Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Driving in Sinai

USATODAY.com - New warning: Electronic devices are suspect Well, this is the second news story that I've seen about more paranoia regarding bombs and so on from the US. I think that I'm going to stay home from now on in the safe old Middle East. I travel with a digital camera and my laptop and a palm pilot and a tri-band phone that can call anywhere in the world. With the new edict, I can spend hours getting checked in, and for what? Not worth it.

I arrived home last night about 11:30 after driving from Sharm el Sheikh to Cairo. The drive takes about 5 hours (maybe less during daylight hours) and the route runs up the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula to Suez, under the Canal by tunnel, and then across the Western Desert to Cairo. The portion between Cairo and the Suez Canal is very forgettable, miles of divided highway filled with homicidal/suicidal drivers and the odd new housing settlement. Once you are in Sinai, however, it's different, although Egyptian businessmen and international hotel chains are doing their best to change that. The peninsula itself is about 300 odd miles wide in the north and about the same distance from north to south. The landscape is modern moon. Sand dunes cuddle up to bare rock cliffs, beige against black, red and grey. Occasional oases pop out of bare rock and sand like a bouquet of roses from a magician's hat, just as surprising and just as lovely.

We left Sharm rather late, stopping at the Marriott Bakery for smoked salmon sandwiches to sustain us on our journey. Sound a little un-Egyptian? Not really, but the pharaohs would have liked them if they'd had them. The first stretch took us over the line of mountains that runs the length of Sinai angling into the point of the triangle that jabs south into the Red Sea. These mountains run right down to the sea at Ras Mohamed, one of the loveliest reef parks around. Barren stark rock, the hills are carved with trenches that testify to years of war in the area, trenches that must have been nightmares in the summer heat. Now they are not occupied but just cast a solemn gaze down on the frivolous cars flying by.

The second stretch of the journey is flat sand run-off from the hills to the north from the western gate of the park to Tur el Sinai. I've never been into Tur, which for many years was the port in which sea-going pilgrims from Mecca rested long enough to determine that they weren't bringing any epidemics back to Egypt. From Tur the road heads inland to a long valley between the main mountain ranges and a coastal range to the west. This valley is virtually featureless other than the odd acacia tree and camel. But if you are not the driver and have the luxury of gazing out of the window, the passing mountains are hypnotic and absorbing. Changes in rock layers bring changes in colour with changes in texture, and the edges are knife sharp against the sky like something created by computer.

The end of this valley is at the junction of the main road with another road that heads off into the mountains. This road, to Wadi Feran, goes all the way into the center of the mountains to the monastery of St. Katherine. The route itself is a trip into time, winding in and out of Bedouin villages in the oases that line the wadi (a watershed). On the way to Cairo, we give the turn off a regretful miss and head west to the sea again. By now the sun was setting and we all were in awe of the sunset arrayed before us. Egypt's dust gives us sunsets to die for, although it's worth living to see as many of them as possible. Yesterday's was a knockout. The sky over the Gulf of Suez was a wine red with a silver strip to mark the edge of the sea on the far coast. The sun was an electric orange through the haze, a bright ball that gradually slipped below the lavender hills behind Hurghada.

I'm asked many times why I don't just fly to Sharm from Cairo, and I always answer that I enjoy the decompression time that the drive gives me. The hours that take me from Cairo to the moon let me relax when I'm there and let me postpone the crash landing when I get back to Cairo.