Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2008
Issue No. 891
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Super scenic

Before winter ends, Amira El-Naqeeb grabbed the chance to embrace the Sinai desert

Click to view caption
Al-Arda canyon where yellow melts in gold; Al-Nawamis burial chambers, all built looking west; sand surfing in the desert; the dinosaur's eye in Gabal Al-Makhroom; the narrow zigzags of Al-Arda

Since the sweltering heat hasn't started yet, I asked myself what would be better than a desert safari. Since I couldn't think of anything better, I tracked down one of the most interesting trips, with an irresistible bargain.

Dahab was my target. We started our trip at eight in the morning. We were heading towards Al-Arda canyon, or the double canyon, as they call it. Both names valid, it lies 90km away from Dahab. The name Arda refers to a plant there, the only place in Sinai where it can be found. The plant changes colour during the summer into blue, sometimes grey, and is known amongst the Bedouins as a herbal medicine that cures asthma.

We arrived in the canyon around 9am. We were four: I, Lindsey and Tom, from England, and our guide Tamer Abdel-Alim. We started walking up the canyon; quite an easy hike. I was engaged in a conversation with Tom, and I did not notice any difficulty. It was as if my legs had a mind of their own, going up and down very smoothly. By the time the first part of the canyon had finished, the going up part, I did not even notice. I romped about for 10 minutes, inhaling as much fresh air as my lungs could take. The second part of the canyon was going down, and that is why it is called the double canyon. Going down was another story. "You look very adventurous, so I didn't want to tell you what was ahead," Abdel-Alim said teasingly.

I can't even describe what going down was like, but let me try. Abdel-Alim was at the head of the queue, followed by Lindsey, me and Tom at the end. "This is stupid," said Lindsey looking down the canyon. It was my turn to look. It was such a very narrow canyon going down that basically to cross it we had to be standing sideways. I remembered my fear of dark, narrow places, but I went ahead. Abdel-Alim went down first, and then I, Lindsey and Tom, one by one following his instructions as to where to put our feet. It wasn't as bad as it looked, but still we had some adrenaline rush.

We kept going down, catching our breath, and of course since I'm totally in the dark, I didn't know what else was ahead of me. The canyon was breathtaking. I'm not sure what was so special about it, whether its twists and turns, or its sand stone with its magnificent formations due to erosion.

We kept going as Abdel-Alim was naming the canyons in Egypt, which are 13 and all in Sinai. There were parts in the canyon we needed to cross putting one leg on one side and the other on another side. "That's a lot of stretching. I guess my kickboxing classes are paying off," I told myself.

We faced another narrow canyon. I jumped in front of Lindsey because I didn't want to see her panicked face one more time.

"We can cross this one sitting," Abdel-Alim said. I and Lindsey looked at each other and said in unison, "but how, it's too narrow." "Trust me," he said. We sat down and started sliding one by one down the canyon. I have never felt more appreciative of my petite body. Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez could have never made it down that narrow canyon with their hips.

The place we slipped into was like a cave in the canyon, and we had to literally crawl into a narrow opening to get inside it. "That was awesome," said Tom, with a big victorious smile on his face.

We emerged from the cave after taking a couple of photos. We lingered to watch the beautiful sand stones with their yellow and golden hues. The super, elastic, fast and not furious Abdel-Alim was walking ahead of us. "This is our exit from the canyon," he said, relaxing his back on the mountain. I suddenly noticed the rope he was carrying all along. I took a look down the canyon he was pointing at. It was steep and narrow, about five kilometres long. Enthusiastic Tom took the rope between his legs and was the first one to go. Abdel-Alim took a look at my and Lindsey's terrified faces. "Come on, I took a group of elderly people from Switzerland here last week," he said. I took the rope between my legs and slid. I can't deny it was fun, and not as frightening as it seemed, and we were out.

We found our ride waiting for us, and we started heading for our next destination. Ten minutes away from the canyon was a yard belonging to Sheikh Freej, one of the oldest Bedouins in the area. He dedicates his house yard to tourists, and organises camel and desert safaris. You can sit and drink Bedouin tea or order Bedouin bread.

After having lunch in Al-Arda, it was time for our next stop, Wadi Al-Safra, (the yellow valley). The valley has a small sand dune; standing on top of it we can see that the prevailing colour of the panoramic view is yellow. "This valley has active winds, and the minerals in its sand has lots of yellow colour. That's why it's called Wadi Al-Safra," Abdel-Alim said. I and Lindsey sat down on the top of the dune, enjoying the feeling of the powdery-sand slipping between our fingers and toes. Tom and Abdel-Alim started running and sliding down the dune. We could hear them screaming from the top of their lungs, and giggling when they reached the bottom. Reluctant to do the same, I persuaded Lindsey to slide while sitting which was slower but as much fun.

"Have you seen Jurassic Park ?" Abdel-Alim asked. We all nodded. "Good, then you'll be familiar with the dinosaur we are about to see," he said. We looked at each other smiling, and breathless with anticipation. Ten minutes away from Wadi Al-Safra, we entered an area called Al-Barga, which means in the old Bedouin language the smooth sand. The clarity of the blue sky, standing in contrast with the chiselled burgundy mountains, lying against the soft powdery- yellow sands, made the whole road look like a postcard. We couldn't believe our eyes. The mountain was really shaped like the face of a dinosaur. It was so clear that there was no room for guessing. It was very clear that the erosion had played a very important role in shaping this mountain. The mountain with the dinosaur face is called Gabal Al-Makhroom, (the holed mountain). The hole in the mountain was the eyes of the dinosaur. We started going up a little dune under the hole to reach it. The last four metres before entering the eye was a sandstone cliff and it was too slippery. Abdel-Alim was helping us one by one, guiding us where to put our feet so as not to slip. After a sharp but short climb, we made it inside the dinosaur's eye. It was very cool in there, and the view was worth it. We stood still inside, watching the valley, and listening to the wind inside the hole. Abdel-Alim said the area was recommended for meditation. "It takes a three-day to a week trekking to cover this area."

After playing with the echo, and shouting our own names, it was time to go down. I almost forgot how slippery it was going up, let alone going down. We sat down in a train-like queue, and we started sliding slowly and easily. Upon reaching the bottom, there was no place to put my feet and I had no control over my body. It scared me out of my wits. Abdel-Alim saw my panic, came up facing me, and helped me put my feet, one at a time, on his feet till I made it.

We raced on the way back to the car, like young school children. We were off to our next destination, where the real fun began. Our four-wheel driver was taking us across the dunes in a joy ride. I had to concentrate on not hitting my head on the ceiling while I was being thrown around like a rag doll.

We reached Al-Hododa, the biggest and tallest sand dune in Sinai. We parked up on top of a high dune. The minute I treaded on the soft sands, standing on its climax, my heart skipped a beat. It was as if stepping in a different era. Time stood still in this place. The smooth curves of the dunes, and its colour were as if sketched by hand. The place had a mystical, legendary ambiance, as if I was in the movie Aladdin.

The name Al-Hododa came from the root word, to tear down. "The sand is very soft, and the wind is very active in this area. So the dune changes frequently from one place to another according to wind speed. The sand comes down during this process. That's where the name came from," Abdel-Alim explained. Al-Hododa is 33km away from Dahab by GPS. I regreted not having a sand board or slides with me. So when heading there, don't forget to pack them, because sand surfing is a marvellous experience. However, not having the equipment didn't stop me from sliding, until my legs gave way.

We reached our final destination, Al-Nawamis burial chambers. Al-Nawamis means mosquito nets in Arabic. It lies about 60km from Dahab and around 70km from the Monastery of St Catherine. We took the Kurry Valley road, 35km from Al-Hododa sand dune. The small, circular, stone buildings were built around 4,000 BC between the Bronze and Heliolithic ages. There are other historical sites that might be Byzantine burial places.

The place seemed quite morbid to me. The chambers were built from sand stones with rocks placed in circles. Abdel-Alim explained that they have only one opening, a small door, just enough to squeeze a dead body, and a roof to protect the buried from weather conditions. They are built looking west, the direction of the sunset. "They believed that when the day dies and the sun sets, so does the human being."

It took us around 40 minutes to reach Dahab. I reached my hotel Star of Dahab before sunset. I nestled on one of the sun beds on the coast in front of the hotel. "What an awesome way to kiss the day goodbye," I told myself. The thought of returning to Cairo, leaving this serenity and peacefulness behind, caused a pain in my chest. I always feel nostalgic for Dahab; the hotel always feels like home. I started coming here in 1999. It wasn't a hotel back then but the Star of Dahab Camp. It was famous for its straw huts, scattered in the yard, and its apricot rooms. It was called that because they were tiny rooms painted in apricot colour. Having a bathroom inside your room was a luxury that nobody dared asked for.

We are in Dahab, the land of natural unspoilt beauty, primitiveness and vagabonds. Everybody here speaks the same language of sun, sand and sea.

Sitting on the beach drinking Bedouin tea, I and Khaled El-Diasti, owner of the hotel, shared memories of the good old days. "I came here in 1989 when there were only nine camps in Dahab," El-Diasti said. In 1999, there were only four rooms with bathrooms; now all rooms have one. In the past, he continues, they used to sell the Bedouin village. "Now we are not even allowed to build any huts." El-Diasti explained that the new rules of the Tourism Ministry oblige them to build rooms according to certain standards. "Development doesn't necessarily mean losing your identity. We cannot compete with the luxury in Sharm El-Sheikh, and we lost our nomadic spirit," he said.

I lay down on the beach, listening to a tiny breeze as it rustled through, surrendering to a joyful mind-sail evening in the cool air.

Traveller's notes

- Double rooms in Star Dahab cost LE170, with breakfast, for both Egyptians and foreigners. The hotel has a diving centre, wireless service and cable TV.

- Meals vary between LE30 to LE60 for a main course. For more information, log on to or call: 002 010 111 3481.

- The safari trip organised by Blue Hole costs 35 euros per person, for a minimum of four people and a maximum of six. The fees include a land cruiser, guide and lunch. For more information, log on to or call: 002 069 364 0886.

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