It is just under 200 km from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, and yet, it’s a solid four-hour trip if you drive with appropriate care. If you don’t – that is, if you speed – you can arrive about 15 minutes soon. Or never.

There are lots of reminders as to what part of the world you’re driving in. For instance, the road through the mountains is no wider than it strictly needs to be, although in fairness, it’s far better in 2017 than it was when I first started coming to Morocco in 2013. At that time, it was a solid five-hour drive. Morocco was hit with devastating rains in December 2014, and across the country, rivers multiplied in size many-fold in the space of hours, washing out roads and bridges, sweeping away cars, houses, and of course, people. This road through the Atlas Mountains was also severely affected.

Despite limited resources for infrastructure, the country seized this as an opportunity to give many of its roads and highways a total makeover, and major sections of the mountain highway were straightened out and/or rerouted away from the previously narrow ledges, largely by ruthlessly punching through solid rock. (It’s still common to see crews of men breaking rock with hand tools to make roads in the rural areas.)

These newer sections are not only wider and better-paved, but they now have guardrails. Yes, you got that: the newer sections do. The older sections… not so much. In fact, sometimes not at all, OK? Nothing’s left to the imagination up here, either. On many a corner, there are skid marks attesting to the fact that something went over the edge. So, we don’t speed. Even so, as we go around some of the curves, Imad sees me reaching for the arm rest on the car door. He laughs and teases me: “Don’t you trust me?” I say, “I trust YOU – it’s all of these other people I don’t trust.” This is true.

The high point of the route – literally – is the Tichka Pass (Tizi n Tichka) at 2260 meters or 7415 feet above sea level. There is a tourist centre with a few souvenir shops, a cafe, and a large pylon marking the height of land in the middle of the parking lot, but just a little further down the road, you can pull off onto a rough track where you can park and clamber up the hillside for a panoramic view of the road and the barren rocky valleys on either side of the pass. Once in a while, you might spot the faint movement of a flock of sheep being driven to a new pasture. The fact that the movement is scarcely perceptible accentuates the immensity of the landscape.

And then at my elbow… the softest “Madame, madame…” I swear, they materialize from the rocks themselves. You can be sure that if you stop at any viewpoint or roadside turnout, local residents or children will materialize out of thin air with something they’d like to sell you. (Or in the case of children, sometimes just to beg.) Irritating, yes. But you can’t blame them for trying when there are no realistic employment options out here. And at least they DO try. Moroccans are hard-working people disinclined to sit on their hands. These roadside entrepreneurs can usually be discouraged with a gentle “la, shukran” – “no, thank you”. And if not, Imad directs a stream of Arabic at them that has the desired effect. It’s probably something like “BUZZ OFF”. Something like that.

Still, there’s value to be had in these-here hills. Shopping for pottery? Stop anywhere in the Atlas Mountains south or southeast of Marrakech. Between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, up in the higher reaches, there are probably half a dozen or so little shops, tattered-looking little buildings – or even huts – outside which there are often fairly impressive scaffolds made of odd bits of branches and/or metal bar that incongruously support dozens of the most beautiful hand-painted bowls and plates you can imagine. The colors are bright, intense, gorgeous! The designs are almost unfailingly intricate, speaking eloquently of the time and patience poured into each one. They are typically made from the local clay by the local people, and if you go into the little nearby villages, you can often find their workshops.

I think of the plates on these outdoor displays as “sacrificial lambs”, because they are subjected to the relentless abuse of the elements, and many are chipped or cracked from being whacked by flying rocks and gravel, so close to the road as they are. Nevertheless, they draw… and if you stop and go inside the shop, there you will find the real treasures. These are the same pottery pieces that find their way into the souqs of all the bigger towns and cities. But when you buy them along the road, you know exactly where your piece has been made, and you will pay less, of course. Improbable as it may seem, when you see car after car zoom by without stopping, Imad says these people make a good living from these shops.

This time, I’ve resisted adding to my rather significant collection, but only because there are other things I want to bring home this time.

We’re off – on to Ouarzazate!

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


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