Journal: Wednesday 19 November 2003
Yesterday was uneventful, a lazy day which Sam and I spent wandering the streets of Cairo. In the evening we went to collect the hire car from Mohandesin, a Hyundai, that Sam had chosen because it looked a little more beaten up than the brand new Dawoo that was also available. The car was booked to Sam for 8 or 9 days and is costing us LE750 each – £75 English.
This morning we were up early and ready to set off on the next stage of our journey, to Dahab on the Red Sea coast of the Sinai Peninsula. As we left the Ciao Hotel several ladies were setting up a market in the street opposite, selling eggs and locally made soft cheese. It all looked very colourful and the ladies were enjoying each others’ company as little children scampered around the bowls, crates and boxes laid out on rugs on the ground. As we left the city huge dark rain clouds gathered over the suburbs – an ominous sign.
Abdul drove out of Cairo, past the airport at Heliopolis and as far as the mile-long Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel that drops down under the Suez Canal. The tunnel, which took five years to build, was named after an Egyptian officer who was killed during the 1973 October War. It seemed odd to be under the canal when there had been no visible sign of it above ground. Sam hadn’t felt confident enough to brave the busy Cairo traffic just yet, especially in the morning rush hour when commuters were driving fast and furious towards the city and I certainly had no intention of driving anywhere in Egypt. On the other side of the tunnel we stopped and Sam took the wheel. We were in Sinai at last.
The Sinai Peninsula is bisected across the central plain by a road running from just south of the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, all the way across to the Israel border at the top of the Gulf of Aqabah and this was the route we took, rather than the longer road running down the West coast. The first part of our trip was interesting as we drove up onto the high ground through the Mitla Pass, between steep sided cliffs. But from then on it was just flat and rather boring with nothing to see on either side of the road for 250km. Half way, there is a small town called Nakhl and I found it hard to imagine anyone wanting to live there. At the other end of the road we stopped for coffee at a tiny place with a block-built cafe called el-Nakab. The coffee was very welcome but the toilets were the worst I’d yet come across in Egypt (and I’ve seen some bad ones). Rather than carrying on to the border and driving along the East Coast road, we took a short-cut, dropping steeply down from the plateau on a road that wound backwards and forwards between towering cliffs and along the edge of the Coloured Canyon, where limestone and sandstone rocks blend into a hundred different warm-toned hues. By this time Abdul was driving again and after a while he looked exhausted as he negotiated the continuous steep bends and twists in the road for another 100 or more kilometres. The scenery here was magnificent and nothing like I’d ever seen before in Egypt.
We joined the coast road near Nuweiba and before long caught our first glimpse of the sea – the Gulf of Aqaba. On the eastern side of the narrow waterway we could see the mountains of Jordan, then Saudi Arabia, both looking very close, but soon we were back among the cliffs as the road veered inland. By late afternoon we arrived in Dahab and found a beautiful small hotel called the Sphinx, right by the beach, that boasted hot showers and even a fridge in the rooms. Luxury! We all went out and had dinner in a local restaurant followed by a short walk during which I decided that I really like Dahab. But being chauffeured all day is very tiring and I was glad for once to get an early night.