I’d first learnt of the Sinai Desert in the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Lawrence had traveled across it in a week by camel as he and his 2 friends had sought to reach Cairo after their unit had captured Aqaba during WW1. The crossing had seemed a great adventure, could I attempt the same thing?

I had such adventurous thoughts about various places every few months. But usually the follow up bought bad news. The area was now out of bounds, occupied by some military or bandits, or otherwise unsafe. Or it was overrun with tourists, or paved, or in some way not at all what it used to be. But this time, this didn’t seem to be the case. The Sinai was open to tourists but people seemed to congregate, naturally enough, around the areas they could easily reach by road. Mt Sinai, Sharm el Sheik, Dahab, Nuweiba. Which left the rest of it’s vast area empty.

Added to this was that flights to Egypt were cheap at the time. I’d thought about it a few weeks then, having asked for time off from work and not been allowed it, one day when my job was more boring than usual it occurred to me that it was really important I did things I felt this strongly about. A job was something important, of course, being able to pay the rent was something important also, I could put the trip off until I was better able to cope with life’s stresses, but would I still feel like hiking a desert, alone, sleeping rough and taking my chances, when I was old enough to afford it all?

I’d quit that evening and a week later I was in Egypt, had caught a bus from Cairo to Abu Zenima and located, after much searching, the un-marked and un-distinguished track to Serabit El Khadim, 2 kms south of town.

I felt brave and frightened as I turned my back to the Red Sea and began walking inland. I was planning on following directions from a book published in 1975 by the explorer Burton Bernstein called ‘Sinai – The Great and Terrible Wilderness’. Now, over 20 years later, if was the most recent book published on the peninsula. It gave me 2 vague directions to follow; after I reached Serabit I would head south east to Mt. Sinai and St Catherine’s monastery, and from there it was east to Dahab. About 130 miles in all, following what was many scholars thought may have been the route of the Israelite’s as they wandered with Moses from Egypt to Israel.

I had 10 litres of water in my pack and enough food for 5 days. A 10 pack of pita breads, 5 oranges, 2 falafel sandwiches I’d bought in Suez, and 2 tetra packs of feta cheese. It was all I could fit in my rucksack alongside my sleeping bag, camera and a few clothes. I’d loose a little weight on the trek, I understood that, and if I didn’t find water in a few days day I’d be in real trouble, but I was willing to take the chance to experience this beautiful wilderness.

I walked, and walked. The land was flat, stony. I saw a herd of donkeys, a few camels, and a truck laden with rocks that rumbled along across the flat horizon towards a destination I was never to know. Late that evening I met an old man, Mohammed, who pointed at some mountains across the desert and said ‘Serabit, direct.’ It was dark, too dark to continue on, and Mohammed invited me to share his campfire. It was a humbling experience. He lived alone in a small, open sided tent that afforded scant shelter. His possessions were a few oil drums that he had filled with water, a couple more drums of dry supplies like macaroni, a bed role, and various cooking and digging tools. He earnt about £10 a month he said, combing the desert surface for amethyst. His daily diet was half a pitta bread for breakfast with tea, and a cup of macaroni for dinner. I pulled 2 oranges and the falafel sandwiches out of my rucksack and he brewed tea. We sat sipping, picking at the food and looking at the bright blanket of stars that covered us until the cold drove us into our sleeping bags.

Morning came and I was away over the virgin desert. An hour passed before I remembered Bernstein’s advice in his book;

“Stay on the truck or camel tracks, there are minefields left over from the Arab-Israeli war everywhere. Walk over broken ground and you’re probably safe.” This was as close to sheer panic as I’d ever come, and for the next few hours every step was accompanied by baited breath and fear before I once again rejoined the camel track and walked into Serabit El Khadim (which means ‘Heights of the Slaves’).

Serabit used to be the site of the Pharaoh’s turquoise mines in ancient times and here, a great many miles from anywhere, is an ancient temple set on top of a mountain. Unfortunately it’s structure does not match it’s location, only a few columns remain, and the 2 hour climb up the mountain, which I had to complete with a local guide because in the desert every mountain looks alike and there are no signs, was worth it only for the view. Back at the bottom I had tea with Sheikh Barakat, lord of Serabit, and judging by the many magazines he’d featured in which he showed me, he was very famous in France and Germany (he had also featured in Bernstein’s book). After tea, and trying to sell me a camel safari, he gracefully pointed to a mountain in the south east and advised,

“Go that way, around the mountain, then carry on for 3 more days and you’ll reach Mt. Sinai.” I asked him about the possibility of wild animals. “Maybe, but most of the animals that used to live here are now stuffed and on sale to tourists in Cairo,” he reassured me.

“And minefields?” I asked.

“Of course,” he shrugged, “be careful.”

Occasionally I followed 4 wheel drive tracks but rapidly found that most of them headed in the wrong direction for me and increasingly I had to cross un-broken sand. Some valleys were accessible only on foot, and only reached by climbing up or down sharp scree slopes, so they were empty of animals or people. You don’t use energy to climb around in such a harsh climate, where any exertion means taking on extra (scarce) food and water.

In my spare time – if it got too hot, I’d sit below a large rock to shelter, or later in the day, when I’d stopped walking and was just winding down before it got dark – I read the Old Testament. I’d never read it before and the desert seemed a good place to start. You never know what you might pick up from a book that you’d have missed had you not read it in a certain location. I looked forward to my reading sessions almost as much as I did eating an orange in the late morning, when I was hot but it was still full of the chill of the night.

Before I had arrived in the Sinai I’d visualised Bedouin encampments of large black tents but when I did find a settlement the Bedu were living in bare concrete block houses. Sheik Barakat had told me never to enter a Bedu settlement without clapping my hands and shouting a greeting.

“Everybody here has guns,” he had advised, “and they’re used to using them. And people often grow their own marijuana as they can ship it to Israel for a good price, and they also smoke it daily. We are good people, but it’s not a good idea to surprise us.”

So I clapped hands when I was about 30 metres from a settlement, waited until somebody appeared, and all was fine. I had an idea of where I was heading yet still thought it best to ask the way. But nobody could give me a firm idea of the route or how far it was to Mt. Sinai. Some said 300 kms, some 500. Many didn’t even know where Mt Sinai was, or perhaps they just didn’t understand what I was asking for, or they were so stoned they couldn’t think straight, which is entirely possible. Such is the explorers life when Arabic isn’t your first language and the people you’re speaking to have a strong dialect, a love of chilling out and no start point from which to fix their ideas about you on. I was doing something pretty unusual, after all, no wonder many of them had no idea what I was asking about.

I knew it could be no more than 100kms. Regardless of the lack of direction, a route that felt right was easy to find. I would often come to a confusing junction of tracks or wadis but a quick check of the compass always revealed the correct course. Or at least one that I felt right taking. As in the photo below, when I looked at the scene and thought ok, I’m going right up the middle of the valley to that low rise at the centre of the far horizon, and then from there we’ll re-evaluate!

I slept outside without trouble for 2 nights – it was cold, about 2 or 3 C, but otherwise fine – and hit an asphalt road 30 miles short of Mt. Sinai. A traffic sign pointed the way and I started to follow. The mountains were all around, the road zig zagged, and the traffic was almost non existent but it wasn’t satisfying hiking, and I was happy to reach Mt. Sinai on my 4th day where the first thing I did was to replenish my supplies.

I had found no water in the desert up until then, I’d filled up at the Sheikh’s house but there’d been nothing else. I tried to refill in the village of El Milga just near Mt Sinai but the water was filthy. I remembered Bernstein saying that he’d filled up over 20 years before from a spring next to a tree above St Catherine’s Monastery so after buying some more pita and cheese supplies I headed there.

St Catherine’s is built around the well of Moses and the sight of the Burning Bush, I found the spring high on a hill facing the monastery’s entrance. It was an ancient spring, first mentioned in a text from the 6th century AD. Some Bedu were sat around it. I drank deep, filled up my bottles and then set off up Mt. Sinai, getting views over the plain of Raha as I went. This is where the Israelites were supposed to have camped whilst waiting for Moses to receive the 10 Commandments, although should they have arrived a few thousand years later they could have dispensed with the tents and stayed in the sprawling, characterless, concrete ‘St. Catherine’s Tourist Village’ which nowadays blights the landscape.

It’s a fairly easy trail to the top of this 2,200 metre peak, which is handy because unsteady pilgrims as well as adventure tourists come to climb the sacred mountain every day. On the trail I fell in with 2 middle aged package tourists from England, one very quiet (his loud Hawaiian shirt spoke for him) and the other constantly chain-smoking as he whined about his asthma and the lack of quality restaurants in the desert. I foolishly took pity and began encouraging them up the hill, a task I abandoned when the chainsmoker lunched into a totally unprovoked and obscene attack on a group of innocent American pilgrims that we passed. This was a viscous onslaught, going something like;

“***Americans, you *** make me *** sick, you think you know *** everything, *** off and *** kill yourself you stupid ***.” Whilst I was trying to work out where all that had come from even the Egyptian guides present, who normally aren’t above abusing tourists (financially, not often verbally) stepped in and asked him to keep his language down. I quickened my step, moved away and cursed the flowery hooligans for letting the side down, and heard one final onslaught as the chainsmoker turned his attention to the “filthy *** Arabs” before I rounded a corner and became thankfully out of earshot.

On the summit I was greeted by the odd site of several makeshift wooden shelters built around a small chapel selling everything from fizzy drinks and chocolate to blankets and religious trinkets. A cynic might say that far from being a holy site this blatant example of consumerism was the work of Satan himself, but after a few hours in the biting wind up there my moral objections were overridden by an urge to get a hot cuppa inside of me. I know, I’m weak.

The place was certainly filled with a vocal spirituality that I’ve rarely felt elsewhere as the sun rose the next morning. Hundreds of people had slept alongside me on the summit in freezing temperatures (that’s why the Bedu rent the blankets!), many others had made the trek up in the pre-dawn darkness, and all formed into national or religious groups to welcome the day with hymns. First the Japanese sung, greeting the rising sun, they were joined by Christians and Muslims from all around the globe, including a bunch of Bulgarians who didn’t sing but hummed instead. I left soon after dawn, eager to escape the crowds and return to the solitude of the desert, and after a quick look in the monastery down below (it had to be quick, the crowds were shocking) I backtracked up the mountain trail for 10 minutes and then headed off east over the lowest ridge I could find, below the white chapel that dominated the middle skyline looking south east from the monastery.

Perhaps it’s best to be quite factual at this point, as I stumbled onto an amazing route which isn’t easy to find but is entirely worthwhile should anybody wish to follow it. A path ran down the other side of the ridge, leading north east, at the bottom of the slope I carried on over a wadi and a smaller rise with Mt. Sinai at my back until I reached another wadi. There was a stone Bedouin encampment down on my right, I walked past it in a south east direction, following a gorge for 1 km before coming to a well worn path that headed away east. Another junction and a wide wadi led me south east to a rise where I took an easterly path over another small rise in preference to carrying on downhill. From the top of this rise a large plain spread out below me, and way over in the eastern corner, about 2 kms distant, was a 4 wheel drive track running into a gorge.

I walked into the gorge 3 hours after I’d left the monastery and soon found that it was zig zagging every which way, east, north, south, and that the walls were too sheer to climb out of. My choices were to go back, or carry on, so I carried on.

I saw nobody all day, the car tracks finished as the gorge became even narrower, in places only 2 metres across and very rocky. It occurred to me that if I were to slip on one of the many boulders that lined the route and break something then life would get very bleak indeed, no-one was there to help at all. Once I had got over that realisation of being totally alone the silence became the most attractive part for me, I have never been somewhere this quiet before. The gorge blocked out all wind, there were no animals, at times as I walked I thought that I heard something but when I stopped I found that there was no sound, only my breathing, my blood and a distant hum (magnetism?). I passed pools of water but judging by the dead camels I found nearby on 2 occasions perhaps they weren’t very good drinking. I could always tell when I was nearing a pool actually as the stench of rotting flesh was strong in the otherwise clean air.

As dark fell I passed a small army camp occupied by 2 soldiers.

“Only 10 kms to Dahab!” they said and I was amazed, settling down in the sand a few kms further, my exhausted sleep made sweeter with the knowledge that a much spoken about ambition, that of crossing the Sinai from coast to coast, was about to be realised in just 6 days!

Alas, this journey had a sting in it’s tail. Encouraged by the soldiers news I ditched most of my water supplies, easing my pack weight by 7 kilos and saving just one bottle to last me what should have been an easy 2 hour hike. Wrong. After 3 hours the gorge widened out into a massive wadi, at least a km wide and stretching away into infinity, a Bedouin was working a small patch of irrigated land nearby, he said it was at least 45 kms to Dahab, and incensed by my gullibility I stormed off in double quick time, my anger preventing the clarity of thought which would have advised me to fill my bottles at the irrigation tank.

I saw nobody else again until evening. The cliffs no longer sheltered me from the sun but they did block out the wind, leaving the afternoon stiflingly hot and my impetuous throat parched. It would have been much quicker to walk down the middle of the wadi, but I wanted to keep to the winding main track. The threat of landmines was always ever present and now, nearer the coast and potential 1967 Israeli war invasion points, increasingly I found areas fenced off with barbed wire. These meant nothing though, flashfloods through the years have moved the mines totally, and now even Bedouins occasionally get blown up as they wander, tending their goats. Around dusk, just as I was entering into the ‘This valley is getting boring, I’m no longer enjoying it’ phase, I saw a car streaking across the horizon, and after a few hours I had reached the road. I’d covered 5 minutes on asphalt when I saw the sign, ‘Dahab, 10 kms’, and I finally reached the Gulf of Aqaba the following morning after sleeping on a sand dune just out of town, 7 days after I’d left the Red Sea coast.

Dahab means ‘gold’ in Arabic, which supposedly refers to the golden beach just south of town. Although the old testament refers to Dizahab as a place where the Israelites rested on their long trek to Canan.

I rested up by the beach for a few days. At first I was intensely satisfied. I had made a crossing of the Sinai Desert, what a grand journey! But then I began gazing at the brown mountains that flanked Dahab, they looked like the missed me. I sure already missed them. Their quiet, the sight of a flash of a green Bedu garden among their barren slopes, the stilted, honest interactions, the glorious evening light. Even the harsh midday heat, I missed it all. Somebody at a cafe told me of a trail that went from the Egyptian border all the way to Jerusalem. It would take 3 weeks to walk. Desert and barren mountains all the way. How could I refuse that!