Getting to Dahab and a sunrise call at 11PM?

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
Trip End Nov 09, 2010

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On top of Mt. Sinai

Flag of Egypt  , Red Sea and Sinai,
Sunday, August 1, 2010

July 26, 5AM wake up call in Cairo. We had arrived back in Cairo the night before, following our week in Upper Egypt (named as such due to the unique current direction of The River Nile, making the South = Upper and the North = Lower).
6AM our group of nine boards the minivan for the eight hour ride southeast to Dahab, the beach town on the Red Sea we will stay at for a week. Getting through Cairo traffic is never easy (its crazy!), but at least at 6AM the major congestion feels a bit relaxed. Even with all the buildings, traffic, power lines and brown hazy sky (part pollution, part sand from all the desert surrounding the city) the big yellow/orange sun ball rising from the horizon makes for a beautiful sunrise as we leave the huge city. It’s hot already, probably 90 degrees. Humidity is not too bad here, but its still rather oppressive. There is very little color in Egypt (nearly all the buildings are just plain brown), and once on the outskirts of the east side of the city we are in the middle of desert. Huge power lines line one side of the highway, but other than that there is pretty much nothing for miles.
We make three toilet stops on the way, the first one on the west side of the Suez Canal where we are told this will be the “best” toilet we will see on the drive (having seen the other two, this one was “best“, but then you wonder just what does “best“ or “good“ really mean when describing an Egyptian truck stop toilet???). Everyone piles out of the van at that declaration and will go no matter what. Make sure you have your obligatory 1 Egyptian Pound (about 17 US cents) for the privilege and just go.
Back on the bus we pass through the armed Suez Canal check point (there are travel/tourist checkpoints all over the countryside we‘ve traveled, all with armed guards), where we’re told beforehand not to take any photos. Our guide said if caught they may confiscate your camera and fine you. We are at the very south end of the canal, where it opens into the Gulf of Suez and then the Red Sea. Crossing is not over a bridge, but rather a tunnel under the canal, which is very short. Just a brief glimpse of the canal walls as we descend into the tunnel and then a couple minutes later we’re back in the sun on the other side.
Across the desert east, to the town of Taba, on the far eastern tip of northern Egypt, fronting the Gulf of Aqaba. This is where we have passports checked before turning south to Dahab. Even though we’re still in Egypt, the guide tells us most are checked here because it is right at the border of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It looks the same in all directions, but its pretty cool to see four different countries at a single glance. Then its just straight south, along the coast line to Dahab, arriving pretty much on time as scheduled. Not sure how big this small town is, but its entire population feels like it could all fit onto one street in Cairo. It’s just as hot, brown and dirty as Cairo was, but it feels better to be in a small place, right on the Sea.
We all unload our things in rooms and meet back in the lobby to go for lunch and get shown the “main“ street in Dahab. This is where we are told about the opportunity to climb Mt. Sinai for sunrise, the following morning. If you want to go, you need to meet in the lobby at 11PM tonight. Egyptians have their ways, and for some reason we can not go another day in the week, when nearly all the others would have welcomed the opportunity. It had been an early day rising and leaving Cairo at 5AM, so from our group of nine I am the only one that commits to the excursion. There is another group going, so they add me to that bus and I’m booked. We wander around town a bit during the afternoon and linger around the pool in the early evening before I leave to take a nap. I sleep from about 8PM to 10PM, waking in time for my 11PM departure for sunrise.
Right on time, the minivan arrives in front and I jump in. Receive my breakfast box for later on (when its really morning) and try to nod off for a bit more nap on the way to the mountain. It’s a two hour drive west to the city of St. Catherine and the base of Mount Sinai, where we arrive about 1AM.
(from the tour map) Also known as Mount Moses and The Holy Peak, Mt Sinai is the second tallest mountain (about 7,500 feet) and the most famous landmark in Sinai, reputed to be the location where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Nestled into the base of the mountain is St Catherine’s Monastery, originally a small shrine built between 527 & 565AD by order of Empress Helena in dedication to the Virgin Mary. For fifteen centuries it has been one of the worlds most important centers of religion. The library contained within its walls holds an array of ancient manuscripts, second only to those held at the Vatican in religious importance.
A quick pit stop (another 1 Egyptian Pound!) and we are hooked up with our local Bedouin guide, 21 year old Sobey, who is going to lead us up the mountain. I ask him and he said he's done this climb a thousand times or more.  At this hour there is little lingering around, so we start off for the climb. We pass through a large parking lot and the gates of the Monastery and are on the gravel/dirt trail. To the top is supposed to be about 5 miles. We are very lucky and have a full moon shining above us like a street light. It’s the middle of the night still, dark enough to see tons of stars in the sky, but with the moonlight its very easy to see the ground all around us without any need of flashlights. Among all the rocks and boulders and moon shadows it feels like we’re walking on the moon.
Right after passing through the Monastery gates onto the trailhead, we pass through what is essentially a camel parking lot. It’s just past 1AM and there are dozens of camels all around, their owners wandering up and down the trail as we pass asking if we want to ride a camel up the mountain. Tourism has definitely found this place and it would get even more pronounced all the way to the top! It sounds like a fun way to climb this mountain, but we decline the constant sales pitches and walk on.
The trail starts out a fairly flat dirt/gravel path, and will get more rocky as we climb. After only a short while we come to what Sobey calls a “cafeteria”, which will be our first rest stop. Clearly all guides will stop at all the cafeterias all the way up. It’s a small shack, selling water, soda, coffee, tea, candy bars, etc. Everything the tourist mountain climber needs, including a “toilet” in the back (I didn‘t go, so have no idea how scary they were!). The prices for everything will increase as we climb, including the toilets! There was several tour buses arriving in the parking lot when we got there at 1:00, but I was not really expecting such large crowds and amenities all the way up a mountain. Thankfully we are for the most part the lead group going up and have no people or camel traffic in front of us (or behind) to deal with. For our climb, in the dark, it at least felt like we were the only one’s out there, except for the camels - but there are hundreds of others doing the same hike. There were probably half a dozen cafeterias spread out up the trail, all essentially the same thing.
Near the half way point, as the trail gets more rocky, we reach the start of the “steps”. Sobey said there are 750 steps to the top from here. This is where an alternate path to the top comes together with the trail we took. The alternate path is all steps, 3,000 of them in all, but Sobey said it was not as pretty and it was more difficult. I wouldn’t have minded the steps I don’t think, but was grateful for the more scenic route. In the moonlight it was beautiful. This is also where the camels stop and those riders must walk the steps from here.
But the steps are not a staircase. They are boulders, some large, some small, some narrow, some wide and some more and more vertical at the top. The cafeterias may make this climb more accessible to the masses, but these rock steps (you gotta walk down them too!) will make some sore muscles the next day. Even the camel part of the journey can be hazardous. Sobey told me of a tourist not long ago that fell asleep on the camel (it‘s middle of the night remember), fell off and had to be carried on a stretcher down the mountain.
Just before the very top is an opening that is literally a “shopping mall” of the cafeteria shacks. In addition to the food and drinks, these all rent foam pads and blankets for the 90 minute wait until sunrise. For 30 Egyptian Pounds (about $5) it’s a good investment, for it is a bit windy and “cold” (60 degrees) at the top. Approaching the top Sobey encourages us to push on (a couple of slower walkers in my group), telling us of his favorite spot to watch the sunrise and wanting us to get there before its taken. Blankets and pads in hand, we climb the final 80 steps, arriving at the top spot right at 4AM (three hours after our 1AM start). Still dark of night, nothing glowing on the horizon, but well lit with the full moon. When we first got to the very top, there were dozens of silent sleeping blankets all around. Seems many come in the afternoon for sunset and stay the night for sunrise the next morning, but Sobey takes us over the top to a huge boulder/cliff overlooking the vast canyon below, a perfectly unobstructed view to the east for sunrise.
Only about two hours until sunrise, which is why the blanket is such a good idea. We set an alarm for 5:30 and all the others I’m with lay down to sleep until then. I figured I would never be here again and remained awake, watching the stars, moon and well lit landscape all around me. I wanted to watch the eastern sky change colors all the way to sun up. About 5:30 you could see that light starting to change. We were fairly isolated on our cliff, but you could see and hear others all around the peak of the mountain. By 6AM the sun was popping through the hazy sky. The horizon was not perfectly clear, I assume due to so much desert blown sand all around, but it was an awesome sight to see.
Once the sun rises, it seems to race upwards and after about 30 minutes of gawking and picture taking everyone packs up, returns blankets and starts the decent. Its daylight now and this is the first time you really see how many others are up here - and when the traffic jam begins. On the steps part on the top half of the mountain its almost single file marching downhill. Also with the daylight we can see all the terrain and rocks we climbed in the night.
It takes just about 90 minutes to get down and we are met at the bottom by our breakfast boxes at 8:30AM. I had eaten a couple of powerbars in the night, mostly to keep awake, but devoured most of the contents of my breakfast goodies.
9AM, we got a short tour of the Monastery and Greek Orthodox Church, a 625 year old olive tree that still produces olives, the famous Moses burning bush and one of the water wells from his day.
10AM, back in the van arriving back in Dahab shortly before noon. An overnight 12 hour adventure and fabulous scenery. Very awesome and glad I gave up a nights sleep for it. Shower, couple of hours nap and no alarm clocks!
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KO on

Priceless narrative! Please, sir, can I have some more?

Irene on

Totally cool experience! Sounds like it was definitely worth giving up a night's sleep!

Page on

Hey Jeff,

Great story about your climb, I'm sure staying up a watching the night turn into day was worth it. Hey, pretty cool pants you had on there!

Hair on Fire on

Awesomely interesting narrative and fab photos - you keep getting better. I almost missed this one as somehow I did not get the note it was posted. Tam's grandfather cued me in. He sent a note asking about a hotel in Cairo. You may want to check it out.

mackie on


rnriggins on

Where did you find PowerBars? (I'm glad I finally found some on my trip - in Mallorca!)

DAD on

can't wait to see your "Travel" book when it gets published.
phenominal experience...seeing where history was made and 'tasting' the flavor of how they lived.

Bo on

Liar, you paid some poor guy to carry you up there. Liar

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