A safari through the primordial wilderness of Sinai
Ein Khudra, Egypt — ''Sinai is in my blood. Here is where I hear the voice of God,'' exclaimed an Israeli tourist guide, sitting atop a sand dune that commanded a view of a red and black sandstone moonscape surrounding this desert oasis. Then she lifted her hands in the air, listened to the howling wind, and began rolling down the dune, laughing all the way.
The Sinai is where the Israelis still go to have fun and to rediscover their historical roots. It is a landscape that evokes the beginning of time itself, when only sky, water, and naked rocks existed. As the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis wrote after a visit here early in the century, the Sinai wilderness was ''the dreadful workshop in which the race of Israel had hungered, thirsted, hardened and been forged.''
While the Sinai is again part of Egypt, Israeli-led groups still come here. Indeed, the tourist can now enjoy the best of both worlds: the sparsely developed wilderness to which Sinai has again returned under Egyptian rule - plus the efficiency, expertise, and utterly infectious enthusiasm of Israeli guides.
Neot Hakikar, a Jerusalem-based firm, offers a wide range of ''desert safaris ,'' from a two-day ''Sinai Flash'' tour to a five-day ''In the Footsteps of Moses'' odyssey. (The office is at 28 King David Street, Jerusalem, telephone 221858, 221624, or 248588.) I opted for the three-day ''Mini Safari,'' costing $ 145 per person, plus the $5 tax charged at the Egyptian side of the frontier. (Essential equipment such as sleeping bags is supplied by Neot Hakikar.)
We - all 13 of us - began one morning in the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat. Our guide was ''Eti,'' an Israeli trained at the Army field school, who turned out to be a veritable encyclopedia of the Sinai, knowing everything from its geology and insect life to the history of the Byzantine church in the desert.
After crossing the border at Taba, a few miles south of Eilat, we exchanged the comforts of an air-conditioned minibus for two jeeps. Over the next three days we would experience three flat tires and a minor breakdown. Each time our Bedouin drivers would handle the repairs within minutes - they could have qualified for the pit crew at the Indianapolis Speedway.
The Sinai Red Sea coast is among the loveliest seashores in the world, with fine white sands, ample date palms, fierce mountain vistas, and coral reefs teeming with sea life. Driving south for an hour along this coast, we reached Nuweiba, an oasis that used to abound with tents and campers in the days of Israeli rule.
Nowadays the sand at Nuweiba is empty once again. The kiosk, which once offered a dazzling array of foods, has little to sell. And the holiday village - like the one farther south at Dahab - has increased its rates while declining in efficiency of service (doubles are now over $50).
Yet I liked it better this way: just a quiet oasis inhabited by a few Bedouins, without the nude Scandinavian sunbathers who departed when the Egyptians moved in.
After a swim, we left the coast and headed into the desert on the bumpy floor of a wadi, or ravine. It is a forbidding landscape, prone to flash floods in winter and sizzling temperatures in summer. The mountains have horrible shapes, as though the rocks had been chewed up by primordial teeth. Our guide explained that it is not wind, but rainwater, that has shaped the rock: The water is absorbed by the sandstone and limestone exteriors and then explodes inside the rock, causing the scarps to look like a collage of contorted faces staring at you.
When the wind-torn acacia trees were replaced by date palms, we knew another oasis had been reached - a desert miracle caused by an underground pool of fresh water.
The Ein Fortuga oasis is only a cluster of palm trees inhabited by a few Bedouins, their goats, and their camels, but it represented civilization. The sight of a Bedouin girl with her goat flock reminded me of Moses coming upon the daughters of Jethro. The setting was truly biblical.
It was a perfect time for our guide to explain about the habits of the Bedouins: how the women weave wool, how the men play a game like backgammon using balls of dried camel dung, and many other things.
We went farther into the desert, stopping in the late afternoon at ''the colorful canyon,'' a sort of miniature Grand Canyon whose sandstone walls are all shades of red and green and yellow. The canyon walls are over 100 feet high and separated from each other by only a few feet. We shared a defile with hundreds of harmless lizards.
Our first night camping in the desert was spent talking around the campfire while eating steaks and canned food (all meals are provided by the tour company). In the morning we drove back to the coast. The five-day tours include visits to Dahab and Sharm el Sheikh, but our three-day tour didn't. Instead, we took another dirt track back into the desert - the one that would eventually lead to Mt. Sinai.
At noon we reached the Ein Khudra oasis, considered by tradition a way station for Moses and the wandering Israelites. Ein Khudra is near several archaeological sites, notably the Rock of Inscriptions (a rock face inscribed with names of Christian pilgrims who passed here in the Byzantine era en route to Mt. Sinai) and the Nawami tombs.
These circular burial chambers belonged to a nomadic people who lived here 6, 000 years ago. The Nawami site is spooky; as soon as our guide began lecturing, the wind began to howl as though some ancient gods were angered by our presence.
We then spent a while rolling down a nearby sand dune before continuing to Mt. Sinai.
Before sunset, the granite peaks of the southern Sinai loomed on the horizon. The Bible does not indicate where, exactly, Moses received the law, and the 7, 000-foot-high mountain revered as Mt. Sinai is that by tradition only. Nevertheless, the next 12 hours were to give me a feeling for the Bible that I had never previously known.
Our second night in the desert was spent at a ''tent motel'' built by the Egyptians near the foot of the mountain. But it wasn't much of a night, as we awoke at 12:45 a.m. so as to reach the summit at dawn.
The jeeps delivered us to the Byzantine walls of St. Catherine's Monastery, a Greek Orthodox compound that has stood beside the holy mountain since the 6th century. It was dark and a bit cold, but our eyes soon adjusted to the night.
The climb was long but not difficult, as the path wound back and forth in switchback fashion. The granite peak loomed like a cardboard cutout against a night sky full of shooting stars.
After a leisurely walk of two hours, the path ended on the shoulder of the summit, where 700 steps led to the top. It was light already, and we literally raced up the steps to beat the sunrise. Once at the top, we watched in silence as the sun burst out of the heavens, changing the hue of the mountain peaks from red to burnt orange and then gradually to dun: a miracle so great it seemed wasted on our finite sensibilities.