St Catherine’s, Sinai: A Day and a Half in the Desert
“I know this place because I grew up here. As a child I walked free, there are many good places I could take you,” said Musa as he made bread and baked a chicken in the ashes of the fire.
Musa (Moses) was the appropriately named Bedouin guide – appropriate because we were near Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments and the site of the Burning Bush.
We had hiked up a dry rocky river bed surrounded on all sides by pink granitic cliffs for this barbeque beside a pond at the foot of a trickling, but high, waterfall in the St Catherine’s Protectorate, Sinai.
Walking in long flowing robes and flip-flops, Musa taught us about the medicinal uses of the plants we passed on the way.
“This is na naa,” said Musa as the unmistakable scent of wild Thyme filled the air as we walked over it. “We use it for cooking, but we boil it as a drink to stop being sick.”
“That flower, that’s Stagah,” he added pointing to a yellowish bush, “it’s good for healing skin [wounds]. We dry the flowers in the oven and then make a powder. The powder is then mixed with water and put on the cut – by four days the skin is healed with no marking.”
Camels are Key
Camels are very important to the Bedouin, so it came as no surprise that some of the plants had a veterinary function: “This yellow flower is Rabel, the camels eat it so they don’t feel thirsty, and this bush,” said Musa indicating a fairly nondescript bush with leaves of grey/green, “is Guurdi – we use it for camels with constipation.”
Musa’s English was good enough, and being shown the plants helped us visualize the extra information at the excellent EU funded visitor centre at St Catherine’s later. Bedouin herbal knowledge, past down from generation to generation, is now attracting international attention.
Kid-friendly with something for all the family. It occurred to us as we sat eating the chicken that this had the makings of a great family holiday. A walk along a simple path always required plenty of encouragement with cries of ‘are we nearly there?’, but the kids were immediately up and over anything that needed to be climbed or clambered.
The scramble up granite rocks through a cave to emerge at the top the waterfall would have been perfect.
The rocks were more like a giant adventure playground, with no chance of rock fall nor slipping. Granite has a good, safe, non-slip surface, and is the most usual rock type at The St Catherine’s Protectorate.
At less than two hours from bottom to top: with boulders to get round and over; plants that were more than flowers; young girls with their goats walking nonchalantly past in the ubiquitous flip-flops; there was plenty to keep everyone interested and occupied whatever the degree of fitness.
Useful Information for visiting
Anyone can arrange it for themselves without forward planning.
St Catherine’s: more than just Mt Sinai and the monastery.
Most visitors to St Catherine’s take 45 minutes going round the monastery and a two-hour walk up Mt. Sinai with an over-priced tour group from Sharm el Sheikh.
Undeniably wonderful experiences, but it could be so much more interesting without taking much more time away from the diving or beach – and easy to arrange at St Catherine’s.
It really is do-able for families with young children, giving a change of scenery and a very accessible glimpse of a different way of life – even better it’s only a good 220 km road from Sharm el Sheikh.
When to go
Weather-wise, St Catherine’s is attractive option, it lies 1000 m above sea level in the mountains. Rainfall is a bare ½ inch a year throughout The Sinai, but Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab can reach a sizzling 45oC to +50oC in the summer.
Ancient St Catherine’s Monastery though it remains a cool 30oC in summer and in January, Mt. Sinai can have snow – it is a contrast at any time of the year:
Where to stay
We stayed at The Daniela www.daniela-hotels.com good, clean accommodation, comfortable beds, hot showers and good food. The evening buffet BBQ was excellent value @ LE70 pp (US$ 12) including a cold beer – the rare find at St. Catherine’s.
Desert Fox Camp www.desertfoxcamp.com is more budget but very clean simple rooms. Those staying there told me that the desert safaris and hikes organized here were ‘brilliant and good value’.
I also checked out the El-Milga Bedouin Camp www.sheikmousa.com which is beside the mountain trekking station. Basic clean accommodation with shared bathrooms and hot water.How to arrange a hike with a Bedouin Guide
The night before is sufficient notice for Bedouin to make arrangements to do anything. The evening buffet at the hotel is a good way to meet potential Bedouin guides who are well known to the hotel.Alternatively the mountain trekking station net to the El-Milga Bedouin Camp will help you. Remember to tie down the important matters like what?, where?, when? how much? for how long?
Usually you bring snacks, a days supply of water, personal items – ‘wet wipes’ are a good idea, and water purifying tablets.
Our hike taking 6 hours including barbeque cost LE250 for us all.
Musa’a phone number is (Egypt Country code +20) (0)12 106 2478
How to get there
From Cairo: take the air-conditioned comfortable East Delta Bus which leaves at 11am daily from the New Turgoman Bus Station direct for St. Catherine’s for LE40 pp (USD7)From Sharm el Sheikh & Dahab: The best way is to hire a minibus or taxi for 200 – 250 LE (US$ 34 – 42) one way. Local public buses can be unreliable and uncomfortable.
What else to do there
• St Catherine’s Monastery itself, built 1700 years ago on the way to Mt. Sinai and around the site of the original burning bush, is small enough to keep the interest of the kids, and detailed enough to enthrall the adults.
• Hike up Mt Sinai. The main trick is to walk up the camel track and not the Steps of Repentance – the route that way is short, steep and aptly named! The camels will take carry not only water and rucksacks, but also the little ones or those who find the walk daunting.• Half day hikes to 5 days with a Bedouin guide and his camel.
• The EU funded St Catherine’s Visitor Centre presents the information in English a colorful interesting way and has booklets on hikes and the local people.
A short 30 minutes from the Monastery to the Visitor Centre and passes the 6th century quarry from which the monastery was hewn and the site where by legend Moses’ brother Aaron cast the golden calf.
Safety and security
The Jallibeya, the Bedouin at St Catherine’s Protectorate guard the monastery and the tourists in the whole area. They are the descendants of the 200 workers brought by the Roman Emperor Justinian to built St Catherine’s Monastery.
Like all of The Sinai, St Catherine’s has a desert environment. All hikes must include a Bedouin guide and the walk registered at either the hotel for short ones, or at the ranger station for any length.
All guides have at least one camel, which carries all the water, meals and tents as required though there is a network of huts to hikers.
The Protectorate is divided into ranger routes. The Bedouin rangers travel assigned routes, on a daily basis on the most popular ones, and carry satellite phones to seek assistance if required. This number is +88 216 333 60563
Each camel has a registered identity tag, so if you forget anything just give the guide station the number and the owner will be traced!
Hilary Munro is currently living in Egypt, where she works for Obelisque, a quarterly lifestyle glossy printed in Cairo, as editor and writer, while indulging in a passion for traveling. Visit her travel blog Hilarymunro.com
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