Friday, 7 September 2007

Sinai - sun, sea and sand

After a couple of days in busy bustling Cairo, the beach on the Sinai Peninsular beckoned. We took a taxi ride to Cairo's spanking new bus station - so new it's still being built, but it already has an airline-like departure board and computerised ticketing, most unlike Africa. The bus even left on time, and before long we were on our way - under the Suez tunnel and through the sparse Sinai desert to the Red Sea coast. For the place where God was meant to have spoken to Moses, it looked pretty godforsaken to us. There were small desert outposts, quite a few military barracks and police posts, and not really too much else. Even when we got to the coast, there were only a few settlements.

The bus took us as far as Sharm el Sheikh, a fairly upmarket resort town. We had about three hours to wait till our "connection" to Dahab arrived, so took a taxi to town and had an early dinner at an Italian cafe on the waterfront. All very pleasant and easy till it came time to get a cab back to the bus depot. Sharm is not such a big place, and who would have thought it would boast two East Delta Bus Depots. But it does. And of course we were dropped at the other one. Eventually we were ferried back to our original depot to wait, enjoying the sight of the full moon glistening on the tarmac...truly romantic according to Max!

We finally arrived in Dahab around 10pm. The taxis here are pick up trucks and Max manfully rode in the back with the bags. We'd been told about the Jasmine Hotel, and decided to check it out. Very charming spot, with friendly staff and good prices, and a waterfront restaurant complete with rugs and cushions on the floor and low tables. We dumped our bags, and settled down to toast ourselves with a cold Stella, watching the moon over the Straits of Aqaba and the lights of a Saudi Arabian town, a mere 30km or so away.

Diving is what Dahab is all about, and we couldn't resist. Max and I enrolled in an open water diving course and spent the next four days learning about buoyancy, equalising, surface intervals and doing complicated calculations using dive tables. Relaxing or what! However, on day four we passed our written exam, and successfully completed the final underwater exercises and are now fully certified open water divers. Because we'd been so distracted during our days at Dahab, we could easily have spent some more time here. It's really a lovely spot, very relaxing and pretty, and the weather is just perfect - maybe a tad hot during the middle of the day, but wonderful in the mornings and the evenings.

However, it was time to go and climb Mt Sinai. This entailed an 11pm departure from Dahab to St Catherine's monastery. Again, a lot of police checkpoints on this most popular of tourist routes. We started the climb at about 2am, and used the camel track - which would have been fine if it hadn't been for the camels! It took a couple of hours up a sandy switchback trail, and then around 750 steps, and surprisingly we actually did get a little cold towards the top. It had been so long since I'd been cold that I found myself enjoying the sensation. We hired blankets from a man near the top, and settled down for a snooze before sunrise at 6.20. I was a tiny bit cynical about this, having gotten up early once too often for disappointing sunrises, but this was pretty spectacular. The mountains were lovely and we had a great view of the sun peeking over the dusty tops. The walk down was quite a mission though, over 3000 steps to the monastery, apparently all built as a penance by St Stephen. St Catherine's is around 1600 years old, so has been here in the desert for a long, long time, usually surrounded by Muslims. These days the monastery complex is home to a couple of dozen Greek Orthodox monks, and also contains a mosque. All very unusual, but it seems the monastery has a special protected status from the surrounding Bedouin people.

The day however had just begun for us. We were transferred from our minibus to another one and dropped off at the port town of Nuweiba so we could catch the ferry to the Jordanian town of Aqaba. Buying a ticket was quite a mission, and proved to be one of the few times it was useful to be a woman in this part of the world. Women have their own (relatively short) queue, and I managed to get our tickets in about 20 minutes - some of the men had apparently been queuing for several hours. It was an expensive purchase though, around $80US each for a trip supposedly lasting around 90 minutes. We also had quite a bit of trouble finding out just when the ferry was due to leave. There were several times quoted to us ranging from 2pm to 6pm. We figured there was still time for lunch, and nipped over the road to the promisingly-named "Cofe Shop and Restaurant". Coffee proved a problem (solved by ordering Cokes) and food was also tricky, with only omlettes and felafel available. We were in no position to quibble, being tired and hungry and ate and drank thankfully, before heading back to the port just in case 2pm was correct. Eventually we left around 7.15pm, which gave us the opportunity for a couple of hours' sleep on the wooden benches in the departure lounge. The ferry itself was pretty swish though, and seemed to be run in a seamanlike manner, which is always comforting. A nice man came and exchanged our passports for small pieces of paper, which we hung onto until we disembarked in Aqaba and went through immigration. We needed a visa, but at least it was free, which made a nice change.

It had been a long day, and we were pleased to finally get out of the port building and into a taxi for the few kilometre ride into Aqaba town. Our driver was a gem, taking us to the hotel we'd asked to see, and then to another one which he, correctly, said was better. The Petra was tidy, with air conditioning, a bathroom (would have been nice if the light worked!), and a balcony. Welcome to Jordan!

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