It’s been a bit quiet on the blog of late because I’ve been busy doing this:
That’s me on the far left. A bit different to the kind of riding I’m used to.
I travelled to Egypt with a group of people all loosely connected to the Girl’s old school. We flew in to Sharm el-Sheik on a Thomson’s plane full of package holidaymakers but were whisked away into the desert to camp out under the stars as soon as we arrived.
Foreign Office advice is currently to avoid all but essential travel to the Sinai region. But the travel company that organised the trip and works closely with local people and the Bedouin, with whom we travelled in the desert, advised that there were no raised tensions despite news reports of kidnappings. Indeed, only today there was another report of a couple being kidnapped just up the Aqaba coast from where we spent our final night last week.
We were accompanied a British guide, as well as an Egyptian, who had worked together and travelled with the school group many times, so we benefited from both their great camaraderie and their experience. In this large group with a high degree of local Bedouin involvement, there was certainly never a moment when I didn’t feel entirely safe in their hands.
We saw barely any other visitors and had Mount Sinai (the third peak from the right above) to ourselves for the arduous two-hour climb, which was amazing, as people are usually jostling for space at the summit.
It’s a pretty hard ascent on a warm day – about one and a half hours of steep walking and climbing stone stairs. Luckily there were some places open to stop at for refreshment and shade. But there were also several that were closed or temporarily abandoned.
We had reached the holy mountain – a site revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, who all believe that this is where God gave Moses the ten commandments – after five days sleeping in the open desert, riding camels across rocky plateaux, running down sand dunes as high as mountains, and eating around camp fires by the light of candles and head torches.
And, while this was all huge fun, the fact that our experience of the ‘wilderness’ ended in an overnight stay at St Katherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai put some major philosophical and religious traditions into context.
The trip was organised by Wind Sand and Stars, which based in Bath. They work closely with an Sinai-based travel company who, in turn, work with local Bedouin tribespeople to provide support, camels and catering (and a fair few souvenir trinkets made by their womenfolk along the way).
Apart from providing a great holiday, one of the main purposes of these treks is to bring some much needed funds to the Bedouin people – desert nomads who live extremely simply in a very harsh environment. Egypt has been hard hit by the drop in tourism since the Arab Spring, and the Sinai has been particularly badly affected as it geographically and culturally remote from the rest of the country. We were told that St Katherine’s Monastery used to have 3,000 visitors daily but is now down to around 300. A shopkeeper in Nuweiba, a rather forlorn beach resort where we spent our last night, begged me to tell my friends to come to his store, filled with goods coated in a thin layer of dust, because business – dependent entirely on tourism – was so bad.
To get so far out of my comfort zone in many different ways was a wonderful and life affirming experience, and at the same time sobering and thought provoking. It made me feel lucky in so many ways. I hope to hang on to this feeling for as long as I can.