Decided today to go to Mt Sinai and St Katherines Monestary on the 11pm bus that night. I had a whole day to kill before then, and a mild hangover to cure. I had spaghetti bolognese (not served with a spoon – come on – it’s spaghetti!) with 2 cappucinos and a coconut milkshake in the sun. Went for a long walk to the other side of the promenade, to where lots of people were windsurfing and kitesurfing, both of which looked tremendous fun, something I’ll learn one day. Headed back, did some shopping for souvenirs for various people. Had an awful shrimp coconut curry at Penguin. At 11pm, the bus came to take a group of us to Mt Sinai. I was glad. Apart from diving, windsurfing and kitesurfing, there really is nothing to do in Dahab apart from eat and drink.
I was lucky to get the back single seat on the bus as I could stretch my legs sideways. Others were not so lucky, and had about 2cm of leg room. A German who was tanned in a very Michael Hasselhoff way and looked like a C-list movie star was on the bus, along with an American couple, a Korean girl, a German girl and her Egyptian boyfriend, and 2 Aussies. And so on we went in our cramped minibus to Mt Sinai.
We arrived at around 2am, after passing numerous utterly pointless checkpoints where we had to give our passports in. I made sure I had mine this time, and anyway, I was planning to go to Jordan later in the day anyway. We arrived and met our guide, a miserable bedouin with a deerskin hat and a bad cold who christened our team ‘Mt Sinai’. We set off in the pitch darkness, but all around, others were on the trail too, from all over the place. I saw groups of Jews, Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Christians…all of whom revere the mountain, as this was the place where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God, apparently. It certainly looked close to the stars on the way up, for I’d never seen a sky so full – as though the whole galaxy had been squashed into this area, clearer than I’d ever seen. Not since Palebuan Ratu in Indonesia or the slopes of Gunung Rinjani in Lombok had I seen such clarity in a night sky. I couldn’t stop glancing up, though this could have been more to do with trying to avoid the smell of the hundreds of camels parked in various spots on the way up to help the weary, the old , the sick, or the just plain lazy get towards the top. Indeed, there was nothing peaceful, no reverential silence on the way up. High spirits at the bottom had faded by the time we reached the last bedouin rest spot for a cup of tea. It was freezing. Our guide kept trying to make us take a blanket and a mattress to the top for 20LE – a lot of money for a rental. His insistence revealed he must be getting a cut out of the rental fee. Only a few obliged, however, so he wasn’t a happy bedouin. He tried bluffing us all, saying this was the last chance to get a blanket, a tea, anything. It wasn’t, or course, at the top there were many more enterprising bedouins.
It had taken 3 and a half hours to get up to the top. I scrambled up the rest of the way – the path had been easy and winding, but I would take the harder way – the steps of repentance – down. At the top, a crowd was gathered, and I perched myself at the edge of a sheer drop to watch the imminent sunrise. The atmosphere was exciting, people chatting away, others saying prayers, and a gospel church group singing hauntingly beautiful hymns that provided a perfect audiodrop for the Godly moment.
The sun began to creep its way up and ignite the sky, but it was still absolutely freezing. The Russian girl from the bus offered to share her mattress and blanket with me – an act of genuine kindness I won’t forget. And so, together, we enjoyed the sunrise as strangers, our only bond being our memory of the moment and who we fleetingly shared it with. And the sun rose over the holiest of holy mountains. This was a special moment. People from all religions, of all colours, from all walks of life – clapped and cheered, for a fleeting moment all differences forgotten.
People began to slowly filter away. I sneaked away from the group, and took the scenic route down – the steps of redemption, laid by the hands of one monk, apparently. I enjoyed the stroll down, the mountains all around, stunning backdrops, incredible. I made it down in a couple of quad aching hours, down the desolate trail….the sound of nothing accompanying my echoing steps.
I made it before the others. Apparently they’d waited for me for an hour. Not my problem. I didn’t want to go down the normal way, with hundreds of people. I went alone, much better, much more fun, no hassle to buy anything from anyone.
At a strategic point on the highway back, we stopped and I bailed out, getting into a waiting minivan heading the other way, to Nuiba – for I was crossing the red sea to Aquaba, Jordan today, which made for a very exhausting day since I’d already been awake about 26 hours.
On my minibus was a guy called Pascal from Belgium, who had intense blue eyes and dark hair, and more resembled an Irishman, and a Japanese guy from Osaka. Pascal lived in Kampala, and so we connected over our love of Africa. The Japanese guy was a typical Japanese independent loner, and spoke very limited English, as my old student Shin did (who is a conflict photographer somehow managing to travel the world), but he somehow got by.
We arrived at the port and got tickets, for a whopping $85 to cross to Jordan, then we went to a tiny restaurant around the back of the port, as we still had 3 hours before the trip. The man who owned the restaurant was a fat, jolly, happily proud Jordanian with twinkling grey-blue eyes that did little to conceal a love of mischief. His wife baked the bread and cooked the potatoes for us, while the man set to work on the kebabs. He served us with a flourish, and waited expectantly for our thumbs up, which we gave. His face broke into a smile brimming with pride, and he got on with other business, like weighing meat delivered to him and haggling over the price.
After lunch, we checked in and sat in the filthy waiting hall for a long time, where we got talking to a group of Malaysians from KL who were also travelling to Aquaba. Boarded the ferry after what seemed like an eternity, and were shown to a cordoned off area seemingly reserved for foreigners. Our passports were taken and we were told to collect them ‘later’. The Egyptians had to form long queues to get their visas, and not until everyone had their visa did we set off, which took a while. I hadn’t slept for 30 hours, and so tried to get half-an-hour in on the ferry, spreading myself on the comfortable seats. The ride was smooth and more comfortable than I thought. In my sleep, the Belgian and Japanese had formed a closer bond, and so decided they would try and walk to some budget hotels from the port when we arrived. I got a taxi instead for 7 Jordanian Diners, about 7GBP, which was packed with 5 other people. It was night time, and we drove the 5 or so kilometres to Aquaba City. The Belgian had got it wrong when he said the port was 500m away from the hotel area. They would be walking for a very long time.
I checked into Moon Beach Hotel, nice enough, though very surly staff (like most in this region of the world, truth be told – though I imagine were I a woman they would be much more helpful), then headed out for a walk and something to eat.
Aquaba is a lovely, hassle-free, duty-free port city, clean, modern and safe. The Corniche running by the Gulf of Aquaba is well-lit and thronged with locals and tourists alike enjoying leisurely strolls. I sat down in a locals place outside in the cool night air, and had some fuul, which was a terrible mistake, and a falafal, which was better, washed down with a cup of sugary tea. From here, I headed down to the Gateway, an area of upmarket bars and restaurants, though before this I popped down to the Royal Yacht Club, a prestigious bar / restaurant full of the rich and ‘well-bred’ supping wine, and I joined them, by ordering a glass of the cheapest red grape I could find on the menu, watching the stars above the yachts bobbing gently in the water.
After this picture of serenity, I went to The Gateway, and to the quintessential English pub – The Rovers Return, for a pint. The Amstel beer wasn’t going down too well, so I headed back for an early night, as I was nearly falling asleep into my beer. I’d been awake for almost 40 hours. Time for bed.