Hiking up the 2,629 metre-high Mount Catherine (Gebel Katherina) at dawn, under a star-filled sky and with the first morning light at the horizon, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the scenery that served as a backdrop for some of the main stories of the Abrahamic religions.
The mountainous area surrounding the Saint Catherine monastery in South Sinai offers calm, fresh air, mild summer temperatures and beautiful rocky mountains alternated with wadis filled with gardens of fruit trees tended by the local Bedouin tribe.
The village of Saint Catherine, located close to the monastery, with its 4,600 inhabitants, few basic restaurants and supermarkets, may not be a top destination itself, but it’s the perfect base from which to embark on tours into the mountains or monastery.
Besides the beautiful landscape of mountains, wadis and canyons, the traditional Bedouin society is a large part of the beauty of Saint Catherine. Walking in the mountains you’ll come across Bedouins sitting around a fire, drinking tea surrounded by their herd of goats, or others working in their gardens where they are cultivating all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Allow yourself to accept an offer of hospitality, and find yourself in the middle of nowhere drinking from wells, eating fresh fruits and enjoying tea at a campfire as people in these region have done for ages.
One of the popular lodges in Saint Catherine is the Bedouin Camp and guesthouse, run by one of the elderly of the local tribe, Sheikh Mousa. It offers a dorm, basic bedrooms with a shared bathroom and more luxurious rooms with bathroom, for attractive prices (dorm EGP 25 per night, single room with shared bathroom EGP 55).
The lodge is basic, but clean and has proper wifi. Thereby the kitchen in the lodge offers good food for good prices. Egyptian breakfast includes cheese, backed egg, foul and cheese. At night you can order good quality meals, with, of course, several variations on chicken of kofta with cooked vegetables and rice on the menu.
Sheikh Mousa also heads up the mountain guide office in the area. The prices are fixed per tour, with a tour to Mount Catherine costing EGP 580. For those travelling on a low budget, joining up with others and splitting the guide fare is a good option. As tourism has dwindled in the mountain village, you can also find guides hanging around who are willing to take you on tours for lower fares.
Taking a guide for a mountain tour is obligatory for tourists. Hiking in mountainous areas always carries a risk, as you can easily get lost in the wadis and, in winter, weather can be very unpredictable. However, it’s about more than safety; the guide business is one of the main sources of income in the village. Small hikes not too far from the village are possible to carry out without guide, although the Bedouins would not encourage that.
Although it might seem like a pain for a regular backpacker to spend money on guides, it does feel reasonable to pay a fee for enjoying the mountains these Bedouins inhabited for centuries. As the story goes, their tribe, the Gebeliya, descends from Macedonian soldiers Roman Emperor Justinian sent to the area to protect the monastery in the sixth century CE.
Although high up in the interior of the Sinai Peninsula, Saint Catherine is more easily accessible than you might expect. There are direct buses running between Cairo (Turgoman station in Downtown) and the village on a daily basis, which take up to seven hours. Also from Dahab there are regular buses to Saint Catherine, feasible for a day tour into the mountains from the Red Sea beach resort.