The area around St Catherine’s is sometimes termed the High Mountain Region, as it contains numerous peaks over 2000m. Snow frequently covers the ground in winter and flash floods can occur year round. The scenery is fantastic, with phalanxes of serrated peaks looming above wadis full of tumbled boulders and wiry fruit trees. This harsh but beguiling land is the stamping ground of the Jebeliya and Aulad Said tribes, some of whom act as guides for treks on foot or by camel; the terrain is generally too rough for vehicles, even 4WDs. Foreigners are legally forbidden to embark on such expeditions without a Bedouin guide.
Trekking is possible in winter if you are prepared to put up with chilly nights and possible snow flurries; in the summer it’s just a case of being fit enough to stand up to the heat. The main starting point for treks is the El-Milga area of St Catherine’s, where Sheikh Mousa will organize everything. An all-inclusive trek, including guide, food and transport, costs around £E300–350 per day. You’ll need comfortable hiking boots, warm clothes, a sleeping bag, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip salve, bug repellent, toilet paper and water purification tablets (unless you’re willing to drink from springs). A good map of south Sinai and a compass are also useful.
Egypt’s highest peak, Mount Catherine (Jebel Katerina; 2642m), is roughly 6km south of Mount Sinai and can be reached on foot in five to six hours. The path starts behind St Catherine’s village, running up Wadi el-Leja on Mount Sinai’s western flank, past the deserted Convent of the Forty and a Bedouin hamlet. Shortly afterwards the trail forks, the lower path winding off up a rubble-strewn canyon, Shagg Musa, which it eventually quits to ascend Mount Catherine – a straightforward but exhausting climb. On the summit are a chapel with water, two rooms for pilgrims to stay overnight, a meteorological station and panoramic views.
According to tradition, priests found St Catherine’s remains here during the ninth or tenth century. Believers maintain she was born in 294 AD in Alexandria of a noble family, converted to Christianity and subsequently lambasted Emperor Maxentius for idolatry, confounding fifty philosophers who tried to shake her faith. Following an attempt to break her on a spiked wheel (hence Catherine wheels), which shattered at her touch, Maxentius had her beheaded; her remains were transported to Sinai by angels.
The Blue Valley
If climbing Mount Catherine seems too ambitious, consider visiting the Blue Valley, 5km southeast of the intersection of the roads to St Catherine’s, Nuweiba and Feiran Oasis. This can be done as a day-trip from Dahab or in half a day from St Catherine’s Village by hiring a jeep and a guide. The canyon’s name derives from a Belgian who in 1978 painted its rocks a deep blue in emulation of the Bulgarian artist Christo, who hung drapes across the Grand Canyon.
It’s thought the ancient Israelites reached Mount Sinai by the same route that buses coming from the west use today, via Wadi Feiran and Wadi el-Sheikh. Travelling this road in the other direction, you might glimpse the Tomb of Nabi Salah near the Watiyyah Pass, where Bedouin converge for an annual moulid on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. Beyond the pass lies El-Tafra, a small and dismal oasis village.
Roughly 60km from St Catherine’s the road passes a huge walled garden marking the start of FEIRAN OASIS. A twisting, granite-walled valley of palms and tamarisks, the oasis belongs to the tribes of the Tawarah, who have houses and wells here. Feiran was the earliest Christian stronghold in the Sinai, with its own bishop and convent, ruined during the seventh century but now rebuilt. Further back in time, this was reputedly the Rephidim of the Amalakites, who denied its wells to the thirsty Israelites, causing them to curse Moses until he smote the Rock of Horeb with his staff, making water gush forth. Refreshed, they joined battle with the Amalakites the next day, inspired by the sight of Moses standing on a hilltop, believed to have been the conical one the Bedouin call Jebel el-Tannuh, with ruined chapels lining the track to its summit (1hr). Other hiking possibilities in the area include Jebel el-Banat (1510m), further north, and the highly challenging ascent of Jebel Serbal (2070m), south of the oasis.
A guide can be arranged through Sheikh Mousa. Feiran Oasis lacks any accommodation, but you could probably camp in the palm groves with local consent.
The Wilderness of the Wanderings
Separating the granite peaks of south Sinai from the sandy wastes of the north is a huge tableland of gravel plains and fissured limestone, riven by wadis: the Wilderness of the Wanderings (Badiet el-Tih), through which the children of Israel are said to have passed. Life exists in this desert thanks to sporadic rainfall between mid-October and mid-April, which refills the cisterns that irrigate groves of palms and tamarisks. During Byzantine times, these cisterns sustained dozens of villages along the Sinai–Negev border; nowadays, the largest irrigated gardens are in Wadi Feiran and Wadi el-Arish.
Crossing the Wilderness via Nekhl and the Mitla Pass
The shortest route between Nuweiba and Cairo (470km; 6–7hr) crosses the Wilderness via Nekhl and the Mitla Pass. The heat-hazed plateau is stupefyingly monotonous but contains several historic locations (which you can visit by hiring a taxi for the day or getting a travel agency in Sharm or Dahab to organize a trip for you). The road from Nuweiba heads north to El-Thammed before cutting west across Wadi el-Arish. NEKHL, at the heart of the peninsula, has a derelict castle built by Sultan al-Ghuri in 1516. South of one of the wadi’s many tributaries lies Qalaat el-Gundi, a ruined fort built by Saladin; it can also be reached by a track from Ras Sudr on the Gulf of Suez. To the west, the road descends through the 480-metre-high Mitla Pass, one of three cleavages in the central plateau. The outcome of three Arab-Israeli conflicts was arguably determined here in some of the bloodiest tank battles in history.
Longer treks around St Catherine’s
Longer treks around St Catherine’s
The two four-day treks outlined here give an idea of local trekking opportunities; other possibilities are mentioned under the “Feiran Oasis” section.
St Catherine’s to Al Galt Al Azraq
The first trek, starts off in El-Milga and begins by taking the path through the Abu Giffa Pass down into Wadi Tubug, passing walled gardens en route to Wadi Shagg, where you’ll find Byzantine ruins and huge boulders. The next day you follow the trail through Wadi Gibal and climb one of two hills offering magnificent views, before descending to Farash Rummana camping spot. On the third day you strike north through a canyon to the water-holes of Galt al-Azraq, pushing on to camp at Farsh Um Sila or Farsh Tuweita. The final day begins with an easy hike down towards Wadi Tinya, before climbing Jebel Abbas Pasha (2383m), named after the paranoid ruler who built a palace there (now in ruins). You then follow a path down through the Zuweitun and Tubug valleys, back to Abu Giffa and El-Milga. If you want a more detailed account of the trek, track down a copy of Francis Gilbert and Samy Zabat’s A Walk in Sinai: St Catherine’s to Al Galt Al Azraq.
St Catherine’s to Farsh Abu Tuweita
The second trek starts at Abu Sila village, 3km from El-Milga, where there are some rock inscriptions. You’ll probably camp out near Bustan el-Birka’s sweetwater spring. Day two involves descending into Wadi Nugra, below Jebel el-Banat, where you can bathe in pools fed by a twenty-metre-high waterfall. You then press through Wadi Gharba to the tomb of Sheikh Awad, where the Aulad Gundi tribe holds an annual feast in his honour. Having spent the night here, you have a choice of three routes to Farsh Abu Tuweita, the final night’s camping spot. On the fourth day you follow the same route as the final leg of the first hike.
While jagged mountains dominate the gulf coasts and interior of the peninsula, northern Sinai is awash with pale sand dunes. Security concerns, however, mean that travellers are currently advised to avoid all but essential travel to the area north of the Suez–Taba road. The smuggling tunnels around the divided and tense Rafah border crossing are the main source of goods for the Gaza Strip, while El-Arish and the surrounding area are other notable flashpoints, with repeated clashes between security forces and Islamic militants, attacks on gas pipelines to Jordan and Israel and, in 2011, the rape of a British woman, allegedly by an Egyptian army officer.
In addition, every year thousands of refugees – mainly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – attempt to cross the Sinai to Israel, but few make it. A CNN report at the end of 2011 revealed widespread enslavement of refugees by Bedouin people-smugglers, rape, extortion, blackmail, and even evidence of organ-harvesting.