It was about midnight, and we were with a handful of other people that were complete strangers to us, most of them sleeping and rocking sideways with the motion of the minibus that was being driven by an older gentleman who looked like he could’ve been Indiana Jones’s assistant or something. It was pitch black outside, no sign of lights but for a sliver of moon. We were somewhere in the Sinai peninsula’s Egyptian desert.
*DISCLAIMER: LOTS OF SUNRISE PHOTOS TO FOLLOW*
It was then that I turned to Joel and said that this must be one of the craziest coolest excursions we have signed up for. We were on our way to Mount Sinai, prepared to hike the seven kilometres overnight to its summit, the day being far too hot to do so. We arrived at the foot of the mountain at about 1am, were offered blankets and ponchos by local traders (it was already pretty chilly), and were handed flashlights by our tour guide, while simultaneously being handed over to a bedouin mountain guide who would hike with us to the top.
The hike started out silently, with shoes scraping the dirt and stones, spotlights rocking back and forth as flashlights lit up our feet. We could then only sense, by way of making out the dark masses of mountains rising up next to us, the majesty of the desert valley and the task that lay before us. And then of course, right away, the stars that appear without warning as the mountain silhouettes round off their form. Stars on stars on stars – they seem to lie over us like a blanket, like a veil between us and the cosmos. And then, abruptly, a flashlight catches the glistening eyes of some large animal. Looking beyond this first set of eyes, you see many white bodies against the dark valley – camels.
Some stomach problems got the better of me a couple of kilometres in, and I jumped on a camel to leave the hiking group and ride the rest of the way up. I twisted my head backwards as the camel swayed side-to-side and to-and-fro, and was able to take in the starry canopy in complete darkness and utter silence but for the footsteps of the camel and his guide.
The road up is lined with a few teahouses serving as rest stops, and I managed to just gain the trust of a very small kitten when Joel and the rest of my group caught up with me where I was waiting at the last stop. This is as far as the camel goes (in summer – in winter, when snow falls on the top of the mountain, it has to stop sooner). The rest of the hike is just over a kilometre of steep rocky steps – 700 or so of them.
The sky was already starting to reflect a dark purple towards the East, and then night quickly transformed into dawn when we were just about at the top. What happened in the next hour was just spellbinding. The day breaks in a rush as soon as the first sight of glowing gold pushes up behind the distant mountain tops. Then colours change kaleidoscopically, one set of hues dissolving into the next, while the stars slowly retrieve into outer space again. The vast landscape that we have been traversing becomes visible as the golden morning desert sun casts deep, long shadows into rocky ravines. (Isn’t it the best to arrive somewhere in the dark and all of a sudden get to see it all at once in the light the next day??). That which we have conquered now lay visibly below us, and it seemed so much more monumental in its red highlights and blue shadows. We were alone in an absolute wilderness. This fact was incontrovertible even as we stood amongst many others to take it in.
As the day grew bright, the summit livened up with the excitement of people having made it. Not before long, people were beginning to shed their jerseys and blankets as the sun climbed higher and higher, and it seemed that within an hour or so of starting our descent, the temperature had shot up from its single digit to nearly 30 degrees Celsius again. We geared up in hats and sunscreen and braved the hike down (no camels this time!).
At the foot of the mountain lies Saint Catherine’s Monastery, also called ‘the holy monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai’ – being located on the spot where the Bible accounts God speaking to Moses as a burning bush. It is centuries old, having been built sometime in the mid-500s, and serves as an oasis in the Sinai desert. It is a lush garden with trickling streams and many scrappy but loveable cats. Also, it has toilets, which are useful for when you have a stomach issue in the middle of the desert. We were given a tour of the monastery, which we, admittedly, partook in only reluctantly, as we were exhausted – from being up all night, having hiked a steep 14 kilometres (half of which was in extreme heat) and having clutched at stomach cramps – and hungry.
After filling up with breakfast (and being ushered into some gift shop), we all piled back into the van, blasted the AC and fell into some sort of slumber as we took on the 3-hour drive back to Sharm el Sheikh. We arrived back at our hotel about 14 hours after we left it the previous night, with red dust on our darkened skin and tired eyes, but feeling victorious and richer in a sort of experience that is inexplicably surreal and not easily imagined – not even having experienced it yourself.