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Bedouin Trails — Mt. Sinai

Author: Mattie H.
Date of Trip: November 2006

A six day trek through the southern Sinai, camping Bedouin style, culminating in the dawn ascent of Mount Sinai.

“I would not recommend this climb to anyone over 60. And between 50 and 60, I would specify that climbers need to be in excellent shape.”

Thus, on a web report sent to me by my travelling companion, Mattie, advises AETBI member Egypt Magic, who, with her fellow staff member, Barbara, undertook the climb from St Catherine’s Monastery to the top of Mount Sinai, or Mount Moses, to greet the dawn. Mind you, these ladies ‘of a certain age’ tackled not the 3750 steep steps hewn from the mountainside from the monastery itself but rode camels up the contouring camel track to the rest hut where all paths up the mountain converge. From there, like everyone else, they puffed and panted their way up the final 750 steps that all pilgrims must endure.

“It does sound a bit daunting. What do you think? Shall we give it a miss?” I, aged 65, interrogated Mattie, aged 62. “Oh, let’s give it a try”, urged Mattie. So we did.

The pilgrimage up the mountain during the cooler months of the year is undertaken everyday by hundreds if not thousand of pilgrims and tourists all wanting to experience the wonderful desert dawn on the spot where Moses may (or, more likely, may not) have received the 10 Commandments. To be honest, the final assault is more like a scrum than a deeply spiritual experience, with everyone jostling everyone else up the last 750 steps. By the time we arrived, getting a position right on the summit would have involved the sort of shoving and pushing needed on the London Underground at rush hour, so we waited a few metres below and were rewarded by a sunrise no less spectacular for not being quite at the top. (With the wisdom of hindsight, I would have preferred to undertake the longer and more difficult ascent to the peak of neighbouring St Catherine from where the views and the dawn are just as stunning and the experience more intense for the mountain being almost deserted).

However, unlike the rest of the crowds who either walk up the 3750 steps from the monastery, a truly knee-and-lung testing enterprise, or who walk or ride the camel trail to the rest hut, walking or riding, our guide sought and received the complicated series of permissions necessary to lead us up the relatively gently contoured longer route round the back of the mountain to reach the convergence of all ways at the bottom of the final 750 steps. Setting off at 02.30, ten of us with two guides alone on the cool and mysterious mountain, now that was a spiritual experience! With a half-moon and a sky brilliant with stars we had no need of our flashlights and the eerie half-light and the complete aloneness of our group made up for the hassle at the top! I won’t pretend we didn’t huff and puff and pause frequently up those final steps. We did, but we also thumbed our 60 year-old noses at the writers of the Egypt Magic report. Ha!

This was the last day of a memorable six-day desert trek called Bedouin Trails with the UK based company Explore. We flew to Sharm-el-Sheik from London, Gatwick, where we were met by our enthusiastic and knowledgeable young guide, Ahmed. Born and brought up in Libya of Egyptian parents, he developed a passion for the desert and wide-open spaces from an early age. Though not a Bedouin himself, he has lived with the Bedouin people of the southern Sinai for a number of years, developing a deep knowledge and sincere interest in their culture and way of life, a knowledge that he lost no opportunity to share with us on every possible occasion. Embah Safari, a Dahab based company who act as the local agents for Explore, and for whom Ahmed acts as a guide, is committed to responsible and sustainable tourism, “ensuring that revenue is directly introduced to the local community at ground level.”

After a night’s rest in the tourist centre of Dahab and a morning’s briefing, we set off by minibus to join our cameleers and camp staff some 40 km north of Dahab. First shock. We stopped at the nearby police station, where we were joined by an armed policeman to protect us. It seems that the British and American embassies have requested the Egyptian government to provide an armed guard for all out-of-town treks involving their citizens. As our brave escort travelled with the back-up supply van by day and slept the sleep of the just by night, it was a little difficult to see how he could have protected us from any armed group of potential kidnappers. Fortunately no such contingency arose though the whole area is heavily patrolled by police, tourist police and military.

The first day’s walking, about 12 km only, was also one of the more difficult as the sandy trail up a narrow wadi was soft and included the toe-gripping ascent of the highest dune in that part of the Sinai to reach our camping place for the night located at a distinctly chilly 750 metres. Conditions were spartan: One massive L-shaped Bedouin style tent with 14 mattresses, cheek-by-jowl, hand-washing and drinking water only and a “ladies to the right and men to the left and please don’t forget to use your matches” instruction for the most private of our human needs! A full-moon making the desert as bright as day at two o’clock in the morning necessitated a long trek from the tents if nocturnal trips became necessary!

An excellent supper round a camp-fire in the tranquillity of the desert was followed by a dawn awakening and freshly baked unleavened bread plus other goodies for breakfast. (The catering for the whole trip was mouth-wateringly amazing, thanks to culinary skills of the other Ahmed, the camp organiser and his Bedouin bread-makers who baked fresh bread twice a day).

The second day’s walking was relatively easy going and the scenery stunning. We passed through ‘granite mountains and impressive sandstone outcrops, eroded into amazing sculptures by the desert weather.’ The pace each day was leisurely, even though on some days we travelled 20 km or more. We stopped for mid-morning hibiscus tea, brewed by the cameleers when they caught us up after breaking camp. We took a long lunch break during the heat of the day (though once out of the sun the chilly November weather and a biting wind meant we hardly ever got down to our shirt sleeves) and a short break mid-afternoon. When the ground was reasonably level, we were able to take turns, riding the camels to rest our weary feet and enjoy a totally different aspect of the desert.

On the second morning into the trek, camped between towering cliffs, we awoke to find a rare Arabian Ibex, a superb male, haughtily observing us from the safely of his mountain fastness, reminding us to remember humbly that we are the visitors in his domain and that he is the lord of that universe.

Each day was different. Each day was magic. Some days included optional climbs of a much more demanding nature. We ladies of a certain age did opt out of these. My days of ridge balancing, nails gripping ledges while toes fight for a foot-hold are over. But the trek was well planned such that the necessary trek was well within the means of reasonably fit sexagenarians (and older) but included more challenging aspects for the younger and more daring.

We were not really far off the beaten-track and our back-up vehicle was able to reach us with water and other supplies each evening, but we felt alone in the immensity of the desert and its soul cleansing stillness. An unforgettable experience. Where next? A coastal section of the Lycean Way in Turkey calls.

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