One of the couples on our Peregrine Adventures Morocco Explorer tour opted out of our first night group dinner at Casablanca’s The Fleur restaurant to fulfil their lifelong dream and dine at Rick’s Bar.
Every new year, the Chicago couple would crack a bottle of bubbly and settle in to watch their favourite movie, the legendary Casablanca.
Now the legend was to become reality.
Their night was an unfathomable success, let down by only one small glitch.
After downing his first glass of Tanqueray gin and tonic, he was told by the barman that the place had run out of his favourite drop …
“Of all the gin joints in all the world … “
Nonetheless, their adventure raises the question that comes with kicking the bucket list and taking the trip of a lifetime.
Do you experience the amazing sites, fascinating cultures and unforgettable memories of a new country with nothing more than a dog-eared guide book?
Or do you take The Tour?
Our tour leader for the Morocco Explorer tour was the young, affable and multilingual Rachid.
Our group included singles and couples from Canada, the US and Australia.
We were a fairly mixed bunch, but with a fare sum of years between us.
The Casablanca kick-off was brief – the dinner and, the next morning, a one-hour tour of the world’s third-largest mosque, the Hassan 11 Mosque, built over six years, financed through a special tax and opened in 1993.
With a sliding roof above and vast passages below, it was big and breathtaking.
Rachid had taken care of the tour tickets and the bus was waiting for the trip to the nation’s capital Rabat, where we took in Roman ruins, the mausoleum of Mohammed V and the high-walled Kasbah residential area.
The Kasbah was beautiful, with its white-washed and blue-washed houses with thick doors and glassless windows.
That night over dinner – all evening meals are more or less arranged and some are included in the tour price – we each gave Rachid 250 dirham (about $A30) so he could take care of the tips for services at hotels, restaurants and tours.
All breakfasts are provided.
After the night and then a morning exploring the sites and markets at Meknes, we’re back in the bus, and on through the olive groves and onion patches to the ancient Roman settlement at Volubilis.
We wander through the ruins with our guide who bares an uncanny resemblance and demeanour to American gangster actor Joe Pesci.
Then it’s off to the magnificent walled city of Fez for a couple of nights’ stay in a beautiful riad.
With their rooms stacked on top of each other and overlooking a central garden area, our accommodation is uniquely Middle Eastern, exciting and fun.
Everyone loosens up after a long day, with chatter and laughter bouncing between rooms and then dinner.
We’re getting to know each other as new friends do.
Rachid gathers us. He appears more solemn than usual.
He warns us of the mad crowd, the pick-pockets, spruikers, touters and raconteurs waiting for us the next day at the market in Fez’s old medina.
He says they will try and split the group, but he will take up the rear while another guide leads.
If we are lost, we are not to move: we must stay put until help arrives.
I want to bow my head then shout Banzai, but this would be a totally inappropriate clash of cultures.
As it turned out, the worst thing that happened was literally two steps from the end of our 10-kilometre walk through the labyrinthine markets and mosques.
One of our group, a US teacher, fell forward on the step and split her lip.
Rachid and Hakima, our guide through the medina rushed to her aid, helped her up and settled her down.
The next day, we visited the little town of Sefrou, where we strolled the streets and enjoyed an arranged lunch with a local family.
As I took in some fresh air, walking to the corner outside our hosts’ house, a little girl, aged about six, kept me company, excitedly pointing to the school across the street and saying “mon ecole, mon ecole!”
On the way back to Fez, our mini bus suffered a mechanical problem, getting stuck on second gear.
The next day with gearstick fixed, we drive through the Mid Atlas Mountains to the foot of the snowy Upper Atlas Mountains.
We drive into the arid, rocky, hilly landscape where, in the movie Babel, the character played by Cate Blanchett is shot as she and Brad Pitt’s character travel in a tour bus.
I keep a keen eye out for Berber boys with rifles, but we all arrive safely at the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa by late afternoon.
The next day, we trek into the Sahara, where we ride camels and stay the night at a Berber camp.
We’re up for sunrise, onto our camels, back to the local auberge, a type of basic bed and breakfast, into the bus and a long ride to the M’goun Valley in the High Atlas.
The following day, we take a 10-kilometre hike though the valley.
It’s a rough trek, along ridges and narrow dusty paths as well as across creeks, but it’s worth it and our guides Rachid and Ali lend a steadying hand for those who need it.
The next day, we drive on to Ait Benhaddou, then make our way through the snowy Upper Atlas and on to Marrakech where we spend a couple of days – about 1,500 kilometres from day one to day 13, through countless towns, selling countless tourist nicknacks, with breakfasts and dinners in fine and not so fine hotels in the middle of nowhere and in the heart of bustling cities.
Tour travel is not for everyone, but it offers a benefit that, put simply, allow many of us to enjoy a safe and affordable holiday.
There is no need to worry about where to eat and to stay – it is all organised.
And for the record, the United States couple that missed our first-night dinner became the heart, soul and life of our little group.
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Qantas and its code share partner Emirates run regular flights to Casablanca, with stop-offs at Dubai.
Australians are not required to obtain a visa to enter Morocco, and any airport departure taxes are included in the price of an air ticket.
PLAYING THERE: The Peregrine Adventures Morocco Explorer tour runs for 13 days. It costs $1590 per person twin share. Group sizes range from six to 16, not including a local tour leader/guide and a driver.
* The writer travelled as a guest of Peregrine Adventures.