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[RC] Egypt: To the Top of the Mountain - Merri Melde

Sunrise over the Red Sea :). 

Our drivers were coming at 6:45 AM; Hortense said "I called our donkey
and he is on the way." As we left at 7 AM we decided to drive up the
east coast of Sinai to get to St Katherine's - a little shorter, and
wow - what spectacular scenery. 

Think Death Valley times a hundred - a hundred times more rugged and
100 times more mountains crammed in. We followed a rather narrow flat
sand valley with the bare rugged mountains rising straight up from
it. Sometimes a lone acacia -like tree would be sticking up, bright
green in the layers of sand and brown/tan/gray/red mountains. 

At one spot several camels with cute babies were trotting along the
road by themselves. Shoki was either driven by Nabeel's urgent time
schedule; or he is a male driver with an excuse to see how fast his car
will go; or an Egyptian man - because he was roaring down some of those
roads 140 km/hr. The only thing he slowed down for was the uphills
which thankfully the Pugeot had trouble getting up with its load. 

He liked especially to straddle the road, and really especially liked
to pass on blind corners. He also spent more time looking in his 2 car
mirrors at all of us rather than at the road. 

At one checkpoint, where we turned west inland to St K, they didn't
care about us but Shoki had to get out of the car, and once opened our
trunk. Perhaps he has a driving reputation here! 

Not much traffic on the road coming our way(whew!),mostly tourist vans
headed our way for St K. When one of these passed us or he spotted one
ahead, he was like your endurance horse on a ride - it got his
competitive blood running hot and he had to catch up and pass
him. Once we were alone, no others in sight, he cruised along at a
moderate pace. 

Driving west into the middle of Sinai we saw more Bedouin and the
landscape became more fantastic. I could spend years photographing
this place (but not in summer!) and never touch the surface. Maybe
it's cuz it's new to me and a place I've always wanted to come,but
it's one of the most amazing places I've ever been. 

There were bedouins riding on camels, herding their goats, a woman
wearing all black but a bright red cloth around her waist following
the black and brown goats in the brown and tan desert - a Bedouin on
her camel in the blowing white sand with fantastically wind-carved
rocks and layers of mountains in the background. Bedouin shacks and
lean-tos and tents with their sheep and goats scattered about - and
their toyota land cruiser. 

Camels off grazing at green bushes scattered all over in the desert -
do the camels come when they are called or whistled for, or do they
have to be gathered and herded like cows? 

About 1/2 hour short of St K, a Bedouin was sitting on a hill on the
side of the road; Shoki slowed the car down and stuck out his arm and
waved. The Bedouin got up and started walking toward us, and Shoki, we
know how he is, drove on. 

We turned into the canyon where St K's monastery lay about 10 AM. We
passed an old tiny Mosque and graves and Nabeel said this is where
Moses' brother Arun (sp) was buried... he was Muslim too? Is Moses in
the Koran? We were stopped at the checkpoint and they wanted Shoki's
papers - and there was a problem again. 

Nabeel spoke Arabic to Hortense, and I understood "If we can't go..."
I thought - not go up Mt Sinai when we are here?? Oh well, what
happens will happen. We moved on in 5 minutes. The parking lot was
jammed with tour busses and people like the pyramids. The entrance to
the monastery was narrow - either you go in or out but not at the same
time, and you had to wait on 30 people pouring out before you could
slip in. 

Inside there were hoards of tour groups, mostly French. Nabeel ushered
us in to the chapel. The monastery has been a place of pilgrimage
since the 4th century when the Roman empress Helena had a small chapel
built, by what was believed to be the burning bush from which God
spoke to Moses.

It's called St Katherine after the legendary martyr of Alexandria who
was tortured on a spiked wheel then beheaded for her Christianity. Her
body was transported by angels away from the torture device, which
spun out of control and killed the pagan onlookers, and onto the
slopes of Gebel Katarina, the highest mountain in Egypt, south of Mt
Sinai. The body was 'found' 300 years later by monks from the
monastery. (All note: all my info for this trip is coming out of th
Lonely Planet unless I say who told me things.)  Her remains are in
the alabaster coffin in the nave that we walked by.

After that there was a museum to see, but I really don't like museums,
so I headed outside, which took a good 5 minutes, and I sat outside
watching the hoards going in. I bet St K's is a very special place
after it closes at noon, or staying in the monastery guesthouse, but
with all the mobs I really got nothing out of it. 

We did see the Burning Bush, still growing (it's huge) as Nabeel said
but the Lonely Planet says it's "thought to be a descendant of the
Burning Bush," and it doesn't matter, because aren't all these
stories, from the pyramids to Christianity, wonderful?  

Nabeel then showed us another little building with lots of bones &
skulls - as I understood from Nabeel it was Christians persecuted and
killed over the years and they felt the need to preserve those

It smelled a bit like dirty socks. 

Then Nabeel said "You go back to car, get your things, you climb the
mountain if you like, it will take you 5-6 hours I think, maybe not
want to climb, better comeback before dark, 6 hours to Cairo, I want
to show you Moses' hot spring and --" (something else). 

Hmm - we will do what we want, thank you, because we are paying you to
drive us. Besides, the book said it would take 2 hours up, so I
expected it should take us ~3 hours round trip. I said we'd be down by
3. Nabeel didn't think we could do it in 3 hours, I couldn't carry my
heavy pack, (it wasn't heavy), we might need to ride camels, etc, but
I tried to tell him this is part of what I do for a living. 

Tracy and I bargained down a few Bedouin scarves, then we packed our
things at the car, and Jackie, Tracy & I started up the trail to Mt
Sinai to noon. Hortense followed us to the cafeteria and stayed

I'm not sure what altitude we started at, but the camel trail was a
nice wide 10% grade for ~1 1/2 hours, plus, at the top, 20 minutes of
3750 Steps of Repentance laid by one monk as a form of penance, to a
height of ~7500' on top. As we wound up the canyon it was getting
prettier - and windier. I see why the Bedouins wear their layers of
clothing - but man their eyeballs must be made of sandpaper when
they're on the desert. 

We trudged upward ~1 hour. We passed 3 older people resting on their
way down who said it was still 2 hours to the top - no way! A little
after this, Tracy decided to turn back, then Jackie did. No! Oh well -
I wasn't turning back but I said I'd hurry. So I hoofed it on up.

There were several tea/snack stalls but they weren't open. I still had
ice water from my frozen bottle this morning :). It wasn't too hot,
and though the wind took alot out of you, it sure felt good. A bit of
trash on the trail - water bottles and cookie wrappers and juice
boxes. I picked up a couple and threw them in the trash cans that line
the trail. I reached the staircase and started up. Had to stop several
times to rest, and every time I turned back around to look,it was just
stunningly beautiful. 

Each time I said "S**t!" or "D**n!" then I remembered this was a holy
place and not appropriate so I kept my mouth shut. Very near the top
were more tea stalls, 1 with a Bedouin who said to me "Welcome" and
"Coffee?  coke?" I said and motioned I'd have tea on the way down. He
said "2 minutes." 

The last few steps, and up top, were lined with maybe 2 dozen covered
rock tables of Bedouin things for sale... but there was NOBODY up
top. I had the summit of Mt Sinai to myself! 

On the summit is a Greek Orthodox chapel which was locked. The views
were just spectacular - soaring jagged peaks, layer after layer of
them. And just think, maybe Moses was up here and got the 10
Commandments. I mean - I'm on Mt Sinai!! 

And I was really kicking myself on the way up that I didn't bring my
Raven with me - my Raven who does endurance rides (he has over 1300
miles!), bags peaks (he's been up Mt Whitney and even signed the
register) and visits national parks. Darn! But who knew I'd be coming
to the Sinai and getting to climb Mt Sinai!? 

Well, I compromised and took a picture of my Raven Dancer tattoo on
the summit. Not the same as The Raven, but the spirit's there. It was
dry and windy, but oh so peaceful with nobody (!) up there. I spent 20
minutes, then figured I'd better head back so as not to keep everyone
waiting too long. 

Good timing, as 2 guys were coming up the last few steps. Back down at
the Bedouin hut they still weren't really open, but I stuck my head
in, and they said "Come in, come in." I took my shoes off and I sat
with Achmed and Selim and had a cuppa shai. The hut was made of stone
and cement on the sides, to keep the always-blowing wind out, and
lined with many thick blankets. The top was made I think with
bamboo(of if this one wasn't, another was later).Bamboo comes from the
Nile Valley. The camel hair blankets are woven and thick and warm and
waterproof and fireproof. 

Achmed said most people hike up to the summit at night, to see the
sunrise. If they sleep up there it's at Elijah's Basin a little below,
a plateau where a 500 yr old cypress tree marks the spot where the
prophet Elijah heard God's voice. I looked down on that pretty spot as
I hiked up and down. 

Achmed also had 2 camels with his brother in his village, and he said
I could comeback and he could take me everywhere out in the desert. I
can bring all my friends too. "Can I bring my new husband?" He'd asked
if I was married and I'd said No, maybe 10 years from now. "Yes, OK,
yes, bring new husband, it is OK."  I spent 15 minutes with them - had
35 minutes left to reach the bottom by 3 PM, so I ran down Mt Sinai -
over half of it anyway. 

There were plenty of people on the way up now. I pretended I could
speak French (Tracy and Hortense were speaking French in the back seat
- Tracy knows a bit of French because her husband Laurent if French,
and I think Jackie knows a little French & German, and hey - I can
speak English!) and told everyone "Bon jour," guessing most of them
were French, or at least spoke it, which they did, and they said k"Bon
jour" back. 

My legs were shaking when I got down at 3:15, and I rounded the corner
to see... not 5 impatient people but Jackie and Tracy waiting - for
over an hour, everyone else gone but a few Bedouins and one open
shop. Hortense and drivers gone. 

The drivers showed up at 3:30; Nabeel said "Now we go to St K city,
then on way home we stop at - some other monastery and Moses'
spring..l." Tracy said "No, no more, we're ready to go home."  We
asked several times where is Hortense? N "Who is this Hortence?" Uh -
the other girl who's been in the car with us the past 2 days."
"Amina," I said. "Oh yes, Amina. She is waiting for us in SK city." 

So we pile in the car and drive to the town,and we keep asking where
Hortense is, and N says "Maybe in this white pickup coming I think."
We slowed down but Hortense wasn't in the truck, and he still wouldn't
tell us where she was. T "Can I call her?" N "Yes yes. I think maybe
she is in this white pickup." We pass the pickup, Shoki slows down but
keeps driving happily forward, nobody in the pickup. T "Can I have the
phone?" N "Yes yes" and he doesn't hand it to her, and Tracy is about
to KILL him, "I think maybe she is here soon." Finally he calls
Hortense, and speaks to her in Arabic; I hear "pharmacia." So we drive
to the pharmacy, and Hortense is there with a man Ali. 

As Shoki puts some of Hortense's things in the car, plus 3 more boxes
of food (she'd left us 2 already), Ali says to me "I could shoot that

Remember the Bedouin man on the side of the road that Shoki slowed
down for?  That was Ali. Shoki was supposed to stop - he had gotten a
phone call from Ali just before we got to him, and Ali told him to
stop. Ali knew we were coming because his Bedouin friends 30 miles
down the road had spotted oru car and called Ali. And drive-happy
Shoki just drove right on by.

This will be continued whenever I can... I have to go to a party


REAL endurance is sleeping in the tack compartment of your trailer w/the
door open, and your horse snorts/snots on your forehead every 30 min!
~ Heidi Sowards

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