Getting to Dahab and a sunrise call at 11PM?
Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
27Trip End Nov 09, 2010
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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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!