A Survey of Egypt, Part XIII: The Sinai West Coast
by Jimmy Dunn
October 8th, the last day of our Survey of Egypt in the Sinai, started out well enough, but I would have a problem later on, so I suppose that its befitting that this should be our thirteenth story in this episode. We started out early, but not as early as usual from Sharm el-Sheikh. My team was sad to leave this beautiful, beautiful city, as most people are. I have never brought anyone to Sharm that didn't want to stay, but alas, we had to move on up the coast, and make it back to Cairo this day. However, seeing as how we had not shot a single photograph during the daylight at Sharm, we first stopped by the old market on our way out of town. Of course, this early in the morning there was not much activity there, but we spent a few minutes anyway, before leaving for our first scheduled stop at Ras Mohammad.
These days, Egypt has a number of national parks, which in Egypt are called protectorates. Of those, Ras Mohammad, located at the very tip of the Sinai, is one of the most famous protectorates in Egypt, though we would not see a large part of it because much of Ras Mohammad is actually beneath the water. In fact, it is best known for its large variety of fish and coral. Nevertheless, the surface is beautiful, and it is also well known as a bird habitat.
Here, the water is crystal clear and sparkling, and we lingered for a while, enjoying the quiet morning and the sounds of birds that were scattered all along the shoreline. I could only wish that I had the time and equipment to photograph underwater, but I did not, and so we would have to settle for what we could get.
As we moved on up the west side of the Sinai, the landscape was rather barren. It seems a long way between any signs of civilization, with mostly, once again, passed though what seems like an extended beach front of sand and more sand. with very little else to see. My team became so bored that they began taking photographs of each other, but soon we arrived in Al-Tor, the capital of the Southern Sinai governate, and roamed around a bit before moving on up the coast and our next destination, the ancient mining area of Serabit el-Khadem.
Serabit el-Khadem is not an easy site to find on one's own. One must go off road for some distance. It is actually an interesting drive though, with unusual mountain formations and areas where the landscape turns from white to red, almost along a set line. Here and there we found paved roads, though none for any great distance. In fact, even though there are some mining operations in the area and we were able to ask directions from some passing trucks, it turned out to be impossible to find Serabit el-Khadem on our own. After an hour or so, we finally got close enough that we were able to stop at a Bedouin camp where we found someone to go with us in order to lead us to the exact location.
At the foot of the path leading up to Serabit el-Khadem, I was surprised to find that the government had built a small lodge and developed the area rather nicely.
Even the stairway leading up the mountain was well done, the steps being much less crude than those leading up Mount Sinai. Even though I had sworn off climbing the prior day, after getting down Mount Sinai, I, along with Tamer, my assistant, Osama from the press office and the Bedouin as a guide, started up the mountain. Because the steps were much better and it was only 1,100 meters up, that seemed like a cakewalk compared to Mount Sinai. It really was, in fact, but Osama, who was being true to his Ramadan fast, which meant he could not even drink water, had to turn back about halfway up.
I suppose I wasn't thinking. We went up with only one large bottle of water, which would have probably been fine, but unfortunately the artifacts are not situated at the top of the climb. Worse still, our Bedouin guide, who seemed to have some problems communicating with Tamer, indicated that it was just a short distance away. Indeed, as we walked along the mountain ridges, he continued to indicate that they were just beyond the next bend. So we walked, and we walked Actually, there are a number of artifacts and inscriptions along the ridge, but we were looking for the ancient ruins of the Temple of Hathor.
All this time I was fine. I had a hard, long day yesterday, and Tamer and I were both getting tired and wondering how much further we would have to go along this ridge, but there was nothing wrong. Then, as the temple ruins came into view, an old enemy of mine suddenly rose it's ugly head. Years before, I had been on a strict diet while also exercising aggressively. One day, after skipping breakfast and waiting on a late lunch, I was walking about a store when I suddenly began to feel queasy. I sat down for a while, but that didn't seem to help. Then suddenly I found myself on the floor. I had passed out and worse still, I was not able to recover. I woke up shaky, unable to stand, and an ambulance was called as the store employees placed a fan on me to cool me off.
When the paramedics arrived, they quickly determined that my blood sugar level had fallen off the chart. In fact, they said I had almost died. This all turned out to be a blessing. Once detected, the blood sugar level was apparently easy to correct, but in the process of an examination at the hospital, they discovered a very early lung tumor. Hence, what almost killed me saved my life. Otherwise, I was in perfect health.
Now though, a number of kilometers along a mountain ridge, 1,100 meters up, a number of miles off road from the coastal highway, and then more miles from the nearest aid, I felt exactly the same as I did when I had passed out several years earlier. I suddenly thought about the fact that the day before had been very strenuous, that I had nothing to eat this morning, and now it was 2:00 pm on a hot ridge, and I knew exactly what was wrong.
It is not something that creeps up slowly, it happens rather fast, and at that moment I knew that I would probably not make it back down. This was no air conditioned store and an ambulance was not ten minutes away, but rather hours at best away. In fact, I was also out of water by this point. There was no way that the Bedouin and Tamer could even carry me back down. I was not going to just give up, but I made a certain peace with the world, because I really thought this was going to be the end. I sent Tamer on with a camera to take the photos, and I slowly shuffled my way back along the mountain ridge, getting dizzier with every step.
Then, out of nowhere, I saw some people coming along the ridge. They turned out to be young German trekkers, with water and food, and kindly willing to share it. They even had sugar cubes that they gave me. Go figure. My mother thinks they were really angels, and indeed they seem to have come from nowhere. They did not have a vehicle at the bottom when we got back down.
It was still not an easy trip back along the ridge and down. Tamer thought we were more than 10 kilometers back along the ridge, but I highly doubt that. After he caught back up to me, I was still shaky but better. For some reason, my knees seemed dried out as we finally reached the stairway, and I had to lean on him to get down. Finally, I was back in the air conditioned car and began to feel even better as I consumed water and anything I could find in the car to eat.
Unfortunately though, that drew an end to our explorations that day. We had intended to make several other stops, but while feeling better, I was in no condition for any more adventures this day. I did manage to get out once to take a particularly pink sunset, but I barely realized it as we passed beneath the Suez Canal on our final leg back to Cairo.
One point to be made about Serabit el-Khadem is that, as an archaeological site, it really is not worth the visit unless one is simply dead set on seeing every minor site in Egypt. It requires considerable travel time and several hours worth of climbing and hiking. It is really, in fact, a trekking stop, for those who wish to combine this sort of adventure tour with some pharaonic sightseeing.
I have never felt threatened by Egyptians. What happened at Serabit el-Khadem, far off the beaten path for almost all tourists, could have happened in any remote region in the world, including the United States. It was my stupidity that caused the problem, and I should have known better, but it does bring up an important lesson, and that is, don't take any wilderness lightly. Since the very earliest of times, Egypt has been a place of two lands, interpreted in different ways. One way is that there is the civility and the order of the Nile basin, opposed to the the chaos of the wilderness deserts, and this is as true today as it was then.
Trekking, particularly in the Sinai, is actually a fairly common type of adventure tour. In fact, there are guidebooks for doing so, though they should probably not exist as anything other than a reference for most tourists. I say that because, while it is possible to wing it on one's own, that is a very, very bad idea. The German trekkers that I ran into at Serabit el-Khadem in fact had a professional guide, while I did not, and that was really the difference between them and what happened to me.
Indeed, I am the real accidental tourist. I play it a little loose; I do wing it, because I do convince people to go to Egypt, but if anyone is going to get into trouble, I want it to be me. I am a bad traveler in the first place. I lose stuff, such as airline tickets and wallets. Sometimes I wear American Embassy caps into Cairo ghettos late at night, just to see if someone might get hostile, but that never works. I just get invited to dinner by some friendly Egyptian. What it amounts to is that, if I am safe in Egypt, anyone is, irregardless of what happened at Serabit el-Khadem which, like I say, could have happened in any remote spot on earth.
This morning I heard some sad news. I found out that the young manager of a convenience store where I often stop in the morning was killed in a car wreck while leaving work.
Only a few months prior, his wife had given birth to a new child. To me, this brought home the fact that most people die from car wrecks, other accidents, heart attacks, cancer and such, not at the hands of some hostile character in some foreign land. Yet so many people I speak to seem so afraid to venture out and see God's world and the majestic monuments built by his creations because of this, when in fact they are more at risk of slipping on a bar of soap in their own bathroom. I must admit that what drives me is fear; the fear of someday waking up in a hospital bed with cancer or some other deadly ailment, and realizing that I spent my life being afraid to do anything or see the world. That will not happen, and I can only equate my near miss in the wilderness of the Sinai with the time last winter when my car swerved out of control on some ice. God will take me, one way or the other, when he pleases, and not before.
But if all this seems a little wild and crazy, normal tourism to Egypt is not. It is an orderly, well secured visit to major tourist areas that are not located in any wilderness. There are no physical trials required to visit Giza, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria or Sharm el-Sheikh it is all done in the comfort of an air conditioned bus, usually while staying in five star hotels. Egyptians are always friendly and great hosts, and you will find that to be true all over Egypt, no matter where one visits. What is the most frequent response we hear from tourists, over and over again after having made such a trip? "I was afraid to go, but now I wonder why".
Stay tuned. I will be visiting the Nile Valley once again in the next several months on our Survey of Egypt, but returning north through some of he most desolate regions of the Western Desert.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Should be fun!
My last shot of the Survey was a very pink sunset at an isolated resort along the Sinai West Coast