16.06.2010 - 18.06.2010 40 °C
Let me introduce to my new travelling buddies:
From left to right:
Brendan – leader (Australian guy married to an Egyptian girl, living in Cairo)
Eli – Brisbane, Australia
Dustin – Washington DC, USA
Allan and Karyn – Christchurch, New Zealand
Ben – living in Istanbul but from Arkansas, USA
Dan – Ottawa, Canada
Happy looking bunch, huh! Unusual that there were only two women and six men in our group – usually it’s the other way around. But who am I to complain?!
The date was 16 June - we left Cairo at 6am and travelled for around 8 hours, passing over the Suez Canal and driving along the Gulf of Suez and then through the harsh, but classic desert landscape of the Sinai, bound for one of the world's most important pilgrimage sites - Mt Sinai and St Katherine's Monastery.
We arrived in the early afternoon and ate a buffet lunch at our hotel before having a snooze for a couple of hours in the midday heat. At 4pm we caught the minivan to the base of Mt Sinai where we met our local Bedouin guide. I had, very intelligently, opted to take a camel two thirds of the way up the mountain – a couple of the others joined me (I’m pretty sure that the ones who walked wished they did too).
My camel, Mahmud, was a gentle guy and we walked with Ben who was on Asful, a rather headstrong female who didn’t like being passed.
Mahmud got a couple of whacks from our very young camel handler – I made a deal with him that he’d get a bit more baksheesh than usual if he stopped whacking Mahmud. That seemed to do the trick. Riding a camel is comfy to start with but then your body finds spots in the saddle which slowly grinds away with the gentle motion of the camel’s stride. I rubbed my coxic raw. Still it was worth it to arrive at the base of the steps to the final ascent not feeling exhausted – unlike the guys who walked up, half of the way under the searing sun without shade.
The final 750 steps were challenging but, from what I understand, less physically demanding than the ‘3750 Steps of Repentance’.
We made our way slowly to the top of Mt Sinai, led by our able and amiable Bedouin guide.
When we got to the top we had a scramble around the summit while waiting for the sun to set. Mt Sinai is where Muslims, Jews and Christians collectively believe that the Ten Commandments were revealed to the prophet Moses.
The surrounding mountains looked like a stone sea from the summit of Sinai, dotted with five working monasteries. There were a few other people up there (including another Intrepid group who had from Cairo that day and were heading to Sawa Beach Camp with us too).
I had a chat to the lovely Renee Martin, a woman after my own heart, who writes a blog http://gottheworldonastringsittingonarainbow.blogspot.com/. Her post about her experience at St Catherine’s monastery and Sinai is fantastic and it was she who took this photo of me falling off Mt Sinai into the burning bush in the ravine below.
We needed our torches (yes, torches, my north American friends – there are no flashlights here) as we stumbled down the mountain. I had a very interesting chat to Dustin who is an electrical engineer working for the US Dept of Defense. He creates communication systems for war zones (how does one base talk to another with a mountain in the way?) - and has been to Afghanistan to roll out and train personnel – he tells an interesting story of when he was getting a cut throat shave in Kabul when shelling started outside. Not the ideal position to be in when the windows are rattling and a blade is at your jugular. He’s currently doing his masters to learn how to build satellites and other big communication methods. One smart cookie.
Actually the group had a few smart cookies in it – Dan is a privacy lawyer for the Canadian Government and Ben (Dr Ben Hood, I presume) is an astro physicist. Actually, Ben is currently a “house husband/stay at home Dad” while his wife, Courtney, is starting her career in the Foreign Service at the US Consulate in Istanbul (it’s her first ‘tour’). Ben has been doing some computer programming at home as well as looking after their toddler, Lillian and, although he isn’t a teacher, Ben is going to be doing some lecturing at one of the Istanbul universities – apparently having a PhD is enough.
As you can imagine, there was some pretty interesting and intelligent conversations going on but, thankfully, the guys were also able to lower themselves to my level and, at one time, we even had a conversation about what we grew about calling the male appendage – Skye = doodle, Dustin = tally whacker, Ben = dinkus. Now you know what I mean about bringing them down to my level…
We got back to the hotel close to 10pm and a few of the crew had a buffet dinner. I wasn’t feeling great so had a sprite and took myself off to bed.
17 JUNE - Red Sea Beach Camp
It wasn’t a great night. I was up 17 times. Count them – SEVENTEEN! Anyway, I’m not going to make this into a poo story just when I’ve come off a story about male appendages but suffice to say I had the runs for about 10 days – some days were worse than others and Imodium (and the like) didn’t do the trick. I ended up taking dose of antibiotics which hit the bacteria on the head. It wasn’t pretty and I was thankful I had my own room.
This morning we headed back to the base of Mt Sinai to visit to the Greek Orthodox monastery of St Katherine.
The monastery was built around the burning bush that spoke to Moses. And here it is - complete with fire extinguisher!
The monastery was built over 1,400 years ago by the Roman Emperor Justinian to protect the monks and hermits residing in the area. A site of Christian pilgrimage since the 4th century, it is the oldest Christian monastery in continuous existence. The monastery is named for the martyr Saint Katherine, who lived in the 3rd century AD, and whose relics were found at the summit of Mt Katherine (Jebel Katherine).
We then drove about two hours through harsh and barren land of sprawling windswept plains and rugged mountains on to the Red Sea and Siwa Beach Camp, close by to the town of Nuweiba. Saudi Arabia is in clear view from the camp across the Gulf of Aqaba and we were treated to superb beaches and crystal clear water.
Our accommodation was simple but comfortable beach huts with the water about four rows from our front door. The huts were made from local palm trees and have a mattress on the floor with sheets and mosquito nets provided. The toilets and showers are in a communal block but clean and the water is warmed in the tanks on the roof by the sun. Apparently the area is reminiscent of its Sinai neighbours Dahab and Sharm el-Sheik before mass tourism arrived. Thankfully Sawa Camp is still a hidden gem for Intrepid groups (the owner is an ex-Intrepid leader) and set on one of the only stretches of fine golden sand along this coast.
The Red Sea coast is justifiably famous for its beautiful scenery both above and below the water and I had the option of going scuba diving today. Unfortunately my lower extremities hindered me from putting on a wet suit (there’s no quick escape when a moment comes upon you when wearing a wet suit). Instead I lounged around in the communal living area with a couple of the guys. It was way too hot to be outside with temps reaching 49 degrees - the sand burning the souls of our feet and the sea warmer than a tepid bath.
We watched the sun set, lighting up the mountains of Saudi Arabia in the distance, before eating dinner on the beach. The heat didn’t abate after the sun had set and, as the breeze picked up, it felt like we were sitting in front of an open fan forced oven with no escape. There were no curtains in the hut so I wore my bathers to bed so I could sleep with the windows open but it didn’t make much difference – I knew I was hot when I moved a leg and felt a sweat drop drip down the back of my knee. A couple of the guys slept on the beach which was very sensible.
18 JUNE – Nuweiba, Egypt to Aqaba, Jordan
It was still well over 30 degrees when the sun woke me up at 6am. What a beautiful morning.
I hired a snorkel, goggles and flippers and then Dan and I headed out into the sea. It was a fair walk out to the edge of the reef but we flippered up and swam over swaying sea grass beds with a smattering of sea cucumbers and spiny spiny sea urchins. The drop off was dramatic and we swam up and down it for a good hour. The coral was brilliant shades of color and there was fantastic marine life – barracuda were common, squid, parrot fish, lion fish, starfish. It was stunning. I regretted not being able to dive the previous day but this snorkel gave me great motivation to return and do some proper scuba here. It’s really that extraordinary.
I chipped around for the rest of the morning (it’s pretty easy to do nothing in paradise) until we had to, unfortunately, leave at around 1.30pm. It took around half an hour to drive back to Nuweiba where we waited at the port for the ferry. We passed through customs unscathed (Brendan was worried that his Egyptian passport had expired and they might give him grief but they just waved him through – no worries!)
The waiting hall was something to behold and we had a couple of hours to wait. The ferries are, apparently, notoriously late and we settled in for the long haul.
There was some great people watching in the hall – a group of Jordanian men were sitting close by in their tight denim jeans (which left nothing to the imagination), tight white t-shirts with a slogan on it (which was generally vulgar), long dark hair which had a curl to it and looked like it had been oiled. But the best thing about these modern day Adonis’s was their eye makeup – each of them wore a thick layer of kohl around their eyes and it was to accentuate the beauty of them, not to protect them from any sort of sun glare. *So, here I was going from Egyptian men (lazy swindlers) to Jordanian men (greasy show ponies). I must be looking in the wrong places (or not looking hard enough – or maybe not looking at all) but all those men my girlfriends said I’d be sure to come across in my travels have not surfaced as yet.
- I massively generalized in this sentence so to all those Egyptian and Jordanian men who don’t fall into these categories, please forgive me.
When the ferry was ready to be boarded we were all loaded on to a bus (it was at least 50 degrees on that bus and so many different aromas of BO that it was hard to differentiate). The ferry was pretty modern and we settled down for the two hour trip across to Aqaba, Jordan. During the journey we were forced to watch a typical Egyptian show which was the equivalent of a slap stick, discriminatory UK tv show from the 60s. There was an old doctor who liked to get a massage from his nurse before his patients arrived – and then he’d tap her on the bottom as she departed. There was blood and guts everywhere as he ‘operated’ on his patient with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the room looking over his shoulder and offering advice while the patient should have been bleeding out on the operating table but was, instead, convulsing in a way that was meant to be funny. No one was laughing, including the locals, so I think it’s high time for the Egyptian TV networks to find out what it is that their audience actually want to watch. Maybe I should write a letter and let someone important know – that would get them moving quick smart!
So farewell to Egypt. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again but it was HOT! Thankfully it was June and the mornings and evenings were cool enough to see the sites but, for any of you thinking of heading to Egypt, don’t go in summer or the months either side. It’s just too hot to properly enjoy it. Yes, this will mean that you’ll have to contend with the crowds but you’re going to have to do that anyway.
Though it is one of the more politically stable countries in the region, modern-day Egypt is not without strife. Thirty years of authoritarian rule, an erratic economy and rising living costs fan the flames of social unrest. The country thinks of itself as a powerhouse of the Middle East but (there’s always a but) it's almost like they can't be assed to try it - too hard. It is common, too common, to hear that Egyptians are lazy - and it's the Egyptians themselves who are saying this! Corruptions abounds and corners are cut (in areas where there have been fatal consequences - like the construction industry).
As a traveler, however, I was very pleased to get back to Egypt and see what I’d missed the first time – the land that gave birth to civilization. The scope – the pyramids, the minarets, the Nile, the desert – is magnificent.
Cairo’s chaos whirrs around a medieval core that has remained unchanged since the foundation days of Islam. Upriver, Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes, is lined with warrens of opulent burial chambers and boasts some of the most formidable monuments in all antiquity. Further south at Aswan, even more geometrically imposing temples write a testament to the power of the archaic gods and the omnipresent pharaohs. It is here that we explored the Nile by ancient sail, on a felucca (Egyptian sailing boat) at the hands of the prevailing currents and winds.
Out west, Egypt’s ocean of sand stretches infinitely to the Sahara, with a handful of oases feeding solitary islands of green. Meanwhile in the deserts of Sinai’s interior, I climbed the mount where God had word with Moses and then ventured further east to the deep crystal waters of the Red Sea which lie brilliantly awash in coral, surrounded by an aquatic frenzy of underwater life.
Egypt has a bit of everything and has to be one of the best all time destinations.