, Rome, Egypt and Somalia in numerous movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator.

Many of the blockbusters were filmed at nearby Ait Benhaddou, the biggest and grandest mud-brick kasbah of them all. These days the World Heritage-listed hill-top fortress is home to just eight families. The fortified city hasn't changed much since it was built in the 11th century and most former inhabitants prefer to live in the more modern village across the river.

On the day we visit they have been left stranded by the rising floodwaters of the usually dry river at its base, now a raging torrent of fast-moving red mud uncrossable by the donkeys that usually ferry locals and visitors.

We climb ever upwards as we cross the High Atlas on the breathtaking mountain road called the Tizi n'Tichka, which winds its way in a series of hairpin bends, blind corners and switchback turns to more than 2260 metres above sea level - making it the highest mountain pass in Morocco - before descending to cross the plains towards the hustle and bustle and open-air theatre of Marrakesh.

It may just be a trick of the light but time really does seem to move slowly on the Road of 1000 Kasbahs.

Trip notes

Getting there

Etihad flies to Casablanca from Sydney three times a week, via Abu Dhabi. Fares start about $1800 return. etihadairways.com.

Getting around

We travelled the Road of 1000 Kasbahs as part of a 12-night tour of Morocco with Peregrine Adventures, which cost $2195. peregrineadventures.com or call 1300 854 500.

Further information

visitmorocco.com.