The Sinai by jeep: through Israel's first frontier

While many travelers in Israel are looking for religious or archaeological roots, our family of five searched for a more elusive goal on a recent trip. We wanted to re-create the spirit of adventure that marked the beginning of the Jewish state. Big cities, museums, and historical sites would have to wait; for us, the Sinai Desert was the first frontier.

Several groups can arrange desert tours, but we decided that the three-day, two-night "MiniSinai" safari trip offered by RAM Desert Safari Tours (originally Neot Hakikar) would be best for our three boys, ages 5, 10, and 13. Since all but two of the RAM tours leave form the Gulf of Aqaba resort town of Eilat, we had to provide our own transportation from Tel aviv to the dusty, bustling seaside village.

Arriving very early on the day of our trip, we went immediately to the tour office in the center of town to link up with the safari. No tour bus or other vehicle was in sight. Then, glancing across the town's central plaza, I saw two very worn-out, khaki-colored, open-sided, extra-long jeeps.

"Don't look now," I said to my husband, "but I think those are our cars."

My husband, the unflappable Spartan, said, "That's impossible."

Back we went to the office to ask about the run-down command cars across the street. "That's it," confirmed the office manager.

And so we went, very skeptically, to the jeeps surrounded by luggage huddled groups of our jeans-clad fellow travelers-to-be, and three tanned, curly haired young men busily packing the food, water, and suitcases we'd taken on our trip.

Eventually our command cars filled up with about 16 people each, seated in rows of four on the torn, canvas-covered seats.

There were travelers from Brazil, West Ger many, England, Australia, France, Switzerland, Spain, the United States, and, of course, Israel itself. And despite the warning in the tour brochure that safaris are "rough in character," the adventurers varied in age from 5 (our son) to over 60.

After about an hour of packing, our leader, Danny Nadel, climbed into the command car with trailer and greeted us. Authoritative, small, yet tautly strong, Danny was an Israeli Army veteran who looked as though he had experienced much more than 24 years he claimed to be. After he had introduced his two assistants, Gadi and Leon, we all rattled, clanged, and bumped our way out of the parking lot and down the gauze strip of a road the Israelis have built from Eilat to Ofira, skirting the coast.

Overhead, a tarpaulin stretched between four poles protected us from the sun, but we gratefully unrolled the tour-provided sleeping bags for a wind-buffer. On our left, the Gulf of Aqaba with its multicolored brown, green, aquamarine, and navy blue waters, was like a moist tongue between the two parched lips of the mountains rising up on each side.

Since there would be no chance to bathe for three days, Danny soon stopped our caravan by the gulf, and we all piled out.

While the bathers swam, others helped prepare a late lunch by opening cans of tahini, hummus, rice in cabbage, gefilte fish, and can- ned fruit -- all eaten on bread or in cups. Then, late in the day, we headed into the desert.

Darkness hid the color of the limestone mountains, but we could see their sharp outlines above the packed sand. We were traveling in a wadi, or dry riverbed. Past the checkpoints of Israeli soldiers the two jeeps clattered on, headed toward a camping ground.

Finally, the two command cars arrived at the place where we would stay for the night. A large, sandy canyon, protected on one side by a sheer cliff with an overhanging rim, was to be our bedroom.

Then, gathering around a campfire, everyone listened to Danny lecture on desert ecology. No canned food for dinner; we relished the well-seasoned steak, spicy salad, and rice. Finally, most of the group tottered off to bed, leaving only a few diehards singing and talking around the low-glowing fire.

Dawn was gray and cold in the desert, and it came about 5 o'clock. Rested but cold, our children were unwilling to jump out of their bags, roll them up, and climb into the jeeps. A slow start, increased by mechanical difficulties with one jeep.

When we finally moved out, at about 7, the sun was warming the Sinai and we could see our surroundings. Pink, redLand white-layered rocks jutted out of the sand. Down the wadis, thinly spaced clumps of oases with Bedouin encampments appeared. Olive and palm trees, hung with Bedouin clothing, were growing there. But for the most part, only broomsage and acacia could eke out a place in the dry atmosphere.

After about an hour's travel down the wadi, we stopped in a sunny spot where our guidelines produced a spectacular Israeli breakfast. Eggs and onions, cheeses, canned fish, vegetables, a chocolate spread that our children devoured, and breads were laid out on the rocks for our group to enjoy.

Our second day was to include a visit to St. Catherine's monastery, a Greek Orthodox church complex deep in the desert mountains. Originally built through the efforts of the Roman Emperor Justinian in A.D. 530, St. Catherine's rests on the site where the Biblical "burning bush" was supposed to have grown. Mt. Sinai (Gebel Musa or Mt. Moses, according to Arab tradition) allegedly rises immediately behind the monastery.

Israelis are careful to point out that the legendary Mt. Sinai could be any one of the peaks in the area, but tourists usually climb the mountain designated by Arabic oral history.

Entrance to the area wasn't guaranteed, however, because the 15 monks living there are often overwhelmed by tourists. Luckily, we were allowed to enter and see the sixth- and seventh-century icons.

After viewing Mt. Sinai from St. Catherine's, not all of our group chose to plod up the incised stone steps to the top, 7,482 feet. up. And, although we were worried that our five-year- old might not make it, we decided nevertheless to try.

The children clambered up easily, while the older and less limber climbers moved slowly onward. Behind a plateau, there was an enterprising Bedouin selling drinks. Puffing and taking sips from the water jugs we carried, we finally reached the top after a two-hour climb.

Cold and grim in the winter, the summit of Mt. Sinai overlooks endless, with bleak, jagged rocks. Everyone quickly looked into the two churches at the top, congratulated our nimble five-year-old, and hurried down to the plateau to eat another very late lunch.

When we arrived back at the jeeps, everyone decided to leave the high mountain area and sleep where it was warner. One hour later, we were at our campsite -- not noticeably warmer than the mountain region, and distinctly more pebbly than our first night's ground.

This time, though, the Bedouin joined our campfire and played a delicate stringed instrument while we listened and ate fresh veal schnitzel, salad, and mashed potatoes.

At dawn we awoke to find a layer of frost over our sleeping bags. Hurriedly we had warm drinks and climbed into the jeeps, which cooperated by starting easily.

That day we stopped to peek into Stone Age huts on a desert plateau, walked around a rock marked with ancient writings made by pilgrims to St. Catherine's, and viewed the lush oasis of Ein Hudra.

Then, with only two hours of daylight remaining, our jeeps limped out of the desert and into a gas station at Neviot. Mechanical problems had again waylaid the command cars, delaying our arrival at Eilat.

While Danny, Gadi, and Leon worked on the jeeps, our spirited group members chatted, exchanged addresses, and promised to meet again somewhere in the world.

The three days we had spent together had been rough enough physically to make us feel we had indeed experienced a pioneering adventure. In the process, my husband and I made some delightful friends, our boys survived without modern conveniences, and we all learned a great deal about the history of ecology of the Sinai Desert.

Ten Sinai trips can be booked through Neot Hakikar, Desert Tours, RAM Safari Ltd., 28 King David Street, Jerusalem, Israel (tel. 222624; telex 26261). They range in price from $82 for a weekend at Mt. Sinai to $188 for a five-day tour, but not all trips are available every month. Write for a booklet giving information on tours, clothing needed, dates of departure, and fees.

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