White torch lights pierced the black Sinai night as we stumbled like zombies up the mountain trail. The crunch and crush of feet on sandy gravel echoed off the sandstone with the gurgling grunts of pushy camels.
Even with a Bedouin guide bounding (quite literally) up ahead, at times the winding trail seemed to disappear into the black abyss. Thankfully, every time my sleepy legs and straining eyes started to protest, a magical gleaming tea house would appear, perched precariously on the mountainside, milking the hordes of cold and tired tourists.
The view from the summit of Mt Sinai was worth the three hours, seven kilometres, 750 ‘steps’ of redemption and 1am start. Greeting the golden and blue Egyptian morning, crackers and wine in hand, was an inspiring start to another day of travel.
The sunlit descent revealed orange and brown rocky mountains undulating as far as the eye could see and a thick trail of tourists slowly winding down the gravelly path to Saint Catherine’s Monastery. It was a view unlike any I have ever seen.
After leaving the mountain at 8am, Thursday passed in a haze of exhaustion. Practising my new skill of being able to sleep anywhere at anytime, I managed to snooze soundly in my seat after breakfast, while waiting for the bus and through the seven hour bus journey to Cairo. I did wake briefly to the bizarre sight of container ships passing through the desert on the Suez Canal – truly wondrous!
Our arrival in Cairo was announced with persistent honking and aggressive jolts as the bus dodged through chaotic traffic with. Concrete towers housing many of the city’s twenty million residents lined the highway and a heavy cloud of smog veiled the horizon. I could hardly believe this buzzing sprawl of a city was the home of the pyramids and the scene of many childhood pharaohesq fantasies.
By 8am Friday morning I was en route to Giza to see the famous pyramids. Wary after stories of travellers being mobbed by touts and trampled by package tour groups, I was pleasantly surprised to find the ancient structures standing majestically, like proud old men rising above the shiny young world of tourism.
Even more impressive though was the Egyptian Museum. I only spent a few hours there but I could have spent days. With exhibits arranged in historical periods, the museum provides not only historical understanding but cultural insight. There is so much to take in: art and jewellery; tools and records; golden sarcophagi after golden sarcophagi (which may also be some of the first examples of the modern flat pack); mummified crocodiles and monkeys; mummified kings who look like they could still be alive, just suffering from extreme hunger and a bad hair day.
Come Saturday, I felt ready to brave Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s famous souq. Again wary with stories of pestering, grabbing, pushy vendors, I approached the souq with an attitude of resilience and defiant determination. Again, there was no need. Although thick with the usual one-liners (“Madam you are a dream, come buy from me”), tales of pity (“If you do not buy this scarf my wife and children will be very hungry”) and nagging questions (“What are you looking for? Where are you from? What is your name?”), I found shopping in Cairo to be a fairly pleasant and relaxing experience. Needless to say, in the last days of my holiday, after budgeting carefully for weeks, I went a little crazy, relishing the challenge of haggling and the feel heavy bags in my hands.
Sunday, my last day of Cairo sightseeing, was spent touring oldest pyramids in Saqqara, the ancient city of Memphis and the pyramids of Dashsur, the later being the highlight of the day. Although briefly listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook, there were only a handful of tourists at Dashsur (a pleasant contrast to all other tourist sites in Cairo), the entry fee was less than all the other sites (30 E.L adult / 15 E.L student) and you can descend fifty metres (in a half squat, half walk) into the main chamber of the main pyramid. Once inside, with the heavy hot air, dark narrow passages and every sound echoing off the cold stone blocks, the eerie feeling of a long dead world creeps up your spine: a truly wow experience!
And now, I sit in the foyer of my hotel, after treating myself to a night of five star luxury, waiting for my ride to the airport to start my long journey home. Mixed feelings of sadness, anxiety and excitement have me sitting on the edge of my chair as I prepare to say goodbye to Egypt, and goodbye to travel adventures for a while.
But not to worry…there will be more.. soon. Adventures happen everywhere, not just thirty hours from home.