Hiking in the Holy Land
By WARREN RESEN
Member of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association
The image of Charlton Heston descending Mt. Sinai clutching the tablets with the Ten Commandments was foremost in my mind as we boarded a bus in front of our hotel in Dahab, Egypt on the shores of the Gulf of Aquaba, at midnight. We would be driving for two hours through the Sinai Desert to reach fabled Mt. Sinai.At 2 AM we arrived at the base of the mountain and the Monastery of St. Catherine, the historical site of Moses’ burning bush. With little preparation or discussion from our camel drivers, we mounted our beasts for a two hour ride and then a one hour climb, in the dark, up to the mountain’s summit to view the sunrise.
On the steep climb up in pitch darkness, the camels hugged the outside rim of the trail where sheer drop offs went down for hundreds of feet. At times I had to close my eyes as the beasts in their steady plodding pace plowed through hordes of hikers who, brandishing flashlights, were making their way up the mountain on foot. At one point, having no control over my transport I shouted, “Out of the way…runaway camel.”
If you have ever seen videos of down hill skiers holding torches and descending the slopes in a group, you might be able to visualize the sight of hikers going up the mountain with all manner of hand held flashlights and/or headlamps illuminating their way. While the skier‘s torches are for effect, the lights of the hikers were necessary to pick out rocks and other obstructions on the path. The path was a zig-zag affair and in the dark, the bobbing lights looked like an endless procession of oversized fireflies stretching on into infinity.
Nearing the summit, we awkwardly dismounted our camels. While trying to get our land legs back, the men in the group vowed never to again get on a camel, ever. It wasn’t a tough decision since our trip leader had advised against a downhill ride telling us it was particularly uncomfortable for men. The ride up wasn’t a picnic either. Dealing with my camel driver was an experience also.
Before mounting my camel, the price of the ride was quoted as being $1.00 US. Period. But before my driver had the camel kneel so I could get down, he told me that he wanted $5.00 US. Since he had walked behind me for two hours, I had intended to give him a tip, but this was extortion. I agreed to $3.00 US just to get back on my feet.
After dismounting, it was a steep, arduous climb to the summit. Not everyone in the group elected to go. The extra 500 foot climb didn’t seem worth the effort to some. Seeing the sunrise from just beneath the summit of Mt. Sinai was good enough for me.
When the sun had cleared the distant mountain peaks and was a yellow ball in the sky we started our trek, on foot, back on down. The mountain’s summit is 7,497 feet above sea level. The ascent from its base begins at 4,100 feet at the monastery so it was only 3,397 feet straight up. However, here nothing was straight up or down.
At this point I should tell you that three of the men walked with canes because of knee replacements or back problems. In the brochure describing this elective adventure, the tour company had mentioned that this was not an easy adventure, but nothing could have prepared us for the reality.
Surrounded by hundreds of others who had previously made the arduous climb in the dark, we hiked for 2 1/2 hours downhill over slippery rocks and loose sand all the while hoping our legs, especially our knees, would hold out until we again were at the bottom. At times, some lost their footing and wound up on their butts, including me.
Eventually it became an effort just to lift our legs over the rocks. So taking frequent breaks, we watched the passing throng of people and camels. You’ve certainly seen unprepared hikers on Florida’s trails wearing the least amount of clothing and not even carrying water in the heat of the day. Well, the sights here were unbelievable.
Men and women of all ages, some wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirts were on their way down from the summit where only a short time before jackets and sweaters were needed against the night’s chill. The footwear was even more startling. Paper thin flip-flops on this grueling mountain trail were not an uncommon sight, nor were the looks of pain on many faces. Those carrying water were in the minority.
I thought the hike would never end but, as with all things, there was eventually a light at the end of the tunnel and we arrived at the monastery. Our guide insisted we go pay our respects to the burning bush before returning to our hotel. Did I mention that we were staying at a luxurious 5-star hotel on the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba directly across from the mountains of Saudi Arabia?
We eventually returned to our hotel where the hot tub, fresh and salt water pools and in-room Jacuzzis were waiting. No one was seen again until dinner when the day’s adventure was relived this time without the pain.