Mystical Morocco

The real wonder of Morocco is what a strong barrier the Straits of Gibraltar turn out to be. Less than two hours after leaving Spain and Europe in the wake of my high speed ferry I was most definitely in the different world of North Africa.

With images of Bogart and Bergman in "Casablanca", Lord Byron's "Don Juan" in Fez and, I admit, Crosby Stills and Nash singing "Marrakesh Express" my expectations of Morocco were confused. As I'd travelled through Spain to the ferry that morning I'd been able to see the mountains of Morocco rising above the blue Mediterranean. Africa was so close - would it merely be South Torremolinos, replete with discos and burger joints? Fortunately, the 1999 version of "The Mummy" with its origins in the Moroccan desert hadn't been released so I didn't have those images to further complicate the picture.

I had my own transport so my plan was to immediately leave the coast to strike inland to Fez. The first impression was that I'd passed to a world where women had all but disappeared. In one market town there were perhaps a thousand people milling in the main square - three of them were women.

That first afternoon in Africa was surreal. Every hundred metres a young man standing by the roadside would try to flag me down. The road was mountainous ands winding so I could hardly accelerate away from them. In all directions I could see more running towards the roadside desperate to attract my attention. Several cars passed me then stopped so I had to stop too. After an hour it was beyond a joke and I thought of retreating to Spain. I kept some humour by trying to imagine a similar scene in Germany or Sweden.

Only that night did I read the Lonely Planet guide section which began "if you've ever dreamed about car chases . . . the Rif Mountains are the heart of Kif ([marijuana] country and . . . kif dealers line the road . . . forcing you to pull over."

As I turned towards Fez the dealers disappeared and, as if I had to pass through a baptism of fire, there were no more bad experiences ahead of me. South of the thieves of Tangier and the drug dealers of the Rif, is the Morocco of travel fantasies: vast exotic souks, hidden mountain villages, cubist cities and hospitable people.

Fez is one of the most intriguing cities in the world. The attraction lies in Fes el-Bali where the medina is a convoluted car-less place of infinite complexity. Within a few steps from the cacophony of traffic and the glare of the African sun you are lost in an Islamic medieval city little changed in the past 500 years. Elaborate mosques and multi-hued tanneries, the gleam of copper and brass, the scent of mint tea and strange spices and the sounds of hawkers and goats compete in total sensory overload. It is impossible not to get lost and the covered, narrow streets don't allow you to see a shadow to reorientate yourself.

In 1955 John Gunther wrote: "if you like your romance dark, Fez is probably the most romantic city on earth. It might have been dreamed up by Edgar Allan Poe - almost sinister in its secretiveness, a twisted city warped and closed." In today's homogenised travel world, Fez is a highlight of endless fascination. Or perhaps I just like my romance dark.

Sadly despite its image, Casablanca is a pale shadow of its former self when it lay at the heart of so many international intrigues. At the turn of the century one wit wrote that "at Casa Blanca consuls abound of course, so do hyenas - that is outside the town - but both are harmless and furnish little sport." Now they have all moved on and most travellers will too.

The city most closely associated with exotic Morocco is Marrakesh, lying as an oasis below the snow-capped mountains of the High Atlas. It's a pink city of palaces, minarets and orange groves, a city where fountains splash into green lawns. Watching the sun set over Jemaa el Fna, the great square of the Medina, is a moment to savour. You won't be alone as Marrakesh is firmly on every tourist itinerary but as the gas lamps fire up at the hundreds of orange juice stands and the story tellers draw their crowds as they have for hundreds of years, that hardly matters.

While Fez seems like a chapter from 1001 Arabian Nights, Marrakesh is firmly anchored in Africa. From here it's a short drive across the mountains to the edge of the Sahara Desert. More accessible are the valleys that cut deep into the southern side of the High Atlas (the other mountains of Morocco are the Middle Atlas and a smaller range that no doubt qualifies as the Street Directory or Pocket Atlas). The Dades and Todra valleys are a sublime blend of high-walled gorges glowing red in the clear air, Berber villages apparently unchanged over generations, welcoming kasbahs and tranquil green palm groves.

There are moments in rural Morocco when the whole experience seems such a cliché that you almost look for the neon "Morocco-land" sign. Then you realise that everyone else in the village was born here and strangers are regarded as a welcome diversion. Somehow Europe has overlooked the remarkably exotic world that lies at its back door. I expected Morocco to be a variation on the pre-packaged plastic travel experience that so much of Europe has become. Instead I found a land as hauntingly moving as Bali must have been in the '50s and Nepal was in the '60's. It appears that everyone missed the Marrakesh Express - and travellers seeking the unusual should be thankful that they did.


World Expeditions offers a 20 day Morocco Adventure that includes a seven day trek, a camel safari in the Sahara and time in Fez and Marrakesh. It operates between April and September and costs $2990 if you join in Casablanca or from $5060 ex Sydney.


David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd