Twist and shout
If you're a desert lover and a passionate hiker, don't let the summer get in the way. Join Amira El-Naqeeb for some unforgettable moments
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Clockwise from top left: Yasmina on top of Wadi Al-Bida; Wadi Gunai; Therese Kouler in the Coloured Canyon; our group contemplating the Coloured Canyon; the Mushroom Stone photos: Amira El-Naqeeb
"We're almost there," said the guide. The door opened and we jumped out of the Jeep. I turned my face away from the glittering sun. I looked at my watch; almost an hour and half had passed, and the Jeep ride was terribly bumpy. It was 10am. I stepped out of the car, trying to make sure that all my ribs were in place. The sun was powerful but what would be sweltering heat had not yet set in. "Now ladies and gentlemen, our journey through history has just begun," said Tamer Abdel-Alim to seven of us who decided on this adventure.
We went down the mountain from where we left the car. The coloured mountains started to appear from a distance. Abdel-Alim gathered us in the shade after reaching the base of the mountains. He said the Coloured Canyon, 3.6km in area, is one of the 13 canyons in Egypt, all located in the Sinai Peninsula. The canyon was formed 25- 40 million years when the volcano at the bottom of the Red Sea erupted. Wind, floods and earthquakes then opened up the canyons.
We started walking along the canyon's tight paths. The sandy-stoned mountains were taking different shapes and forms. When the canyon's mountain started to change colour yet again, Abdel-Alim asked us to stop and contemplate -- a mixture of copper, brick and dark grey colours, forming shapes and forms in the mountains, for every one to use his imagination. We walked in a maze-like track. Sweating in the blistering heat in mid-day, the shade started to slowly retreat as we ventured forward. Almost 90 minutes and the paths of the canyon were becoming narrower and narrower to the point where two people could not walk side by side through them.
I was looking at my companions disappearing one by one into the path when I heard a scream. Nothing prepared me for this one. "Do I have to do this?" I asked Abdel-Alim. "There's no other way, just follow my instructions," he said. I slipped my body underneath the big rock, based between two mountains. "Keep your hands tightly on the rock". I laid on my back, bent my head underneath the rock, slipped my body bit by bit, and then stayed still, waiting for our guide's next order. For a split second laying underneath the rock, with my shoulders squeezed between the two mountains, I went white with fear. When Abdel-Alim said, "jump" my heart did just that, but when my feet touched the ground, and reunited with my companions, I started to breathe again.
After this little adventure, most of us were exhausted, but we were able to take a brisk walk up the mountain to where the Jeep was waiting. It was almost noon and the sun was in the middle of the sky. Abdel-Alim said the best time to take this trek was around 7am, or an hour and a half before sunset. By the time we reached the car we were beat, thirsty, hungry and sweaty. However, we had one more stop, the Mushroom Stone, before retreating to our long-awaited haven, Ain Khodra Oasis.
On the way we passed many volcanic rocky mountains with breathtaking colours. Half-way to the Mushroom Stone we passed by the infamous desert area Wadi Ghazala with some plants surrounding it. Where the name came from was the interesting part. "A certain kind of gazelle comes and gives birth in this wadi [valley]," one of the local guides told me. "Wow, it's really a mushroom," said Francy, one of the girls in our Fantastic Seven group, as Abdel-Alim called us. I looked at the stone; like a giant wild mushroom only made of stone. Abdel-Alim gathered us underneath it, and explained that this sandy stone fell off the mountains, at the time of the floods. The wet ground made it easy for it to nestle itself on the ground. The wind kept sculpting it until it made the shape. After taking pictures, we were ready to leave to our next destination.
The road to Ain Khodra was twisting and zigzagging so much that I literally felt my chest in my throat. "Hang on," said Sheikh Naeem, our driver, and before we could ask why, we found ourselves flying down a steep sandy hill and landing on the ground once again. Awesome.
We arrived in Ain Khodra around 2pm. The comfortable seating area was our sanctuary from the blistering summer heat that was reduced by the breeze emanating from the palm trees. There was a big shaded area with klims and cushions on the floor. We were given Bedouin tea on the spot. "Come, you can freshen up here," said one of the Bedouins leading me to a spring with freezing cold water. I dipped my head in it, and I came out feeling utterly refreshed.
While some of us were checking the place out -- walking around enjoying the scenery -- others were sitting around the spring, cooling off their bodies from the exhaustion of the journey, until we heard Abdel-Alim shout, "food, everyone". Bedouin bread, tuna salad, hommus, chips, cold drinks -- it was food for the soul, too. Laying my back against the cushions, I set my mind to sea, and my thoughts drifted to the hypnotically relaxing nature. The name of the beautiful Ain Khodra, which is literally the green spring, came because it is surrounded by greenery. The ain is almost 400 years old. At the time of desiccation, the priests in St Catherine Monastery settled around the spring, seeking water and food.
Since our schedule for the day was quite full we started getting ready for our next trek. It took us 20 minutes walking in the desert before reaching the beginning of the White Canyon. It was past 4pm and the sun was starting to ease up. Abdel-Alim said that this, or in early morning, was the best time to visit the canyon. "As the name implies, it's really white, so it reflects the sun rays. So it has to be done when the sun isn't too strong," he explained.
Stepping into the White Canyon with its white lime-stoned mountains, and the powder-like white sand, was like walking into another era where time stood still. I and Soso, a Malaysian girl from the group, took off our sandals which aren't a practical thing to wear on this trip and we revelled in the white sand. The paths to the canyon were cool since the sun wasn't strong anymore.
In the first two-thirds of the canyon, the hike was quite easy until we reached a very rough spot where we had to go down the mountain steps backwards. That's when I panicked. "I'll tell you where you should put your feet," Abdel-Alim said reassuringly. I kept following his instructions as to where to put my feet, as if I was descending a ladder -- blindfolded. Actually, we had not yet reached the exciting part. It wasn't until I saw a metal ladder and a rope that my adrenaline touched its highest level. This part of the mountain was actually so smooth that it was impossible to climb without hanging on to something. I clutched the knots of the rope, put it between my legs and followed Abdel-Alim's instructions. I don't think I would have come through this one without him. The moment I came up and reunited with the Fantastic Seven, I felt victorious, as if I had landed on the moon.
After spending a day in the heart of the desert enfolded by the mountains, it was time for some water activities and less mountaineering. Moray gardens is, as its name implies, a natural habitat for the moray fish where snorkellers and divers can see in abundance. The area also hosts the famous three pools: five, 10, and 18 metres in depth which are natural turquoise in colour where you can actually swim from one to the other. I took my flippers and went in for a snorkel. Since I wasn't very comfortable swimming with the flippers, I didn't go farther out in the big blue. Although the reef looked very enticing from the shore, with a promise of colourful corals and plenty of fish, the water in the pools was not very clear for vision. When I came out of the water, I threw myself onto the cushions in one of the cafés facing the sea, seeking shade. Sitting next to me was Anders Valero from Colombia. It was a nice opportunity to practise my Spanish and share my disappointment. Valero snorkelled in different spots in Dahab but this site for him was muy bonito, he told me. Nevertheless, Kurt Reineinger and Gerhard Hauser from Austria agreed with me that the water in the three pools was a bit dirty and not very clear, so they weren't able to see as many fish. The whole area is part of the Wadi Gunai protectorate which you should stop at before going to the Moray gardens.
After spending almost the whole afternoon snorkelling and basking in the sun, I was in the mood for some action. So my safari guide suggested that we check Wadi Gunai. "It's better though to be done early morning or sunset when the sun isn't too strong," he said. The road to the wadi was surrounded by mountains, with plants blossoming in the heart of the desert. The entrance of the wadi is like stumbling onto a traveller's oasis -- palm trees and lush greenery entwined in a mountain embrace. The hike, which allowed a picturesque view of the whole valley, was quiet easy. Going down, I craved one of the Bedouin teas, and I settled in the shade of the only cafeteria around. Suleiman, a 16-year-old Bedouin, was sitting on the floor playing on the semsemiya, a traditional musical instrument. His music was acting as a background to Sheikh Radwan's story telling. "The name gunai came from the root word ganah, which means canal. At the time of the floods, the rain used to carve lots of canals and streams in the ground. Our Bedouin ancestors came to this place and planted the first palm trees, and ever since, the palm trees have grown, getting water from the well in this mountain."
In Sinai, each time of the day has a different flavour, and I was determined to taste each and every one. Sunset in Sinai, especially in Dahab, is very special, may be because the mountain acts as a very close backdrop to the sea. As the sun goes down, it spreads its colourful red, copper and lilac hues, putting you in a fairytale mood.
Consulting with my safari guide, he suggested that Wadi Al-Bida would be a fantastic setting for the sunset in Dahab. Wadi Al-Bida, or the White Valley -- although the colour of the valley has nothing to do with its name -- is 12km above sea level. I chose to go to the wadi by camel which took almost 40 minutes from Dahab. The road to the wadi was irritating. I passed through rubble, garbage and a school building, an orange blotch against the beautiful desert's face. The scenery started to change when we journeyed on to the heart of the desert surrounded by the red volcanic mountains made of granite and basalt stones.
Sheikh Hamid, 65, one of the Bedouins who lives in the area surrounding the wadi, and who was guiding my camel through the desert, told me that not so many Egyptians come there although it is the closest to Dahab. "It's very popular with foreigners," he said. When we arrived in the valley, the sun was starting to sink and I rushed to climb the opposite mountain, to grasp a perfect view of all Dahab before the sun went down. There was an almost clear track in the mountain, which made it a very easy trek. The view was breathtaking and worth the uncomfortable ride. The contrasting colours of the mountains were red and golden brush strokes against the silvery shimmering sea. I was sitting on the tip of the mountain, with the whole city of Dahab lying in front of me, when I felt somebody crawling next to me. Seven-year-old Yasmina, a Bedouin girl who lives in the valley, spread a cloth filled with beaded necklaces and bracelets. The colours of the beads sparkled in what was left of the sunlight, creating a symphony of rainbow colours. The company and the beads both excited me. I picked three bracelets with sea, sky and sunset colours, wore them in one hand, and sat hand-in-hand with Yasmina, bidding the sun farewell.
- Good hiking shoes are essential for all trips.
- Make sure you bring enough drinking water.
- Sun glasses, sun block and a hat are needed to avoid sunburn and stroke.
For more information go to: www.redsea-rangers.com.
For reservations and costs call Nasser El-Adwy at +02 010 673 0279.