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Published: November 25th 2009
The friendly bus driver
Accompanied by his assorted flowery trinkets
My journey begins rather inauspiciously, firstly with an hour delay to the flight, and then the stubbornly stiff top button of my new trousers decides to pop off. Fatty. Arriving in Sharm el-Sheikh I am quickly mobbed by a bunch of taxi drivers hustling the airport crowd and, despite haggling to 1/3 of the original price, am undoubtedly ripped off. My young driver does his best however to give me value for money with some thrillingly reckless driving and by pointing out everything and anything of interest:
"Look, a plane!"
"Yes, I was just on one..."
"Look, a mosque!!"
"Yes, very beautiful..."
"Look, a man running across the highway!!!"
"Yes, that was close..."
"Look, I almost rammed that massive tour bus!!!!"
"Erm, does this car not have seat belts?"
His lack of English is made up for by wild gesticulation and an ever widening grin. About the only time the taps on my shoulder desist is when he worryingly engages both his hands and his eyes in checking a map, because of course, despite directions from his boss, this budding chauffeur has not the vaguest clue as to the whereabouts
On the walk up to St. Katherine's monastery
of my desired destination. Eventually, after doing so many laps of the main hotel district that I feel like we’re in some sort of race, we pull up at a reassuringly dilapidated (and therefore what must be the ONLY cheap option in Sharm) hostel. I manage to shrug off shameless attempts by my driver first to charge double the agreed price and then to wrangle a substantial tip, before entering and flopping on the bed.
A little after 4am my sleep is halted by a vociferous blast from the mosque across the street. It is the muezzin calling the locals to prayer (salat) - Friday being the day of the week where Muslims are obligated to attend their mosque. Fortunately the noise does not last long and I quickly drift off again to the sounds of mosques further afield, whose greater distance softens the wailing and gifts it a haunting monotony which lulls me back to sleep.
This is supposed to be the first entry of what will hopefully be a lengthy sojourn south across the Dark Continent of Africa, but my first significant steps are actually northwards, towards St. Katherine's. I am informed by the
holy bible of travelling; the ubiquitous Lonely Planet (LP from here on out), that there is a bus from Sharm to get there. Wrong. My hostel tells me I must change in Dahab. Wrong. I arrive at Dahab – pronounced as if simultaneously hiccupping - to be told there is no service (possibly because it is Friday). Again men offering ludicrously priced taxis swamp me. But, having finished his rest break snack and sensing distress, my original bus driver takes me under his wing as if I were his long lost prodigal son and is able to communicate that I must stay on board until he drops me at the turning to St. Katherine's, from where I can hitch. He is the first genuinely helpful Egyptian I have met so far, and my humble 'shukran' is greeted by a knowing pat on the shoulder and a warm, crinkly smile.
I arrive in St. Katherine's after a great drive through the mountainous desert scenery in the back of a Dutch couple's van and a journey which has totalled 3 1/2 hours and included six passport checks! I plan on doing the standard night hike up for sunrise on top
of Mt. Sinai - upon which Moses received the Ten Commandments - followed by a visit to the Greek Orthodox St. Kathrine's monastery in the morning. However, the freezing night means I sleep very little and, being an utter baby when it comes to the cold, wimp out in favour of the afternoon hike. I justify this as a means of avoiding the crowds, because lying awake in the early hours I hear a seemingly endless quantity of tour buses arriving from the numerous Red Sea resort towns.
This prediction turns out to be the exactly the case, but I am still thoroughly unprepared for the volume of people swarming around the monastery the next morning. I show up bright and early, but later, towards closing time, when I am safely nestled high on the rocks observing the masses below, the dense crowd trying to access the narrow entrance way seems just one careless shove away from devolving into a mob at an Ikea store opening. The monastery is impressive, particularly its weathered and dusty walls and moody central chapel. Unfortunately, much is out of bounds. You do get to see the supposed descendant of the Burning Bush,
Inside the chapel
Making use of lengthy zoom to take a cheeky and prohibited photo of the chapel's interior
yet these days the only burning is the friction burn of so many tourist palms grazing the overhanging, and decidedly forlorn branches. Perhaps the 'bruised bush' is a more appropriate contemporary name.
Next: the mountain; almost scuppered for me by the tourist police imposing a new rule obligating hikers to take an expensive guide. Fortunately I am able to dodge such extortion when my guide and his police promoter get distracted by another, fraudulent guide. They chase off after him and I join with a guideless English couple, all of us deciding that the strength of numbers should deflect any trouble we might face for racing off unaccompanied. They turn out to be excellent comrades, simultaneously relaxed and interesting, and also strong walkers. The company, combined with the increasingly spectacular views, makes for a fantastic hike, only superseded by the vista from the top. The blood red hue of the undulating, jagged rock formations in the setting sun is truly biblical and makes me think of the surface of Mars. Having huffed and puffed up the final 750 of the 3750 aptly named 'Steps of Repentance' I decide to stay as long as possible on top of the
mountain until my poor fingers, benumbed by the biting cold, make an irresistible case for descending. The return journey in the dark is quite exhilarating, particularly for the parts where I am alone. The crunch of my shoes on the sandy path masks almost all sound and I am startled near the end when three burly Egyptian youths suddenly emerge from the darkness and bisect the path right in front of me. I cannot conceal my blatantly jangling nerves and my timid "salaam aleikum" is greeted with a gruff, "Where you from?"
"Ok England, no worry, no trouble."
They quickly disappear up the path behind, engulfed by the night once more, leaving me to finish the last half hour of the trek, all the while thanking God that I wasn't born Algerian.
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