Early start after all team had a restless night, it is departure day from Dahab base camp.
Ahead a seven-hour long extremely bumpy off-track drive to meet with our camels at the expedition starting point on the far side of the peninsula. Our dusty journey took across the Wadi Firin, where once the Israelites wandered behind Moses. We paused for a delicious picnic on a bedouin rug, of Egyptian bread and baba ghanoush beneath huge ancient sandstone rocks with wind-carved gargoyles and modern sprayed graffiti beneath which one could detect Nabatean carvings in the granite. Ancient graffiti. Arabella took the opportunity to start her first sketch of the view down the wadi valley. After a series of theatricals with a bogged-down supply jeep in the sand and the Bedouin getting lost three times, we arrived at our first camp. Extremely windy for putting up tents under the watchful gaze of the Bedouins. The opening scene for the Sinai Expedition in aid of the Scientific Exploration Society (SES), a magnificent panorama over the valley down which Moses led his people.
Another sleepless night for us all, fierce desert wind pummelling our tents. Up at 4.30 am to break camp, load camels,(or watch the Bedouin way of doing it today as different, for instance, to the Omani Bedouin way, downed a sweet black tea and we were off. Magnificent and vast landscapes of ancient granite but alas we still suddenly stopped after only 2 hours at the Bedouin insistence. “Sun at 60 degrees” and that was it for 3 hours we waited, team chomping at the bit as the camels chomped on scrub. After a series of v polite and diplomatic exchanges, the marching day will be longer as of tomorrow. We then continued our walk til the sun started dropping and a far-off view of Mount Sinai, where St Catherine’s nestles, hove into the misty distance. A reassuringly long way off. I’m happy because I love the Sinai desert and the Sinai Bedouin.
Break camp at 4.30 am, a cold wind hastened our departure after a quick mug of sweet tea. On the go, crossing flat sand thankfully still cool in the morning temperatures. Only a couple of hours later and we are obliged to stop and wait on the camels before breakfast. Frustratingly hard trying to acclimatise to the Bedouin pace but the afternoon ahead of several hours yielded some very varied terrain from flesh-coloured rock scrambling to walking up and over black volcanic lunarscapes and some extraordinary views, before making camp in a wadi below the “Forest of Pillars”.
Delicious lie in – until 5.30 am. Then we pack up, and leave the Forest of Pillars, winding through the end of the wadi into the open valley. We move with the camels and as we go I learn camel-speak and camel tracking. Some hours later we arrive at an ancient watering hole. The bucket is lowered some 30 metres and heaved up full of rainfall water, delicious to drink and I seized the opportunity to wash my face and rinse my hair. We’re now moving towards the towering granite mountains, where, as our head guide forewarned us with a glint in his big brown eyes, as we gain height the temperature will sink low and cold, and we’ll lose the warmth of the desert sun in the narrow gullies. It’s the Bedu who seem to feel the cold!
Off with camels over the wide valley into a winding wadi ascending the granite mountains. Bedouins start wandering off in different route directions, Much loud shouting betwixt them ensues. Sounds to the western ear like they’re having terrific domestic but it’s quite the norm, apparently, to yell at one another then hug and make up. Bit like us.
Pass by long empty reservoirs and very colourful and pretty opium fields, which make me continuously sneeze.
Being taught on the hoof about camel husbandry by our Bedu friends. Despite the lack of spoken language, we are mastering some of the, less than Debretts, camel etiquette which is rather guttural. Personally, I’ve mastered getting my beast, whom I’ve called Mey (after the castle as she has 2 turrets); to start, stop (always a good idea), kneel and rise. How to urge him up steep paths and how to slow down (less successfully which has led to a degree of panic). What he can eat, when, why and for how long. And why not to stand in front of them when stationary (think regurgitation..) nor behind them – have you seen a camel pee?
Nocturnal company at camp 6 just south of wadi Feran, hyenas. Alas, the leopards here have long since been hunted to extinction. Our Aliquat Bedouin are up and chomping at the bit to press on as Friday is their Sabbath, or perhaps the real reason is they part from us this evening when the Jebalya tribe take over.
Tense moment crossing the tribal boundary where we were questioned by the Jebalya there, whilst hoards of little boys surrounded us, with thin legs and stares of a thousand miles. One had a rather ingeniously designed toy Kalashnikov (fashioned out of wood, gaffer tape and piping, v Blue Peter). We’re close to cash crops here. On and on up a narrow rocky pass before an open plain frames the Nabatean Ruins.
Nabatean ruins, once a lush setting of palm trees and wheat fields, just off one of the main trading arteries that stretched out over Arabia 350 bc or so. Nabateans v affluent society until Alexander the Great appeared on the scene, and the civilisation faded into extinction.
As we head up on the steep; but thankfully not precipitous ascent, we learn much about the Bedouin approach to their environment, their relationship with it, the animals, one another and water. Stopping at a well, we help draw the water up from 40 feet (20m ish) down. We tip it into a larger bucket, placing a pipe in the bucket and then stone. The pipe takes up the water and down it goes to the Bedouin village nestling several 100 metres below. Where does it go from there, I ask? To the animals first, then the crops and people. Before we leave we add water to a small carved-out bowl atop a rock for the birds. And more into a larger indentation, for the animals. An inspiring illustration of the equal relationship between the Bedouin, the animals and the environment.
Zoom in and you’ll spot a sand viper. On full reptile alert as the temperatures steadily rise and sand vipers and snakes steadily emerge from hibernation. Other delights include the small innocuous-looking yellow scorpions with small claws and scarier-looking big black models with big claws. Needless to say, the former has a far nastier sting.
An old fire beneath a wild fig tree will be our grill and oven for lunch today. The old tin drum top has been left deliberately by previous Bedouins of years gone by, often they’re left hanging from a tree, so we too can do as them and cook bread on it, flour and water kneaded flat and round, placed atop the lid, then once the fire is red hot, buried in the smouldering ashes for 20 minutes.
It’s farewell to the Aligot tribe, one of the three Bedouin tribes we are travelling with. Each tribe are markedly different in character, the Jebalya are smart, rather imperious, and immensely proud probably on account of being the Guardians of St Catherine’s monastery. The Mzeina is shy initially, but then a happy-go-lucky attitude breaks through. The Aligot are more of an unruly rabble, like desert bandits we’ve hugely enjoyed this part of our desert odyssey with them.