Sunrise on Mt Sinai and a visit to St Katherine’s monastery were, for us, going to be a highlight and a chance to tick off one of the destinations on our wish list. However, since the fall of Mubarak in Egypt’s Arab Spring, the Sinai has become increasingly lawless, and trouble in the area, in the form of kidnapping of tourists, meant that this time around, it was not meant to be.
Disappointment, though, can sometimes be rewarded with something wonderful and unexpected…
So it was, we had an early start to make the journey across the Sinai Desert towards the Jordanian border. Sadly we would be leaving new friends as Will and Sophie headed off in search of surfing adventures in Morocco and Lakshmi headed home from the scorching Egyptian heat to chilly Tasmania.
As is the way, new faces replace those that are gone and a whole new set of names need to be learnt as we were joined by another group, who’d opted to do the luxury version of our tour..ie Nile cruise rather than felucca. We had an eight to twelve hour journey in which to accomplish this.
The journey across the Sinai can be difficult in the current social climate – due to the security concerns of bedouin attacks, many roads are closed. Those that remain open often have several military checkpoints and travel between them can require escorts. This means waiting at checkpoints til the escorts are in a position to…well, escort! And this could be hours. Providence must have decided that missing Mt Sinai and St Katherine’s was enough and we got lucky on all accounts. Not only could we travel freely from checkpoint to checkpoint, without waiting on an escort, but we could take the shorter route across the Sinai, knocking over two hours off the trip. And there wasn’t a Bedouin in sight!
The drive across the Sinai, for the most part is bleak and desolate. A desert – one that is heavily militarised, due mainly to the Suez Canal, and also in part because of the shared border with Israel.
Ahmed tells us the Suez Canal is the main source of income for Egypt an thus control over the waterway is a sensitive issue for Egyptians. Along the banks of the Canal and around the Suez tunnel (the tunnel connecting Africa and Asia), armed soldiers keep a watchful eye.
But for hours, outside of a glimpse of military personnel and hardware, there is only more rock and more sand.
Closer towards Nuweiba and the Red Sea, the flat landscape is finally given relief – broken up by spectacular gorges and rocky mountains.
Without a stop at St Katherine’s we had an extra night, which would instead be spent in Dahab, on the shores of the Red Sea. And with the shorter road trip from Cairo we made it into the coastal resort town with plenty of time for a snorkling trip! Another item on the wish list, one which Scott was resigned to not completing this time round, due to scheduling. One door closes…another opens.
Snorkling in the Red Sea, is a must, even if, like me, you’re terrorised by the thought of swimming over cavernous blue holes, getting up close and personal with all manner of underwater creatures and know that breathing with your head underwater is just plain unnatural!
There are so many possible places to snorkel, and for the more adventurous, dive, around the Red Sea. Blue Hole just north of Dahab, was our destination. Naturally – because we’ve established I’m a snorkling coward and the Blue Hole is nicknamed “Diver’s Cemetary” and has earned the reputation of being the worlds deadliest dive site. It’s a submarine sinkhole surrounded by a 900m wall of coral with an underwater archway leading out to the Red Sea.
A 30 minute crazy jeep ride across a dirt “road” gets us from our hotel to the dive site, which is thankfully accessible from the shore. That’s something at least, jumping off a boat into the middle of an ocean conjures up thoughts of the movie Open Water!
Cafes line the shore and you can hire scuba or snorkling equipment from any of them. And most of them do a mean fresh juice mocktail as well. We were headed well towards summer, having had mostly days of 30 plus and occasionally 40 degree heat. Regardless, the water of Blue Hole was chilling and without a wet suit about 60 minutes was the maximum anyone could take. But the coral and marine life were amazing even close to shore around the edges of the hole.
The sun was shining, the water was filled with people gentling floating face down, peering into the underwater world below them…..and no one was thinking of a missed monastery visit….