The Sinai is a vast desert wedged between Egypt and Israel and surrounded by the Mediterranean, Suez Canal and the Red Sea. It’s such a uninspiring piece of land but its importance is exceptional. From Moses’ climb up Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God to the Arab-Israeli wars and its occupation by both Egypt and Israel, it has its place in history.
Now, however, it is known for two things: it’s coral reef and its Islamist insurgency. The southern coast is where you’ll find the resorts, scuba diving schools and the bluest water you’ll ever find and in the north you will find bandits and militants running amuck. After the revolution in 2011, it was apparent that Egypt had almost lost control of the Sinai region even leading to the death of many tourists.
When I was researching travel in Egypt in 2013 the Sinai was a no-go zone and most tour companies had halted tours to the Katherine Protectorate which is home to Mt Sinai. I was glad to find out that tours had been resumed to the mountain and the monastery in 2014 after the military had ramped up its presence.
There was a major international economic conference held in Sharm el Sheikh in the days before I arrived and with guests such as the US Secretary of State John Kerry, security was tight. Checkpoints are normal along the road to Sharm but they doubled in the days surrounding the conference, meaning that my night journey on the bus from Cairo was 11 instead of 8 hours long. We had frequent stops with military personnel checking everyone’s passport and searching the bus. They even got everyone’s bags off from underneath and went through them (although they looked at me and waved me on!).
Once I finally arrived in Dahab, a quiet town a couple of hours further on than Sharm, I was happy to find a laid back place with clear blue water and sandy beaches and a backdrop of rocky mountains. Lonely Planet says, “be forewarned after being in Dahab you’ll want to cancel the rest of your itinerary” and many people had said to me “you’ll need at least a week in Dahab”. I can understand why now. It is such a refreshingly quiet place compared to Cairo, the people are really friendly, you can spend all day snorkelling and lounging by the beach and you can eat fresh seafood at a different waterfront restaurant every night and for almost next to nothing.
My main reason for stopping here en route to Israel though was not for the beaches but Mt Sinai. I left with a big group from my hostel at 11pm one night and drove the two hours to the St Katherine Monastery where we began our hike. It took three hours to walk up, the first two being a gradual incline along the camel trail and the last hour being the 750 rocky steps leading to the top. This was no ordinary hike though, this is hiking in Egypt and that came with camel owners constantly pestering you with ‘camel, camel, camel, you want camel?’ the whole way up. Plus it included 16 coffee shops along the trail, where you could buy coffee, tea, water and chocolate for 10 times the price you’d pay anywhere else in Egypt. Not exactly how Moses probably would have climbed the mountain but I’m telling you Egyptians are expert tourism businessmen!
We arrived up the top just after 4am and each found a good spot from where we could see the sunrise. We wrapped ourselves in blankets to protect us from the cold and waited. The sun rose at 6am with incredible colours and one of the best sunrises I had ever seen. We started our descent, this time going down 3000 steps to the bottom. Finally we could see where we were going and the amazing views around us. Once at the bottom we visited St Katherine’s monastery where Moses was said to have spoken to God through the burning bush and is currently home to Greek Orthodox monks. By the time we left in the convoy at 10am we were pretty exhausted and slept most of the return trip.
I spent the next day at the world famous blue hole diving spot where I snorkelled for a few hours, lay in the sun and had freshly caught fish for lunch. It’s a far cry from the Egypt I’d come to know but nonetheless it was an amazing place. As usual though, I can’t sit around too long and I left for Israel after three days. I couldn’t waste my days lying on the beach (although it was tempting), the trip must go on!