A few years back my wife and I were lucky enough to book a special offer with Uncover the World Ltd who had just started promoting their new range of Egypt Uncovered tours. We were part of a small group tour that pretty much visited every historic site in the country and included a fantastic 3 days sailing on the Nile in a Felucca sail boat. At the end of the tour we tagged on an extra week in a small bohemian resort called Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula.
Dahab is a wonderful place, almost like a laid-back Thai resort with beachfront bars and restaurants. Although it’s in the same region as Sharm El Sheikh they couldn’t be more different. Resort areas like Sharm could be in any country, there’s very little Egyptian culture there, it’s all high-rise resorts, armed guards and package holiday makers.
Our tour had been very long and hot. We had been up every day for a sunrise tour of some amazing site so we had planned to just relax for the week and perhaps take a day trip to the nearby Blue Hole diving spot.
Another couple from our tour were staying at the same hotel and after a few drinks we managed to talk ourselves into doing another sunrise tour, this one to the Holy Mount Sinai where Moses is said to have received the 10 Commandments. What we didn’t realise was that to get to the summit we would be getting up at 2am.
So, after a full day of relaxing by the pool our guide found us, took us out for a local dinner and sent us to bed early.
Getting up at 2am was a shock to the system and we didn’t get much rest during the bumpy 45-minute drive into the desert.
A bigger shock still was the temperature, turns out when the sun is down the desert is a very cold place.
Our guide was excellent and told us how to layer up slowly over the course of the hike to maximise our comfort when we reached the summit.
We took the non-tourist route so we literally didn’t see another person until just before the summit. Mount Sinai is 2285m high, the tourist route services a huge number of tourists every day and takes between one and two hours. There is a winding trail used by camels to carry the less able. Our route however, was far longer taking almost 4 hours to reach the summit with no handy steps and some perilously sheer drops on narrow pathways. Thankfully the complete darkness prevented us from seeing exactly how sketchy our path was.
Our guide had warned us that it would be crowded at the top and it certainly was, not only was the summit and the approaches to it crammed with people there were hundreds of camels that had transported the less able visitors to the top.
This was truly one of the most amazing hikes I’ve been on despite it being pitch black for most of the way.
For the first hour, we trudged through an unremarkable desert landscape but the lack of amazing landscape was easily made up for by the feeling of solitude. The only noises we heard were our own or the occasional howl of wild dogs.
Then there was the sky. I’ve been in many remote areas with amazing star gazing but there was something special here. We were all taken aback by the amount of shooting stars we saw. Literally every few minutes they would streak across the sky, bright & powerful.
Our guide told us it was the same every night in this region, he couldn’t explain why but locals say that the shooting stars were attracted by the holy mountain.
We were soon at the start of the Mountain range and the sandy desert gave way to dusty rocks and steep winding trails. Some of the inclines took our breath away and required rest stops, luckily along the way there were small stone built huts where we could rest up and brew up some tea. There were certainly some tough moments on this trek and I’m the first to admit that despite many years of mountain walking experience I had completely underestimated how difficult it would be.
30 minutes before we reached the summit everything changed. It felt as if we turned a corner on the mountain trail and the peaceful trek suddenly being hectic, noisy and in parts rather scary. We could hear the crowds of people on the peak above us and then the grunting noises of the camels. One part of the trail became very narrow and was little more than a ledge on the mountainside with a sheer drop into the darkness. Unfortunately for us camels are stubborn and don’t like heights either so as they came across the ledge we were forced to stand on the very edge as they came passed. I was certain that one of those grumpy buggers was going to give me a nudge and send me tumbling down the rock face.
After what seemed like an eternity we had edged our way careful across the ledge and joined the throng of tourists climbing the steps to the summit.
Our guide handed out blankets and warm drinks and we picked our spots to await the Sunrise.
Above: Moments before the Sunrise.
I’ve seen hundreds of sunrises from mountain tops and other famous landmarks all over the world so I really wasn’t expecting anything new. Once again, I was wrong (pretty much a theme of this trip) To this day the Sunrise from Mount Sinai is by far the most amazing I have ever seen. It was freezing cold sitting atop the rocks on the summit but that faded away quickly as a crack of yellow light broke on the horizon, the light highlighted a myriad of colours in the sky and when the golden egg yolk of sun finally rose in the distance it seemed immense, it filled the sky and slowly spread across the mountain tops.
Above: The spectacular sunrise seen from the Summit truley can be described as biblical.
The next surprise came shortly after the sun had fully risen. Less than a minute later the loud guttural grunts of camels and bells rang out it was hectic, we had no idea what was going on. As far as we knew we were heading back down the trail and then back to the hotel. Our guide came and found us, explaining that we had to leave quickly so we could get ahead of the crowds. Cold, stiff and sore from the trek we begrudgingly followed as he guided us down towards the main tourist route which consists of 3,750 steps roughly hewn into the mountain. We were moving fast to get past the crowds and the uneven steps began to jar our backs and legs as we descended.
When we eventually got to the more shallowly graduated paths our guide explained that we would also be visiting St. Catherine’s monastery at the base of the trail. About this time, we turned a corner and saw what looked to be a small walled city with golden sandy walls looking like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Below: St Catherine’s Monastary
It was truly amazing but there was no time to waste looking as were hustled on by our guide eager to make sure we arrived before the crowds I assume also to avoid being trampled by herds of camels returning from the summit.
By the time, we arrived at the monastery I think we were all ready to lay down and go to sleep. The sun was by now in its blazingly hot state and we ended up with our daypacks fully stuffed with the nights warm trekking clothes. We had expected to be back by the pool by now so none of us had sunscreen, hats or even sunglasses to protect us from the searing heat. We got to rest for an hour and a half before the gates opened but there was little shade to be found and we had depleted our water supplies. Once through the gates we were ushered around what I can only describe as a one-way system so we couldn’t have stopped or got out if we wanted. Eventually we came to the main chapel and discovered the real reason for our visit. We were going to see one of the most revered historical biblical sights in the world, the Burning Bush.
We had all heard the story but none of us had any idea that the bush actually existed. The chapel now stands on the site of the original bush where God is said to have spoken with Moses and the bush has been transplanted to the courtyard where visitors can crowd around it to take photos.
The bush itself is a simple desert bramble and at first seems anticlimactic however it is not the aesthetics that make it special it’s the meaning and religious attachment to it and you really get a sense of that with all the clamour of the visitors desperate to see it.
Right: Saint Helen’s Chapel (also known as the temple of the burning Bush)
We left the monastery around midday, exhausted and ready to sleep. The journey back to the hotel took about an hour and a half and we were all asleep and snoring within minutes. After being poured out of the hot, sweaty and by now smelly minivan we all hit the pool for some well-earned and rest. In fact, I’m pretty sure we stayed there for the next two days recovering.
Left: The Burning Bush
I wholeheartedly recommend taking this tour if you ever get the chance just make sure you know exactly what it entails and be prepared. It’s a long trip with quite extreme temperature differences on the ascent and descent.