Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sinai-Western Desert: October 2011

I was last in Egypt in 2000, my first - and certainly, not my last - visit to a Muslim country. I spent time in Cairo: stayed in the Dokki area, charged across Tahir Square from the Nile Hilton to the American University to visit their bookstore, went to the Symphony performances, did the Museum, wandered about Old Cairo and saw The Pyramids. Somehow, squeezed in a day in Alexandria, a trip out to the Sinai, and the Nile cruise to Aswan with the usual stop overs at various archaeological sites. A day at Aswan and a flight to Abu Simbel completed the trip. Became friends with a New Yorker, handling her mid-life crisis by taking a year off to backpack around the world - marvelous writer who could have easily gotten her trip-notes published. We’re still in contact.

A year and a half ago, when I read Alex Berenson’s description of his protagonist's, John Wells’, reentry into Cairo in The Midnight House, I knew I had to return. If not to Cairo per se, at least to Egypt. Originally, this was to be a Western Desert-Libyan camping trip but that crashed with the Libyan Revolt. So a Western Desert week was combined with an earlier week in the Sinai - a trip I had put off for I wasn’t sure how I’d manage the Mt. Moses climb - I am an ok recreational hiker but I’m not, and never have been, a serious trekker or climber.

The Sinai trek was an Exodus tour: twelve of us - seven Brits, 2 Canadians, mother-daughter Serbians, and me, the lone American. All younger and all up to the task of scaling the walls of the Wadis. No matter what my efforts, I was dead last in both climbs and descents. It was beautiful country, but sandy, rocky and well sprinkled with boulders. Not much of a path. Sandstone hills and the mountains? Breathtaking, particularly in evenings. Granted at times, it was hard to appreciate the surrounding beauty when one’s energies were spent remaining upright while moving from handhold to toehold in rocks and boulders.

We started in a 5* hotel in Giza in sight of the Pyramids. But then a drive to Southern Sinai where we we walked into our camp in the Jebel Sarabit area, prepared to climb up to climb up to the top the next morning, to explore the ancient Egyptian temple of Hathor and check out some Pharonic era turquoise mines. Then via 4x4s, a stop at the Forest of Pillars before arriving at the camp site at Wadi Jebal. The next day was trekking to Wadi Tellah, where it was so isolated that camels carried our stuff. Enroute, we visited a local school - coeducational with male teachers. We continued on, eating lunches on the move - I managed to lose mine down on wadi or another. I declined an offer for an extra added climb ending in featuring a water hole for the swimmers. Turned out, no water hole and it was almost dark as that bunch felt their way down to the camp.

The following day, we clambered out of the Wadi and to Fox Camp and St. Catherine’s Monastery. The church/ monastery was golden and glorious as only the Greek Orthodox can do it. It dates back to 337 AD and has enticed a steady stream of tourists/pilgrims since.

At 1:30 AM, we gathered to start the climb up Mt. Moses: my notes read: will try for Mt. Moses with little expectation of reaching the top. I was a good predictor. By the time I had reached the final steps. the choice was climbing to the top and missing the sunrise, or going out on one of the cliffs and enjoying the sunrise. I chose the latter. But coming down, I was for once, no longer last!

That afternoon, all but me went on a three hour trek, reportedly was rough going at first but lovely, once the the climb was over. I hung about the camp, walked down to St. Catherine’s Village and did some hiking about the area. I enjoyed the solitary time.

We stayed in fixed camps for all but the beginning and ending nights. They were for tourists,with Western toilets -- even if superimposed on a pit - and toilet paper. Tents were used by four of us; the rest settled for sleeping bags only, except at Fox Camp, where there was an open air but covered area available along with rooms - five opted for rooms. Along with some of our Bedu helpers. I was - and am - committed to outside sleeping - watching the universe above is an exhilarating experience.

So it was back to Cairo, with a stop at the Red Sea for the swimmers. Seven check points with only one doing a pro forma passport check. And the following day, I moved to a 4* hotel in another part of Giza, far from the Pyramids. A part of Giza where goats, sheep and cows lived next to Toyotas and coffe houses. Where I ws able to walk down back streets and find the old Cairo I loved. Where village life continued. Where donkey and horse carts mixed with automobile traffic. Even on the freeways!

This was an Explore group of thirteen: two Danes and me were the non Brits. This tour involved travel by bus and 4x4, into the El Alamein area of WW2, down into Siwa where we moved into the Great Sand Sea and then, the White desert. Five nights in a hotel, including two in Cairo (I missed out on one of those, being at the airport, catching a flight home!) and three nights rough camping.

The beat-up tanks - and one crashed Spitfire - at the El Alamein Museum were of interest to me, for I remember media accounts of the desert battles. There was a ringer: a Sherman tank, left over from the Israeli conflict. The Museum divided artifacts into British, German, Italian and Egyptian sections, giving equal space to all sides in that conflict. We did wander about the immaculately kept British Cemetery but weren’t able to get into General Rommel’s cave.

Moving on, we were at Siwa for several days. I knew of the Sanusi via Russell McGuirk’s writing on The Sanusi’s Little War, when they were opposed to the Brits in WW1. So the historical implications of that area seriously interested me. Some bicycled to visit the Oracle of Amun and ancient Shalli - I and others rode a donkey cart instead. My bicycling skills are doubtful at best. I walked about the town a bit, trying to get a feel of the conservative place where women were totally covered.

Collecting an Army officer to provide security, we t went into the desert, driving into sand dunes where the 4x4 drivers thrilled passengers with charges up and down the steep dunes. It was much like The Wahiba Sands in Oman. Camped the night at Bahrein Oasis. Continuing on the Great San Sea to Ain Della, now a Egyptian Army outpost, but in its day, the WW2 base for the Long Range Desert Group, And earlier, the last known location of the Lost Army of Cambyses, an long lost Persian Army circa 514 BC.

There was a brisk wind that night so I found myself covered with sand - despite all efforts to shake it off, I ‘m still shedding.

Heading into the White desert, marked by surreal chalky eruptions throughout, very other worldly. There was a stop at touristy hot springs - though no tourists there. Then dropped off our Army guy as we were leaving his territory. Up early for a long drive back to Cairo, stopping enroute to visit the Golden Mummies at Bahariaya Oasis. A final dinner in Cairo for the group and I was gone - off to the airport and home. courtesy KLM., and I do recommend them.

Comparing the tours: The first one was an active, experiential one that I was lucky to survive, while the second one was more passive - sightseeing and photographing were the main activities. Leaders, assistants, drivers and cooks with both groups were excellent, particularly the group leader with the Sinai group, who nursed me along the treks.

Exodus provided water; we paid for our own water with Explore. Both are small group, British budget tours, very ecologically conscious.

Exodus tour cost $810 less $39.50 discount for past travel. Explore charged $1150 less 57.50 discount for past travel. Airfare (Air France/KLM) booked through Adventure Center: $1500. Most meals were included.

The hotels on the road, used by Explore were very comfortable resort hotels but few tourists about. For a country so dependent on the tourist industry, Egypt was hurting as a result of Arab Spring, though I saw nothing either in or out of Cairo that should deter anyone from traveling there.

I once said I would really take a serious look at my travels if I reached a point of being the last man moving. Which means I’d best read very thoroughly descriptions for anything labelled “trek”. And realize that much as I’d like to do it, there is a limit to my physical capabilities. Damn!

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