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 -but it is powerfully impressive. The quote from Paul Bowles may sound over the top. but staying at M'hamid or Merzouga, or just stopping a car on a desert road between towns, somehow has this effect.There is, too, an irresistible sense of wonder as you catch a first glimpse of the great southern river vallys -the Drâa, Dadès, Todra, Ziz and tafilalt. long 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 Fes and out across the Sahara to Timbuktu, Niger and old Sudan, carrying gold, slaves and salt well into the nineteenth century.They are beautiful routes, even today, tamed by modern roads and with the oases in decline, and if you're travelling in Morocco for any length of time, they are must. The simplest Morocco tours Marrakesh-Zagora-Marrakesh, or Marrakesh-Tinerhir-Midelt- can be covered in around five days, though to do them any degree of justice you need a lot longer.
The southern oases were long a mainstay of the precolonial economy. Their wealth and the arrival of tribes from the desert, provided the impetus for two of the great royal dynasties :the saadians (1154-1669) from the Drâa Valley, and the present ruling family, the Alaouites (1669) from the tafilalt. By the nineteenth century, however, the advance of the Sahara and the uncertain upkeep of the water channels 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 after independence. The pattern of the last twenty-five years has been one of steady emigration to the northern cities.
Today, there are a few urban centres in the south; Ouarzazate and Er Rachidia are the largest and both were created by the French to 'pacify' the south; they seem only to underline the end of an age. Although the date harvests in October, centred on Erfoud can 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-the latter developed by the French around El Kelâa des Mgouna for the production of rose-water and perfume in May. And to make matters worse, in recent years the seasonal rains have frequently failed. Perhaps as much as half the male population of the ksour now seeks work in the north for at least part of the year.
Tourism brings in a little money, particularty to Ouarzazate and Zagora - once the Gate of the Desert (fifty-two days to Timbuktu) but it too has declined in the 1990s, leaving many hotels empty or, in the case of Ouarzazate, unfinished.