Morocco a feast for the senses
THE singing woman dressed in colourful traditional clothes and bells was shimmying her way towards us.
My fellow travellers looked at one another with flashes of nervousness as we were plucked from the crowd to join the swirling action on the dance floor. It was hard not to laugh at one another as we were robed in bright outfits and bungled through dance steps in time to the local folk band.
We were high in the Atlas Mountains at Midelt, Morocco, almost a week into our 14-day Gecko's guided tour, which had started in Casablanca. Together with our helpful and friendly guide Yusuf, our group of 15 travellers from Australia and the UK had visited this city's towering King Hassan II Mosque.
Finished in 1993, this national religious structure was built into the sea by more than 6000 craftsmen using natural resources, such as cedar, marble and granite.
Travelling overland by modern train and bus, our next stops included historic Meknes — once an imperial city under Moulay Ismail in the 17th Century — and then the bustle and bedlam of Fes with its more than one million residents. Long known as a political and artistic centre, the UNESCO-listed city's car-free medina, Fes El Bali, is believed to be the largest in the world and includes homes, shops, mosques, a tannery, and the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, the ninth century University of Al Karouine.
After exploring the jam-packed alleyways of the souk, it was refreshing to travel south across plains and mountains to tranquil Midelt, where we walked through olive and corn fields to a rugged river gorge for sunset.
The next day, the landscape changed to a sea of shimmering orange sand as our group headed west towards Merzouga and the Sahara. Here, local tribesmen, dressed in brilliant blue, helped us on to camels that led us effortlessly past 150-metre high dunes to a simple camp of tents and carpets. Spending the night beneath a clear starry sky and getting up early to watch the sun rise over one of the world's largest deserts was a definite highlight of the tour.
Returning to civilisation, we headed to the oasis of Todra Gorge.
This spectacular canyon narrows around the road to about 10m wide in places and tempts rock climbers with 160m high rock walls.
Continuing along the road to Marrakesh, we saw many mud-brick villages and kasbahs, including the 17th Century high-walled garrison town of Ait Ben Haddou. But finally we wound our way safely through the high mountain pass Tizi 'n' Tichka (2260m) to the city below.
Founded in 1070 by Berber leader Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, Marrakesh is today home to more than one million people.
We dove in headfirst with a visit to the main square, Jemaa el Fna, which is reported to be one of the busiest in the world. At all times, especially from sunset, this iconic cultural space bubbles with the noise and energy of snake charmers, monkey handlers, fire breathers, fortune tellers, acrobats, dancers, storytellers, and medicine men. There are also stallholders selling everything from king-sized dates to bowls of warmed snails.
It is easy to while away hours watching the spectacle but there are many other sights worth seeing, such as the former royal palace (Palais el-Bahia), the city's many beautiful gardens, or simply exploring the mindboggling range of shops in the souk.
But we were after a slower, relaxed atmosphere to end our two-week journey and headed for the pretty port of Essaouira, a few hours bus ride away.
Featuring white-washed homes with blue shutters and a long inviting beach, the fishing town's peaceful vibe and cool sea breezes force you to unwind.
As we dined on freshly caught seafood, it only seemed natural to make a toast to this amazing and beautiful country, with its proud heritage, diverse landscapes, intricate architecture and friendly people.
Morocco is a true feast for the senses.
The writer was a Gecko's guest and received a tour discount.