Egypt, Mount Catherine - 2629m/8625ft
Egypt was my first country high point for several months after a difficult summer, losing a close family member, a fantastic person and a true friend. As I spend a great deal of the time on my own during my country high point trips I needed some time to be in a place mentally where I could just focus on the task at hand.
I always keep an eye on flight prices from the majority of European countries enabling me to head further afield for as low a price as possible. A few weeks ago I noticed that Tui were offering a few early season flights from Brussels (Charleroi) to Sharm El Sheikh for a low one-way price compared to usual. I knew I would be able to further reduce the low fare using a few OTA tricks and coupons. I then booked a suitable flight from Manchester to Charleroi for the evening before that would be perfect, leaving just 8 hours overnight to relax in the airport.. No problem!
MAN-CRL = £7. CRL-SSH = £20.
During my research quite a few websites mentioned a US$25 visa being required to enter Egypt but when I looked in more detail the Sinai was exempt and that’s where I would be spending all of my time while in Egypt. Unfortunately, a guide was required by law to climb Mount Catherine.
Having read a recent trip report from fellow country high pointers Eric and Matthew Gilbertson who had climbed Mount Catherine earlier this year I contacted a guide they had used who also provided transport from Sharm El Sheikh to St Catherine. After contacting him over several emails and negotiating a fair price I was ready to go. My Granddad spent a few years based in Egypt for his national service just after the war so this country high point would hold even more pertinence than usual.
After not the best of evenings spent in Charleroi airport due to hundreds of passengers staying there throughout the night, I was already quite sleep deprived and looking forward to getting a few hours sleep on the flight to Sharm. I popped to an ATM machine to collect some Euros that I had agreed to pay the guide but the machine said there was a technical fault so I thought typical but I will try a different machine later on. I passed through security, held my hands up in the body scanner as required, repeated the process and then told to stand to the side. The Belgian guard told me to sit down and to put my left leg up in the air under instruction from the scanning operator. He said.. Is it your own leg? I paused for a second and said “Give it a pull if you like, See if it comes off!” He laughed, checked with the wand and said there’s no problem. Quite Bizarre! The scanner had probably picked up DVT after many hours with my knees around my ears cramped on an airport seat (the ones with armrests)
After confirming it was my own leg with his colleague I breezed through duty free looking for an ATM. There wasn’t one! The exchange rate at the currency desk was crazy, I approached the desk and asked where the nearest one was? They said there were only 2 ATM’s before security, one of which I knew was dead. I decided to head back through security to the other ATM and hope my leg didn’t cause any issues. With the Euros finally in hand, I breezed through security once again and I was soon on my way and was thankfully able to get a few hours sleep on the flight to Sharm. I filled in the landing card before landing and headed to the passport control desk.. most of the flight had headed to buy a visa from the kiosks but I waited in line with everyone else who clearly had their visa’s. I walked to the desk, showed my passport.. The man looked and said no visa? I said NO and he just said Okay.. stamped my passport and that was that! Clearly, it wasn’t mentioned to Tui.be passengers.
I took out some Egyptian pounds from the ATM and brought a drink while waiting for my guide. He was there at 1 pm as agreed and we set off with a driver for the 3 hour ride to Saint Catherine. We passed a few military checkpoints where I had to show my passport and we carried on towards Dahab and Nuweiba. At one of the several checkpoints later the guide laughed worrying and shook his head as if to say no to one the guards who had asked if he could take something for him. As we pulled away I asked what it was and he said drugs.
Security throughout the Sinai area is very tight and of course corrupt. They still have constant ongoing problems with Islamist militants and jihadists, Recently the Egyptian military killed 52 In the Sinai area. “Over the last few days, the operations have led to the elimination of 52 extremely dangerous individuals,” the military said in a statement.
We arrived at my hotel I had prebooked and the guide arranged to meet me outside the gate at 06.00 where we would head to his for breakfast and his brother would be guiding me tomorrow to Mount Catherine. I said goodbye and headed to the reception desk. The hotel was clearly under massive renovation and I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t expected. The hotel is closed it won’t be open until next year I was told. I can find you another hotel he said. I had arranged to meet here with the guide and just wanted to relax. After a few moans and groans from both of us, he said we might have a few rooms but you will have to see what you think. I accepted and the room wasn’t too bad. the doorknob was hanging off but a double key lock meant it was fine. I popped to a local shop to buy water and Fanta and some nibbles for the climb the following day.. At first, he said 30 E£ then 40E£ so I said 35E£ and it was a deal.. about £1.70 for 4 litres of water 2 litres of Fanta, 1 litre of Pepsi and a massive bag of Lays crisps! A relaxing evening followed catching up on sleep after killing several mosquitoes.
I woke up at 05:15 and met with the guide outside at 06:00. We headed to his home, Sat on a matt on the floor out the front and his children brought a massive tray over with lots of food and tea. I am a massive tea drinker and love trying different tea from all over the world. It was lovely and I had several cups. It was soon time start the walk and head into the mountains.
We left Saint Catherine and the trail started quite steeply zig-zagging up the valley. The views looking back over Saint Catherine were great, We pushed on and started chatting about many things. The guides English was very good and he was keeping a good pace. The land soon opened up and we found ourselves on a plateau surrounded by high sandy mountains. While not paying attention as it was flat while taking a video I managed to step onto a very spiky bush which drew blood instantly and I had to spend a minute or two taking the spikes out of my shoe and leg haha.
We could see Mount Catherine from here and turned left to start climbing up steep but easy rocks with many places to step and hold if required. We passed a guide who was on the way down and exchanged pleasantries. We pushed onwards and upwards, the sky was fantastically clear but it felt cool thanks to a light breeze and the altitude. Many mountains started to come into view over the horizon including Mount Sinai (2286m) which Is popular with tourists. We arched to the right now having a full view of Mount Catherine. I said to the guide, the last country high point I had climbed was called Mount Saint Catherine in Grenada.
The trail started to zig-zag once again with the summit looking almost impossible to scale from below as they often do. The guide stopped about 10 minutes before the summit and collected roots of a plant along with the buds (herbs) that would be used to make us both a cup of tea at the top of the mountain. We carried on reaching steep rocky steps that veered to the right and right up to the summit which had a small chapel on the top. There was a guide and two people near the summit but I was already in high point mode and said hi but was already filming my video. After I had finished I said hi again and the two men turned out to be Ukrainian, We spoke and I said I had climbed Hoverla the highest point in the Ukraine to which he seemed very surprised about. After more videos and pictures we headed a bit further down and had a nice cup of tea and coffee.
I had already mentioned to the guide that I was going to head over to another summit about 500m away which I believe could be a meter or two higher than the tourist summit. The guide said that its military controlled and he wasn’t going to go up there. I said I would meet him further down the track after I had climbed the south peak. There are several antennas and buildings on the summit quite a few solar panels many of which had been destroyed. The path was straightforward and I soon found myself on perhaps the real highest point in Egypt. My GPS showed it was 2 meters higher than the other peak, although the accuracy of GPS data varies. The OSM map I used also places the south peak as the highest point so I took more photos and the customary video. I could see the guide in the distance so quickly descended to catch him back up. We pushed on and after having a quick cup of tea another guide and group were making we made great time and pushed on further and further down. The guide said we would take me to a Bedouin settlement for some food and drink which sounded great.
Upon reaching the settlement I asked if It was OK to take photos and the guide said it was just not of any women. He introduced me to my host and his family and we sat on several rugs under a canopy. We were in the middle of the Sinai in a shaded area with food being prepared but even so, I was quite surprised by the number of flies that were also enjoying the shaded area. I sat down and hundreds flew up off the rugs. One of the guys there had a guitar like musical instrument and started playing while I had a “big” cup of tea. At breakfast and throughout the day the guide and I had joked about tea as I said I usually have a big cup, not just a shot-sized glass as they have here. He asked the host for a big cup and he obliged. We laughed and more tea and coffee followed. I wasn’t feeling overly hungry just thirsty but a large tray of food came out with dips and bread so I had some, but of course it had also gathered a lot of interest from the flies too, but it didn’t really matter as we were having a good time.
I asked if I could record the guy who it turned out had built the guitar himself, while the guide played a deep shaped drum. I used the music on YouTube my video! I was asked if I wanted to try the drum but I’m not musical at all so quickly turned the hollow drum over and said I would love a “big tea” to the host to which everyone laughed.
The host’s daughters kept peeking around the corner and laughing so I offered them some sweets to which they spent the rest of the time munching on while smiling at the weird white guy in there home. We stayed for about an hour and a half before setting off back down toward Saint Catherine. It took a while but the view was certainly impressive. The guide phoned his brother who picked us up just outside town and took me back to my hotel. He said he will arrange transport back to the airport at 11:00 as I had requested in time for my flight to Beirut, Lebanon.
I popped to the shop to get more drinks and nibbles then back to the hotel. The front desk had been demolished while I had been out but the WiFi was just about working so I uploaded the collages for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while I could. The owner came over as I had arranged with the receptionist to pay today as the card reader wasn’t working. It still wasn’t so I if I could spread the payment across 3 currencies.. £20.. US$15 and EG£100.. He agreed it worked out to around £35 for the 2 nights which wasn’t too bad.
The mosquitoes were out in force that evening after killing several I had my coat over my face to sleep, But I needed to as the following day was going to be a busy day heading back to the airport and onto the Cedars in Lebanon. The following morning the transport arrived on time I paid the guide and his brother and gave him an extra few EG£ that I didn’t need. The driver flew back and we had no issues with the checkpoints at all. Within 2hrs 25m I was back at Sharm El Sheikh airport and standing in a long slow queue just to get to the check in desk. There were many signs regarding security. I picked up my ticket to Beirut on AirArabia and then proceeded through the next line of security. Many signs saying 100ml only. But when putting my boots and belt on, the person across from me had a 2 litre bottle and two 500ml bottles I thought what an idiot. The baggage screener guy took the 2 litre bottle and said you need to sip the 500ml bottles.. He put it to his lips and he was waved on. What an absolute disgrace! After all that security, the one person who has the last say is an idiot. Anyway onto the next country high point in Lebanon!