In late 2014, it had been over six years since I'd added a new country to my list. New places aplenty, but no passport stamps beyond what I had in 2008. Still, 2008 was the last time was in Egypt, and I'd only skimmed through the Sinai Peninsula, stopping for a night in St. Catherine and then departing from Nuweiba.
So getting to do a ten-day trek there was almost like visiting a new country. I found a truly awe-inspiring Wild West where the camel and tribal tradition still reign. This bridge between Africa and Asia has a human history dating back to the origin story of our race, and the interior has preserved its primeval feel like no other place I've seen. In short, Sinai is awesome; go there and hike.
This route became the Sinai Trail, a truly world-class trek that deserves far more attention and accolades than its homeland's scary reputation will allow anytime soon.
A ten-day trek from the coast up to Jebel Katerina, Egypt's highest peak. We began by heading straight from the beach into the daunting coastal mountain ranges - made of eons-old granite that lines the Red Sea rift on either side
Quite an imposing place. Needless to say, the mountains are short on permanent habitation
Somebody left a rope. Its condition worried me somewhat, but it served us well enough
A hidden pool ringed by impassable 200-foot walls
Mayet al-Melha - "the salty water."
This oasis, our guide Musallem animatedly told us, is guarded by a ghoula, a sort of spirit or creature whose cosmological place remains unclear. She warns people, by means of dreams, not to hunt the ibex that come here, nor cut off entire bundles of dates from the palm trees (taking individual dates for lunch is okay). People have fallen to their deaths or had strokes as a direct consequence of ignoring these portents, the stories say. I was untroubled by such dreams despite passing several haunted spots on the trek.
A few days later, we asked our next guide if he also believed in the ghoula. He snorted and dismissed the concept as nonsense. Then he paused, and noted that, of course, "there are invisible spirits out there in the desert - the jinn!" Go figure. I think the distinction is something like that between ghosts and angels or demons.
For reasons I've yet to ascertain, there seems to be an etymological connection between "ghoula" and "gorilla." Nobody has been clear on whether the fairy-tale creature is somehow related to an ape that nobody in Sinai has ever seen, or whether it's a coincidence that goes no deeper than the two words sounding alike. It's certainly alluring to ponder the idea of ancestral memory and oral tradition having preserved the spirit of some long-extinct megafauna - but pending any paleontological surprises, I'm very skeptical that anything resembling a gorilla ever existed here. This is a question without an answer, I'm sure. I'm far from the first traveler to comment that the Bedouin are not exactly enamored of what Westerners would call "a straight answer." So much the better for many more centuries of nighttime storytelling around a campfire and under stars.
Weird hoodoos on a precarious slope
A beautiful basin awaited, tempting us to camp. But the camels had taken a different route with all our supplies, and we had more ground to cover if we were to finish the hike in the allotted time.
It's not hiking with the Bedouin unless there are a minimum of three tea breaks per day.
We asked Musallem what he carries when he's walking in the desert, in hopes of comparing western-style packlists to Bedouin ones. He quickly said water, then paused for a while, before coming up with, "Oh! Tea, of course." A longer pause. "That's about it, I guess. Oh! Something to make the tea in. And sugar for tea." Pause, and prodding by us. "Oh! Something to make fire with." Pause, prodding. "Oh, and some flour and dates."
That was about all we got from him. I'm not sure what exactly would happen if a tea embargo hit the Sinai, but I imagine the intricate, millennia-old tribal order could collapse into bloody chaos by mid-morning.
I'm amazed there's any vegetation left, what with the frequency the Bedouin build fires. But they don't built big ones - just enough to heat up the tea, or food, or more tea
Up to the Colored Canyon. In the heyday of Sinai tourism, before a series of bombings at resorts in the last decade (followed by the revolution, followed by increasing violence by militants near Gaza) hundreds or thousands of visitors came up to see this each day. We only saw a Russian couple with a small dog.
The twisty country between the high limestone plateaus and the sandstone that gives us the slot canyons we love so much
At the head of a sprawling wadi, there were dozens of pre-built wind shelters - low stone walls to keep you somewhat warm and at peace during the desert nights. Somehow, the feeling of wilderness is not diminished by the evidence of generation upon generation of camel-riders having come and camped here
Distinct stripey granite - matching the coastal ranges of Aqaba in Jordan
For a group of four hikers, we had a guide, and a cameleer to wrangle the three camels that carried everyone's stuff. This is the old way of travel, and we found the camels (and their masters) quite personable. The other rider here is a kid, nephew of our guide, who somebody thought needed some toughening up via good hard work. The everyday life of the locals we hiked with melded seamlessly with our tourist experience. Only in the Sinai!
At first, my eyes struggled to make sense of this landscape
And then, ancient petroglyphs! At least, I'm assured these are ancient. There have certainly been people here for long enough
A mid-day scramble up to the fairyland of Jebel Mileihis.
Here, a legendary monologue took place. Musallem, always the desert poet, began to muse on the special angel that protects the eyes - as in the case of his daughter, once kicked in the face by a donkey, but spared both eyes.
But even if the angel is off-duty, he reflected, we still have two eyes, in case something happens to one. "Subhan Allah," he remarked, "glory to God," his customary expression of wonder at everything from fossils to desert plants' innovative methods of preserving their water. "And two ears. You lose one ear, you can still hear from the other. Two places to breathe, subhan Allah. Your mouth is blocked, you breathe through your nose. Your nose is blocked, you breath through your mouth!"
Pause. "But only one heart." Our ears pricked up - surely some wisdom of the desert ancients was about to be passed on to us. "Only one place where the shit comes out." Oh. "Only one place to pee. Why not two places?! Many question marks in this creation." Pause. "Subhan Allah."
Miniature badlands in the mystical basins on Jebel Mileihis
Desert highways. If you're looking for it, you can find a challenging route over the rocky highlands. But the old camel paths have always been down the wadi beds, linked up by passes when needed
In the distance, the Hejaz mountains of Saudi Arabia, beckoning the explorer, all the more alluring thanks to the mystique of the difficult visa
This might be the only photo of me taken on my camera on this trip, so here it is
As we climbed to a pass, suddenly the ground was covered in graffiti! Along with the footprint tracings found everywhere in the Sinai, these crucifixes announced the passage of pilgrims heading up to Mt. Sinai through the ages
Another idyllic campsite. At night, the camels are unloaded, hobbled so they can walk but not run, and let off to graze. Keeping a camel at home involves the cost of feed, but in the desert, they feed themselves. Cheaper than a jeep!
Another slot canyon hidden in the cliffs. Still no ancient treasure troves; I must not have been looking hard enough
The biggest splotch of green for four days: the oasis village of Ein Hudera
We crossed paths with another rider, heading back out into the wild
The very few villagers have opened simple trekking huts available to hikers for ludicrously cheap prices, with food costing only slightly more. The one we stayed at was owned by a kindly older widow, Radia, who helped Musallem cook up bread for lunch
Yet another gorgeous slot canyon
A sketchy scramble up a sandstone dome - note the fellow hikers below, for scale
Heading out from the shade of Ein Hudera to the nawamis - ancient burial chambers of unknown manufacture, in disorderly clusters, all their hobbit-doors facing the sunset. Local legend has it that they were built by the wandering Israelites to hide from hordes of mosquitoes
Now, it's into my favorite section of the trek - the classic sandstone desert. These are the Arabian Nights landscapes, the vague imagination of which first lured me to the Middle East when the option was presented. Israel and Palestine proved to have none, and I got sidetracked by olive trees, Byzantine churches, and depression over a hopeless political quagmire. So nothing is more refreshing than the clean desert air, spreading sands, and delicately rounded spires and domes
Too soon, at the edge of the sandstone desert. Approaching the mountain country, we first had to cross a forbidding black stretch of what we immediately dubbed "badlands"
A last run down the smooth walls...
...and a visit with a modestly-dressed local
Out into the badlands.
The huge, open landscapes of the desert are well-suited for travel by camel, if you can get used to the jolting rhythm of their walk (oddly, the ride gets much smoother when they're at a brisk trot). I just learned that my favorite piece of atmospheric desert music, a concept album by the prog band Camel, was actually composed to the meter of a camel's stride. With or without music, a camel ride down a long, unchanging wadi is a sure way to vanish into a dream-state and think wandering, wilderness thoughts.
You can't always just follow the wadi beds, so camels need passes. This well-beaten trail required care by the cameleers to make sure the beasts weren't rushed into slipping and breaking an ankle
From the top of the pass: Further and further into the fringes of the high mountain ranges
Acacia, the only tree we saw until the mountains began to offer hawthorns and poplars
Top of another pass: time to relax
We came at the wrong time of day for this view, one of the most amazing toward our destination. The central twin peaked-mountain is Jebel Katerina, highest in Egypt. To its right, the sharply pointed summit is Jebel Musa, which tradition has settled upon as Mt. Sinai
Careful up there, guys
Looking into the Blue Desert, my favorite spot in the Sinai. It's a sloping plain pocked with psychedelic, cartoonishly rounded rock formations, and whose southern rim is the border of the true mountain country.
Desert plant detail. This bush, I recall, is named silla. My memory for the names of every desert shrub and herb is faulty, even though in these arid conditions, there are so few species that anyone ought to be able to memorize them all over the course of a two-week hike.
I don't know the name of this gorgeous specimen, or if - as so many of the plants do - it is used for some medicinal purpose by the Bedouin.
At the edges of the high mountains, you begin to find shih, this lovely-smelling plant, nestled in rock crevices. The mountains are positively fragrant as you brush past their different herbs.
That jeep track is the only road access to the Blue Desert
The desert, also known as Sened, gets its modern name from a bizarre conceptual art piece. A Belgian somehow managed to get permission from the government to use about 10,000 tons of paint to cover big chunks of the rock formations here in blue - in honor of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Well, my eyebrows have gone unraised at far stranger things around here, so why not this?
The Dr. Seuss influence on the area's landscape seemed clear to me. After over a week in the wilds, my imagination had become steadily more active, freed from electronic stimulation
Bigger than they look - the low rocky hills all turned out to be towering behemoths when we drew near
A perfect place to take a camel (or fatbike) and cruise around exploring the scrambling routes
And one of my favorite places to camp
Sunrise climb to gerbil-inhabited hills. Though I lurked outside a cranny, the little animal never reemerged to give me the chance to take a picture
There's the blue paint mentioned previously
Then, a steep climb into the mountains, leaving layers of landscape behind
In news from the increasingly-creative imagination, I decided this is how the Mars colony of 2250 or so will look, when the terraforming process is about 5 years underway
The iconic view of the monastery of St. Catherine.
The story of how the site of Mt. Sinai became associated with an Alexandrian martyr is an interesting one, but suffice to say: I got to venerate her relics, which turned out to mean bending down to kiss the ring on a decrepified, withered hand covered in more bling than the whole Dirty South. Russian pilgrims come in the hundreds daily to do this, even after most other foreign visitation to the Sinai has been driven away by fear of terrorism.
Climbing up Mt. Sinai, with spectacular views north to the Wilderness of the Wanderings (where a Bedouin sheikh told us he loves to go, to feel the presence of the Israelites), the lower mountain ranges, Mt. Sinai's neighbor Jebel al-Deir, and at bottom left, Elijah's Basin, where a dam collects water for cypress trees
Mountain climber's paradise
Last time I came to Mt. Sinai, it snowed on us. This time, we got an evening lightshow. Still no thunder, flame and sound of celestial trumpets, but I'll happily keep coming back
The Tih plateau and wilderness of the wanderings in the far distance
Somehow, I took no more pictures until the summit of Jebel Katerina: Standing above a whole country, watching the peak-shadow grow into the horizon
Last shreds of alpenglow on the peak where Moses saw God
After a cozy night in a recently-built trekking hut just below Jebel Katerina's summit, it was time for a sunrise photo shoot
The first of a number of mountain orchards we passed - runoff is collected in the granite canyons, and used to farm all kinds of berries, fruits, and crops. Anything inside the walls is private; anything outside (like this mulberry tree) is on offer to the public
And then, our endpoint - the town of St. Catherine, in the plain where you can picture the Israelites camping and shuddering in fear while Moses scaled the mountain we'd been on two nights prior
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