Across Holy Ground : Cold reality of Egyptian desert trek reveals a world of history and spirituality

The Jeeps dropped us off at a sandy patch in the valley called Abu Sila on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, about three hours from Israel's Red Sea resort city of Eilat. Meaning "father of the flash flood," Abu Sila has little significance in early December, before the winter's rainy season has set in. Still, a chill edged its way through the sun-soaked Sinai as the Jeeps headed left and we headed right. Into the desert.

Sala, our Bedouin guide, walked in front, silently leading our group toward the nearby mountains. We threaded our way up the side of a rocky incline. Shifting to the left, then right, then back again, the path spiraled upward. A trail of bobbing heads marked our progress. First Sala's slightly rakish turban, then another guide's red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh , followed by a blue baseball cap, a hatless head of hair, a boating cap.

The climb to the top of the ridge took no more than 40 minutes, but at the top we got our first sense of how far we'd traveled since the morning's breakfast at the lodge. In the distance to the left lay the Sinai's highest peak, Mt. Katherina, rising 8,668 feet. Our eyes traveled downward to Wadi Racha, "valley of the rest." There, the doubting Israelites, alarmed by Moses' 40-day absence on Mt. Sinai, had melted their earrings to fashion the monstrous golden calf, their fear apparently amplified by the Sinai's vast expanse.

The Jeeps had long gone, so from our perch there was little evidence that wanderers in centuries past had seen a different vista.

Moses and the Israelites wandered in the Sinai Desert for 40 years before glimpsing the Promised Land. Our group of 10 travelers spent four days trekking across the Sinai, a journey bookended by day trips from a lodge at Mt. Musa, or Moses Mountain, which legend maintains is Mt. Sinai, the spot where God inscribed the Ten Commandments with his finger on two tablets.

Camels carried our bags and gear, rendezvousing with us each evening as we bedded down for the night under a skyful of stars.

Neot Hakikar, a tour company founded by Israeli settlers in 1961, started running trips to the Sinai in 1967, after Israel captured the triangle of terrain between the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba during the Six-Day War. When Egypt regained control of the territory in 1982 as a result of the peace treaty with Israel, Neot Hakikar began collaboration with Cairo International Tours to continue operating its Sinai treks.

Friends had warned me that I would be committing an unpardonable sin if I failed to visit the Sinai Desert on my first trip to the Holy Land. Travelers in search of history, spirituality, beauty or a return to nature can, of course, stay in Eilat and take day trips by Jeep into the Sinai. But to me, poetry and the past demanded a certain respect for form when wandering in the wilderness. So, with some allowances (such as Bergalene long underwear, a flashlight and a stash of chocolate), I began my desert journey--on foot.

If our first sweep over the landscape sparked infatuation, our Israeli guide, Yehudah, was already in the midst of a deep and abiding love affair. And he was eager to inspire us with his enthusiasm. As we briefly rested at the top, he grabbed a bag of lemon candies from his knapsack and handed one to everyone, "so you can taste the sweetness of the mountains."

And it was sweet. Conical mountains topped with stacks of flat rocks, like tilted chimneys. White blankets of stone, smooth enough to have been sanded and polished. Unexpected palm-fringed oases, where giggling Bedouin children and straggling goats trailed our steps. A jewelry box of stones--crystalline quartz in purple and pink--scattered across the landscape.

But harsh and forbidding, too. Sharp cuts of rock splattered across the desert floor. Rows of peaks arrayed like jagged shark's teeth biting into the sky. Barren and rusted plains, the color of dried blood. Choking swabs of clouds that could instantly turn winter skies pewter.

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After the first morning's climb, our trekking leveled off as we followed a long and winding swath of gravely sand. The landscape, bleached gold and beige by the sun, was briefly interrupted by a trio of vivid orange and red specks. But the Bedouin women, who are generally forbidden contact with strangers, quickly swirled out their black capes once they saw us approach, and continued packing thin sticks of firewood on their mule.

By that point, most of us had stripped down to shorts and T-shirts as daytime temperatures rose into the 80s. But by evening, when we reached Bustan El Birka ("garden pool"), the Bedouin garden where we would camp for the night, the mercury had plummeted.

The image of the scorching desert is a mirage during the winter. Though temperatures can reach 120 degrees during August, forbidding any tours except those conducted in the high mountain ranges, during winter the mercury often drops to freezing or below. Our guides switched to lower altitudes because of the cold, but the nights were still tough. Three Dutchmen, misinformed by their travel agent, each had only a light sweater.

A dinner of scalding chicken soup and tantalizing grilled chicken and rice eaten around a fire helped blunt the night's chill. Our Israeli guide turned out to be a Scheherazade, spinning gripping parables and ghost stories, while George, one of the shivering Dutchmen, sang French and English ballads.

For a final touch of hominess, the guides wrote "WELCOME" on the skull of a camel they found and stuck it over the doorway of my tent.

We crawled out of our sleeping bags to a sunless morning and fretted about threatening rain that never came. Our journey took us along Wadi Nugra and past another of the Bedouin gardens that seemed to blossom amid the chaotic jumble of rock. Snaking upward, the path then led to a challengingly steep descent that left us soaked with sweat despite the chill.

We rested and watched Sala make bread for our lunch. Slowly pouring water into a powdery mound of flour and salt, he fashioned a pancake like the dough on a thick-crust pizza. He then buried it in the black and gray ash of the fire until it looked like a large tarnished coin. I was already thinking about the leftover pita from breakfast until Sala spread the sooty disk on a flat rock and beat the ashen coating off, leaving a warm and chewy circle of lightly browned bread, like a diamond emerging from the crush of black coal.

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Our guides had warned us there would be no wood near our evening's camp, so we carried thin, bony sticks of firewood while they hoisted meatier logs during the afternoon's trek. We camped near Shekh a Wad, the gravesite of a Bedouin holy man. A stone building, painted green for holiness and white for hope, was stocked with pots, dishes and no lock on the door--a way for the absent Bedouin tribe to offer hospitality to travelers.

We slept about a hundred yards away in a pair of small cement-block buildings with thatched roofs and mud floors, which after the previous night's freeze felt like the Sinai Hilton.

Sitting atop Moses Mountain and watching the sun float up behind rows of peaks is a Sinai tradition. But getting out of a sleeping bag at 3 a.m. in freezing weather for a sunrise is pushing tradition a bit too far, even in the Holy Land. We opted for sunset. Our group split in two, with most taking a four-hour trek up the more arduous back route and the rest (including me) following the camel path from the base of the Greek Orthodox St. Catherine's Monastery in the settlement of Santa Katherina, at the base of the mountain.

A pastiche of 1,500 years of architecture and cultures, built on what is reputed to be the site of the Old Testament Burning Bush, the monastery is home to rare manuscripts and icons. It was constructed in AD 330, with a walled fortress added 200 years later by the Roman Emperor Justinian. Indeed, a door 20 feet off the ground and accessible at one time only by basket and pulley is a vestige of that atmosphere of siege.

Alternately peeling off and putting on layers of clothing as the path dodged in and out of the sun, we climbed a sloping ramp that led to dozens of rock-hewn steps, then to the top. The hike took more than two hours and left us breathless.

We rendezvoused with the rest of our group at the summit and drank cups of tea and hot chocolate we had purchased from a kiosk at the top of Moses Mountain. As the sun set, waves of golden peaks were dusted blue and purple. But the sight still paled when compared to the mystical moonlit walk we took later, down to where the Sinai's vast openness once more stretched out before us, rivaling the sky's own endless blanket.

GUIDEBOOK

Trekking the Sinai

Getting there: El Al Israel Airlines, Delta and TWA fly to Tel Aviv for about $1,500 round trip, advance-purchase, through October. Air fare from Tel Aviv to Eilat on the domestic airline Arkia is $160 round trip. Egged Bus Co. buses leave Tel Aviv nightly, arriving in Eilat in time for Neot Hakikar's 8 a.m. tour departure.

Tour companies: Two Israeli groups with experience conducting trips in the Sinai are Neot Hakikar and the Society for Protection of Nature. Six-day trips similar to the one I took start at about $360 per person, including meals and transportation between Cairo or Eilat. But there are shorter trips as well. Fox Travel, 271 Route 46 West, Suite D107, Fairfield, N.J. 07004, telephone (201) 575-4050, is the official representative for Neot Hakikar in the United States. You can also try Galilee Tours, 310 First Ave., Needham, Mass. 02194, tel. (800) 874-4445.

For the American branch of the Society for Protection of Nature, telephone Mosaic Tours at (800) 524-7726. Nature society guides have specific training in geology, botany and archeology.

The tours: Fall and spring are the best times to visit the Sinai. There is no age limit on the tour, but Neot Hakikar does remind trekkers that they must be able to walk six hours a day.

For more information: Contact the Israel Government Tourist Office, 6380 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1700, Los Angeles 90048, (213) 658-7462.

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