Egypt: Trial by desert

By Damien Grant

On Mount Sinai, blankets - pre-loved by camels - are available for rent for those wanting to stay the night and watch the sunrise. Photo / Supplied
On Mount Sinai, blankets - pre-loved by camels - are available for rent for those wanting to stay the night and watch the sunrise. Photo / Supplied

I'd never understood why Israel gave away the Sinai for peace with Egypt. The place was so big and Israel so small it seemed an insane concession. But after spending three days in the southern Sinai, the sacrifice seems less impressive.

My travelling companion and I had spent the previous day in the Israeli town of Eilat, a glitzy seaside playground Israel built on the sliver of Red Sea coast under its control. Eilat has a lovely boardwalk, an airport and no shortage of all-you-can-eat buffet-style resorts that appear popular with older Israelis and Russian tourists.

Across the border into Egypt the locals were grumpy that the Jews in Eilat were reluctant to explore Sinai's delights. No doubt they felt this was because of security concerns, but the more likely reason is the sullen customs officers who man the Sinai-Eilat crossing. We spent half an hour waiting for an official to finish his phone call, pick food from his teeth and greet several of his cousins before he collected our visa fee. And he was the efficient one.

We navigated the cabal of crooked taxi drivers who all assured us that six hundred Egyptian pounds was the only price to get our destination, that the bus Lonely Planet said was 400m down the road was not running and that he was offended I thought he was lying.

He was of course, the price was halved once we began walking to the non-existent bus. But it is easy to understand why Israelis are not jumping at the chance to be lied to, insulted and ripped off just metres from their homeland. I'd travelled half the globe for the experience, though, so it had to be endured.

Some two hours later, we decamped at the seaside town of Dahab and this quaint little spot justified the effort taken to get there. It was Election Day in the southern Sinai, a new experience for the locals but the posters and bunting made it clear that they were quick learners.

The region promotes itself as a divers' paradise. I'm too fat to find a comfortable wetsuit and my nose extends past that of even the largest masks, so I avoid the sport.

The travelling companion was thus compelled to join me on a trip into the heart of the Sinai, to Mount Sinai, where - the locals would have you believe - Moses received the 10 Commandments, although archaeologists doubt this.

The only way to get there was by organised tour. It was cheap, full of tourists, and should be fun.

It wasn't.

First stop was Saint Catherine's Monastery, meant to be the oldest monastery still functioning. There was a bush, claimed to be a scion from the original burning bush. Sure. We took a picture. We were bored, but worse was to come.

The hike to the top of Mount Sinai would have been a good two hours and a nice walk had it not been for two things: the insane idea that it would be great to watch the sunset at the top of this hilltop and then walk back down in the dark - avoiding camel dung and shifting rocks was difficult enough in the daylight; and to stretch the expedition out for an entire day our guide insisted we stop every 300m for a rest.

Fortunately, his cousins had stalls every 300m.

After two hours of this I led a revolt, leading my own small party to the top of Mount Sinai so we could spend three hours doing nothing until the sun went down.

This, clearly, was why it took Moses 40 years to get his people through the Sinai. He was being led by a forebear of the current guides keen that the chosen people stop off at every Bedouin rest stop.

The trip down was made more exciting by an advancing party of Nigerian missionaries, who were planning to spend the night at the summit to watch the sunrise. This, I decided, was even more stupid than the journey I had embarked on.

We met these same crusading Nigerians the following morning as we negotiated our way through Israeli passport control.

They were there first and the line was moving as fast as a crippled rat. Several Americans talked their way past the congregation but the travelling companion and I elected to wait our turn, a simple gesture the Nigerians seemed appreciative of. It was the first time someone has been pleased with me simply because I was not rude.

Several of the women even insisted on taking their picture with the travelling companion.

I was, however, not invited.

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