Israel and Egypt - 4
Today’s excursion was an optional one. Either you could choose to go to Petra in the country of Jordan or, spend a relaxing day off by the pool enjoying the resort community of Eilat. 24 of our group had decided to go and visit Petra, one of the wonders of the ancient world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other 12 got to sleep in and avoid the wake up call and really kick back for the day.
Our excursion group left early for the border about 15 minutes away from the hotel. Sadly, we said goodbye to our Israeli guide, Ikey, whose job with our group was now completed. He had gotten up early to see us off and to make sure that we got to the border crossing OK and were connected with a tour representative at the border. It was sad to see him go. After nine days together he was like part of the group.
The process of exiting Israel and entering the Kingdom of Jordan is not a simple one and it takes some time. We passed through security and passport control, standing in lines and then made our way on foot across the border (once again our Israeli guide and bus driver were not permitted to enter Jordan).
We boarded a bus on the other side and met our guide for the day. The stark difference between Israel and Jordan were felt almost immediately by everyone. Even the bus itself was dilapidated and worn. Two and a half hours later, after a couple of pit stops and camel rides at the side of the road, we arrived in Petra.
The walk in to where the main sites of this ancient Nabataean city really begins is about two and a half kilometres. This is to get to the famous Treasury, although the entire walk in is breathtaking as you wend your way along a trail that seems to be cut right out of the rock, with the sky opening up over the cliffs high above to both your left and right. The light and shadows dance on the stone that at times appears red and then pink and then sandy coloured or gray. It truly is an amazing, amazing place. The passageway opens up into a clearing about two and a half kilometres in and before you stands the Treasury, an intricate building with huge columns and intricate architecture that looms 40 metres high.
About another kilometre down the trail, other buildings are visible as well as a large theatre at the base of yet another large hill. The theatre and the Treasury are breathtaking sights and those who had not seem them before were amazed at their size and beauty, carved into the rose coloured rock of Petra.
We had some free time once at the site and then, one by one, we made our way back out the trail to the visitors centre. The climb out takes much more effort than going in, and the last kilometre or so is on a gravel trail right out in the hot sun. Everyone made it...some took a little more time than others. Once back on the bus, we drove a short distance to a restaurant for our late lunch and afterward, began our long journey back to Eilat, arriving just around 5:30pm.
Those who had stayed behind had thoroughly enjoyed the resort pool and other amenities and some had even ventured into the city to do some shopping and other exploring.
We all enjoyed an excellent supper together (the food at this resort was the best we ate the whole time we were away) and then each enjoyed the evening before heading to bed for some well deserved rest. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Once again, we were moving. This time it was for only one night in the Sinai desert before heading on to Cairo Egypt to our last hotel. But today we would have to cross the border into yet another country, specifically Egypt and again, the process was quite entailed, with the added difficulty that we had to drag all of our luggage with us.
After breakfast and loading the luggage into the bus, we drove a short distance to the Taba border crossing into Egypt. With all of our bags in tow, we first went through the process of exiting the country of Israel, after which we had to walk 100 metres or so with all of our stuff, and then enter the country of Egypt. Once on the other side, we were met by our new tour operator, guide and bus driver and we began our journey toward St. Catherine in the Sinai desert.
Across the Taba border, the area is still kind of a resort area for the first while as you continue to travel along the coast of the Red Sea. We went along for about an hour or so and then stopped for lunch at a beautiful Marriott resort right on the shore of the Red Sea. In the same basic area there were a number of other resorts all together as well as a very well kept looking golf course. Pastor Doug and I were distracted momentarily, but of course soon realized that golfing on this trip was not going to be a possibility. We went inside the hotel and then to the restaurant for our lunch. The food was good here and the surroundings quite relaxing. This along with our resort experience at Eilat would prove to be a stark contrast to the next night's experience.
We traveled on, away from the sea and further into the desert for the remainder of the afternoon. There isn't much to see in the Sinai desert. A lot of sand and rock, the occasional camel or group of camels, the odd grouping of tents or shacks and the Bedouins that inhabited them were pretty much it. We arrived at our destination at St. Catherine in time to relax a while in our very basic and sparse hotel rooms before having to go down for supper.
At supper, the tour operator came through the dining hall asking who was going to climb to the summit of Mt. Sinai the next morning to see the sunrise. Of our group of 36, only 17 of us decided to undertake what promised to be a fairly challenging adventure. Mt. Sinai's peak is at an elevation of about 7500 feet and where we stopped for the night we were at about 5000 feet above sea level...only 2500 to go.
Oh...and when I said morning...I meant barely morning. Those who were climbing the mountain headed to their rooms about 8pm to try and get a bit of sleep before our 12:20am wake-up call. That's right - 20 minutes past midnight.
We met in a building across from our simple hotel, took a group 'before' shot and then boarded the bus for the short ride to St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of the mountain. By 1:00am we had met our Bedouin guide, Mohamed (almost everyone we met in Egypt was named Mohamed). He took our group of seventeen to a Bedouin camp at the base of the mountain outside the monastery walls and we were each given a camel to ride for the first two hours. And if you aren't accustomed to riding a camel at all, let me tell you, two hours on a camel is grueling. We actually wondered aloud that if the wise men rode camels, maybe they weren't that wise after all!
Anyhow, we made it those first 1500 feet or so up the mountainside by camel and then had to get off and climb the last 1000 feet. The climb was on a trail of 'stairs' (I use quotation marks because the word is used quite loosely! More like a jumble of rocks sort of placed in a stair like formation) and navigating them in the moonlight was not as easy as it might seem. Luckily, we had nearly a full moon that night. When we were about 5 minutes from the top, we stopped to rest and wait the moments before the sun would come up at around 6:00am. After resting, we climbed the last leg of this arduous journey, found a spot where we could see the horizon and get our pictures, and we waited.
What happened next is something that happens all over the world in the early hours of the morning. It was a sunrise. But not your everyday ordinary sunrise. It was an amazing experience to be on the top of that mountain and see the splendour of the morning sun peeking above the horizon. The mountain peaks around us all began to shimmer with the light of the sun, revealing different shades of pink and red and deep browns all around. After a flurry of picture taking and oohing and ahhing, we began our descent, this time all on foot.
The 17 of us trudged down the hill, and as the sun began to get higher in the sky, the temperature began to climb and we started to peel off the layers we had worn up the mountain through the cool early hours of morning before. It took just under two hours to walk down the mountainside and all of us were relieve to see the monastery come into sight ahead. Our early morning adventure was almost complete and when we arrived at the bottom of the hill, everyone felt a huge sense of accomplishment. We had done it! We climbed Mt. Sinai and stood near the place where Moses met with God! What a feeling!
Feeling very tired, we got on the bus and rode the few minutes back to the hotel. We had a very short time in which to shower, grab a quick breakfast and then bring our luggage down to be loaded on the bus for the next leg of our journey.
Unfortunately, when we all got to the lobby where we to meet before departure, we were told the bus had broken down and was being repaired. On the bright side, we had some extra time to relax in the lobby while waiting, but we were all anxious to get going as we had a long day of driving ahead. Finally, the bus repaired, we loaded the luggage and pulled out of the hotel to make our way back to the site of St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Almost all of us, with the exception of few weary mountain climbers, got out of the bus and went and toured the monastery for a half an hour or so, then it was back onto the bus to hit the road for Cairo.
The trip to Cairo was a long one. A lot of us slept off and on as the scenery was all very similar so there wasn't a lot new to see. We stopped for lunch after a couple hours before continuing on and then an hour and a half later passed under the Suez Canal. We arrived in the city of Cairo at around 6pm or so and got checked into the Radisson Blu Hotel, a very nice hotel not far from the Cairo airport. This was to be our home for the next 3 nights before flying back home to Toronto. We enjoyed dinner together before turning in for the evening. Tomorrow...the Pyramids of Giza!