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Exploring Morocco’s Salt Trail from Marrakech to Zagora

“Silver fever” – is that a thing? If it is, my wife has it. We’ve climbed mountains in Mexico, scoured the banks of the River Nile and now Moroccan silver was on Cheryl’s radar. Luckily, exploring Morocco’s Salt Trail from Marrakech to Zagora has an upside as there was a very real prospect of journeying to the edge of the Sahara to track it down. Perhaps we should’ve saved ourselves some effort and placed an add, perhaps the Moroccan Tribune, the Casablanca Bugle (just a guess) –

Wanted – Moroccan Silversmith, have camera, will travel

Note, there’s no financial commitment there (in case Cheryl actually reads this).

Morocco

At the risk of taking something away from every other destination I’ve labelled as “special”, Morocco really is. I grew up on Warner Brothers cartoons. Daffy Duck defending an exotic fort somewhere in a desert. Had no idea where, but it looked really cool. What would be even cooler is that this place might exist… and bugger me, it does. I’d never been anywhere that so embodied the imagery that popular culture had borrowed. Driving out to the “silver town” of Zagora will take you past postcard after cliche. Over and over again. Wadis cradled by barren mountains, magnificent Kasbah turrets peaking out over palm trees. Donkeys, carts and goat herders wandering into the desert abyss.

Aït Benhaddou

A bus trip across the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech was meant as the first leg on a round trip to the seaside town of Essaouira. The second day into it we had found ourselves at Aït Benhaddou, waking to the sight of the magnificent Kasbah – a world heritage site that has featured on screen in the likes of “Gladiator” & “Game of Thrones”.

Our host, Brahim (if I remember his name correctly), skillfully coaxed us into his store under the pretext of sharing a mint tea. He mentions the prospect of buying some of his Moroccan silver.

Silver?

That bastard, he must have known. Somehow, Brahim had spotted the glint of silver in Cheryl’s eye and was now exploiting a poor… actually privileged, but vulnerable silver addict. Joking aside, I was more enamoured by his skill in carving sugar lumps from what I thought was a door stop. I’ve long since given in to Cheryl’s silver fetish.

Brahim explained how much of Morocco’s silver was made in Zagora, a place that really is on the edge of the abyss. One of the last significant populations in Morocco before you hit the Sahara. For centuries Zagora was a popular stop along the famed “Salt Trail” – just 52 days by camel from Timbuktu.

Moroccan SilverImage above by Dennis Jarvis

It was decided then, we hired a car in Ouarzazate and set out on the 165km drive along route N9 to Zagora. The roads are surprisingly good, it’s an easy drive and the biggest consideration is the amount of time you will spend rubber necking and detouring. Like much of Morocco, it’s open country with very little vegetation, mostly vast mountains rising from desert planes punctuated by wadis and surrounding pisé architecture. There is a lot to see, looking back on it I can’t believe it was only 165 kilometres, we easily chewed up a day exploring the sights by the roadside alone.

Zagora

The town/city of Zagora (pop. 35,000) is a major trading post for the southern area. Dates are a big industry, the green of the farms spread from the city to the river, great for exploring. For travellers this is where you get that “Lawerence of Arabia” experience. Sand dunes and sunsets. There are tour operators that’ll give you a taste of the Sahara on camel back and if you are luckier than us, or perhaps more organised, you’ll be there on a Wednesday or Sunday when the regional Souq is really kicking off. Since we’ve been to Zagora there has been a street art initiative… Duhhh, would’ve loved to have seen that.

2 images above by Richard Allaway

We arrived by late afternoon and decided to treat ourselves by booking into the Hôtel Reda – a magnificent “Kasbah” style hotel by the Draa River, Morocco’s longest river at 1100 kilometres. The treat kind of back-fired, it was hard to drag ourselves away from the opulence and out into the real world. An evening stroll in a very pleasant and laid back town, a few enquiries and we had our appointment with Mohamed for the following day to see the “silver factory”. Or so we thought, Arabic not being our mother tongue.

The Silver Factory

We’ve been in a few situations where you look around and wonder if this was such a good idea. We weren’t there yet but perhaps that’s indicative of how little thought we had put into it. We met Mohamed in the morning, along with his cousin… Mohamed, apparently he was taking us to see the elusive silversmith at work in the “silver factory”. We had visions of vats of molten silver and bustling Moroccans with safety glasses and leather aprons, instead we were lead into an abandon maze of buildings on the outskirts of town. This is when I start looking around and ‘begin to wonder’. By now it was just Cheryl and myself, some expensive camera gear and three Mohameds (I’m not sure where the third one came from). Around the time we were both sending and receiving looks of concern we entered a really dark building.

Really dark

Mohamed beckons us in, we’re the trusting sort so we follow. Under a skylight he whips out a piece of metal. I shat myself. At the time I had no idea what it was, I later found out that it was the rough cast of a silver Berber bracelet. He showed it off proudly, explained a few things in Arabic – we nodded (no idea) – he disappeared into another cavern. Again we followed.

A heaving sound, a bit of darkness then… the light. An elderly silversmith was bobbing on his haunches in the corner of darkness and dust, a young man was pumping the bellows. Sparks and sand were flying, molten silver was spilling. The silversmith shuffled about in his slippers pointing and grumbling. I’m not sure if he was annoyed at his protege or at our presence, before long Mohamed beckoned us away, so I’m guessing it was the latter.

Strangely enough, Mohamed made no attempt to sell us anything. We gave him some money for his time, he didn’t ask for it. He had no finished products, just a rough cast of a silver Berber bangle. Our sojourn had peaked. Ten minutes with an artisan in relative darkness on the edge of the Sahara and that was it. I’d suggest he’s sales technique needed some work but in the absence of products to sell I can only imagine he was just being a good guy. Sharing an aspect of his culture, an artisan displaying skills that have been passed down for centuries.

Travel Tips & Information

When to go to Morocco

It can get hot. Temperatures can hit 50 C (120 F) inland during the summer. I’d be recommending Morocco at it’s most fertile – Spring, March to May then Autumn, September to October.

Safety & Etiquette

Extreme caution has been advised, especially in recent times. It’s been awhile since we were there, but we had little trouble. Morocco is one of the most liberal of Muslim countries, which is to say… “when in Rome”. Men and women should show respect by at least covering their shoulders. We didn’t wear shorts either but plenty of foreigners did. If you’re female and find yourself alone with a group of men approaching you’ll likely be hassled, especially of you are dressed “provocatively”.

Getting to Zagora

Car Rental

We picked up ours in Ouarzazate via a local rental after a bus ride from Marrakech. If I had our time again I’d be hiring a car from Marrakech, the roads are decent and quiet outside of the city and you can’t beat the autonomy.

Bus & Train

Bus tours will remove a bit of stress (and freedom). You could do a prearranged private tour from Casablanca or Marakech, or jump on the Supratour bus service , an extension of Morocco Rail (the train ends at Marrakech). We caught the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh but it was tricky finding the right platform and train, I’m a tad embarrassed to say that we ended up in Rabat before a lovely lady suggested we get out and go back the other way.

Flying

Flights are from Casablanca via Royal Air Maroc, in just under 2 hours (safety regulation is questionable), I’m not sure it’s worth flying over all of that lovely scenery unless you plan on coming back by road (or vice versa).

Where to stay in Morocco

We use Airbnb whenever the opportunity pops up – it has in Morocco. We run our own place in Port Douglas, Australia so know the system pretty well and for us it’s the most user-friendly of the private holiday rental apps. If you are planning to stay anywhere for longer than 2 nights, click here to set up an Airbnb account, you’ll likely get more bang for your buck.

If hotels are your thing try the Hotels Combined search engine which is set for Morocco or you can follow the links below via Agoda’s banners, we’ve used them and do get a small commission if you book through them… what a nice gesture🤞

Marakech

 

Ouarzazate

 

Zagora

Map – Exploring Morocco’s Salt Trail from Marrakech to Zagora

Reading material on Morocco

Credits

Whilst most of the images are our own we did get some help from the some talented individuals, we like to give credit when it’s due! If you click their links under the images you will see some fantastic portfolios of passionate travellers and photographers. All images were obtains under the Creative Commons Licensing Agreements

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