Today, the Tarmac route through the desert is bordered by signs saying 'Danger - foreigners must not leave the road'. Few burnt-out tanks remain in the Sinai desert to remind you that the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel was fought here, but it is full of unexploded mines. However, I did see black-clad figures of bedouin women with their goats in the distance; presumably they'd all been issued with mine detectors.
To compensate for the inconvenience of modern Sinai crossing, there is a tumbledown roadhouse half-way through the journey where the owner gleefully plays you videos of Fawlty Towers while you eat. He waits for his moment of delight when someone takes the hint, and says: 'That's you, Basil Fawlty.' 'Yes]' he'll scream. 'Basil Fawlty of Sinai]' He waves off guests personally, a small, round, affable, completely un-Fawltyish man who's just served umpteen lunches in orderly calm.
As the journey continues, fudge-coloured foothills start to emerge. When the hills become imposing alpine ranges, you have reached the attractive surroundings of Mt Sinai itself.
It is the tradition for modern visitors to be atop the mountain in time to see the sunrise. For most, this means a three-hour climb the night before, carrying bedrolls, water and a change of clothes.
At nine o'clock on an October evening it was still so hot that after 15 minutes my clothes were drenched in sweat and I cursed the weight of the mineral water in my backpack. But I might have missed the beauty of the scene if I hadn't panted to a stop occasionally. The moon put a magic glow on the way: bright enough to see by, not bright enough to prevent me mistaking a sitting camel for a rock, until I was looking it in the teeth. For, strategically positioned on high corners, bedouin offer their services: 'Camel, lady, much better'. They tend not to press hard for custom, having become inured to the perversity of tourists who would rather render themselves stretcher-worthy than not walk the whole way.
The top of the mountain is a maggots' nest of tourists in sleeping-bags. Every inch of rock is staked out for a night where sleep is almost impossible: the wind is bitingly cold and hundreds of bags and backpacks are endlessly zipped and unzipped as everyone attempts to get comfortable. Somewhere up here are lavatories, but the smell in most rocky corners indicates that you are not the first person who couldn't find them. For me, finally zipped into my sleeping-bag, the discomfort of a full bladder never quite overcame the fear of venturing out to find a hidden spot only to dampen fellow visitors or fall off the mountain.
Just before I dozed off, there was a moment when exhaustion overcame the cold and the calls of nature. The zips went silent and I felt I was the only person awake to see a shooting star in the clear sky overhead. But the sleep didn't last long. At about 4am I was woken by Germans shining a torch in my face and bellowing: 'Oh, there are people asleep here.' There were. A breakaway faction from the night-nester climbers are those who get an early night elsewhere and set off to arrive just before sunrise. There's no sleep for the zip faction once this group shows up. Everyone jostles for a front-row seat on the dawnside of the mountain and anyone presuming they can just lie warm in their bag is likely to be shrieked at by torch-wielders: 'You're sleeping in the way]'
A group near me started to sing 'Faith of Our Fathers' in Japanese. Other groups began singing hymns in different languages, in different tunes, probably all in praise of different versions of God. The summit of the mountain took on the atmosphere of a football stadium. Nuns were throwing themselves on their knees.
When the sun did appear, the effect was not as breathtaking as I had expected. The climb seemed to demand at least an entourage of angels and a blast of trumpets; instead a pink-and-orange ball spread light over the distant mountains, illuminating craggy silhouettes: all very beautiful, but it was quickly time to go.
A near-stampede down the mountain went headlong into elderly walkers still panting their way up, even though they'd missed the big moment. Then gradually the downtreaders thinned out. The sun became warming and soothing. I took my time, walking at a gentle pace along the mountain paths before reaching the elegant monastary of St Catherine which marks the beginning and end of the climb and holds the inexplicably bright green Burning Bush, guarded for centuries by a tiny group of Greek Orthodox monks.
Getting there: Nearest airport to Mt Sinai is Sharm el Sheik. Red Sea Holidays (081-892 7606) operates weekly charters from Gatwick, and a three-night Sinai Safari plus four nights at the Nuweiba Coral Hilton for pounds 490, including flights.
Visas: For visits to the Sinai area of Egypt, a Sinai Pass (issued free upon arrival) is sufficient. For travel in Egypt besides Sinai, a visa must be obtained in advance from the Egyptian Consulate-General (071-235 9719, or 0891 887777).
Recommended reading: Cadogan Guide: Egypt by Michael Haag (pounds 12.99).
Further information: Egyptian State Tourist Office, Egyptian House, Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (071-493 5282).
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