St Katherine’s monastery is well and truly on the backpacker trail. From sunny Dahab or five-star Sharm el Sheik, you can take a tour up to the mountain, leaving around 11pm, start climbing for 2-ish and hit sunrise on the peak for 5. Backpackers mingle with religious tourists from around the world, but the morning I climbed it, the antipodean accents were far outweighed by the phlegmy grumbles of Russians, Romanians and other unidentified former Eastern Bloc countries. I swear some were drinking vodka on the way up.
If you’re doing the climb on a camel, it could be quite feasible that you drink your way to the top, tho the camel track peters out 750 steps shy of the peak. On the way up with my guide Ahmed and his police mate Hazim (I’m still not quite sure why he came, but he liked the walk), I counted six tea stops, where overpriced Mars bars and tea were doled out liberally by the local Bedouin population. You can even sleep in their toasty little huts for a few dollars and wake up to do a quick pre-dawn sprint to the peak.
At the top, the nearest peak is St Katherine’s, the mountain where the saint’s remains were transported by angels after she was brutally murdered in her home town of Alexandria (think of the firework, Catherine’s Wheel). Her leathery caramel-brown skull and bejewelled left hand are still on display in the monastery, closely guarded by one of the dark-eyed monks, who chants ceaselessly while he guards the relics.
This morning, I would have put the number on the mountain peak for sunrise at about 600. There were people strumming guitars and singing sad, slow hymns. Others perched on ledges, rolled out of their sleeping bags seconds before the sun rose, and yet more just kept their noses clear of their dusty, camel-smelling blankets in a bid to counteract the freezing pre-dawn temperatures.
On the way down, the Bedouin guides skipped across the rocks, some carrying large video cameras, employed to get footage of the foreign pilgrims struggling down the hard way the 3000-odd steps cut into the rocks. Some hailed camels.
In a fit of stupidity, I climbed the mountain for sunrise, then went back up again for sunset with mum and Lars, the Swedish icon expert we’d fallen in with. It was a funny trek up, mum on a lovely white camel called Abdul, led by the gentle Eid (please, ask for him if you ever climb this mountain, he loves his camels and he was so gentle with mum, it was a pleasure to do this trek with him). We made the sunset with seconds to spare – all 30 of us on the peak.
As with sunrise, the crowd clapped appreciatively at the sun’s movements, this time as it was bleeding softly down over the blue mountains, but the climb down was in total darkness. So I accompanied mum and took a grey camel, Samba, led by 13-year-old Ibrihim, who assured me he was going to school tomorrow.
We climbed down slowly, the camels’ great pads seeking the kindest route, Ibrahim calling out to Samba, while I clung to the wooden pommels, fore and aft and debated the likelihood of childbearing. Along the way, small Bedu villages and the highway, far below, were lit with orange lights. The monastery was almost in darkness, one light on its great walls, a beacon in the night to weary travellers and pilgrims such as we in need of bed, shower and a cold glass of …um… rosé. Life’s no bed of roses, but you’ve got to get it while you can, eh?