Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rock my world

Amira El-Naqeeb finds her footing on the face of a mountain

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Starting the journey, surfing in the Red Sea, here the fun begins

Since I'm a mountain goat, I'm always interested in any activity or sport related to the rocky giants. Rappelling (or abseiling) always teased my senses, however, the idea of tying a rope and jumping of a mountain didn't really appeal to my wits. But then a bigger challenge came along, and opportunity presented itself in the form of a beginner's rock climbing course.

I knew this adrenaline-packed sport is based on three principles: trusting your coach, trusting yourself and trusting the equipment. So the first leap of faith on the road to rock climbing was to trust the coach who is also providing the gear. I'd heard a lot about Sameh Mohamed as a trainer and knew him socially. Calm, shy and keeping a low profile, Mohamed turned out to be a completely different person when he is in his element -- or as he puts it, "behind the line".

We reached Dahab in South Sinai at 11am. I was exhausted after the nine- hour ride on a private bus when we arrived at our hotel, to find not a soul at the reception desk. There was a number posted on the door, so we dialed it and a door close to the desk flung open and a sleepy man came out and headed towards us. "Is that the mysterious reception man who only shows up when he receives a call?" I quipped to my companion. After settling in our rooms, we went down to enjoy the beach since we were not climbing until tomorrow.

The meeting point for prospective climbers was the hotel lobby the next morning at 8am. I was there on time, dressed in comfortable sportswear: trousers, short sleeved t-shirt to protect my body from bruising -- a high probability -- and hair tied up with a bandanna, as Mohamed advised. We were 12 climbers packed in the back of a pickup mini-van, which added to the fun. Twenty minutes later, we reached our climbing site. A spectacular, breathtaking mountainous spot tucked in the heart of the desert. We were surrounded by mountains on three sides.

We began to unload the climbing gear from the pickup as Mohamed carried the gear carefully, as if it were a toddler. We were in Wadi Gunai or Gunai Valley and the climbing site is called the Water Falls. After setting the gear on the ground, we gathered for a preliminary session about what lays ahead.

"Behind this line," shouted Mohamed as he pointed to a line he drew in the sand and placed all the equipment on it, "I'm the one who talks, orders and explains; I have the right of la prima notte (the first night), I'm the leader." For a minute I was intimidated. "So am I going to get yelled at if I do something wrong, or may be worse..." I said to myself. I pushed the thought out of my head and concentrated on the explanation of how to use the gear.

Mohamed showed us the ropes -- literally. Air traffic controller (ATC), carabiners and quick draws. I learnt about the gear and its reliability in terms of specifications. For instance, each loop or quick draw will tell you how many Kilo Newton their tension durability is (a Kilo Newton = 102kg of human weight). Mohamed said we are using the top rope technique in climbing, which is for beginners.

He had climbed a series of connected mountains to set different routes for different levels of climbers. I was awestruck by his speed and agility as he attached the quick draws in the bolts; he was hopping from one spot to another, as an experienced climber was belaying him. When he reached the top, I could see him tying knots but wasn't sure what he was doing. But the fun part hadn't started yet. It was when he started rappelling down, jumping like a grasshopper, tiptoeing on the mountain as if flying, that I realised how liberating this sport must be.

When he came down, I curbed an impulse to applaud. He read everybody's face and answered our unspoken question: "I was doing a lead climb to help you do the top rope," he explained. It was our turn and we commenced two by two. Beginners started on the easy route and the more advanced climbers on the more complex one. The difference between the two was the mountain surface; the easy one had grooves where hands and feet could hold on, while the harder looked smooth so climbers had to rely on the friction between the climbing shoes and the surface of the granite mountain.

After watching many climbers go up and down, it was my turn. The adventure started by choosing the harness, learning how to wear it, and making sure that the size was right. Then came the shoes, which have to be tight around the feet but not to the extent of pain.

"Ready?" Mohamed asked. "Yes," I replied like a disciplined soldier. Now was the time to put on the helmet and start my mission. Mohamed was doing the belaying, and every climb should begin with a brief exchange between the belayer and the climber. Climber: on belay? Belayer: belay on. Climber: climbing. When the belayer is ready he will say "go" so the climber knows that the belayer is ready to secure him.

I'm a hiker, so being on a mountain should not be a new experience; I was wrong. This is a completely different feeling; it's like reading a person's face. You have to take your time, concentrate, and trust that every groove will carry your weight. It was like being introduced to someone through recognising their features. I kept touching my way up the mountain, putting one hand here and one foot there. It's at these moments that your mind goes blank. You don't think of anything except how to find the next secure spot to hold your weight.

I was almost half way up the mountain but one groove was too high for me to reach and I couldn't get a grip. I felt exhausted, mostly mentally. I asked my belayer to take me down, which was followed by another tough decision when he said to trust and let go. Ideally at this point I'm supposed to throw back my weight and hop my way down using my feet, with my arms spread to my sides. Watching others doing it made me feel it was easy; watching those who couldn't made me wonder how difficult it would be to let go.

Finding myself on the ropes, I couldn't fully let go. I held the rope, against coach's orders, because I couldn't. "The rope isn't for climbing, it's for safety," he had said, so if something happens the rope would catch us. But he let me hold it anyway because I just couldn't fully let go. Coming down, my mind was numb and my body was pumped up with adrenaline. I rested a little and went again for purely narcissistic reasons: I was impressed and innocently jealous of all the brave girls in my group who were first timers like myself, but who had the courage to make it to the top.

Before trying again, Mohamed asked me if I want to learn to be a belayer. What looked so easy turned out to be a grave responsibility. Somebody else's life is in your hands -- literally. It's a responsibility, even though we are secured at more than one point; a mistake can at least cause an injury to the climber. As you learn the technique of pulling the ropes as a beginner, the friction from the rope might scrape your skin, bruise or even make you bleed slightly, but you forget this because you have a role to play. By sunset, we were all exhausted mentally and physically, but also mesmerised.

TRADE ROCK CLIMBING SPOTS: For trade climbers there are some spots in South Sinai that can be reached through GPS and a local guide who is usually familiar with these locations, including Ras Safsafa and the Monastery Mountains at St Catherine. Also, Al-Rouwisat Village in Sharm El-Sheikh has a spot in the mountains famous for trade climbing.

Visiting Egypt is a conscious decision of plunging into a world of marvels. And whether you want a relaxed or adrenaline-packed vacation, you will not be disappointed. Adrenaline junkies will find an array of activities that will energise and refresh their souls.

WIND SURFING: Egypt is world renowned for its good winds. Many wind and kite surfing diehards go to Dahab, Zaafarana and the best known hotspot of Ras Sidr.

For more information visit: 1003/sp22.htm tr31.htm

HIKING: What better way to find communion between you and nature than to roam the desert? This is where human law is suspended and the universe rules. Egypt is 95 per cent desert and has been home to numerous treks and trails throughout history, whether in or through Egypt, for spiritual or adventure reasons. Desert Adventures Egypt organises some off-the-beaten-path treks, such as from Serabit Al-Khadem, south east of Ras Sidr on the Red Sea, to St Catherine protectorate in South Sinai.

Camel trekking or hiking on foot is another experience in the White Desert to the west of Cairo and part of Farafra Oasis. Another unique experience is trekking from Wadi Al-Rayan in the Fayoum Depression south of Cairo to Wadi Hitan west of Fayoum. This trek can either be on camel or on foot.

As for the majestic Red Sea Mountains, Holiday Tours organises one- or two-day trips under the name Weekend Trips to these mountains close to Ain Sokhna. The beauty of this area is that it has no trails and is awaiting discovery. A one-day trip costs LE200 and the two-day trip is LE400, including guide, food and transportation.

For more information visit: tr3.htm tr1.htm tr3.htm

SAND BOARDING: Egypt is blessed with vast sheets of sand that stretch endlessly in the horizon. Until recently, this treasure of soft sand deep in the heart of the desert hadn't been properly utilised. A few years ago, avid safari travellers began organising sand boarding trips not only in Sinai, but also to destinations closer to Cairo. Now the community of loyalist sand borders is expanding; in fact, various groups on Facebook are dedicated to this sport.

Qattania Dunes is one of the closer destinations to Cairo. The beautiful dunes are 60km from 6 October city, south west of Cairo, on the road to Baharia Oasis and 15km off road into the desert. "Usually, one day is enough for this trip," according to Desert Adventures Egypt CEO Hany Amr. "There is another trip that we do in the Great Sand Sea in Siwa that takes almost three days."

Another close, but off-the-beaten- track destination is the Ismailia desert. The city of Ismailia itself lies northeast of Cairo on the West Bank of the Suez Canal. It's very popular amongst cyclists because it's quiet, clean and has wide streets fringed with lush greenery. Weekend Trips is the brainchild of Yehia El-Deken, manager of Holiday Tours, who told Al-Ahram Weekly that he chose Ismailia as part of an initiative to promote all destinations in Egypt, not only the well-known spots.

For more information visit: tr1.htm tr1.htm tr1.htm

PAINTBALL: Paintball is a relatively new activity in Egypt which has become a craze, especially amongst youngsters. Numerous private companies organise this activity and there is even a tournament. Paintball fields are located at Rehab Club in Rehab City and Hit n' Run paintball field in Hadayek Helwan Nile Country Club on the Nile Corniche. The cost is usually per bullet, beginning at LE100 for 100 bullets.

There are another two fields on the North Coast at Marina Porto Golf, a three-hour car ride from Cairo. For a more improvised and exciting outdoor experience, Weekend Trips organises paintball events in Ismailia where they use natural settings such as trucks, hay, water streams and fields as the battleground. A day usually costs LE300, including food and transportation.

For more information visit: group.php?gid=69633247001 group.php?gid=6363434606

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