21 March 2007

Egypt Part 2 - SUEZ & SINAI

DAY THREE MONDAY FEB 26th We left Cairo and boarded a comfortable bus soon after dawn headed for Suez and the Sinai Peninsular. On our way out of Cairo we stopped to visit the tomb of President Anwar Saddat who was assasinated in 1981, also site of a tomb in rememberance of the unknown soldier. A word here about the National service in Egypt. This is compulsory and men are either posted to Tourist Police duties (guarding monuments and temples), Military Police (road checkpoints and other armed duties) or full military duties. It's clear that many Tourist police regard their work as a necessary bore to be endured but not with any attempt to hide their feelings! Those guarding this spot were dressed in ridiculous costumes which kept blowing about in the wind - one poor bloke had his face covered by the headress he wore and I had to turn away for as i was giggling so much! The skyline of Cairo is mixed up with modern high rise hotels and offices and low level brick housing - often of low quality and built by the residents themselves. It is a massively sprawling city of over 16 million people - we were told that 4 million live along just one street. It is a city of poverty too, and this is evident on every street where Mercedes cars mingle with battered ancient taxis and wagons pulled by donkeys carrying fruit and crops from the agricultural fields which spread out from the Nile. The traffic moves well (or at least it did on that Monday) and the roads are reasonably well maintained, but frankly you would have to be mad to drive there. Everyone ignores the lanes, and drives in a criss cross manner using the horn to move people out of their way - it's mad, scary but somehow entertaining! As you leave Cairo's suburbs, the terrain quickly changes from suburban density to low lying green strips where crops are cultivated to the edge of the barren sands of the desert. The rest of the journey to Suez was largely featureless. The Suez Tunnel was opened in 1869 and designed by a Frenchman Ferdinand de Lessops. It took 10 years and 25000 men to build the 100mile long cutting linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea creating a shipping channel between Europe and the East. You can still see the ships moving through the desert - quite wierd. There is plenty of political history here, which you can read about yourselves! Wael gave a brief and interesting talk on the history before we moved on into Sinai via the road tunnel underneath the canal. Once into Sinai we took the coast road with occasional views of the Red Sea and distant mountains in the West. Sinai is the Eastern most part of Egypt and sparsely populated. It fell into Israeli occupation in the middle of last century and Egypt reclaimed the territory in 1979 but maintains a visible military presence along it's borders. We were accompanied at all times by a police guard (with a gun). During our time in Sinai we became used to the regular police checkpoints along the roads and the site of bored looking (but efficient) police officers! Sinai is mountainous with desert canyons and hiddden valleys carved from the sea millions of years ago and eroded by the wind and sand. The coastal areas are desolate but have long sandy beaches and amazing coral reefs which become the focus of tourism the further south you go towards Sharm el Sheik. Our itinerary kept us off the tourist trail in the main,thankfully. SWIMMING IN THE RED SEA! After 4 hours in the bus we stopped for lunch at a very pleasant hotel and beach restaurant called 'Moon Bay' on the Red sea Coast. By now we had covered about 400 miles and the break was much needed. A brief dip in the sea to cool off followed by lunch on the beach and a short rest and we were back on the bus again for our long drive South East towards our overnight stop at St Catherine's Monastery. This section of the drive became interesting as we turned inland and climbed into the Sinai mountains through 'Wadis' (valleys) fillled with Bedouin villages and Date Palms. We learned that this region once the heartland of Bedouin life and culture centred around camels, date palms and the desert is now altering due to tourism. The Bedouin are now looking to tourists to earn money and are losing the traditions of living in close harmony with their surrounding natural environment. Modern brick buildings provided for schools and housing spoil the landscape and I can't help but feel that the old way of living must be better - even it it means that people like us do not visit the area any more. By dusk we were at a height of 1500m and found our hotel nestling between two giant peaks. We were all bracing ourselves for meeting up at 2am to climb Mount Sinai, so a brief supper and early night were advised. DAY FOUR - TUESDAY FEB 27th I've never done a climb in the middle of the night and saw this as a taste of things to come when I attempt Kilimanjaro! We all managed to meet the bus at 2am which drove the short distance to the start point near the Monastery. I wasn't prepared to see so many others on the climb, there must have been hundreds so once we were through the police checkpoint (even the police were up at 3am) and onto the path we had a trail of walkers in front and behind wearing or carrying torches making a chain of lights all the way up the mountain. We had a 700m climb to the summit to see the sunrise and were blessed with a clear sky filled with stars. All the way up you are offered camels by the Bedouin as an alternative to walking, and along the route are small huts offering hot tea and chocolate to keep your strength up and keep you warm. The huts were snug and warm and a welcome break from the dropping temperatures outside. I can't describe how surreal it feels to walk in the dark along a rubble path which you know is fairly high and close to the edge, with camels and Bedouin appearing out of nowhere almost bumping into you, and the sound of muffled conversations coming from above and below. I tried not to look up as I knew the sight of those torches so far away and so high would affect my determination so I kept my head down and kept putting one foot in front of the other. Sooner than expected we were at The Steps - the final ascent to the summit. More like bolders than actual steps, there are over 700 and it was fairly tough reaching the top. The summit itself is not flat, but rather a range of jagged peaks with sloping stoney areas for sitting on to watch the sunrise. There is a short final ascent to the very top point and the small chapel, but before we tackled that, we rested in one of the summit huts for tea and to hire a warm camel wool blanket to keep us warm until sunrise. Up to the summit at 6am and finding a seating spot wasn't easy so I stood. So many people and jostling that I'm amazed no-one gets pushed over the edge! By 6.20am the sun appeared and the colours on the mountain changed from cool blues, to purple, pink, orange and gold. It was spectacular even prompting a group nearby to sing! With the sunlight upon us it was clear just how high we were and how precarious our position! Once the crowds had cleared I sat on the edge looking down to the next level below and photographed my feet. It was high, not sure how high a drop exactly though. This is the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and despite being atheist, I admit to feeling something special sat up there in the early morning sun. Coming down was easier and by 9am we were eating breakfast in our hotel. After a shower we headed back to the Monastery to have a look around. One of the oldest religious sites in the world it also houses the descendant of the Burning Bush - grown from the root of the original plant. This is a religious attraction and spiritual place for many who took the chance to touch the branches and stand in prayer. Back on the bus, our destination was DAHAB, on the Eastern coast of Sinai. We arrived early afternoon at our hotel 'Danielle' on the beach in an otherwise remote area. We passed acheckpoint which has to be the best job in Egypt - the policeman was under an umbrella with a cool box just yards from the lapping waves on the beach in front of him! I think we were the only people he saw that day. The afternoon was free for much needed R&R so I sat by the pool and wrote some notes, eating french fries and drinking coke! In the evening we had a lovely meal in a fish restaurant on the beach in Dahab, before another earlyish night in advance of our desert jeep safari the next day.