Our trip to Mount Sinai began with a small 15-passenger minibus picking us up at 11:00pm from our hostel. We were joined by a group of Swedish students and two Japanese men. The two and a half hour drive was quite cramped and uncomfortable making it impossible to sleep; thankfully we had taken an evening nap prior to our late night departure.
We had heard about the sunrise trek to Mount Sinai's summit (2,285 meters high) by another Canadian traveler that we met at the Canadian Hostel in Cairo. After hearing more people talk about the popular hike in Luxor we decided that it might be worth investigating further. Our hostel in Dahab offered a cheap and convenient tour so we agreed that some mountain time would be a good change of pace from the epic diving and snorkeling.
Mount Sinai, also known as Gebel Musa, is a celebrated and holy mountain with many biblical references in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The apex is said to be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, in fact the Arabic name Gebel Musa actually translates to 'Mountain of Moses'.
The spiritual pilgrimage that had us excited, curious and somewhat apprehensive.
The journey through the secluded mountainous desert had our minibus pass several security check points, each requiring us to present our passports. We found it very odd when an Egyptian police office opened the side door of the van and asked if any of the passengers onboard were either Israeli or American. It seemed pretty specific! What if we were? We were virtually alone in the middle of the desert miles away from civilization at the mercy of men with big guns.
Our guidebook's write up on the hike clearly says NOT to expect to be alone on the mountain as it is a popular tourist destination. We were disappointed when its description was accurate. The parking lot at the base of the mountain was filled with tour vans and chartered buses. It was not going to be an intimate affair!
Then the strangest thing happened. All of the tourists were told to pass through a metal detector before starting the hike…seriously?! Though the guards had little interest in what was in our bags and barely flinched when the beeping sound of the detector went off.
We looked at one another and questioned, "What's the point of all this?"
It seemed like a facade to show how vigilant security is in Egypt, but it was so backwards. The local Bedouins walked around the security check without as much as a glance from the guards. Our obvious next question was, "Is it typical for tourists to draw weapons on other tourists while climbing this mountain?"
It was undoubtedly the most unique start to a mountain hike!
Our guide, a Bedouin native to the area, wanted us to stay together because it was dark and easy to lose one another amongst the masses of people. Without beating around the bush, our Bedouin guide was easily one of the worst guides we've ever had. He really has no business being in the tourist industry. On the plus side, the hike was pretty straight forward so nobody in our group paid attention to him anyways.
The first hour and a half was a steady incline up a dusty path. It was difficult to breathe with all of the sand and dust kicked up in the thin air (and the fresh camel dung didn't help the situation). It was a chilly night and the skies were clear, we've never seen so many stars. Starting a hike at 2:00am was a different experience for us, something we hadn't done before. That alone made the trip that much more rewarding.
The trail passed several huts and tea houses along the way, killing the 'natural and rustic' feel to the hike. The ambience was further squashed by the never-ending stream of Bedouin camel guides continually barking, "Camel? You vant camel? Very goot camel. Camel? Camelle? Where you from… you want Camel?"
It was comical - one cannot escape the typical Egyptian touting even on the side of a sacred mountain at 3:00 in the morning!
About two hours before sunrise we hit the 750-stair stretch of the trek. The section reminded us of the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver, but not nearly as long. It was challenging but very doable. After trekking the Andes in Peru and the Himalayas in Nepal, we found this hike to be quite manageable.
When we hit the summit it was very cold. Luckily we were warned of this ahead of time and brought long-sleeved shirts, jackets and a blanket. We needed them all… it was FREEZING.
We had about an hour to kill before the sun made its daily appearance, so we found a spot beside the Greek Orthodox chapel that was built on the peak in 1934 on the ruins of an older 16th century church. The chapel is said to enclose the rock that God used to make the "tablets of law".
Thinking back to my youth at a Catholic school (Cam), I was reminded of the Old Testament teachings about Moses and the Ten Commandments. It all seemed so surreal to actually be standing there!
The sun did not disappoint. It made its daily appearance on cue, to the delight of cheering pilgrims and spectators. Unfortunately, the sunlight also revealed how many people were on the mountain top. While hiking up the mountain in the dark we could see a trail of lights below and above. We knew that a steady stream of people were collecting but had no idea there would be THAT many!
Our decent from the peak was long and slow because we had to wait in a traffic jam of tired and agitated people. We were a bit irritated by the tourist spectacle but had to remind ourselves that we were also tourists wanting a special moment on this holy mountain. We were also very cold so we indulged in a hot tea from one of the many hilltop vendors, inadvertently contributing to the cause of our aggravation.
The end of the trail passes the prominent Monastery of St. Katherine, a Greek Orthodox monastery that was founded in the 6th century and is said to be one of the longest-running monasteries in the world. It is also famous for being the supposed location of the 'Burning Bush', another iconic biblical reference. It looked more like an ancient fortress than a church.
We left St Katherine's and the Sinai mountain range exhausted and sleepy. It was a long and memorable night with highs and lows. Out of ten, we give the hike itself a 7, the setting and landscape a 9.5, the uniqueness of the pilgrimage gets an undisputed 10, however the intimacy of the hike gets a measly 2.
It was another once in a lifetime opportunity that we're grateful to have accomplished!
We returned to Dahab mid-day and slipped back into our daily routine of snorkeling and loafing on giant pillows inches from the calm blue waters. Nevertheless, after 10 days in paradise we had to push on. For each day we extended in Egypt, we lost a day in Jordan.
We said goodbye to the numerous roaming kittens that we fed every night (to the dismay of restaurant owners) and the great friends we met in Egypt. Dahab will certainly go down as an instant top destination on our world tour!
Our next destination was a brief two day stay in Nuweiba, a sleepy beach town near the Israel border, before catching the fast ferry to Aqaba, Jordan. Fingers crossed, we hoped this border crossing would go smoothly…
October 30th, 2009