THE ROAD BEST TRAVELLED Part 1: Marrakech – Merzouga (Erg Chebbi)

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Morocco is one of those countries where the journey is the destination. Yes, you’ll tell stories about the amazing cities, the beaches, the mountains, the desert… but never without also remembering the road.

We’re heading to the Erg Chebbi desert from Marrakech. I love the road between Marrakech and Merzouga, and I’ve travelled it in both directions. If you start from Fes, you experience this road after you have visited the desert, and if you start from Marrakech, it is your approach to the desert.

Oh, but I can’t leave before first making a pit stop at the medina for my supply of road food. Morocco has the best! Raisins and dried fruit, dates, honeyed nuts and salted almonds…  I’ll watch for oranges, grapes and other seasonal fruit at roadside stands along the way.

We pick up the road in the direction of Ouarzazate, which time-wise, is about halfway to Merzouga, and our destination for today. Soon, the brashness of the busy center gives way to quiet suburbs, and then the walled villas on the outskirts of the city. The road itself is always busy. It’s narrow, bordered by rough shoulders of broken, irregular pavement and gravel, and always crowded. Cars compete with pedestrians, donkeys burdened with people and goods, rickety bicycles, and noisy motorbikes usually belching clouds of blue smoke dodging between cars, carts, and bicycles. Somehow, all of this traffic finds its way to its destination, thinning to a few cars and trucks making the approach to the Atlas Mountains through the rocky plains and foothills. Here and there, small collections of mud-brick dwellings cluster along ridges or cling to hillsides. Since they are built from the same rocky clay that surrounds them, it takes little to imagine that they might have just popped out of the ground like mushrooms.

The serious climb begins. Before long, the road traces the contours of the rocky slopes, back and forth, revealing with each new bend in the road another jaw-dropping vista from a panoramic ridge or across another sweeping valley.

Ah! The sign for Taddart! I look forward to this stop every time. Taddart itself is a busy little place, always looking a bit tattered and somehow frantic. There are always gouts of blue smoke belching from one outdoor grill restaurant or another, people shouting, pedestrians everywhere, vehicles lurching onto the roadway… kids darting between people and animals… And then, just a little distance out of town, there is a women’s co-operative where both culinary and cosmetic argan oil products are made. There’s a cafe next door where you can get a snack and something to drink, and also a shop where you can find geodes and other minerals as well as souvenirs like scarves and hand-painted plates.

But it’s the women’s co-operative I like to visit. The first time I came here, I was obliged to watch the local women demonstrate the traditional method of producing the oil. In carefully-schooled English (or the European language of your choice), a young woman from the co-operative explained each step of the process, demonstrated by one of the local women sitting on the floor in front of me. (A little voice in the back of my westernized mind begs to be told that this process is mechanized… it must be, it MUST be…)

If the nuts are first roasted, the resulting oil has a nutty flavor and is used only for culinary purposed. (The paste is reconstituted with a little of the nutty-flavored oil to create “amlou”, not unlike almond or peanut butter and used the same way. Look for it on the breakfast table at your riad.)  The oil from unroasted nuts is used for cosmetic purposes, and this is what I come for!  I suppose if I lived here, I would certainly buy some of the oil for cooking, but as a traveller, especially one headed for the desert, I like to stock up on lotions and potions!

I love the little pots of lip balm, and use it several times a day while I’m in Morocco. There are always one or two floating around in the front console of the car. There is body lotion and hand cream, most of which have had some other aromatic or essential oil added, either to lend homeopathic qualities to the product beyond what is attributed to argan oil itself, or just to add extra lusciousness! There must be a dozen different ones, including rose, lemon, orange, verbena, cinnamon, rosemary… so many. I adore the honey-scented hand cream, and take at least two pots to last me through my time in the desert, more if I’m not expecting to return the same way back. Of course, there are lots of women’s co-operatives throughout Morocco that make argan products, but this is one of the few who offer one with honey.

Got my stash!

Back in the car – next stops: Tichka Pass, Ait Ben Haddou, and then Ouarzazate for the night!

Private desert tours  ·  Morocco travel · Morocco desert trek · Authentic travel Morocco

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