A Long Drive, Sinai Peninsula, St. Catherine Monastery, and a big big climb – 29 and 30 October

Friday was a big driving day.  We packed up early and headed out on the bus, across Giza and Cairo, off to the Sinai Peninsula.  We crossed *under* the Suez Canal.

Check point to go under the Suez Canal

Our destination was St. Catherine Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula, right next to Mount Sinai where Moses saw the burning bush and received the ten commandments.  Along the way, we stopped at the site where manna was first received by the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness.  There are twelve wells there, one for each Israeli tribe.  We saw three of them which were within walking distance.  There are quite a few families settled behind it in shacks, and they appear to sell small trinkets and the like.  Dozens children chase down the tourists, begging for money.

Two of the twelve wells can be seen here, and the settlement behind it

One interesting thing about our journey was that each “province” of Egypt seems to have an armed checkpoint at its border.  We passed through several such checkpoints on our way to St. Catherine.  We had wondered why our guide had stopped in Cairo and bought a stack of newspapers, but it seemed as though he was giving each border guard post a copy of today’s news – and that seemed to speed our passage.  Or, I could have just been imagining things.

We stopped for a wonderful lunch at Moon Beach restaurant on the Red Sea.  Some went down and stood in the Red Sea, it was beautiful.

The Sinai is a desolate, beautiful place.  So much soaring rock, so much scalloped rock face!

The roads are narrow two lane highways with a moderate amount of traffic.  There are all kinds of vehicles, but mostly tour buses like ours, a few tanker trucks and other commercial vehicles, and of course a scattering of cars too.  Much of the highway is across the plains between the rock outcroppings, punctuated by breathtaking careening curves through rock cuts.

It was during one of the serene plains stretches that our bus passed a fuel tanker.  The tanker driver honk-honked as we passed, as they seem always to do.  However, we immediately pulled off of the road and stopped.  One of the staff members (I think he is an alternate driver) jumped out, was gone for several minutes, returned, and we were on our way again.  Dayna said that she saw him carrying something blue, like bus body paint colour, into the bus.  Yikes!

At the next stop, I noticed that the right hand outside mirror was missing.  It seems that we must have succumbed to the narrow roadway and hooked the mirror into the tanker.  In any case, I’ll note that the next morning, when the bus pulled up to the monastery, there was a new mirror in place.  We were impressed!

So, after a very long ride, something like eight or nine hours, we arrived at the monastery in the dark, in time for a late supper.

Supper at the monastery – that’s George in blue & beige on the left, looking away, his wife Donna at the far end in pink, and of course me on the right staring into the camera (as I was told!)

So we ate then crashed, ready for our big climb up Mount Sinai in the morning http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Sinai .  Did I mention that it was *early* morning?  Well we hit the pit at about 8:30 PM, got our wake up “knock on the door” (no room phones – hey it’s the guest house of a monastery!) at 1:30 AM, and had to be out and ready to climb at 2:00 AM.  We were led through the monastery grounds and up to the trail.  The target is to get to the summit before sunrise, which is apparently magnificent up there.  At this time, we aren’t sure when sunrise is, so we hustle, thinking that it should be at about 5 AM, giving us about 3 hours to scramble to the top.

Our leader and pastor, Rev. George Davidson (see picture above), was not feeling up to the hike this time, so we weren’t able to have a service at the summit, as has been his custom on past trips.  Oh, well.

Wouldn’t you know it, but there were THOUSANDS of people on the trail already, hundreds of camels and their handlers, dozens of Bedouin guides and other guides.  What a melee!  And us with our flashlights, striding up the five kilometres of trails, dodging camel doo, trying not to slip or trip on the rocks.  Yes, a trail about five kilometres long and about four feet wide, with two way traffic, camels and people stopped on the side, some extra camels being offered at about hundred feet intervals for those who decide the climb was getting too much.

So we try to stick together, while others are going slower and faster, we are passing and being passed, accented voices calling “Camel” from the darkness as we scramble to the left or right to avoid being trampled.  We flash our lights on the feet of the person in front of us, trying to anticipate the trail’s uneven footing and watching for signs of stumbling or trouble.

Camels waiting for customers, partway up the trail, in the dark!
Camels can be smelly, noisy beasts – I saw one biting another one to annoy it – wonder if the first camel insulted the second one’s mother?

There are twelve small ramshackle coffee shops set up along the trail, each a hustling bustling centre of activity.  More than coffee, they sell chocolate bars and energy bars, other drinks including soft drinks and tea, and provide refuge from the elements.  Unfortunate, they are also crowded and packed, and almost every Bedouin seems to smoke while they hang around their groups.  This was enough to get me antsy at pretty well every coffee shop stop, as we always seemed to be waiting for someone to catch up, catch their breath, use the W.C. (yes here in Egypt they follow the British convention of calling the washrooms a Water Closet, or more commonly “toilet”) or whatever else.  Not that I’m complaining, it was a tough climb, but curses if they would just butt out I would breath a whole heck of a lot easier!

Then there are the vendors all the way along the trail.  In the dark, they were mostly hawking rides the rest of the way up by camel.  However, after daybreak, the trail filled up with dozens and dozens of old men and children, selling polished stones (“only one US dollar sir, five Egyptian pounds”), or books about the monastery or the Sinai, or all manner of other trinkets and junque.  Near the bottom, the youngest children were simply picking up any old stones off of the path and trying to look sad; the last few were simply asking for money.  It seems everyone in this land is out for the few EGPs (Egyptian Pounds) that they can hustle, sad actually – but what can you do?

In any case, this approximately five kilometres of trail goes up at a moderate slope, back and forth on the mountains (well sharp escarpment really) around Mount Sinai, but it is only the opening act of what turns out to be a tough tough performance.  You get to a point where the camels can no longer climb, and the path turns from a four feet wide sand-gravel-and-rock trail, to what has been called 750 steps to the summit.  Well it’s hardly steps, more like rocks carefully piled to make an approximation of steps.  As such, they are even more uneven, more narrow, more treacherous.  And, as the time approaches sunrise, the pace quickens, folks get a little more twitchy, and they take more chances, passing each other where they really shouldn’t, yikes.

Then you’ve got the local folks, who scare you half to death by scrambling up and down across what look like sheer rock cuts, laughing as they go.  And these guys wear sandals, OMG!  They have a cavalier attitude and I suppose they are very comfortable running up and down.  Yikes.

The last 100 feet or so to the summit was to me the scariest.  Although the “steps” are no different, the slope seems to be much steeper.

So why, may you ask, am I so concerned about the climb?  Well it’s not just my fear of heights, which of course is fairly easy to ignore in the dark, but will be on high alert in the daylight coming down.

No, it’s because of my ankles.  In late June 2009, I had a very bad right ankle sprain that I foolishly delayed seeking attention for.  It took months of physio to get it feeling better.  This past summer it was feeling so strong and great that I stopped doing the exercises.  Well, about four weeks ago, while riding my bike to work, I suffered another bad sprain on the same side.  This time, I got right back into the exercise program, and it felt better within days.  So while it does feel good, there’s always the possibility that…

The one thing that gave me confidence that I could do it, on the other hand, was my recent hard work to lose weight, get into shape, and get my lung capacity back to where it should be.  Since late August, I’ve lost around 27 pounds cycling back and forth from Headingley to work at Scurfield Blvd., about 23 km each way.  Well that and some swimming too, now that fall is fading and winter is closing in.  I haven’t felt this good in a long time.

So, what happened?  Of the 25 of us who were on the Biblical Lands Discovery Tour, 13 of us started out that morning.  5 decided that they would ride camels as far as they would go, 8 of us decided to walk.  Of the 8 that walked, 6 stayed at the base of the “steps”, 3 of us ventured on and made it to the summit.  Of the 5 that rode camels, 3 of them ventured on up the “steps” and 1 made it to the summit.

In that last miserable 100 feet to the summit, the temperature seemed to drop at least 10 deg C and the wind just started to howl (it had been pretty calm until that point).  It was just then that I realized that while climbing and sweating on the lower levels, I had dumped my sweater and mittens and put them into Dayna’s knapsack – which of course she kept down at the base of the “steps”.  Also, the 7500 ft elevation became very obvious all the sudden – it was getting harder and harder to catch my breath.  Up to this point, I had paced my breathing, much like when cycling.  But at the summit, OMG, it became that much harder – with the cold, the wind, the steeper slope.  But the four of us pressed on to the summit.

We arrived at the summit around 5:15 AM.  We had heard from our guide that the sun should rise at about 6:00 AM, so we had plenty of time to hang out.

On the summit, there is a small chapel and a small mosque, with stone terraces, stone steps and low stone walls.  So, how many people do you think could fit up there?  My guess is about five to seven hundred.  It was packed!  All the good spots for viewing the sunrise were taken, but we managed to squeeze a spot on some stairs and wait. 

Summit dwellers huddling below the mosque

Summit dwellers huddling along the south side of the chapel
Here I am, on the west side of the summit – the one where you could actually find a place to stand.  The sun seekers are weighing down the east side.

There was a hazy cloud on the horizon to the east, so the sun didn’t rise cleanly above the horizon.  I got several photos of the sun “almost” risen, but the crowd, the smoke (yes lots of smoking everywhere in Egypt!) and the cold got to me and I started the way back down.  Well the sun broke through as I descended the first stretch from the summit, so I turned back and snapped a picture of it.

When I looked around in the daylight, I was so surprised that there were hundreds more people lining the spine of the path all the way down.  There were a *lot* of people up there!

The sun comes up just in time!

Folks lined the ridges facing east

So we scrambled our way back down the “steps”.  It was rather uneventful, although for what should be a less rushed trek down, there seemed to be several persons and groups in an awful hurry, rushing past on spots where it really wasn’t wide enough, even pushing in a few spots.  There were some folks who probably should not have made the trip up, using walking canes to get back down, and they were subject to a lot of passing and folks breathing down their necks.  Bad form, people!  Thankfully, I only saw one injury, there were three people tending to a lady with what looked like a sprained ankle.

Steps near the summit down to the first coffee / refreshment stand

More of the steps, further down from the summit.  Goes through a rock cut!

We rejoined the rest of our group at the base of the steps, although there was confusion as to who was where, why they weren’t all there at the same time, etc.  Yikes, we have some ways to go to learn how to trek together as a group!

Surprise, surprise, the “easy” part of the walk down was actually the most difficult for me.  The “steps” were largely free from debris and sand, so while you had to be careful and watch your step, footing was relatively sure.  However, on the lower portion, the 5 km portion of the trail, the larger rocks often had sand on them, or gravel (well loose broken stone, not gravel as we know it), and this made it very treacherous to walk down.  Also, never discount the effect of walking *downward* for a long stretch of time, it really wears down the back and the Achilles!

We reached the monastery at about 8:15 AM.  We showered, stretched out flat for a bit (ouch ouch) then off for breakfast.  After taking a tour of the monastery and the very old Orthodox church within, and seeing what is held to be *the* burning bush, we were on the bus and on our way.  We stopped near the end of the lane, to see a likeness of the golden calf that the Israelites created and worshipped while Moses was up on the mountain getting the ten commandments.  One of our tour members did mock homage to it, I wanted to tell him that he’d better smarten up or I’d smash some stone tablets over his head.

Burning bush, long since extinguished, thankfully

Likeness of the golden calf?  (in stone about 3/4 up in picture)

The monastery kitchen provided us with elaborate box lunches (hot meal too, rice & chicken!), so we headed straight for the Mariott Resort at Taba.  Checkpoint, checkpoint, checkpoint… well, you get the idea.  No newspapers now (guess they would have been old news).

Well not quite straight.  We stopped at the Sayadeen Village Resort in Nuweibaa for a “toilet break” (NB British influence on our guide again).  Wow, very nice place, again on the Red Sea.  I’d love to holiday there if it wasn’t like 12 hours of plane flight away!

We got to the Taba Resort, very nice, but I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d really really really prefer a non-smoking room (I’ve put up with too much smoke in the past few days) and then there was an argument at the desk.  We waited over half an hour while they checked the room, checked again, changed our room, etc.  Yikes, I should have just shut up and took what they gave me.  Then I couldn’t FIND the room.  It turns out that they have about seven buildings of rooms around a campus area, and they are numbered in way that would make a believer in numerology cry.  Well Dayna and I had a bit of a tiff over the search for a room, but then she found it and I crashed.  Wouldn’t you know it, I was tired!  And life is really much better after you get an hour’s sleep.

Then we had the requisite dinner, quite nice actually.  We are looking forward to a free day at the resort tomorrow.

Leave a Reply