Sinai

Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, Nov 2005:  The usual way to ascend Mount Sinai is via a group bus trip from Dahab in the late evening- then do the guided tour from about midnight to the summit. The reason being you will be at the top when the sun rises in the east… It’s a cool idea and all that, but I’m not one for tour groups-  plus neither of us could afford it and besides- we wanted a bit of adventure… So me and my like-minded travel companion Ian, set off via local 4wd to the bus station- eventually catching a local bus to a village close to Mt Sinai…

After walking a few miles from the village we encountered a check-point near the entrance to Saint Catherine’s Monastery. They wouldn’t let us pass, probably because we were on foot and not part of an organised tour. They demanded some baksheesh, commonly known as a “tip”- in this case it was more like a bribe…

Baksheesh is a normal everyday thing in Egypt, particularly if you’re a tourist.  Ian and I were opposed on principle to playing this game and avoided it at all costs- but occasionally we had to bite the bullet and follow local protocol… No way though was I going to pass over any money, as I was virtually broke at this stage. I remembered I had a nice ball point pen on me, which I offered to the man in charge.  He seemed confused at first, then on inspecting the pen seemed satisfied with my “gift” and waved us through. I bunched up a smile and sarcastically said “I’ll be back for that later”…

Saint Catherine’s monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Katherine of Alexandria was a Christian martyr initially sentenced to death on the wheel. However, when this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. According to tradition, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai. Though it is commonly known as Saint Catherine’s (or Katherine’s), the full official name of the monastery is the “Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai”. Unfortunately St Catherine’s was closed. If I recall correctly it was open to the public from 9-12, and we arrived just after 2… It was one of those days…

Getting so late in the day we debated whether we had enough time to make it to the summit and back in daylight. On foot we had no chance so we decided to hire some camels. After some intense negotiation with local Bedouin, we settled on a good deal from a father and son team. We set off at a slow pace that picked up as we zig-zagged our way up the mountain path. Being so high up in the uncomfortable saddle, looking down on sheer drops was unnerving, but the sure footed-ness of the camels had us up most of the mountain within an hour or two…

After the obligatory tea and cigarettes we set off on foot for the final climb to the summit. Although this was the legendary mountain Moses had recieved the mythical “Ten Comandments”on- instinct commanded us to save ourselves and head down the mountain as fast as possible… We could have either headed to the summit and see the sun set in the west, then negotiated the rough-hewn steps down in the dark- and possibly fallen off the edge on the way down. Or make a run for it now and use the remaining light (neither of us had torches) to make it down safely before the light left us. We chose the latter, we chose life…

We made it back down the roughly cut 3750 Steps of Penitence-  allegedly cut by hand over many years by the local monks- as darkness fell… We surprised the militia at the checkpoint, and I straight facedly asked the man for my pen back…  There was an awkward silence =  followed by howls of laughter… We wandered back to the village and wondered how the hell we were going to get back to Dahab on the coast- 130kms away…

Luckily we ran into a few other travellers in the street who were also in the same predicament… We pooled resources together and tried to hire a mini bus to take us back to Dahab…  After talking and negotiating for a while with a few locals, we had ourselves a deal…  A local man with a van agreed to take us back to the coast…. Two hours of blaring arabic music and winding roads later, we made it back to Dahab…

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