February 2-7, 2009
Heading to Sinai
With Luxor we pretty much finished seeing what we wanted to see on the western side of Egypt. Our next plan was to head to the Sinai peninsula (thereby officially crossing out of Africa and into Asia).
At first we thought about heading to Hurgada and catching a ferry to Sharem-el-Sheikh; looking at the map it just seems like the most direct way to go. The trouble is that the ferries are pretty expensive (250 LE), plus you have some lost connection time at Hurgada and again at Sharem. So, it turns out that a cheaper and faster way to go is to just catch a bus going the long way: back up north to Cairo, through to Sinai by the Suez canal, then back south.
Our bus left around 5 PM. We heard that it was supposed to take 12-14 hours, but in the end it was more like 18 hours. There were a lot of police checkposts along the way, and each time we had to pull out our passports to show the authorities – it got pretty old.
Most people go to Sinai for beach and scuba diving. There are a lot of places you can visit, mostly on the east coast (along the gulf of Aqaba, facing Jordan and Saudi Arabia). The biggest is Sharem-el-Sheikh. A little smaller are Dahab and Nuweiba. And besides that you have a bunch of tiny hole-in-the-wall towns with shacks on the beach. Pnina stayed at one of these hole-in-the-wall places the last time she visited Sinai, but this time we decided to try Dahab.
We checked into the Penguin Hotel, which was a little more upscale than the simple guesthouses we stayed at so far, but it was just 60 LE / night so not too bad. We then wandered around town. Dahab turned out to be a pleasant town, and obviously touristy even in February (low season) and even with the slowdown in tourism brought on by the general downturn in the global economy. All around you saw hotels, restaurants, dive centers, and shops selling the same stuff over and over (hookas, spices, surfer clothes, etc.).
Dahab hugs the waterfront of this bay:
The Penguin Hotel:
Pnina relaxing at the hotel:
A boat-shaped restaurant/bar (it was up for sale at the time):
Salvador Dali-esque painting for sale in one of the shops:
Shahaf having an apple-flavored hookah; this and backgammon is what all the locals seemed to do:
One of the fancier restaurants along the water:
West of Dahab is the Biblical Mount Sinai, the place where Moses saw the burning bush and received the tablets with the ten commandments. Pnina and I signed up for a tour of Mt Sinai. There are two options: the sunrise tour or the daytime tour. We chose the former. Our bus left Dahab at 11 PM. We arrived at the foot of Mt Sinai around 1 AM and began the climb up the mountain. Unfortunately it was too dark to take any photos but it was a very cool sight – a long line of flashlights snaking its way up the mountain. It felt like some kind of pilgrimage. Meanwhile local touts kept offering us rides up the mountain (“camel?”) but there was no need because it was a pretty easy climb. Along the way there were some huts selling overpriced food and drink, e.g. tea for 10 LE instead of 1 or 2. It only took us two hours to reach the last hut, so we decided to just hang out there for a while (it was warmer than waiting for the sunset outside). Pnina actually fell asleep there and I woke her up around 5:45. Then we scrambled to the summit to see the sunrise. We made it in time to see the sun peak, but I would say we were still late – the best colors of sunrise happen before the sun actually comes up. We kind of wish that they offered a tour that got started two hours later. Anyhow, it was still a great experience.
The crowd waits for the sun to emerge at the top of Mt Sinai:
There was a small church at the top of the mountain with a nook where Moses prayed. We saw a few people climb into this niche and kneel down. There was a large group of Nigerian pilgrims with us at the summit, and periodically they would start singing spiritual songs. It’s interesting that Mt. Sinai is a much bigger magnet for Christians than for Jews or Muslims, even though the site is equally important to all three religions.
Back at the bottom of Mt Sinai we visited the monastery of St Katherine. It was a pretty complex, in particular because it had some gardens with flowering trees (which stand out so much in the arid surrounding). In fact, when Moses saw the burning bush, two thoughts must have crossed his mind: 1. “wow, there’s a bush here!”, and 2. “it’s on fire and it won’t burn down!” (both are equally strange) (and I guess 3. “wow, god is talking to me through a bush”, that’s strange too). Anyhow, the big draw in St Katherine is that they have a large plant that supposedly derives from the original burning bush. Pnina and I don’t buy the story for a moment, but it’s still an interesting place to visit.
SCUBA and Snorkel
Pnina has her PADI advanced certification for scuba diving. She dove in a few places around the world (Thailand, Sinai, Mexico) and of those she claims that Sinai is the best place by far, mostly because the water is so clear and there’s a lot to see. As for me, I don’t have a PADI certification. I tried diving once in Australlia and once in Mexico (with Pnina) and both experiences taught me that diving is just not for me – I have a hard time equalizing on the way down, and I get a little claustrophobic down there. But after hearing Pnina rave about Sinai for so long, I decided to give it a shot once again. So, Pnina and I signed up for a dive in Dahab. For her it was a mandatory refresher and for me it was yet another “discover scuba” (aka “try dive”). Our dive was right off the main drag in Dahab, at a place called “The Lighthouse”. I kind of expected the corals to be pretty crappy so close to town, but they were actually OK. We didn’t see anything fancy (no sharks or turtles), just beautiful reefs and colorful fish.
Dahab is actually a fairly cheap place to get SCUBA open water certification ($280) and for a moment I considered it. But this try-dive showed me once again that diving is not my thing.
So, two days later we split for the day: Pnina went diving again and I went snorkling at a different spot.
Pnina’s dive was just 18 euros (interesting that prices are quoted in euros, no?). She joined a group with an English couple that comes to Dahab every summer. The Brits already dove at all the famous sites multiple times and they wanted something different, so the dive master took them to a spot just off the Oasis Hotel. It’s not a very well known spot (even locals we spoke with didn’t hear of it). The dive turned out to be an adventure. They went as deep as 25 meters below, and they stayed under for nearly an hour. Pnina never had such a long dive – usually she does well conserving oxygen but others in her group run out quickly and the whole group has to ascend after about 30 minutes. But this time Pnina’s tank was far emptier than she normally reaches. An emptier tank is also a lighter tank, and that can be a problem for buoyancy. When the group started heading up to the surface (with stops to let air out of the bloodstream), Pnina’s tank was so empty that she just started floating to the surface, even after she emptied her BCD completely. The dive-master had to physically push her down the water and slap another weight on her. Meanwhile Pnina’s dive buddy actually ran out of oxygen, but Pnina wasn’t around to give him her extra breather, so he had to borrow from another guy. And on top of this Pnina’s wet-suit, the smallest they had in the dive-shop, was still a little loose, which meant it didn’t really keep her warm. After an hour in the water she was shaking from the cold. Her legs were too frozen to manage the walk to the shore in the choppy waves, so her dive-buddy had to help her walk. Despite all this excitement, she had a great time. They saw a bunch of fish, corals, and one big octopus.
By comparison I had a totally relaxed day. I went with a bunch of people to snorkel at a famous spot called Blue Hole.
It’s a really amazing spot. There’s a shelf of corals close to the surface, and in the middle of this shelf there’s a hole the size of an olympic-size pool and going down about 110 meters! For snorkelers the thing to do is to hug the inside of the hole – that way you can get more of a front-view of the corals and fish (instead of just a top-view, which is what you normally get when you snorkel). On the shore there are a few restaurants where you can lounge between dips in the chilly February water (it’s better to go there in the summer). At one of these restaurants I met a bunch of people taking “free dive” lessons. These people go diving without the usual baggage (no oxygen-tank, no buoyancy jacket). They just use typical snorkeling gear: a snorkel, a mask, and flippers (and sometimes monoflippers!). They just take a deep breath and head down for as long as they can manage, some as far as 50 meters below!
Pnina and I took one other tour from Dahab – a 4×4 tour to some nearby canyons.
First stop: the Colored Canyon. We went partway on paved road but then turned into open sand where our driver had a blast racing the other jeep and we got a little nervous 🙂 The canyon itself was narrow and beautiful, similar to Arizona’s Antelope Canyon (but not quite as pretty).
Racing through the sand:
One of the narrower sections of the Colored Canyon:
Second stop: the White Canyon. This one was more spread out, not as dramatic (it didn’t give you the “walking in an alley” feeling). But it had a very fun entry-point: we had to use a rope to descend a short distance.
Shahaf starting to rappel down into the white canyon:
Pnina had been fighting an uphill battle trying to keep her old comfy jeans together on our trip. Each week she’d find a new hole and promptly sew it up. But all our scrambling in the white canyon finally did her jeans in…
After the canyons we stopped at a Bedouin home for lunch. Pnina has had Bedouin meals in the past and she says this one wasn’t particularly authentic except for the bread. Still, it was good food and there was lots of it.
Before heading back to Dahab we stopped at one other place to see a natural mushroom-shaped rock: