Egyptian Sands
Riding to fabled Mt. Sinai
July 20, 2004

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Note the egyptian made gear.
Photo by Carmen Gentile
That night I pulled into Abu Rudays, another mere blip on the map, though this one boasted a roadside restaurant in addition to the ramshackle housing. I feasted on half a chicken, some hummus and bread, washing it all down with a couple of tall bottles of Egypt's finest (read: foul-tasting) beer, Stella.

It was dark and with a full belly I was in no mood to saddle up and head out of town to bunk in the sand. So I scanned the town looking for a place to spend the night. No hotel, obviously, and not so much as a light on anywhere.

I wheeled my bike up the road a bit until I reached an abandoned gas station. "Perfect," I thought, unraveling my sleeping bag in the reception area strewn with rubble from where it's front wall was caved in.

No more than an hour later the scratching started. At first it was faint, then grew louder and seemed to be coming from multiple directions. Husky breathing and panting followed. The noises were circling, growing stronger, the voices became distinguishable.

Until now I was in deep denial hoping it was merely a figment of my imagination. But when the panting turned to growls, I couldn't deny it anymore. I wasn't alone.

Mustering all my courage I managed to peek over the waist high wall separating inside from out to see a pack of unruly dogs fighting among themselves and sniffing about. One spotted me in the darkness and immediately began barking in my direction, prompting me with lightening speed to inchworm back into my sleeping bag and pulled it over my head.

"I was battling what's known as the "hamseen" a seasonal wind storm that can reduce visibility to zero in the blink of an eye."

I'd assumed the same position I'd adopted as a child to keep the boogey-man at bay. "Seemed to work then--no harm in trying it now," I surmised. I spent the rest of the night in the fetal position, listening to their howling and fearing for my life.

At dawn, the dogs seemed groggy from a night of torturing my now fragile psyche. Yet they remained vigilant in their post just feet away from me. Not wanting to make the crumbling station my permanent abode, I managed to pack all my gear in silence while on my stomach. Then when I sensed a brief pause in their desire to rip me to shreds, I popped up, jumped on my bike and pedaled like crazy south out of town, the hell hounds chasing me for a quarter mile before heading home.

Bad luck seemed to dog me that day. Two hours into my ride, dark clouds amassed overhead, unleashing a winter rainstorm that soon turned to hail. I waited it out in my tent for an hour, the side collapsing under the pressure of the icy bullets stomping it.

After the storm abated I carried on, my hands and feet numb, my limbs full of kinks. The sky cleared though remained cold. A faint headwind dogged me, growing stronger by mid-afternoon. By 4 p.m. I was battling what's known as the "hamseen" a seasonal wind storm that can reduce visibility to zero in the blink of an eye.

There was no shelter around as far as I could see. The desert was uncharacteristically devoid of nearby hills to duck behind or valleys into which I could crawl. I pulled over and wheeled off the road, plopping down in the sand to consider my options.

The road was desolate, not a vehicle in sight. Everyone pulls over when a hamseen strikes. The sands seemed to chip away at my skin, leaving me pulverized and raw. No way could I put up my tent in this weather without it blowing back to Cairo. So I did the only thing I could think of, the second time in 24 hours I'd adopted this pathetic recourse: I assumed the fetal position and waited it out.

Eyes shut tight against the sands I waited for three hours while the desert pummeled me. Finally, the worst was over, the winds died and the dust settled. I shook sand out of bodily orifices I didn't know I had. Laden with debris, my bike crunched and moaned as I pedaled the rest of the day into the bitter cold night, arriving in Wadi Fayran to sleep.

The "wadi" or oasis town was a bit more structured than the previous outposts I'd encountered. Here, a small mosque and police station kept vigil over the 100 or so inhabitants. The policemen were kind enough to offer me some food and a place to pitch my tent for the night. Sensing my fatigue, they bid me a pleasant night's sleep and let me be.

I awoke the next morning to an odd sight: snow dusted the palm trees and shrubbery of the desert village. Brisk, dry air and a sunny sky prompted me to complete my journey. It wasn't far now.

A few hours' ride through tall, brown mountains and winding hills was all it took to arrive at Mt. Sinai. The fabled hill loomed large as I entered the town at its base. My bike and body were clanging from the beating the peninsula had inflicted on us. Grimly and spent, I plopped down on a bench and looked heavenward to the summit.

"I think I'll wait till tomorrow to climb up there," I reasoned wearily, then searched for a place to take a hot bath.

By Carmen Gentile -- He is the United Press International's Latin America Correspondent based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In addition to his reporting on the region, Carmen also enjoys climbing, surfing and biking. He can be reached at [email protected]