Rocking the kasbah … Djemaa el-Fna square and Koutoubia Minaret.
You do not take the stairs to the roof of Cafe Glacier in Marrakesh for the indifferent service, and certainly not for the scandalous prices. You are here for the view, because when the sun dies and the muezzin sounds from the Koutoubia Minaret, what unfolds below is a scene that might have come from Game of Thrones.
The great plaza below is the Jemaa el-Fnaa. When shadows lengthen, a human tide seeps into the plaza from the souk behind, forming whirlpools around the acrobats, snake charmers, Koran readers, Berber musicians, fortune tellers, dervishes, performing monkeys, trance healers and sellers of medicinal bark and fetishes. As the sun dips lower, the open-air food stalls erupt in bursts of flame as flambé pans ignite, a culinary inheritance from Morocco's French colonial days.
Part circus, part history lesson but mostly just a series of chapters from the book of earthly wonders, Morocco is a soul-stealing place. Its pre-eminent feature is the Atlas Mountains, which divide the green, fertile, secular Morocco of the coast from the harsh, wizened, fundamentalist interior. If you want nothing more than a suntan and a souvenir fez, the coastal side will do nicely. On the other hand, if you want to feel the hot breath of the Sahara on your face, experience the dry rustle of date palms in a desert oasis and the austere geometry of mud brick and desert minaret, you must cross the Atlas Mountains.
Three hours out of Marrakesh, the road crests the high pass at Tizi n'Tichka and suddenly, the land dries up. No trees, no towns, no water – only a blinding wilderness beneath a solid, luminous sky. A void, and yet one that tugs at the imagination. Crowning the peaks that retreat into the distance is a line of crumbling forts, the lonely former outposts of the French Foreign Legion.
The main city of this region is Ouarzazate, and so perfectly do its mud-brick palaces, dunes, desiccated landscape and decaying forts fit the stereotyped image of a desert outpost that it has become the Hollywood of the Sahara. From Lawrence of Arabia to Prince of Persia, filmmakers have long used Ouarzazate and its surrounds as a backdrop.
The city is also the starting point for the Kasbah Trail, the 250-kilometre road that runs north-east to Errachidia. A kasbah is a large, fortified house surrounded by high mud walls, and if you ignore the electricity wires and the occasional satellite dish, it is a landscape straight out of the Old Testament.
Just south of Errachidia at the eastern end of the Kasbah Trail, Erfoud is home to a handful of surprisingly plush hotels built in traditional style. The attraction is not so much Erfoud itself as its location – the town is located at the northern gateway to the Tafilalt, a small but fascinating group of oases on the fringe of the Sahara Desert.
The southernmost gasp of civilisation in the Tafilalt is Rissani, surrounded by crumbling kasbahs that hint at the splendours that once surrounded the masters of the Salt Road, the trade route that ran south to Ghana. While the town may lack some of its colour now that gold and slave auctions are a thing of the past, market day still brings to Rissani the dashing Tuareg – the Blue Men, whose skins are stained by the indigo dye of their robes.
Essential to the Erfoud experience is the excursion to see the sun rise over the dunes at Merzouga. This is the first solid manifestation of the Sahara, a rippling sea of sand that stretches south towards Algeria. The trip from Erfoud begins with a 4.30am wake-up call, followed by a fast ride in a packed jeep across a stony waste and finally, a trek across the dunes to an auspicious photo point.
So fine is the sand that even a slight wind will cause it to drift. On this morning, the wind blows in savage blasts that lifts the sand in a yellow veil, throwing the dunes into soft focus. While we wait for the sun to struggle above the horizon, Tayeb, my guide, snuggles down on the leeward side of the dune and falls asleep. Finally, sunlight spills across the dunes, cameras click and we turn back for coffee. Bending to wake Tayeb, I make two discoveries. First, with my ear close to the ground, the wind passing over the sand makes a quavering, high-pitched song that I remember from musicians in Marrakesh. And Tayeb isn't sleeping but listening.
TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP
Quickest route is Qantas to Dubai, Emirates to Casablanca, then Royal Air Maroc to Marrakesh.
Where to Stay
Riyad Al Moussika (riyad-al-moussika.com) is a former palace located in the old quarter of Marrakesh. The hotel has just six rooms, set around a courtyard. Doubles start at about $285 a night, including airport transfers and breakfast. Riad Baraka & Karam (eng-riadkaram.blogspot.com.au) is less opulent, yet delivers authentic style and comfortable rooms from about $86 a night.
What to wear
Cool, light-coloured, loose fitting clothing and hats. And cover up – bare legs and sleeveless tops will attract attention if you're a woman, mockery if you're not.
What to drink
Tea with green mint is the national beverage, usually taken with a sugar lump or three. Mahia is the local firewater, made from fermented dates and flavoured with aniseed. Try it with orange juice, grenadine, ice and a twist of orange peel.
French will help, but learn a few Arabic phrases:
Hello. Salaam a eleikum.
Thank you. Shukran.
Goodbye. Ma'a salaama.
Getting lost in the souk in Marrakesh.
A camel ride across the dunes.
A Berber carpet.
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.
For more information go to visitmorocco.com.