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Published: October 3rd 2009
Lying on my back with my head in the stars and I'm gone. In my right ear I can hear the gentle asthmatic rasping of the rhythmically breathing sea, whilst in my left I have the vast silence of the Sinai desert. Below me is coarse, golden sand and above, man above, the stars explode across the deathly black palette of the sky like an particularly reserved, measured and ordered, Jackson Pollock splatter painting in chrome. This is the place to be when it's your soul, and not just your body, that needs a well earned break. There is no electricity here in Ras Abu Gallum - a simple Bedouin settlement where the desert meets the sea - and consequently the stars dance like I've never seen them dance before; their number, luminosity and brilliance are truly astounding. While lying thus contemplating the heavens I did not meditate upon the vastness of space and my own inconsequentiality within it (I am, after all, very egocentric), I did not ponder the possible existence of other life, nor the futility of all existence; rather I was struck, as I often am, by how strange it is to be so on the edge of
things! I mean, this mammoth ball of rock we call earth has pretty much all of its life right on here the edge; between the solid, immutable earth, and the unknowable realms of space there is me, lying here, at the crossroads where the desert meets the sea and the earth meets the universe. Not a bad place to be at all.
We arrived here in Ras Abu Gallum by camel. Now, four years ago in India, after a three day camel safari in the Thar desert near Jailsamer, I swore on my life that I'd never again, so long as I lived, set bruised rump to the uncomfortable back of one of these uniquely cantankerous, spectacularly belligerent, smelly, flatulent, bothersome beasts of burden again. I reneged, but I don't, surprisingly regret it. In truth it was a much shorter journey, not nearly as hot (the always strong winds on this stretch of coast keeping the temperature moderate) and the beasts seemed on much better behaviour. The path wound its way between the brown rocky mountains that slid steeply into the sea and the clear blue of the Gulf of Aqaba. We spent our time simply; wandering about the
settlement talking to the Bedouin, eating delicious food, the aforementioned stargazing and, one of our favourite activities, snorkeling the crystal clear waters to view the stunning reefs just off shore.
The water in the Red Sea is as clear as it is thanks to the desert. Because there is so little rain there is practically no runoff to silt up the waters and consequentially creates a haven for divers and snorkelers alike. All along this coast the reefs seem to be very similar with a wide, flat top just below the surface and then a steep drop off going way, way down into the murky, mysterious and, if I'm being honest, slightly unnerving depths. The whole pantheon of psychedelically coloured fish were present in their thousands. We were able to observe so many fish from the smallest purple ones that hid nervously amongst the coral, to huge, meter long monsters that glided majestically up from the bottom, and all the myriad sizes and colours in between, by simply floating on the surface of the sea. The coral, also, was present in a multitude of colours and sizes, from huge yellow mounds four meters across to delicate soft corals in
luminous pink, pastel blue, bright reds and canary yellows. Endless entertainment, practically free and always surprising and beautiful.
When not under the waves we were often sailing a different water, that of the great sand sea, the Sinai desert. We undertook two trips into the desert, one to see the coloured and white canyons, the other to climb Mount Sinai. The former was an amazing day trekking through the weird rock formations and sculptures that characterize this part of the desert. We walked into canyons that closed around us, the smooth weathered rocks, painted with whorls of colour, snaked their way deeper into the mountain. At times the fissure was only a foot wide where we walked, with the canyon walls rising a vertiginous, hundred meters above us. At others the canyon was wider, the rocks much whiter and the valley floor covered in sand. Here the relentless desert sun beat down upon our heads leaving us baked and disorientated, frantically searching out pockets of shade from which to gain a little succor.Thankfully this trip ended with some much needed food and water at a beautiful Bedouin settlement at a small oasis. There was no classic lake here,
rather the water that sustains this community sprung from a natural spring in a cave below the village. This was a beautiful smudge of green in the otherwise unrelenting brown of the desert and a fantastic place to while away a few hours.
The latter was one of the highlights of this trip. We arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai at 12.30pm, started climbing at one and were not down until 8pm, when it was completely dark. In between I spent seven incredible hours, Anny a little less so! The desert here, so unremittingly barren, made me think of a land that had been scraped and stripped of its last vestiges of life. A land perhaps fallen victim to some environmental disaster, a land after Armageddon , after the apocalypse. Life here clung on only in small tenacious pockets - a lone, desperately sad, thorny bush here, a circling, solitary vulture there, and humans in meager earth shelters, seemingly growing back in to the desert whence they came, in small, desolate communities, the last tattered remnants of their sad pitiable kind.
In truth, this vision of the desert comes from my sometime melancholic imagination, and not entirely
from fact. The land is clearly scrubbed, scraped, barren and boundless but life here, both human and otherwise is remarkably hardy, inventive and numerous. The land has a certain bleak, stark, broken romanticism that exerts a gentle pull upon a certain bent of mind. Mine seems particularly enamored by its rugged charms - the silence and grandeur of the mountains a soothing balm to my restive soul. The climb took about three hours at a very relaxed pace, stopping all the while to admire the considerable views and to take numerous photos. All the while our Bedouin guide Akba would point out places of interest, desert creatures, or just simply softly singing his mournful songs whilst working the beads in his hands.
The views from the summit were quite extraordinarily beautiful, in all directions the jagged, crenelated peaks receded into the distance, fading in colour from bright rusty reds to soft charcoal black. We had the place practically to our selves and were able to enjoy the approaching sunset it stillness, peace and solitude, broken only by the tolling of the church bells. After enjoying a lovely sunset we walked, actually we almost somnambulated, our way down the mountain,
guided only by the light of a perfectly full moon. This was all the illumination we needed however as the moon was so bright it cast the deepest black moon shadows I have ever seen. Very, very special indeed.
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