The Sinai mountain range is located on that little triangular peninsula at the north eastern corner of Egypt, jutting down into the Red Sea. The Gulf of Suez is to the left, and the Gulf of Aquba, looking over to Saudi Arabia is on the right. The main tourist resort, Sharm-el-Sheikh, is on the southernmost tip, and caters for the area's main attractions - diving, swimming and windsurfing.
We visited during the last week in September - a good time to go to Egypt, as the daytime land temperatures are bearably in the mid-30s ( as opposed to the 40 and 50 degrees often encountered during July and August) while the sea temperatures are still a very comfortable high-20s. Oh, and the clocks go back an hour then, so you get an extra 60 minutes of holiday.
We stayed in Dahab, a little village north of Sharm itself, and with less of the latter's brash party-going, clubbing energy. Dahab is a bit like living in the 1960s - flip-flops, beaded jewellery, tie-dye clothing, henna tattoos, and a very relaxed attitude to life pervade. Recent years have seen a number of new buildings (hotels and dive lodges mostly) spring up, and there is now an attractive path all along the water's edge. This is lined with little restaurants, usually serving a superb selection of fresh fish, under a canopy of brightly coloured fairy lights.
So what to do on non-diving days? We decided to fork out the equivalent of £7 each and take a trip to Mount Sinai to see the sunrise.
The minibus left Dahab at 11 pm, and was full to capacity for the 2 hour trip. This meant we got very little sleep. Mount Sinai (or Gebel Musa) is over 2,000 metres high, and while there is some dispute over whether this is actually the mountain where Moses got the 10 commandments and/or saw the burning bush it is still a spectacular experience, no matter how unreligious you are. Ascent of the mountain can be done either on foot or by camel (hire cost about £6 plus tip). We went for the camel option, which allowed us to admire the wonderful starry sky, rest our poor cramped legs, and let the experts guide us up. I particulalry liked the fabulous silhouettes of us on camel-back cast on the sandstone mountain by the torches of fellow climbers. The walk is dotted with little rest stops where you can buy water, tea, chocolate etc, although visitors are advised to bring their own snacks, on grounds of convenience and cost. Having said that, I didn't think the prices were vastly inflated, given the location!
The final climb of about 700 rocky steps is tough going, and we regretted not bringing a torch with us. The enterprising Bedouins at the summit hire out mattresses and blankets at about £1 each, and also point out the best place to sit to see the sunrise. We arrived just after 4 am, with all the stars still vibrant against the blue black sky. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sky in the east took on a paler, peach coloured hue, whilst the stars began to fade, as if a giant dimmer switch was being slowly rotated. I focussed on Orion, which had been gloriously distinct, with even bow and dagger visible, and marvelled at how each of the fainter stars winked out until all that remained were the usual half dozen visible from light-polluted UK. Meanwhile we watched, along with about 400 others, as the sky grew steadily pinker and lighter, until finally a bright cerise spot appeared, growing and growing until it became a full circle. The mountains around us changed from nondescript grey into many shades of pink and brown, and cast magnificent shadows in the horizontal glare of the newly risen sun. The heat of the sun's rays quickly warmed the watchers, and blankets and jackets were discarded or returned to their owners.
We stayed for a short while afterwards, eating the bread and crackers we'd brought along. We took one sniff of our hunk of cheese before quickly binning it! The view from the top of the mountain is jaw-dropping, as is the journey downwards, largely beacuse we were amazed to actually see the tumbling rocks we'd climbed up in the dark a few hours previously.
As our poor old knees were aching, we decided to opt for the camel option again. However, going downhill on a camel is an altogether more uncomfortable experience, as there is a huge amount of pounding on the ...erm..shall we say "front bottom" area. I'm sure Dai's voice was about 2 octaves higher by the time we reached the foot of the mountain, and the centuries-old monastry of St Katherine. By this stage we were seriously sleep deprived - I was seeing all sorts of shapes of animals and faces in the boulders, and Dai just wanted a shady spot to curl up in, where his snoring wouldn't disturb too many other tourists.
Back in the mini-bus at 10 a.m, with a short hiatus for the quarrelling Belgian couple to conesnt to be in the same vehicle, even if not beside each other. And another couple of hours trying to get some sleep in a totally uncomfortable position, glancing every so often at the bleak , barren and barely-changing Egyptian landscape, described by some as Martian.
So - a trip well worth making, but here's my 10 handy hints for future travellers:
Be prepared for some tough walking - wear stout shoes and comfortable clothing.
Go at night. Yes, you'll lose a night's sleep, but the alternative is a blistering 4 hour march in sweltering temperatures during the day to see the sunset, followed by a tricky descent in the dark.
Take some snacks. Any surplus is welcomed by the guides and souvenir sellers. Chocolate is particularly popular!
Take plenty of water. And drink it.
Take lots of photos. And extra film or batteries.
Take a torch.
Take a camel up. But not down.
No diving for at least 12 hours beforehand - the high altitude can affect the nitrogen in your system.
Revise your constellations, or take a star guide book with you.
Thank the deity of your choice for the health to make the trip, and the ability to admire and appreciate it.