On the dusty road from Marrakech to the coastal town of Essaouira, argan trees pepper the rust-colored countryside. The gnarled, thorny plants grown exclusively in southwestern Morocco and western Algeria may not be pretty, but they attract plenty of fans. Herds of hungry goats pose in their crooked branches, sometimes more than one dozen in a single tree.
There's an explanation for the strange phenomenon. Argan trees produce a fruit that looks like a shrivelled olive and ripens each year around June. The resourceful goats crave the bitter taste and aroma, climbing up to 30 feet above ground to get their fix (and up to 84 percent of their diet). The goats eat the whole fruit, even though it's the pulp hiding under the thick peel that tastes so good. The pulp covers a nut that humans desperately covet. So what happens next?
The goats actually excrete the indigestible nuts, traditionally collected to make the oil. Today, mostly Berber women lead the time-consuming process: First, separating animal feed, then cracking open the nuts by hand for their oil-rich kernels to make very expensive cosmetics or food. For example, less than two ounces (50 millilitres) of Josie Maran 100 percent pure argan oil run 48 dollars. That's because it takes more than 60 pounds of fruit to produce one quart of the liquid gold. In Morocco, the argan oil also soaks bread at breakfast or drizzles the top of couscous.
Given the profitable opportunity, some farmers purchase even more goats which ultimately pose threat to the sustainability of the trees. On the flip side, the process opens jobs for local women and draws tourism to the area to witness the unusual sight.
Women's cooperatives seem to make argan oil on every hill in the region. Many places like Marjana cooperative near Ounagha, lead tourists through the production. The windy city of Essaouira offers plenty to do for style-seekers or beach bums with time to spend. But even those tourists just passing through can see the bizarre tree-climbing goats from the road. Need help planning? The Morocco: Sahara & Beyond tour, hosted by National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures, is just one way to go.
Header Image: Goats happily climb up to 30 feet above ground to munch on fruit from the argan tree. PHOTOGRAPH BY ABABSOLUTUM, GETTY IMAGES