Part I of IV
To an Orthodox Jew, the image of the Sinai Peninsula conjures up vast stretches of endless sand dunes, mountains, infrequent oases, essentially a trackless wilderness through which the ancient Israelites trekked during their 40-year journey to the land of Canaan. I was to discover a different Sinai during 1969-70 when I spent my junior year of college as a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Despite a fairly heavy course load of nine subjects, I had plenty of time that year to sample life as an Israeli and took full advantage of the opportunities. Of all the activities I participated in, none quite compared in excitement and interest to the University-sponsored tiyul I took to the Sinai Peninsula during the mid-January intersession.
My friend Ben and I both noticed the yellow flyer pinned to the student activity bulletin board located in the Kaplan Building on a day in late December. It described in full detail a six-day trip to be led by guides from the university that would traverse the famed Sinai Peninsula from north to south. The tour would be conducted using semi-open trucks, all provisions would be carried with us and all we had to bring were personal items including a sleeping bag. This would not be a “luxury” bus tour by any means; rather, we would be traveling more off-road in military style with personal comfort being of little importance. The trip was scheduled to begin on Sunday morning at 2 a.m. when we were instructed to assemble near the gate of the university to board our assigned truck. Our return to the same location was expected on the following Thursday night.
Ben and I signed up almost immediately the day the notice appeared, as did three or four of our other friends. All told, 60 students signed up, representing seven nationalities, a true foreign legion. None of the student participants had ever been to Sinai before except me, and my visit three years earlier consisted of several hours on a single day’s visit to El Arish in the far north of the peninsula. On this trip we would be traveling the length and breadth of the famed territory, a detailed survey covering almost all the critical sites.
I waited expectantly for the appointed starting date, assembling my required gear and supplies. On the Saturday night before the departure I had difficulty sleeping; I set the alarm for just after midnight, but I hardly slept a wink. I made my way to the designated site, arriving there 40 minutes prior to the 2 a.m. start time. As the minutes passed, I realized Ben was nowhere to be found. I located one of our guides and told him my friend was missing, but to the best of my knowledge had intended to go.
“We’ll give him an extra 15 minutes to arrive, but no more. We’re on a schedule, you know!”
Sadly, Ben, his alarm clock failing him, never appeared and the three trucks roared off in the dark without him. I was disappointed in not having a close friend on the trip with me, but the sense of adventure soon overtook me and I fell asleep in my place at the end of the bench near the back of the truck.
The first leg of our tour consisted of driving eight hours straight towards the northern Egyptian desert. We traveled southwest from Jerusalem through Bethlehem, Hebron and Beersheba through the Negev and west into Sinai and Egypt proper. It wasn’t so much a matter of the sheer mileage we would be traveling, but the fascinating, and sometimes forbidding, terrain we would be passing through during our trip that was going to be memorable.
I awoke with the rising sun at about 7 a.m. Situated as I was in the back of the truck, I had been separated from the outside desert winds by a canvas flap that I could move whenever I wanted a glimpse of the exterior. The vista was now unchanging—sand dunes with an occasional disabled vehicle off to the side of the narrow two-lane road we were crossing. Our guide told us we would be stopping for some refreshment about 9 a.m.
At the appointed time, the trucks pulled up along the side of the dusty road. I jumped off onto the shoulder along with the 20-odd fellow passengers. A small mirror was screwed onto the back of the truck. I was shocked by my image in the mirror. Though presumably sheltered from the desert by the heavy canvas that enclosed us in the truck, my hair had turned from its normal dark brown to a light, sandy color in the course of the six hours’ exposure to Sinai conditions. In the days to come we were to discover how penetrating desert sand truly is and how thankless would any effort be to avoid sand getting into every object of clothing, body parts and—even—the food we ate.
Following a pit stop of 15 minutes, we continued on to the site of an abandoned Egyptian dam project, originally funded with Soviet aid. The plan had been to develop a water irrigation project to rival what Israel was doing “next door” in the Negev, transforming desert land into fruitful, arable territory. The Egyptians under Nasser were not as successful as their neighbors, and as we saw with our own eyes, their efforts had been literally swallowed up by the timeless desert in a matter of several years.
We camped that evening at the southernmost point of the desert sector, Sinai being divided roughly into three sections: Saharan-type desert in the north, wilderness sector in the middle and an extensive mountain range in the south. The mountains tapered off into a narrow coastal plain where the famous port city of Sharm-El-Sheikh was located.
As the sun set in the west, we gathered around a large campfire where we ate a hearty meal of bread and flavorful chulent. After dinner we spread our sleeping gear around the fire, leaving room for everyone to maneuver in the dark. The desert night was cold and each of us had a quick lesson on how to handle all personal needs in the desert. Use a flashlight, call out ahead of time and walk at least 20 paces from the nearest known sleeping bag before taking care of business! Not unexpectedly, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the sleeping bag. It had been a long day, and the total stillness of the desert night did not distract as much as one might have thought.
By Joseph Rotenberg