Wednesday, December 14

Egypt - Sinai

Mary: By the time we got to the tunnel under the Suez Canal it was nearly sunset. The Suez area has a massive army presence, with plenty of big tanks, machine gun stands on the roofs of buildings and checkpoints manned by some very annoying but heavily armed young guys. They would pull us over to ask us where we were going, check all our documents, and just then another chap would come wandering up and ask all the same questions all over again, have a rummage through the passports again, and just then another guy would come wandering over…Invariably they would make some smartass jokes about us in Arabic and they would all start snickering – a really annoying waste of the last few minutes of daylight when you’re far from your planned destination. We thought we might be able to just go out of sight in the desert somewhere but it seemed like there was a checkpoint or army base round each corner and we didn’t want to unwittingly set up in the wrong place. We saw a campsite about an hours drive away in T4A but when we got there it looked closed and quite dodgy. There was no water, electricity, or facilities but the guy there said we could stay for $15 - he wasn’t willing to negotiate so we headed off. We tried a few of the resorts along the way to see if we could camp in one of their parking lots, but they weren’t keen on that and the rooms we were offered were in the region of $75 despite it being very low season. There were also a lot of unfinished resorts that we probably could have snuck into and free camped at, but they were really spooky and we didn’t really want to trespass. Eventually, we pulled into a rest house on the side of the highway and just asked if we could camp in the parking lot, and the guy in the office said sure, we could stay there for free. It was a bit noisy being so close to the main road but we were quite comfortable, so we settled in and watched a movie before bed. We had planned to get up early to head off, but just before sunrise we got a knock on the car and were asked to leave as the manager was on his way and our friend would get in trouble if we were found!

Brett: We drove to St Katherine's and started counting the checkpoints – we must have passed about 30 since entering Sinai and they were getting a bit annoying. The St Katherine’s Monetary is closed on some days of the week and is only open til 1pm on other days. We had arrived on a Sunday afternoon so it was closed, but we wandered round the grounds and the surrounding hills instead. We had been told that you do not need a guide to hike up Mt Sinai but the guys at the gate insisted we did. In the end we just told them we were going for a quick look around, and then headed up to Mt Sinai anyway. About half way up Mary decided to turn back as she wasn’t feeling well, and I headed onto the top. The walk was steep, but the views of the surrounding mountains were fantastic. We stayed at Fox Desert Campsite ($2.5pppn), which is really nice – would be brilliant in summer. We had stocked up on luxury goods at the Carrefour supermarket outside Cairo so we celebrated finishing the Cape-to-Cairo leg of the trip with a deluxe braai of prawns, steak, home made chips, salad and garlic bread in the freezing cold before heading to the Bedouin tent to sit around the fire and drink the free tea.

The next morning we walked back to St Katherine's Monastery and had a look round. The museum ($4pp) is really good, full of ancient icons, manuscripts and old bibles, as well as silver goblets, gold candlesticks and other treasures that had been donated to the monastery hundreds of years ago. Outside is a plant which was apparently a descendant of the proper Burning Bush (maybe from a cutting or seeds or something). The 6th C Church of the Transfiguration is also open to tourists (but no pictures allowed) – it is really beautiful with loads of candelabra-like hanging lanterns, more ancient icons, and cool-looking old bearded priests. You can line up for a blessing and if you do the right sequence of kissing some glass cases of ancient relics you get a nickel ring stamped with “St Katherine's Monastery” on it (also available at the gift shop). The whole place has a really great feel to it – there is definitely something special about it. When we got back to Fox’s camp it was really freezing and by sunset it was already in the negative figures so we got a room ($10) instead of camping.

Mary: After we thawed in the morning, we headed towards Dahab. The stretch between St Katherine's and Dahab is especially scenic and has fewer checkpoints, so would be great for free camping. The road is slightly downhill all the way and would be brilliant to cycle down. In Dahab, we stayed at Auskis Camp ($5 room), which is quite basic (room temperature salt water showers) but really cheap and well located. First stop was a brilliant thiiiiickk chocolate milkshake from Same Same cafe followed by dinner at one of the many similar cafes along the beach (except this one had a happy hour) where we sat around the fire with a very friendly heavily pregnant kitty. The waiter kept the Pina Coladas and red wine coming - ok well one of each, but we are out of practice. We chilled out the next day, going in search of the fantasy Full English breakfast I’ve been craving, instead finding a nightmare-runny-egg-whites-sliced-cucumber-and-is-this-polony-?!?-breakfast at Bedouin Lounge which also seemed to have some sort of biblical plague of flies. After that we stuck to pancakes – we were treating ourselves after all.

We had intended to spend the day snorkelling, but by the time we had stopped being lazy it was mid afternoon and fairly chilly and windy, so we weren’t feeling very brave. We dipped our toes in the sea to test it out, and were amazed that it actually a LOT warmer than the air temperature, so we went for a quick snorkel off the brilliant house reef, 20m in front of Auskis. It was really beautiful, bright blue and absolutely crystal clear. 

The next day we did some scuba with Hamdy from Shams Dive Club ($25 per dive) – 2 dives on Moray Garden, 15mins south of town. The reef was really good – the best visibility and brightest oranges and yellows we have had on a dive. We saw some kind of transparent sea horse with a tiny silver fish in its transparent stomach – amazing - the instructors hadn’t seen anything like it before either. Also a lovely big turtle. We chilled out at the overpriced restaurant between dives. For dinner we went to the excellent Blue Thai restaurant (so good we went twice). The next day we wanted to do the famous Canyon and Blue Hole (20 mins north of town) but  with me only having my 1* (Open Water 1) I couldn’t do these 30m dives unless I did them as Adventure Dives towards my Advanced (2*) qualification. This was actually quite easy and I just read up the relevant sections of the Padi book in the evening and answered a questionnaire, and I was good to go. The first dive was at the Canyon and it was brilliant – you drift down into the canyon like a skydiver, and when you look up you see that picture that is on the front of so many coffee-table diving books, with the sides of the canyon silhouetted against the water/sky. It didn’t feel much different to the shallower dives, but it was really the best dive I have ever done. The second dive was Blue Bells and Blue Hole – we were diving with an Aussie girl, and somehow our gear got switched so I got her BC and she got mine (with 2 extra weights in the pockets). By the time I worked that out, she and Hamdy were sailing down into the deep. There was another guy assisting Hamdy, so I told him what had happened but I don’t think he really understood, anyway he loaded rocks into my pockets until I sunk, but it was a bit of a disastrous dive with me & the Aussie girl struggling with our buoyancy. The assistant guy didn’t tell Hamdy what happened, I didn’t know how to signal that, and we were drifting so it was a bit of an effort to keep the group together anyway, so we both just battled on and used up our air pretty quickly. It was a bit disorientating  floating all over the show as we were going along a wall with no visible bottom, but Brett held my hand (aaaahh) so that I didn’t go too wrong. It wasn’t all bad though, we saw some amazing cleaner Wrasse who swam into our mouths to clean our teeth – awesome! We hadn’t even entered the blue hole by the time I was near my reserve, so once we got in I had to use Hamdy’s alternative air supply. Which means I  got to float over the famous Blue Hole without really seeing it as I had to keep my head turned to the side to reach the air – d’oh!

We drove down to Ras Mohammed National Park, where the guys at the gate just waved us through. The Visitor Centre looked abandoned, with graffiti written into the dust on the windows, but we found a door unlocked and poked around anyway. There was about an inch of dust covering everything, including a tiny forlorn-looking dolphin preserved in a glass case with two inches of formalin. The poor little chap had started to blister on top, so I suspect the case had been leaking – it was pretty gross. The guys guarding the campsite also just waved us through and we couldn’t find anyone to pay, so we set up at one of the 3 little beaches where you can camp (we assumed they would charge us at the main gate when we left, but when we left the guy at the gate just waved us through, so in the end we stayed for free). It was absolutely beautiful and we had a beach (actually the whole place) to ourselves, and our own private reef just offshore – magic. We were sitting round the braai sipping some Egyptian wine (Obelisk – not bad) when we realised there was something funny going on with the moon – turned out to be the same lunar eclipse that Karen was watching in China!

Brett: in the morning we drove around to the other parts of the park, where there were several buses of Russian-looking tourists swimming and taking in the sights. The beaches and reefs were amazing and the water was so clear you could see where the turquoise water turned darker where there was coral underwater from the road. We found one little beach which was sheltered from the wind down a steep sandy slope, where you could see a line of corals and then just deep, calm blue water, so we went to check it out. It was pretty cold so we started off just standing knee deep in the water and putting our masks in, but it was like putting our faces up to a fishbowl - we could see tons of fish and corals and we decided to tough it out and go in properly. We spent some time herding the fish around (trying to imitate the sardine run), looking at the corals, and wishing we had an underwater camera, before we got too cold and headed back to the campsite.

We were getting near the end of our 1-month visas so we headed for Nuweba. We arrived about 2pm, too late to catch that day’s ferry, so we booked our tickets to Jordan for the next day (the ticket office is in T4A and the guy behind the counter is very helpful so it isn’t difficult). Fees for the fast ferry are $70pp, $230 for a 4x4, $15pp port tax = $400 total (fine to pay in Egyptian Pounds)– crazy considering what a short distance it is, but at least we had been expecting it. We were looking round for campsites or good places to free camp and stumbled upon Habibi Camp, which is right next an old, closed campsite shown in T4A. The friendly owner, Magid, was clearly delighted to have overlanders visiting and said we could camp for free in exchange for some photos of the Beast at his camp. He was a really nice guy and the place is great, right on the beach. We will definitely go back there sometime. We arrived at the port at noon the next day. One of the tourist policemen helped us get through all the paperwork and bureaucracy (for free). We needed about $10 worth in 5 Egyptian Pound notes to pay at the various different steps, but it wasn’t that difficult. Finally, we were done with immigration, police checks, giving back the Egyptian number plates, customs etc. We boarded the very modern ferry. There were no delays, and it took just over an hour to get to Aqaba. We got our Jordanian visas on board (free for South Africans, not sure if we would have had to pay if we had used the British passports). When we disembarked in Aqaba, we went through a quick police search, the car was x-rayed by a giant x-ray machine, then we went to the Arrivals Lounge where we changed money, paid the compulsory vehicle insurance ($130 for a month or $87 for a week! Yikes!), and some kind of tax ($14pp). They insisted on stamping the Carnet (in the wrong places) even though it isn’t valid for Jordan – oh well, we’ll deal with that later…

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Brett and Mary. My name is Martin and my wife Camelia , we from Durban and we follow your blog.We are planing a cros Africa trip, EDT begining of May 2012, similar with your route.I will like to ask you....what you did with the carnet de passage, specialy for Egypt.It is a little insane to pay 200%. do you have a carnet de passage? It is other alternative? If you can email me on aringhe@gmail.com have a fantastic trip, good luck and Happy Ney Year thank you