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Saturday, 12 February 2011

Egypt Part 5 - The Suez Canal, Sinai Peninsula, Mount Sinai and The Ten Commandments.

We left Cairo early in the morning and spent the whole day driving towards Mount Sinai. Along the way, we stopped at the seaport of ‘Suez’ (birthplace of the canal and the crisis) and said our final goodbye to Africa. We barely had time to reminisce on the good memories she’d given us before we jumped back on Roxy again and ducked into the 1.5km long Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel under the Suez Canal to reach the Sinai Peninsula (the Asian part of Egypt as far as geography is concerned).

We finally parked up at the foot of Mount Sinai after dark...and it was cold. If we were freezing our nuts off down here, what was it going to be like at the top??? Nobody likes getting to camp late, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. The worst part about it is when you’re on cook group and all you want to do is get your tent up, get inside, wrap up warm and catch some zzz’s. This is where teamwork comes in – that night Ish and Allison were on cook group but everybody chipped in to make it go quicker. 

Over dinner, Marjane gave us the usual briefing for the next day’s plan and gave those that wanted to climb the mountain the bad news we’d been dreading: “So...yeah...if you want to go up to catch the sunrise, you should get up at about 3am and wrap up warm”. Balls. This better be worth it. No time for chitchat around the glowing coal-burners tonight. Early night it is.
So much for getting lots of sleep though – all the guides and touts started arriving in their cars and on their camels at about midnight and made no effort to be quiet. Car doors were slamming and unnecessarily loud conversations were being had right by our heads as we tried to sleep. (You COULD argue that it was our fault for sleeping in a car park, I guess.) 

Me 'n' my hideous ginger beard.
3am came and me and my hideous ginger beard stumbled reluctantly out of our tent like a bear coming out of hibernation. I wasn’t happy. We rounded all the keen and able up but somebody was missing: The Berbernator. I went to his tent to wake him up and he explained that he’d got up half an hour too early (he didn’t have a watch) and thought he’d missed us, so went back to bed. After a bit of convincing, Berbs got up and joined the rest of us for the two-hour march up the mountain in the pitch black, cold morning.

Before we could go on we had to register with the ‘Tourist Police’ in their tiny wee office at the start of the track and fork out 85 Egyptian Pounds (14.5USD) between us for our so-called guide. We weren’t sure why we needed a guide: the track was clearly marked and there were already dozens of people hiking up. Our protestations were useless and we had to take the guide anyway. Before setting off, we had to go through the scanner and have a quick frisk and bag check – as we’d seen in other Egyptian tourist destinations (i.e. Abu Simbel). The Egyptians took the threat of terrorism very seriously, particularly with regards to protecting the lucrative tourism industry. It seemed a bit far-fetched – after all, an open, isolated mountain can’t be much of strategic site can it? Well, I guess with hundreds of tourists on it, it could be...

Like the large majority of the tourists, we took the easier, shallower and somewhat slower route intended for camels called “Siket El Bashait(I think this is more for our local guide’s health than ours). The alternative route up was the ominously referred to as “The Steps of Penitence” – 3,750 steps all the way to the summit.

The route we took wasn’t too much to put up with but the incessant pestering from camel-owners was. Literally, every few steps “Camel,” “Camille”, “Camello”, “Camel ride”. Eventually I got the hump (...whythankyou!) with them and just responded with a scowl before plodding on. Our so-called guide barely said a single word to us the whole time, merely trying to keep up with us and on the occasion where he fell behind, he’d rush forward to walk along by our side in silence. On the plus-side, there was a large group of Nigerian tourists on what looked like a pilgrimage and they sang contentedly as they ascended. I took joy from their evident happiness, and had a momentary pang of guilt about my atheism every time I passed one of their crowd and they’d say “God bless you”.

We stopped off just before the last section (steep steps) for a wee pre-dawn coffee in one of the small coffee shacks that littered the path and then climbed the final steps (hardest part) just in time to get the sunrise. It was cold but not as cold as we’d expected – we were all wrapped up in big jackets and thermals and there were people snuggling under blankets that could be rented or bought at the summit. There were even signs of some people who had camped at the top.

Tourists were all sprawled out along the eastern-facing side of the summit and on a wall that came out from the Greek Orthodox Chapel that was up there. We clambered up to join them and found a secluded little spot, concealed on one side by a boulder, another by the belfry and another by the north-facing wall of the chapel. Out in front of us was an unadulterated view of the mountains of St Catherine. In essence, we had the Mt Sinai sunrise all to ourselves...well apart from a local guy who was sliming on to a hot Scandinavian MILF...but we paid little attention to that.

Ish poses for a photo (sunrise behind him) as Jules clicks away and I look on from the top of the boulder that concealed our gang from the rest of the tourists. (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

"Out in front of us was an unadulterated view of the mountains of St Catherine." (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)
We were 2,285 metres above sea level and as the big yellow ball crawled up into the sky, the Nigerian collective broke into a song of praise that echoed around the mountains. I reached for my hip flask which had been safeguarding the last of my Caol Ila and took a suitably over-the-top dramatic swig as if I really savoured and enjoyed the stuff. “Ahhh...that warmed the cockles.”

Berbs & I, taking it all in.

Me watching the sunrise from the top of Mount Sinai. (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

Spence chilling on our boulder. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)

(Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)

Ish gets ready to fly...(Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)

I’m sure Moses would have done the same – after all, this is the spot where Charlton Heston is believed to have received The Ten Commandments from God, right? (Is it ironic that his IMDB profile describes him as having ‘features chiselled in stone’? Much like The Commandments themselves.) Whilst we were up there, we couldn’t remember all Ten Commandments for the life of us, so here they are...

  1. I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other gods before me
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol
  3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain
  4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
  5. Honour your father and mother
  6. You shall not kill/murder
  7. You shall not commit adultery
  8. You shall not steal
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife nor anything that belongs to your neighbour
See? Nothing in there about having a cheeky swig of fine single malt Scotch at 5.30am!

Allison takes a swig from the hip flask at sunrise. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)
A couple of guys took the steeper route (those Steps of Penitence) back down (which by all accounts, was the better, quieter and more scenic route) but we were advised not to by our guide (again, I can only assume for HIS health rather than ours). Well and truly fed up with our non-English-speaking “guide” who had trailed five to ten metres behind us the whole trek, we made it our mission to get down the mountainside quickly and lose him.

On the route back down - that's Yoich and Allison on the left. (Photo courtesy of Allison Harvey.)

If you’ve been reading the blog thus far you’ll know that a lot of us were by now all suffering from ‘religious monument fatigue’. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go inside another one for the time-being, so on the way back down I gave the Monastery of St Catherine the swerve and headed straight to the truck for breakfast (as did most of the rest of the African Trails ensemble). Over the space of half an hour or so everybody ambled back in dribs and drabs and sure enough, we were joined over coffee by our “guide” with his palm out and a sad look on his face. 

We all avoided eye contact and grumbled about not paying considering we didn’t need him, we told him that before the ascent and he made no effort to do ANYTHING for the money during the walk. After a while we agreed to at least put 5 Egyptian Pounds (0.85USD) in each...there were about eight of us so this gave him half the 85 he was supposed to get for his “services”....far more than he deserved. We were just giving it to him out of goodwill.

The cash (and the proverbial ‘buck’) was passed around and finally stopped at me so I gave the guy the money and he looked at me in disgust, barely able to string the words together in English to tell me this wasn’t enough. After telling him that’s all he was getting, he wouldn’t leave and threatened to tell the police, at which point Marjane jumped in and told him to do so.
He lead the way to the police office (where we’d registered to go up the mountain earlier that morning) and they heard the stories from both parties. The guide went first and the police officer’s smirks that followed the Arabic conversation were a sure sign that we weren’t going to get anywhere with the supposed tourist police (there to ‘protect’ us). To cut a long story short, we got nowhere and paid the full price...but only after I got called inside the office and given some stern words by the head honcho.

I know the whole thing sounds harsh: we’re supposed to be “rich” westerners (which maybe we are by their standards but most of us are anything but rich back in our hometowns) and they have little money, education or opportunities. But why “glam” up this role of guide? I’d happily rather just pay a higher than average entry fee and be told that a portion of the money would go to local communities but this way just seemed so contrived and convoluted. If you go there yourself you’ll see that you don’t need a guide and you certainly don’t need a guide that doesn’t talk to you, let alone guide you! We’d been in Africa for nine months and at this point, three weeks of that time had been in Egypt (since arriving in Aswan mid-November). No other country on the whole trip had been so full of touts, scammers, schemers and pests. Don’t get me wrong, we’d met loads of great Egyptian folk but these experiences were racking up in Egypt and threatened to tarnish the memories and opinions of the place.

Rant well and truly over, it was time for some R’n’R in Dahab. "Hasn’t the whole trip been R’n’R?" I hear some of you ask...

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