Just couldn't resist the photo opportunity

"A VOICE ON MT SINAII "

This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins in July 1996, as I set off from Israel to Egypt.

It was Wednesday morning when I left the kibbutz, when I left the security and familiarity of a kibbutz lifestyle, when I left my friends. After four months sheltered there, I had decided it was time to plunge myself into this foreboding thing called the Middle East.

That was four days ago. I lie here, several floors above the bustle and noise of the market street below, the breeze through the huge window filling my room with the smell of my freshly washed clothes just waiting to dry. I can't help but smile to myself. The breeze is surprisingly refreshing for Cairo in July, I think. It's been a great four days, and I get more excited every time I think how close I am to what almost seems like a dream. Just twenty kilometres away; the great pyramids!

The view from my hotel room, above a busy market street

It was Wednesday morning when I left the kibbutz. It was hot. My shirt was drenched with perspiration before I even reached the gate. I hitchhiked to Tel Aviv quite quickly, but had decided to take a bus from there to Beersheba- too difficult to hitchhike, too many small towns in between, too many intersections, too many short rides, and it was only seventeen shekels by bus anyway. (3 shekels= US$1) From Beersheba I hitched easily to Mitzpe Ramon, the town near Mahktesh Ramon, a huge natural crater that I was interested in seeing.

A stunning view, but I hadn't planned on sleeping there

It was spectacular, and indeed gigantic- 300 metres deep, eight kilometres wide and forty kilometres long. After a short walk along the rim, and a couple of self-timed Kodak moments, I figured that was good enough and returned to the road with my thumb - sorry, finger! - out. "I'll be in Eilat tonight." That was at three o'clock. By eight o'clock I was a little less optimistic. Finally I decided to give up and check into the nearby youth hostel. My 1994 Lonely Planet guidebook told me it would cost twenty-seven shekels, and under the circumstances, I could stretch my budget to allow for that. Imagine my surprise when I learnt that price had blown out to sixty-four shekels! Out of principle, I turned on my heels and walked back to the road. It was quite dark now, so I guessed no-one would see me if I pitched my tent behind a couple of bushes near the edge of the crater. It was the first time I had used my tent this year, and the ground was hard and rocky. My night's sleep was fitful, but the sunrise over Mahktesh Ramon made it all worthwhile.

By now, I thought I had learnt my lesson. I remembered the words I had read in my girlfriend's guidebook the night before I left the kibbutz: "Hitchhiking through the Negev is not an option!" I decided to hell with the budget, and I waved down the first approaching bus. Would you believe it was a guy delivering a new bus to Eilat, and he gave me a lift there for nothing!

The border crossing was complicated, but relatively painless. Security questions, luggage searches, forms to be filled out, then stamped, passport to be checked, then stamped, then checked again. There was a fifty shekel exit fee from Israel, then a seventeen pound (LE1=1 shekel) entry fee to Egypt. Egypt! My heart jumped when I realised that after four years of travelling, I was finally in Egypt. But I couldn't allow myself to get too excited. "Just look cool, calm and confident, and remember, they all want to rip you off!" And I was right!

The first lie I was told was that there was no longer a bus service from Taba. Of course, this amazing gem of misinformation came from the taxi drivers, eagerly waiting like vultures to pounce on anyone gullible enough to believe their 'advice, then charge them several times the bus fare, as long as they could make their escape before the bus came into view. I had been forewarned about this scam, but it was three hours 'till bus time, and it was hot. One of the vultures offered to take me to Nuweiba for ten pounds, and hey, the bus would've cost me five. So next thing we were careering down the highway in an old Peugeot 504 ( they're all Peugeot 504's- they must have had a good deal with France in the seventies.

Tarabin Beach was a welcome break

Tarabin beach, just north of Nuweiba, was a much more pleasant place to spend three hours than Taba. I had a quick swim to freshen up, a cheap omelette and a couple of cokes, and another glance through my guidebook, and it was almost four o'clock- bus time to Dahab.

An omelette, two cokes, and a basket of fresh pocket bread, and the bill was a couple of dollars

Every taxi driver who saw me waiting by the highway told me the same familiar lie, but by ten past four, I'd almost started to believe them. Okay, fifteen pounds to Dahab- the bus would've been five pounds, but maybe there was no bus, and besides, it was hot standing by that highway. We were soon overtaken by another taxi, and my seaside ride suddenly became a formula one race. We were side by side, tyres screeching on the windy road, sea on the left, desert on the right. I saw the speedometer needle hit 150 km/h a couple of times- fortunately the old Peugeot couldn't go any faster than that. I deliberately looked unconcerned. But we made it to Dahab in one piece, and what a wonderful place.

Dahab beach

Dozens of little cafes and bars lined the beach, and the whole place was oh, so relaxed. Many of the cafes doubled as accommodation 'camps'. You eat at low tables, sitting on mats and cushions, and for a few pounds, when you've finished your dinner, you can roll over and sleep there the night. I wanted somewhere to lock my luggage, so I took a single room for six pounds, one block back from the beach.

Fruit shop, Dahab style

The next morning, I decided to move on. I could come back to Dahab in a couple of weeks if wanted to, so I caught the bus to St. Catherine. Yes, contrary to popular opinion, there was a bus! St. Catherine's Monastery sits at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments. If it was good enough for Moses to climb (twice!), then I'd give it a go as well. I hung out in the shade of the nearby village waiting for the hottest part of the day to pass. I drank three one-and-a-half litre bottles of water while I waited. There was a Dutch lady also waiting there with the same idea, so we set off at three o'clock, armed with another two bottles of water each.

The landscape was like something from another planet; so rugged and mountainous, and totally barren as far as the eye could see. The higher we climbed, the more we could appreciate just how vast this desert is. By the time we reached the top, it was six o'clock and my water was finished. Running out of water on this mountain is not a problem; there's water, tea, coffee, biscuits and snacks for sale at a couple of stalls at the top, and also several stalls along the way.

And Moses spent how many years wandering this landscape?

There were only six of us spending the night; my hiking companion and myself, two friendly young Egyptian guys, and a French couple who didn't speak English. The cool air at almost 8000 feet was a welcome change after having to sleep with a wet cloth over my face in Dahab the previous night.

Long before sunrise, my sleep was disturbed by voices, then more and more voices of various accents and some in foreign languages. No, it wasn't the voice of God like Moses heard. As the dark began to fade, I saw that our mountain top had been invaded by literally hundreds of tourists. They had arrived during the night-mostly by bus- just in time to make it to the top by sunrise. When the sun finally did peep up from behind the furthermost mountains, the frantic clicking of cameras kind of detracted from the magic of the moment.

We decided not to follow the same path down, but to tackle the '3000 Steps Of Repentance'. These steps were carved out by a monk as a sign of his penitence. I can only wonder what his sins could have been, because just walking down them was gruelling enough punishment for me. Back in the village, I drank a lot more water and waited for my legs to stop shaking. The shopkeeper, in broken English, wanted to know how it was last night on the 'Mosses mountain', and how it is in Australia, and how old I am, and why I'm not married. Neither of us had anything better to do , so to pass the time, I showed him a pictorial calendar of Australia. As seems to be the Egyptian custom- an annoying one- he wanted to buy it. After only two days in Egypt, I'd already refused offers to buy my cap, my watch, my waterbottle, my sunglasses, and now my calendar. "It was a present from my mother," I said (it really was) and he quit bothering me.

Then I heard a familiar story; "There's no bus today to Cairo," announced the taxi driver, "it's broken!" Yeah, sure! Anyway, he said he would take us to Cairo for forty pounds each, and the bus would've been thirty-five, and he would take us right to the city centre and the bus doesn't. So I took the taxi. It was a wise decision too, because it turned out he was right- we never did meet a bus that day! The two Egyptians, Maged and Tarik, who slept on the mountain, were also in the taxi. They live in Cairo and insisted on walking with me to my hotel, even paid for my ticket on the Metro. Great guys! Cairo is a crazy place. I discovered why the car horn has been nicknamed by visitors as the "Egyptian brake pedal"

P.J.O'Rourke, in his 'Third World Driving Hints', gives the following advice: "Honk your horn only under the following circumstances:

1. When anything blocks the road
2. When anything doesn't
3. When anything might
4. At red lights
5. At green lights
6. At all other times"

This morning, I registered with the police; a formality that all foreigners must undertake in their first week in Egypt. To do this, I had to go to the huge government office building, the Mogamma building, home to twenty thousand office workers every day. That's a lot of packed lunches! For a relaxing way to spend the morning, I caught the waterbus down the Nile to Old Cairo. were touts along the bank offering rides on the river for five pounds. I walked past them and paid twenty-five piestras (100 piestras to the pound) at the ticket booth. There wasn't a lot to see in Old Cairo, but the boat ride was a pleasant escape from the turmoil of the city, and the curious stares I received, the grins from little children, the giggles from young girls, and the friendly greetings, and the countless calls of "welcome!" were quite amusing. Some of them seemed like they'd never seen someone with blond hair before.

I wonder if these guys deliver to that fruit shop in Dahab?

It wasn't so hot so I walked back to the city centre, a very different experience to riding on the waterbus. Each intersection provided a new experience in adrenalin intoxication. As I tackled yet another six lanes of maniacal traffic (lanes...what lanes?), the words of wisdom from my guidebook came back to me: "As a pedestrian in Cairo, you might as well ignore the traffic lights, because the drivers certainly do!"

I try not to think too much about the countless people who have approached me on the streets, and under the pretence of friendliness, tried to sell me pot, tried to get me to buy duty free for them, tried to cajole me into staying at their hotel, tried to talk me into a special half price tour of the pyramids, or deceived me into following them down a street and into their store. If I was to think too much about these cunning, sneaky lying cheats and crooks, I wouldn't feel the way that I do about Cairo. I wouldn't be able to accept the genuine friendliness of people like Maged and Tarik, and the many others who have helped me with directions in this amazing town, or simply smiled or waved and said "hello".

I can't wait 'till tomorrow night, when five of my friends from the kibbutz are coming to Cairo. I'm meeting them at Hotel Nefertiti, just a block from here, and we can continue this adventure together, and then begin another adventure as we travel down to Luxor on the 'chicken train'!

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tips

Try hitchhiking through the Negev if you must be a hardhead, but don't try it in the Sinai. I tried and gave up.

Don't stay at the Mitzpe Ramon Youth Hostel. It's only been able to charge such extortionate rates because they rely on backpackers having no alternative. Don't support them.

Don't believe anything you're told in Egypt. I don't think that's being overly sceptical.

Carry twice as much water as you think you'll need.

'must see' places :

the Negev; especially the Ramon crater Eilat, but not Taba

Tarabin Beach, but not Nuweiba

Dahab

Mt. Sinai (spend the night)

Talaat Harb Street, Cairo, where you'll discover why the car horn has been nicknamed by visitors as the "Egyptian brake pedal".








My ticket from the Chicken Train

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