Israel 2010- Day 21- Climbing Mount Sinai (Egypt) for Sunrise- part 1

 As with the article on Petra, Jordan, I’m going to publish this one in two parts. I am marking the anniversary of each day by publishing the post from last year’s trip on that day a year later- but this trip covered parts of two days.

 Sunrise on Mount Sinai- part one

After scrapping my plans for Jordan and Egypt that I described at length in my last post, I was disappointed that I was going to miss out on climbing Mount Sinai in Egypt. The truth was, after my exhausting and immensely difficult climb of Masada a week before, I didn’t think there was anyway I had the physical fitness to make the climb up to the top. I took my day trip to Petra on Monday, then on Tuesday booked at 7 A.M. bus back to Jerusalem. In the original plan, I was going to come back to Eilat on a Saturday afternoon, then fly straight to Ben Gurion Airport from Eilat the same day I flew home. Once I decided to shorten Jordan to a day trip and cut Egypt entirely, I knew I didn’t want to stay in Eilat until Sunday, partially because I was bored there, but also because it was flame throwing hot. I felt like I’d done a pretty good job of seeing Jerusalem, but I knew the extra days there would allow me the time to see some things I’d missed.
The decision to climb Mount Sinai came about in a one hour time frame on Tuesday of that last week. Climbing the hill back to my hostel from a dip in the Red Sea, I off-handedly asked my hostel owner (who’d helped me book my Petra daytrip) if a day trip was possible to Egypt where I would climb Mount Sinai. At this point I wasn’t really serious, I just wanted to know if it was possible and how much it would cost. I figured it had to be more expensive than the $200 I’d spent on the Petra excursion. He said he though it was possible, and that he would make a couple of calls and then get back to me. Ten minutes later, he knocked on my room door and informed me that a group was leaving on a tour to climb the mountain for sunrise on Wednesday night. I knew I couldn’t do this trip since I had a bus ticket for Jerusalem that left 3-4 hours before I would even get back into Israel. I explained the situation to him, and he said he would call the company back and find out if there were any groups leaving Tuesday night instead. Not wanting to put him through the extra work, and knowing I probably wouldn’t have the funds to swing it anyway, I told him not to bother. Ten minutes later another knock came on the door of my room. It was the hostel owner again telling me that he’d found me a private tour leaving Tuesday night that was the same cost as the Petra excursion. I was still unsure I could even do the walk up, but I felt like even if I couldn’t it was worth the money to try. I booked the tour, and worked on sleeping enough during the day to be at my best for my 10:30 P.M. pick up at the hostel.

The owner of the tour company picked me up in his personal car at 1030 P.M. for the 15 minute drive to the Israel/Egypt border. Along the way he explained how the next 15 hours would unfold. First, he would take me to the Israel border, where I would fill out the necessary forms, then walk across the half kilometer to the entrance building into Egypt. There I would meet the company’s Egyptian representative, who would help me through the Egyptian entrance formalities, then would introduce me to my driver who would drive me the 2.5-3 hours to St. Catherine’s, the town at the base of the mountain. Once reaching the staging point for all sunset climbers, I would be introduced to my Bedouin guide who would take me up the mountain via the camel path, the less taxing of the two routes, which would was supposed to take us about 3.5 to 4 hours.
The night was moonlight and thankfully cool. The border crossing into Egypt was very easy. At this time of night I was just about the only one passing through. The tour company representative met me at the customs post and walked me out to meet my diver, Ahmed, a well-dressed young Egyptian man. I got in the backseat of his BMW and, after stopping at some sort of checkpoint where Ahmed gave the men at the booth some cash, we sped onto the highway and into the night.
It is weird entering a country for the first time in the dark. I remember the first time my parents and I flew to Florida from Michigan. We arrived in the dark then, and I could tell I was in a different place just by the temperature change and the intense humidity. It was quite a surprise for that little boy to wake up the next morning to palm trees and the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. This feeling was similar, but I knew from my readings and seeing many pictures that the Sinai Peninsula looked a lot like the Negev Desert of Israel which I had just driven through three days earlier. The moon was amazingly bright, so I could get some feel for the topography and we sped along that dark highway. Ahemd kept us moving at between 140-160 kilometers per hour (85-100 miles per hour), which was fast, but he had the car in control and there was very little traffic to contend with. Every 15-20 minutes we would come upon another checkpoint, where Ahmed would talk briefly with the armed men at the checkpoint, and usually after the word “Amer-keen” was mention a couple times, we we ushered through the barrier and back on to the road racing toward our destination. I was surprised by the number of checkpoints, so I asked Ahemd about it after about the seventh one. He told me that it was that way everywhere in the Sinai, especially since the terrorist bombings there in the early 2000s. He said that the government was fearful of losing the valuable tourist money generated by the resorts on the Red Sea. I wasn’t really bothered by the checkpoints, especially since none of the ones we passed on the way to St. Catherine’s required a bribe to pass. That would change on our way back.
Although I had been told it would take us 2.5-3 hours to drive to St. Catherine’s at the base of the mountain, We arrived there at 12:55 A.M., just a little under two hours. There was already a crowd of climbers and guides milling around in front of the park headquarters. Many of the Bedouin guides were sitting drinking tea and having quiet conversations. Ahmed left me to go and find my guide and I waited for him while leaning on the car and studying the various groups that I would be sharing this experience with. I could hear at least 5 different languages being spoken within earshot of me. Ahmed returned with my guide, Mohammed, a tall, lanky Bedouin with a soft handshake and a quiet persona. He asked me if I would like to sit and drink some tea before we began our climb up the mountain. I told him that I would rather get going, and confided to him that I was concerned about if I was in shape enough to actually make it up the mountain. He had a calm confidence about him and reassured me that we would have no problem climbing up the mountain before sunrise. The temperature at the base of the mountain was around 60, so when he asked me if I was going to bring a jacket. At the time, I thought it a ridiculous question. I hadn’t even brought a sweatshirt with me from Israel. I explained to Mohammed that I came from Michigan and it was a pretty cold place and I would be fine.
We passed through the gate with a noisy group of Americans and started the gradual ascent up the path. We quickly moved ahead of the group and soon were walking the path by ourselves. Every now and then we would pass groups of Bedouins tending to their camels. The night was lit by one of the brightest moons I can ever remember, yet I was still surprised by camels huffing from the dark beside the trail and the occasional perspective guide stepping out on the path asking “Camel?”
The path in most cases was gently sloping upward, which did not make it overly taxing to walk up. The biggest issue was the uneven surfaces and stones that protruded in the middle of the path. Mohammad had brought a flashlight, but generally kept it off unless he needed to use it to point out obstacles that were in front of me. I loved walking in the dark. The bright moonlight made the whole experience an unreal one. I just kept thinking to myself how amazing it was to be here and how glad I was that I hadn’t let all the stories I’d read and some negative things I’d read online scare me out of an incredible experience.

The brightest moonlight I can ever remember
Bedouin camps in the distance

We’d been walking for about an hour when we came to the first ‘rest station’. We would pass a total of 5 more of these before finally making it to the junction of the Camel Path and The Stairs. These rest stations basically consisted of wooden shack where Bedouin merchants sold a variety of drinks, mostly water and pop, but also tea and coffee. There were also usually a small selection of snack foods such as candy bars available as well. A few of the larger ones also sold trinkets and souvenirs. I had packed three 1.5 liter bottles of water in my backpack, so I had no need to buy anything at any of these stands. I ‘m sure they would have taken dollars or shekels, but I had no need to buy anything and hadn’t converted any money into Egyptian Pounds, something I’d wished I’d done, even though I was told it wasn’t necessary.
At the second rest stand about an hour and fifteen minutes into the trek, I finally asked Mohammad how we were doing on our pace. I had feared for a while that he would tell me that were had a few more hours to go and that we would barely make it up for sunrise. When he said that we were well ahead of schedule and would arrive at the top with at least an hour to spare before sunrise, I was shocked. I should have figured that out on my own, since not a single person had passed us yet and I had seen with my own eyes the large crowd making the hike up at the entrance station. He told me that we had about an hour to go. This made me feel good, I knew I was tired, but I also knew I would make it. I had read about the hike up getting much more taxing when I reached the junction of the Camel Path and The Stairs. I asked Mohammad about it and he reassured me that while it was harder once we began ascending on the stairs, we would have no problem finishing the hike because we had gotten an early start and we’d maintained a good pace.
At around 2:45 A.M. we reached the bottom of the stairs and the largest of the rest stations yet. I was anxious to keep moving, both because I didn’t want to lose my momentum, but also because by this time I was a very sweaty from exertion and a little cold. It wasn’t as bad when I was walking, but when I stopped, I was keenly aware of how cold I got because of my perspiration soaked shirt. We moved up the stairs slowly, with me stopping for minute-long breaks every 5 minutes or so. After about a half an hour, Mohammed turned to me and explained that we had reached the top. He said he would show me the to the best spot to watch the sunrise, which turned out to be the top of some sort of equipment shed. I’d told Mohammed how cold I was and he said he would go and rent a blanket from one of the Bedouin merchants. Five minutes later he returned with the filthiest blanket I have ever wrapped myself in. I was so cold that I didn’t even care. I snuggled down in the blanket, looking up at the amazing canvas of stars that painted the sky above my head. I’d made it up and I laid there feeling as satisfied as I can remember feeling in a long time.

The rest of the morning’s hikers began to slowly filter up to the top around 4:30 A.M. I was joined on my perch by a group of hikers who all used a guide who Mohammed was friendly with. Orange finally began to appear on the horizon around 4:50 A.M. The actual event of the sunrise itself went surprisingly fast. I’ll let the pictures below speak for themselves.

I’ll never forget hiking up Sinai- the cool breeze on my face, the amazingly bright moon which gave me glimpses of the surrounding landscape, and the sense of accomplishment I’d felt laying there waiting for the sun to rise. The guidebooks said the hike up should take 3.5-4 hours, I’d done it in about 2.5, and really didn’t feel too bad. Mohammed said we would take the Stairs of Repentance down, the almost 4,000 steps carved into the mountain by penitent monks. I’d heard how awful the stairs were going up- I thought going down would be easier. Boy, was I wrong….
(To be continued in Part two)

One Response to “Israel 2010- Day 21- Climbing Mount Sinai (Egypt) for Sunrise- part 1”

  1. Heather says:

    Entering a new place in the dark is definitely an experience! I was a little nervous when I flew to Istanbul solo — my first time in a country where English isn't the first language where I'd also be flying solo. I arrived in the middle of the night, so public transport wasn't open. My pre-arranged shuttle (cheaper than the other guys) never arrived (surprise – you get what you pay for) so I eventually gave in and paid someone else to take me to my hostel. Sitting in the back seat of a cab and getting your first glimpse of a new place in the dark was exciting and unsettling at the same time!

    Off to read part 2…


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