A Camel trek in Sinai

Tour dates: 6 Feb to 13 Feb 2006.
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This holiday was unusual in its concept. We have a friend, Zimmy, who has been visiting the Sinai since the 1970's and going for camel treks in the mountains. Sheik Mousa has been her friend and trek organiser over the whole of that period. Lately her recipe has been to take an off-season travel package to the Sinai from our local airport. Once there, she largely ignores the hotel accommodation and sets off to visit her Bedouin friends in the mountains. They provide the guide and the camels and so the treks take place.

As the trip unfolded we heard of the rapid and profound changes that have taken place since she first travelled there. Originally it was very hard to reach the trek area and meant a long day bumping across rough country to reach the trek area. All that has changed. In part these changes have been fuelled by the presence of St Katherine's Monastery and Mount Moses in the exact region where we began our trek. These generate a valuable tourist trade for the region and this year, for the first time, she was able to follow a brand new tarmac road all the way from the Red Sea beach resort of Sharm el Sheik, which is where our tour package had taken us.

Another startling change this year was that her hosts, who acquired a fax machine the other year, now have email and a website. Over the thirty year period their base has progressed from a few simple buildings to stone built village with a new complex of holiday chalets on its outskirts. This has produced overwhelming changes at the base, but it has changed very little in the mountains: we sighted only two other tourists during the whole of our trek.

Setting off

Our plane got us to the hotel in Sharm el Sheik in good time for dinner and a comfortable night's sleep. Buffet breakfast starts at 07:00 and saw us waiting for the doors to open.

Soon we were in the modern minibus sent by Sheik Mousa to collect us. A drive of little more then 2hrs on the excellent new road took us to Sheik Mousa's base close to St Katherine's Monastery. On the way we found another new phenomenon: a tourist levy of 17.5 Egyptian pounds (about £2) as a park entry fee for Saint Katherine’s Protectorate.

All was waiting for us. Sheik Mousa's charming son was there, as was Zimmy's favourite guide Suleiman and the camels. We sat outside in the winter sunshine drinking tea and discussing the route. Or rather, Zimmy discussed the route - in a mix of Arabic and Hebrew.

Soon the five of us we were on our way with Suleiman, leaving the luggage to follow on the two camels. We did have a short detour to meet Suleiman's wife and family and see the extensions and improvements he had made to his home.

Lunch stop Our route up into the mountains was steep but on a substantial path. As we toiled up, we could see one of our two camels below as it followed us. At the high point of the pass we sat for a while beside the remains of an old leopard trap before making a gentle descent into a region where the valley base was lined with walled orchards or bustans. The date was early February and many of the trees were covered in blossom. It was in this region that we stopped for lunch. Suleiman's rucksack contained a treasure trove of fresh vegetables and fruit together with familiar looking modern tins of tuna and a carton of Halva. Water boiled over a wood fire provided us with tea (we had all brought tea bags from the UK)

As we sat in the gentle winter sunshine, we were reminded that we had started our walk from an altitude of about 2000 metres. This means that the forecast 20°C maximum temperature at sea level means only 5°C at this altitude.

Our onward journey was short and easy. We arrived at a region where the valley base was full of bustans and we had a stone walled and mud roofed building of three rooms as our base (no doors!). There was still daylight to wander around the area as our camels arrived and Suleiman boiled water for tea.

Our original plan had been to sleep out under the stars at night. This was thwarted by a shortage of level space. The buildings were on a steep hillside and, whilst there was level space available, it had a well trodden air to it. As a result we decided to sleep inside on the earth floors. This was a pity since the night was clear and strongly moonlit. With hindsight, I cannot imagine why I never thought of sleeping on the roof, which is a common local custom in hot weather.

As darkness fell it became cold and we added the extra clothes we had brought. However the real way to keep warm and comfortable was demonstrated by Suleiman and our two camel men. You light a fire inside the hut on the floor and then you come and lie down beside it, staying below the smoke level. Very comfortable!

Meanwhile Suleiman had been cooking a meal for us, using a gas ring connected to a huge gas bottle that had come up by camel (all mod cons on this trip!). It consisted of an excellent soup followed by a stew served with rice.

Afterwards I had a pleasant stroll around the valley in the bright moonlight before returning to get into the comfort of our warm sleeping bags for the night. A rather charming additional member of our party was a Mourning Wheatear which spent the night on a beam above Joan and myself . We did move the sleeping bags a little away from the beam, just in case our new recruit was not house trained, but he behaved well.

Second day

Suleiman shows relentless energy. Despite being the last to bed, he was up and at work again. This time he had lit a fire outside our house and is cooking thin sheets of bread on a metal sheet. Some of it made the basis of a tasty breakfast using salty cheeses and fresh vegetables. Some more of it was packed away ready for our lunch.

After breakfast we set off, with the exercise soon compensating for the low air temperature. Today the group splits. Zimmy and Joy took the lower route followed by the camels. Zimmy's daughter, Daphne, Joan and myself went with Suleiman over some higher passes to eventually arrive at the same destination as the others.

Our route started with a long gentle up and over route, The valleys we followed were surprisingly wide ones with a string of bustans along their base. Most of the scenery is exactly the same as it has been for centuries, but there is one strange exception. Everywhere you go you will see at least one small bore black plastic pipe. If I understand correctly, these probably collect excess groundwater at the lower end of one bustan and carry it safely to the start of the next. I guess water is a very important commodity here. The area must certainly rate as an excellent customer for black plastic pipe!

Our luck with weather was not perfect. Before we left the UK we had seen a forecast of deteriorating weather during the time of our trek, with some increase in cloud and lowering of temperature. The wind had become fairly strong and a partial cloud cover was keeping the temperature low. We were fine as long as we kept moving but we were walking with sweaters and jackets in place. I was a little uncomfortable in the thought that my double bivi bag which normally goes everywhere with me was now miles away on a camel. Best be more careful than usual!

The onward route took us over a couple of cols. At one of them we found a pile of hailstones and these were definitely not melting; not one drop of moisture there. As in all the region, we were finding even valleys that ascended quite steeply would still have a relatively flat base between steeper rocky walls. This is a feature that I first noticed when we left the coastal plain and approached the mountains.

In the early afternoon Suleiman led us up towards a notch in the skyline of a mountain ridges above us. The rock here has a really rough texture, as though someone had hammered nails into it. Often our ascent was done by walking up impossible looking slabs. Elsewhere it was done by scrambling up steep boulder chokes. Daphne was doing a translation service for us, but was hampered by a lack of a wide vocabulary. Finally we go to the notch and we were rewarded by a magnificent landscape spread below us. Even with the slight haze present it was a fine sight.

Afterwards I had a panic feeling that Suleiman was going to stride down the near vertical slab on the other side of the notch, but we set off back down the way we had come!

Once down we gathered some dead plants and followed back to a gap between rocks near a stream. It was here that Suleiman made lunch and we became aware of how very chilly the windy and below freezing conditions were. The lunch was good and we were on our way as soon as possible.

Eventually we were shown the Wadi Rummana ahead of us and well below. We descended via a long section of steep scrambling, which was well provided with jug handle holds and high friction rock. In the valley at the bottom we found ourselves looking through a rocky gap and past a cement-lined cistern to see our baggage camels outside a thin strip of a stone building.

There we met the others. Zimmy was (justifiably) cross. The building gets little human use in winter and had been full of donkey turds. Our two precious camel drivers had done nothing but make themselves comfortable in a corner and had left Zimmy to clear out the place herself. A fine performance for two fit men - leaving this task to an 82 year old woman who was paying their wages! Also a huge contrast to the hard working Suleiman. Needless to say, one ended the trip with no tip from us and the other, more friendly, got a smaller tip than he might have had.

This time there was plenty of level ground about the place. One such place was just outside the overhanging mouth of a cave beneath a huge boulder. Since the wind was still blowing strongly I decided that this was the best place to sleep out for the night. In due course I took my gear out and did just that.

Before then we had an excellent meal cooked for all of us by the noble Suleiman, who had been on the move without any breaks since early morning. The rest of us felt rather useless and did little beyond driving off the donkeys who had come to claim "their" house from the intruders.

Later I had a peaceful and comfortable night. There was a full moon and the cloud cleared from it at about 3am, leaving the day to dawn with a fine blue sky and crisp clear air.

I had had the best of the night. As I mentioned earlier, these buildings do not have doors. Joan spent a certain amount of the night driving out the donkeys. This is not the easiest of tasks to do in the dark when you are sealed up in a mummy sleeping bag and a mummy inner liner - both of them with drawcords.

Third Day

A bright sunny day. Still fairly cold, but now pleasant in the sunshine. This was more how we had visualised our trip: the cloudy and windy day was just a piece of bad luck.

Again, Zimmy and Joy would follow the lower route with the camels and Daphne, Joan and myself would take a higher route with Suleiman guiding us.

The morning passed agreeably with a few more climbs and descents over the orange coloured rocks below a blue sky.

In this area there are the remains of an attempt by a previous Egyptian president to build a mountain top castle. He died before the task had gone very far and now there are just the foundations of the building and parts of an access road or track.

As we approached this area Suleiman invited us to take ourselves up to visit it while he sat in the sunshine and prepared our lunch. We were gone some while since it was a significant climb. Daphne and I went right to the top and saw the vast sweeping view of the countryside beyond the mountain; it is easy to see why this site was chosen for the president's holiday home. Joan went part way up and then sat in the sunshine on a rocky spur. The three of us joined up again and went down to meet Suleiman and have lunch.

In the afternoon we took a lower level route which eventually led us past our first overnight stop, but approaching it from a new direction. Then we were to retrace our route of the first afternoon.

To our surprise we soon came across Zimmy and Joy. They had made slow progress since Joy was ill and moving slowly. One of our camel drivers had been helpful: the cheerful and friendly one, Mansour. From there we travelled on slowly together. Much of the journey was downhill and we arrived back at the Sheik Mousa base with plenty of daylight left. Here we were to spend the night indoors and Suleiman was to cook us one final dinner.

After dark the temperature dropped but a tray of charcoal was prepared and brought into the common room which burst into life as the focus for all of the guests staying at the base.

Many of them had come to visit St Katherine's Monastery and Mount Musa (Moses). They were a cheerful and very mixed crowd of all nationalities. It was a delight to see an Argentian man chatting to a Japanese woman, using a common language of Arabic!

For ourselves, we had dinner and went to bed fairly early after a moderately energetic day.

Return day

Soon after our breakfast, prepared by Suleiman, it was time to depart. It was hard parting with Suleiman, who we had come to admire immensely. I have never seen anyone who worked so competently and thoroughly from morning to night. Indeed I found it quite humbling (I lead tours for Ramblers Holidays and I would not like my own performance to be compared point by point with the redoubtable Suleiman).

Our minibus was ready for us and we got aboard, initially just for a very short journey. We drove up to the car park below St Katherine's Monastery and walked up to view the building. We were not planning to do the tour of the monastery, which is just as well since it was Friday and monastery was closed to visitors.

Behind the Monastery rises Mount Musa (the mountain of the burning bush). This is a very popular destination with tourists and the "done thing" is to spend the night on the top to see the sunrise. This is not our sort of pleasure. One hears of the top being swaddled in a sea of sleeping bags and the immediate surroundings covered in human faeces. We much preferred our own wanderings without a single other person in sight once we climbed away from the valley routes.

Once our St Katherine’s visit was complete we set off for Sharm el Sheik. The journey was very fast and made on the smoothest of tarmac surfaces, so we were back to the hotel by mid day.

As you might imagine, the main pleasure was to get thoroughly clean and to get into fresh clothes. Several outer garments were evicted to our sunny balcony to rid themselves of the smell of wood smoke.

The afternoon and evening were available for strolling around Nama Bay (the part of Sharm el Sheik where we were staying). The weather was warm and sunny. There were lots of people strolling around in the sunshine and sunbathing on the sun loungers which were packed almost touching on all the beaches.

For us it was a mixed experience. We were enjoying the leisure but not the place. Admittedly the buffet dinner at the hotel was a great treat for us (Suleiman is a good cook, but cannot compete with a kitchen full of chefs). A walk around town in the darkness of a warm evening was fine. We ended up by booking ourselves on a part day tour of Ras Mohammed National Park for tomorrow.

Ras Mohammed National Park

A gentle start, picked up at the hotel after a leisurely buffet breakfast. A short drive to the park, with a stop along the way to pick up some snorkelling equipment.

The park itself is a low lying peninsula, which is the southernmost part of Sinai. Commercial developments within the park are forbidden and this seems to be an excellent idea.

The featured visits were to the park gates (unusual and dramatic), to a (very modest) mangrove swamp, the site of a volcanic crack on a bathing beach and then to a snorkelling site.

With hindsight, we realise just how lucky we were here. On the way to our site we passed several places where large numbers of people were snorkelling on reefs just off of the sandy shore. Our company pressed on further along a slightly difficult and winding track to a low rocky headland. We walked over the headland to the smallest of sandy beaches where we donned our gear and made our way with some slight difficulty through submerged rocks to the open sea.

Here the magic of our choice became apparent. Either side of our little bay were small cliffs which fell sheer into the water. Just below the surface was a narrow shelf and then the steep drop continued into the depths below. The whole place was full of richly coloured fish. Some preferred the shallow shelf and some preferred the steep cliff below it. The whole situation was splendid with a touch of the dramatic to it.

For an out of practice snorkeler whose moustache was causing steady flooding of the mask, it was ideal. A good range of fish habitats, some shallow water security and the benefits of access to deeper water. Also, water temperature was very comfortable for a swimmer in shorts and tee shirt.

We probably spent about an hour or more in the water viewing the splendid fish. Also I saw a large turtle swimming past below me in the deeper water: something I had never seen before.

Finally it was time to go. The drive back was short and the slightly depressed feelings of yesterday were gone. We wandered around the beach and shops in the afternoon and evening. The latter visit was after another buffet dinner and watching part of a floor show laid on by the hotel. Before the end of the day we did book a trip in a glass-bottomed boat as a fill-in while waiting for our departure flight.

Final day

Another rich breakfast then an hour or so in the glass bottomed boat. This was well below the quality of yesterday's experience but still good fun and a pleasant way to pass the morning. Finally we had a late lunch in one of the beachside restaurants before making our way to the airport and taking the flight home to East Midlands Airport, just a mile or two from home.

The end of a magnificent way to spend a February week!

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