Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs, South Sinai spectacular scenery!

Chapter Six - South Sinai: spectacular scenery !

There's some spectacular mountain scenery along the (new) road from Ras an-Naqb airport to Taba. This road ends near the Pharaoh's Island. If you don't take the turn-off to Taba, you will drive to the Israeli border. Even if you wanted, it's not possible for foreigners to cross here (and certainly not by hired car). No worries ! The military people will send you back soon enough.

The Gazirah Faraun (or Pharaoh's Island) can be seen best from the coastal road, as well as three neighboring countries of Egypt : Israel, Jordan and Saudi-Arabia. That is, if there's not a haze over the gulf of Aqaba. A boat goes to the Island, but when we were there, it didn't. They had ran out of fuel, but were "expecting it any moment". Nearby the boat landing, there are a couple of relatively new hotels (there's also one in its building phase). They are clearly here for the Western tourist. The Salah ad-Din Hotel does a great breakfast ! It's not really cheap, but if you compare quantity and quality to this price, than it's a reasonable deal.
I found Taba itself not really more than a standard border town. There's really nothing going on, and I think the only point of coming here, is to cross to Israel (if that's what you want) or at least to see the border crossing. You can see the Israeli and Egyptian flags waving next to each other on a hill.

Another 'point of interest' can be the Hilton Hotel. Built by the Israeli's, this hotel was the reason why they - going in against all agreements - refused to let go of this tiny piece of Sinai. It would take seven years.

A much nicer place to head to along this coast is Nuweiba. The coastal road offers great sea views and often cuts through some mountains. Saudi-Arabia can be seen on the other side of the gulf. In Tarabin you can see Bedouin tents beside the road. Talk to these guys for camel treks, if you're interested. Prices can (!) be cheaper here than if organised by a hotel.

Nuweiba is not spectacular by sight, but I really enjoyed the very relaxed atmosphere (well, it's not relaxed that much anymore when - sometimes - in the evenings dozens of irritatingly noisy young Jews flock here and 'confiscate' the place). You can easily spend a couple of days in Nuweiba. The place to head for is Nuweiba City. It's a contradiction in terms, as there are only about a dozen shops and a few hotels. Some Australian bloke came up to us and asked how he could get to the city. We said : "This is it." "Yeah, right !", he said, "No, seriously." We said : "Yeah, honestly, this is it !" He obviously didn't believe us and walked off, continuing his quest. You see, there's nothing to do really, but you could always take a dip in the sea or arrange a trek in the beautiful surrounding mountains. That's what we did.

In Nuweiba City, a guy called Mahmoud and a friend of his have a small souvenir stall. This also functions as a tourist information, and it's really good. You can't miss it, you know, there are only a few shops. He has lots of info on bus times, trips, and much more. Don't be afraid to get trapped as he's not that kind of person. Even if the shop is closed, you can read the bus times from his self-made info sign. Mahmoud is the greatest ! He has also become a real friend of ours. We already liked him, but even did more so after my mate had lost his passport. For some stupid reason he had put it in the back pocket of his trousers (really, really stupid !) when we had dinner. Mahmoud took a seat at our table too, and we had a great chat (he has some great stories. He has been abroad a few times, to Austria and Turkey, and has worked for about a year in Iraq). Afterwards, he invited us to sit with him by his stall. He placed a couple of rickety chairs outside, we sat down and continued our talks. Much later that evening, we drove off to our hotel. Only in the morning, my friend discovered that he had lost his passport. I told him to go back to the city, as this was the only place where he might have lost it. He did and when he got there, he was welcomed by Mahmoud. The poor guy had slept in his stall that night, in the cold, to be sure that he would be there if we returned, to hand back the passport. He even had taken a taxi the night before and came looking for us in the Village, but didn't find our bungalow. Like I said before, Mahmoud is the greatest ! We offered him a good tip for all the trouble, but he simply refused, only took it after we kept insisting. In his little shop, he sells some souvenirs but also foreign newspapers, guidebooks, maps, and some second-hand books (I saw a Let's Go ! Europe 1993 ). I think the best place to eat in Nuweiba is the restaurant to the left of Dr. Shishkebab (Nuweiba City). It's in front of Mahmoud's shop. Their kofta sandwiches are great !

The Nuweiba Hilton is now open, but much too expensive for my liking. So is the Nuweiba Holiday Village. A double room in the latter was US$86. The reception staff is friendly and helpful, but they should be, I think. Better value was the City Beach Village, where you can stay in bungalows or tents. We chose the first option. It had three beds and a toilet & shower. Price : E£43 without breakfast. This and several drinks and dishes can be had in the restaurant. There's also a liquor bar on the beach. If you want to check out early in the morning (which seems to be before 9 here), wake up the guy in the 'Manager' marked room next to the reception (if you can !) and hand him the key. You'll have to unlock/open the gate yourself too.

For the - I think - obligatory trip to the Colored Canyon, there are some options. Like I mentioned before, if you have plenty of time, talking to the Bedouins at Tarabin might be a good idea. If you are pressed for time, a jeep trip from the Nuweiba Holiday Village can be arranged. It costs E£285 for the jeep. There can go as many as six persons, so you can share the cost. Problem is to find people in a short time, as not many folks seem to be interested in going there. A bit cheaper is it to talk to Mahmoud again. After explaining the possibilities and if you want, he'll call a Bedouin driver who'll do the job for E£200 (and still six can go, but they prefer not more than four. Why ? Beats me.). An optional guide (well, optional...) costs another E£20. I can say for this you don't really need Mahmoud, as many of these Bedouin dudes can be found wandering around Nuweiba City in the evenings, crimping clients. So you can talk to them directly. Don't expect to bargain down much under the E£200 that Mahmoud arranges as they start with Holiday Village-like prices. Whichever jeep option you decide to choose, trips preferably start at around 8AM, returning at around 1 or 2PM. This way, you'll avoid the afternoon heat. Trips can, however, start as late as 1 or 1.30PM without a problem. You'll be back before sundown.

After I have seen the road now, I can conclude that you really don't need a jeep at all if you have your own car. The Colored Canyon is definitely off-road, but this road is perfectly drivable for a normal car. Don't expect it to be easy or fast though. But it can be done. If you don't believe me, let me tell you that I saw an old VW van do it without a problem. All but the last 100 meters or so can be done ! There are a few small problems though. First, you might need a guide anyway (I'd recommend one !), and second, as you know, driving off-road in the Sinai is restricted for foreigners, so officially you'll need a permit. There is a limited permit to go to the Canyon. It can be obtained from the Nuweiba Tourist Police. Get it, as there is a checkpoint on the way, and these guys won't let you pass otherwise.
If you have a mountain bike with you, the area around the canyon is great biking territory ! It's very hard though.

We went by jeep with the Bedouins. Before actually setting off, we were invited to a traditional meal and tea. The meal consists of a bowl of rice with in the middle steamed (?) chicken. You only eat with your right hand, peeling off the chicken skin and meat, mixing that with the rice and pressing it into small lumps before putting it in your mouth. It is said that this way the food mixes with natural flavors emitted by your skin and it will taste better. I found it rather plain, really. Nothing to be excited about. The tea is. This red-colored drink is offered in small glass cups. It's some of the best tea you can have.

When you have passed the checkpoint, and you are about to leave tarmac for the desert track to the Canyon, you will be at a small oasis. It's a lush place, where you can take a sip of the cool water, if you like, or fill up your bottles. It's also photogenic.

The Colored Canyon offers great scenery and beautifully colored rocks. It's also a bit of an adventure to walk through it. Sometimes you have to jump off rather high boulders or slide under them. Make sure you start off in the right direction, as the other way it's much more tough. If you start near the Bedouin tents you're heading the wrong way, as they are put here to offer tired (?) and thirsty 'canyoners' some refreshments. What the hell did I say ? 'Offer' ? That's an understatement ! They have the nerve to ask E£2.50 for a soft-drink. In fact, that's what I found out to be characteristic for most of these guys : they see tourists just as money. Many of the Bedouins have settled down now and gave up their nomadic life. The few you meet in the desert are truly friendly and hospitable people. The others... Well, it's difficult to explain and compare, but it's like those neo-Nazi's who say that all foreigners are bad. Well, the Bedouins seem to think that all foreigners are rich. Which we probably are, compared to them, but when I see what some of them earn of tourists...

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