“Do you want to stop for a photo?” It’s a frequent question asked by our accommodating Intrepid leader Mohamed Ourhou in response to the collective “ooh”s and “ahh”s of our feverish tour group. We’re traversing the Moroccan countryside by bus, looking out to stunning scenes of red dirt and green oases, mud-brick kasbahs and ornate riads, sky-scraping mountains and deep gorges and valleys. We’re covering a lot of ground and quickly discovering that Morocco is a place of striking contrasts and vivid colour.

From the white and blue houses of the north near the Mediterranean, to the ochre buildings of the desert south (and the French-inspired architecture in cities like Casablanca and Fez), colour and design are inextricably linked to place. All that alongside intricate mosaics and woodwork, dyed textiles and floor rugs, and colourful, jewel-toned dishes thanks to beetroot, saffron, pumpkin and carrot.

It’s a lot to navigate, but we have Mohamed, our attentive, knowledgeable leader to guide us through it. The Moroccan local is keen to share everything he knows about his country with our group of 11 travellers.

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With the exception of Mohamed and a mother-and-son-pair from Wollongong, our group is made up entirely of women, including solo travellers from Perth, the UK and US; two sisters from New Zealand; a couple of friends from Melbourne (one of them, it turns out, has a daughter living around the corner from me – it's a small world); Broadsheet photographer Kate Shanasy; and myself.

Moulay Idriss

We’re driving north-east towards Moulay Idriss, the maze-like holy town atop two hills at the base of Mount Zerhoun. It’s named for its founder Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. The landscape undulates before levelling into wheat and barley fields, then acres of olive groves. As we get closer, cars give way to donkeys and carts.

We arrive in time for lunch. Mohamed guides us through narrow alleyways, past pastel-coloured walls and stairs to a riad-style home and guesthouse, where we sit down to a feast cooked by local woman Fatima and served by her son Ahmed. The table is quickly buried under generous servings of spicy shakshuka; a flattish dense bread called khobz; a bubbling tagine of tomato, kofta and eggs; turmeric-coloured chicken; and homemade couscous topped with vegetables.

We finish on orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon, a game-changer of a dessert that blows everyone’s mind for its simplicity and deliciousness. We all agree we’ll be serving this to our guests back home. Then it’s time for mint tea, poured theatrically from up high to achieve the right amount of froth – the correct end to any Moroccan meal. Afterwards, we wander further into town, through winding streets and a public square towards our next stop: the Roman ruins of Volubilis.

It’s not a sight you expect to see: one of the best-preserved ruins of the Roman Empire among fertile Moroccan countryside. The Unesco World Heritage Site was the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania and an important outpost of the Roman Empire. Mohamed entrusts us to another local guide, who shows us ancient temples and homes, old olive presses for making olive oil, and some remarkably well-preserved, ornate mosaic floors. Our guide points to the mosaics’ remnants of ancient erotic art, since erased by scandalised Christians.

Fez

We continue our journey, passing through green countryside towards Fez, the cultural heart of Morocco and home to the country’s oldest and largest medina (old town). Beyond the ninth-century walls is ville nouvelle (new city), which was under French occupation from 1912 to 1956. Its wide streets are lined with palm, orange and jacaranda trees, and its bustling piazzas are full of families at golden hour.

After checking into our hotel, Mohamed leads us to a restaurant in the home of charming 66-year-old local Chadia, who loves a Snapchat filter and post-dinner boogie. Meze-style plates of eggplant, beetroot, carrots, spinach salad and pumpkin hit the table before the main event: pastilla, a flaky, fragrant, sweet and savoury pastry filled with shredded chicken and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

After dinner, Moroccan music starts to play and our waiter presents us with a clothes rack of traditional dresses to try on. I’m hesitant, but decide to join the fun and soon our tour group is costumed and dancing alongside Chadia and her chefs – much to the amusement of other diners. It starts innocently enough with some subtle shimmying before we’re guided through isolated hip movements. It’s not how I expected this night to play out, but with our guards down and hips gyrating, it’s brought our group closer together.

The next day we visit the Art Naji workshop just outside the medina walls, where local artisans craft intricately decorated ceramics and zellige (mosaics). We peek into every stage of production, from pot-throwing and painting to hand-chiselling and assembling the tiles. An apprentice prepares the clay (he kneads two tonnes of it each day), while a 73-year-old master solders decorative metal to a freshly baked tagine. We’re told we can shop the collection, or order a custom-made piece.

In Fez El-Bali, the city’s medieval medina made up of 9,000 winding, unnamed streets, I try to keep Mohamed’s beacon of a bright-red hoodie in my sight. We traipse through the maze of narrow, twisting alleys, past stalls selling everything from camel meat to dyed fabrics, and mountains of spices. We continue through the alleyways, every now and then jumping out of the way of fast-moving trolleys piled high with deliveries. The sound of hammering coppersmiths fills the air, then the fragrance of spices, then the pungent aroma of the Chouara Tannery.

We get closer to the ancient tannery, whose methods are unchanged since the 11th century. It’s a sight to see and smell, thanks to the cow urine and pigeon poo used to clean and soften the skins. Each of us is handed a sprig of mint to hold near our nose as we watch the workers wash, process and dye the hides in circular, coloured vats. As the group moves into the shop full of leather goods like bags, shoes and jackets, Kate and I sneak out early and find Mohamed at a cafe across the road. We join him and welcome the much more pleasing aroma of coffee.

Sahara

We journey south to the Sahara, passing through the alpine town of Ifrane in the Middle Atlas Mountains. It’s home to a ski resort that’s a popular holiday destination for wealthy Moroccan families, Mohamed tells us, and its high-pitched, chalet-style roofs have earnt it the nickname “Moroccan Switzerland”. Breathing in the frosty mountain air, it’s the last place I’d expect to stop on the way to the desert, but it’s another example of Morocco’s contrasts.

We pass through fossil fields – remnants of trilobites and ammonites a reminder that this was all under water two million years ago – before stopping in a dusty desert town to purchase headscarves for our upcoming camel ride. I’ve brought one with me, and Mohamed teaches me how to wear it – a technique I will not remember.

We arrive at our “campsite”, in reality fully decked out cabins each with their own shower and toilet, plus wi-fi and 4G. Soon we’re off to meet the camels. One by one we let Mohamed, who has changed into a traditional djellaba and tagelmust, kindly fix our scarves to our heads to prepare for our sunset ride (not one of us has successfully managed to do it ourselves). Local camel herders assign us each a camel and I take a selfie with my new friend.

We hop on and we’re off, traipsing through the desert with nothing but a sea of sand in our sights. It’s a wild experience, and surprisingly relaxing once you learn to lean back instead of hunching forward (the camel is more comfortable that way). We dismount to watch the sunset and take in the incredible, alien landscape around us. The dunes alternate between caramel, golden and red as the perfectly clear blue sky turns to dusk, and we head back under the stars to our campsite. Halfway through dinner I realise I’m still wearing my scarf, but I’m hesitant to take it off, partly afraid of my messy hair underneath and partly to stay in this remarkable moment a bit longer.

Marrakesh

Our final stop is Marrakesh, known as the Red City for its buildings made of red sandstone, near the High Atlas Mountains. Soon we arrive at our destination and stop for lunch at Restaurant Chaabi – a place popular with the locals, Mohamed tells us – just off the famous public square Jamaa El Fna. I want to try the local specialty, which Mohamed says is lamb heart and livers. My table companions decline, so he shares with me.

The grilled meat is charry, smoky, and perfectly seasoned with salt and spices. The table shares another specialty, lamb tangia. Like tagine, it’s the name of the dish – a slow-cooked stew the texture of osso buco, with preserved lemon and aromatics – and the vessel it’s cooked in. A clay jar arrives and our waiter empties its contents onto a plate, revealing hunks of tender lamb meat and a glistening pool of fragrant, golden juices for mopping up with bread. It’s just the start of my lamb tasting tour, which will culminate in a plate of sheep’s head at dinner. But first, the medina.

Another local guide ushers us through the bustling streets of the 12th-century old town. We reach the Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech, an archive and gallery of photos shot by visitors to Morocco between 1879 and 1960, housed in a three-storey former riad. Among the 10,000-odd black-and-white photos are steely portraits, vast landscapes and glimpses of daily life that reveal how much has changed – and how much hasn’t. It’s a welcome moment of pause and quiet reflection.

But it doesn’t last long. We pound the pavement back to the main square – once home to food markets, traders and storytellers, now geared towards tourists and populated with communal games, persistent henna tattooists, snake charmers and monkeys. Come nightfall, food stalls fire up the coals serving snails, skewers, sheep’s head, merguez sausage, tagine and tangia.

We have some free time to explore and our group dissipates into the crowds. Somehow, I'm convinced to get a henna tattoo, before Kate and I walk along the food stalls, whose tenacious vendors try to lure us in for dinner. We escape the commotion at a rooftop bar overlooking the square – arguably the best place to view the action as the sun goes down and the lanterns light up. Soon we meet up with the rest of the group for our final dinner at one of the food stalls.

Mohamed remembers my request to try the local specialties and points out the sheep heads that line rows of stalls around the square. He orders us a plate to share and I spy a jumble of textures (although the brain is sold separately). Choosing the least confronting part, I bite in and it’s tasty – seasoned with just salt and cumin – but generously leave the rest for him to finish.

Sitting here in the hustle and bustle of the square, I already feel a world away from the magic of the desert, the serenity of the mountains, the alpine air of Ifrane and the hidden passageways of Fez. I’m sad to leave Morocco, but take comfort that the memories will stick around, thankfully longer than this henna.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Intrepid Travel. Intrepid’s Classic Morocco tour is a fully guided eight-day trip that includes all transport and accommodation. Starting in Casablanca and finishing in Marrakesh, it takes in city and country – including the Sahara Desert and ancient ruins.