It is getting cool during the day and downright freezing at night. The mountains are at an altitude of over 2,400m (over 7,500 ft) and the tops receive snow during the winter season. Snow is good because it means water for the Bedouin gardens, but it also means fewer customers because nobody wants to spend a chilly night on a mountain and wake up to frozen pools of water. South Sinai is in Egypt and as every Westerner knows, Egypt is where the pyramids are and therefore it must be hot. Always. All the time.
Explaining to visiting Westerners that actually no, the pyramids are not next door and yes, that is real snow, takes some time. We have endless tales of visitors arriving from the coast, wanting to climb Jebel Mousa (Mt Sinai) and arriving in their best beach clothes only to find that the top of Jebel Mousa at 4am in the morning during winter with a high wind, is, shall we say, somewhat cold.
The Westerner has been sold beautiful pictures of the Red Sea, warm diving, radiant beaches and hot days by the pool. This is all true. However, Jebel Mousa is not by the coast, has no beaches and is definitely not suitable for sunbathing. But nobody has told the tourists, so they remain in beach-mode all the way to St Katherine. They get out of the coach and then it dawns on them; why do they have goose bumps? Why are they shivering? And why is the tour guide wearing a fleece?
They stoically begin the hike up the mountain at 2am in the morning, tired and cold. They ponder some more; why are there so many small lights ahead? And what are those shadows? They realise that they are part of a long line of pilgrims making their way up the mountain to the summit. Jebel Mousa is where Moses received the Ten Commandments so this is one of the most popular pilgrimages of the world.
The Westerner also has no idea that the summit is perhaps ten square metres in size and although that is fine for a small group, it starts to get limiting when there are 500 people up there. So they all huddle together for warmth and wait for the sunrise. Meanwhile, those who need to go to the lavatory find there are only two toilets, neither of which work.
The Bedouin at the summit do a roaring trade in overpriced teas and coffees, while the poorly dressed tourists shiver and shake waiting for the sun to come up. When it does, the pitiful heat makes no difference and after having taken the obligatory photos they are soon running down the mountain to keep warm. The Bedouin look upon this with equanimity and see only the business opportunities of selling more hot drinks and warm blankets. The tourist, meanwhile, gets onto his coach and heads back to the coast, and the sun.
Mark Knutton is the owner of Bedouin Paths, who provide ethical hiking tours from their Bedouin Camp in St. Katherine, Sinai. For more information visit www.bedouinpaths.com.