Morocco: Keep your shirts on

What do folk in Middle Atlas make of a bunch of sixth-form girls who go round with their faces uncovered - but won't strip for the hammam?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WASN'T exactly culture shock, more a cultural awakening. And it started the minute we got off the plane. "There's a lot of men here, aren't there?" commented Lucy, looking around at the airport's gruff-looking, uniformed personnel. "And they obviously enjoy being in charge."

The roles of men and women in Moroccan society were to be a recurring theme for this group of seven 17- and 18-year-olds from Colchester Sixth Form College, six of whom were girls. I had joined them on a 12-day trekking and cultural holiday in Morocco. For some, this was their first holiday abroad. "I want to show them that there are holidays beyond Ibiza," their teacher, Phil Brighty, explained to me.

On our first day we drive through Agadir, one of Morocco's less attractive tourist resorts, to see what we're not missing. Then we watch boat-builders at work in the port, pass a vast herd of camels being driven across the hills and eat our first tagine - the staple Moroccan meal of mixed vegetables and fish or meat, cooked in a clay dish with a large, funnel-shaped lid. Each dish is shared, and eaten by hand with bread. "It's gorgeous!" raves one of the two Lauras in the group (the one known as "dark Laura") who was to prove ever-positive. "I could eat it for ever."

We drive on to Sidi Ifni, our base for four days' trekking. Once a Spanish enclave in a French protectorate, it is now semi-deserted, with most of its Spanish colonial buildings standing empty, a strange and enigmatic place. Walking around in the evening we pass the deserted Twist Club, closed since 1969, when the Spanish left; the former airport - a vast square of empty land around which the town is built; and the dilapidated Spanish Consulate. It is our first walk through a Moroccan town and impressions of the experience are mixed. "I thought if we wore long sleeves and trousers we wouldn't be conspicuous," comments blonde Laura. "But I feel as if we're almost parading ourselves round the town." Moroccan men sit outside in the cafes and watch us. "Aren't women allowed to drink coffee?" asks one of the girls. Most local women are totally covered, except for their eyes.

Our four-day trek starts the next morning - along with the first rain the area has had for four years. We walk along the Atlantic coast picking prickly pear and figs to eat along the way, past fishermen fishing off the high cliffs, across the raised sea bed, through tribal territories and over hills that from afar look small and undulating, but turn out to be rocky, steep and physically demanding.

With music being such a big part of the average college student's life, it becomes core to this holiday, too. We camp in various beautiful spots along the coast and the group opts for a rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody" under the stars after being treated to Moroccan folk songs by our hosts. We also spend a night in nomad tents at a surreal, Legoland-style hotel, Fort Boujrif. This is the last point of civilisation for many travellers before entering the Sahara; we have showers here (James Brown's "I Feel Good..." was the group's chosen tune), watch a mad German snake-collector charm vipers and cobras, and dance to songs sung by the hotel staff.

All along we are tended to and encouraged by our local guides - one of whom, Hafida, is a woman. At times, though, the going is tough. Phil describes this as four days of self-examination; blisters become a major problem for those with new boots and the initial love of fish tagine quickly gives way to fantasies about McDonald's, Pizzahut and chocolate. But when any member of the group runs out of steam, others carry their bags and encourage them. On descents from gruelling hills, Paul Johnson's current hit "Get Down" becomes the musical pick-me-up. "This has made me see my gap year in a new light," says Amy, after two days' walking. "I realise it's going to be a challenge, not just an adventure."

After the trek we move on to Essaouira, a beautiful walled "medina" town. Some of the girls are propositioned during a walk in the souk and their one male escort, Leo, uses humour to fend off advances: "You want to buy them? You don't have enough camels." Then on to Marrakech, a day-long drive listening to Blur, Stone Roses, Smashing Pumpkins and the popular Algerian Rai music Hafida has introduced us to.

The last leg of the trip is a visit to the Kasbah du Toubkal, an ancient fortified house that has been refurbished by the company we travelled with, Discover, and the villagers of Imlil (interestingly it was used as a location for the film Kundun). A flash flood has washed away much of the road, so we have a three-hour trek through the mountains to get there. But it's worth it. From here we can go into the desert, visit Berber villages or climb Toubkal mountain - but because of the flood our time is short. After an evening of Berber music and dance and one look at the vista of snow-capped mountains, many of the group vow to return.

Before coming home we go with Hafida to a hammam - a public bath-house - and for the first time are solely in the company of Moroccan females. Here women are doused with hot water, soaped and scrubbed vigorously by female attendants. Horrified squeals come from our group as they realise they will have to be topless. "Can't we keep our swimming costumes on?" they beg Hafida. "But how will you get clean if you're covered up?" she responds. The attendants are baffled, and ask if we are really European. Cultural confusion, we learn, goes both ways.

Discover (01883 744392, www. educational and group trips to Morocco. For a minimum of eight days, these cost from pounds 531, including fares on Royal Air Maroc