A Khawaga's Tale: The Mt. Sinai telescope

Peter A. Carrigan
6 Min Read

A former Scottish science teacher, who called Zamalek home for years, has spent big money on setting up a celestial telescope below Mt. Sinai, which uses GPS tracking and an inbuilt computer to lock onto some 30,000 planets and stars that ignite Egypt’s skies.

It took Mr Gordon Wilkinson two months to get the 8-inch Meade scope through various Egyptian customs authorities and it has become the centerpiece of his guided adventure programs that offer a range of experiences in the high mountains, outside of trekking.

“I am taking a different approach to the traditional guided trekking in the mountains. Having established friendships amongst the Bedouin over a decade, I am endeavouring to dovetail my own science background with local knowledge to forge products that are low impact physically, though exciting to the senses.

“Obviously the telescope is a wonderful asset and who wouldn’t be impressed with the rings of Saturn or moon craters. It is the largest portable celestial scope on the market, which makes it easy to establish a variety of night time observatories.

“Following a botanical walk from St. Katherine’s, that includes an aromatic herb garden, I can set up the scope at the Bedouin run luxurious eco-lodge, or across at my Camel School, Wilkinson said.

The 55-year-old Wilkinson has a boy-like charm and boundless energy when discussing the High Mountains Camel School and the five-lesson program that awards participants with a Sinai Camel Riding Licence.

“The Camel School is located in a wide, sandy pristine Wadi, where natural barriers exclude vehicles, Wilkinson said.

“The lessons start with couching and standing the camel, dismounting and walking. Visitors learn about the saddle, feeding and riding practices. Visitors take a camel journey along the scenic Wadi before sitting a “test to gain their Sinai Camel Riding Licence.

“Mister Jordan, Mister Jordan, is what the Bedouin call out after Gordon Wilkinson, who is a minor celebrity around the village of St. Katherine’s. The locals greet “Mister Jordan with wide tea-stained smiles and eagerly share news of the mountain and gossip from the tourist chain that climbs Gebel Musa (Mt. Sinai) each night.

On my recent visit, I just missed seeing 30 camels race through the Wadi system at the base of Gebel Musa. A neighboring Bedouin tribe had bought their swiftest desert ships and took off with the prize money to boot.

Though I missed out on the 4WD rally that pursued the camel race, I was in time for the olive press. Wilkinson’s neighbor Ramadan, who is a young-looking father of two teenagers, invited us over to observe the practice of extracting oil from the olive harvest.

It’s a simple but nonetheless fascinating process. The olives, which are left to dry in the sun after being picked from the grove at the back of the sprawling extended family house, are then shredded and heated in the largest saucepan you are ever likely to see. They are then wrapped in gauze and stacked between metal plates that are pressed together using a vehicle’s hand jack.

The olive oil flows, producing around 20 liters from every 100 kg of fruit. Served with freshly baked bread and Hbaq tea that is rich in menthol, it made for a seminal moment on my weekend, meeting the people keeping alive the traditions and culture of the mountains.

It would seem that the pace of change is beginning to quicken in St. Katherine’s village. A European Union initiative has approximately 55 projects across South Sinai directed from an office in Al-Tor and in St. Katherine’s where the focus is on re-branding and launching new tourism products.

The EU Project Manager, Ms Jeannette Rizk, told me the priority is to create a “better product and provide more jobs for the local community.

“The EU has created a company called Sheikh Sina, which is improving trails and producing maps, raising environmental consciousness, training guides and marketing the Sinai product at European trade fairs.

The ambitious EU project is also planning to again make the sacred mountain a religious site, by moving tourist buses away from the entrance to the Monastery, down the hill, where a visitors’ center and bus parking lot have been built.

Management of natural tourist sites can only be applauded and the spirit and enthusiasm of all in the High Mountains is infectious.

The Bedouin lifestyle is extremely accessible here, not the least because many locals speak three, four and five languages, and within a short period it can feel as if you are walking through a National Geographic feature of the faces, sites and history of the High Mountains.

Gordon Wilkinson can be contacted at www.yallajabaleya.com and the work of the European Union at [email protected]

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