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In Neolithic times, the Oued Dra -- Morocco's longest river -- flowed all the way to the Atlantic, heading southeast from what is now Ouarzazate before turning directly to the west, around M'hamid. Until this elbow, the Dra watered a string of seven palm groves, including Ternata (Zagora), Fezawata (Amezrou), and M'hamid. The valley of the Dra was warm and humid before it started to drain. Rock carvings in the area depict a tropical land inhabited by elephants, rhinoceros, lions, ostrich, gazelles, and crocodiles. Until modern times, the Dra produced the much-sought-after tainting agents of indigo and a red-color lac (a pigment secreted by a particular family of insects onto the branches of a host tree). The M'hamid palm grove was especially strategic over the centuries as one of the main trading posts for the trans-Saharan caravans. Amber, ivory, musk, salt, and slaves from the south, and fabric, silk, spices, and sugar from the north would be exchanged here along with the local dates, indigo, and lac. Control of the valley was paramount for Morocco's dynasties, and many a sultan came to grief trying to subdue the region's indigenous -- and ferociously independent -- Drawa tribes.

It was from the Dra Valley in the 11th century that Morocco's first great Berber dynasty, the Almoravids, launched their eventual conquest of the country and beyond into Spain. The Saâdians, in the late 16th century, also accumulated vast power and wealth by controlling the Dra, from where their empire extended south to the great Songhai kingdoms of Gao and Timbuktu. Also recognizing the importance of the valley was the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail, who sent his son to govern the Dra for a quarter of a century, building many kasbahs, or ksour, and developing the valley. Peace, however, was a foreigner here for most of Morocco's history until the French eventually pacified the area in 1931.

Since the 1990s, the region has experienced a new invasion -- 4WDs speeding through the villages on their way to a Saharan experience. This has attracted a generation of blue-turban touts and guides who pounce on independent travelers in desperation for much-needed work. Those who are driving, especially, should be aware of the touts' age-old scam of hitching a ride "to see my brother in the next village," or "my car is broken and I need to get to the village for repairs," or of tales that small vehicles can't make the journey all the way to M'hamid. The heat here, however, breeds a patient and unhurried person, and for the most part the touting for business is low-key and not too obtrusive.

The road from Ouarzazate to Zagora is simply spectacular, as it first winds up and across the Jebel Anaouar before joining the Dra Valley and its fertile strip of palmeraie and settlements. From Zagora, the landscape is that of the harsh hammada (barren plains of hardened dirt and stone); this prepares travelers for the end of the road at M'hamid and the bumpy journey -- or slow camel ride -- to the edge of the Sahara.