Nonetheless, I had four wonderful days in a spectacular canyon walking up the unnamed wadi eastward from the Nile. The impossibility of my mission became apparent by the end of the first day. The labor of dragging the sled - whooshing quietly across the sandy stretches but noisily along the rocky sections - made me thirstier than my allotment of water allowed and the added distance from the tightness of the canyon made it pretty clear that it would take a day or two longer than I originally hoped. I couldn't haul more weight in the sled if I could get it... a donkey is really necessary. I followed the fresh tracks of two small-footed soft-soled men, a small dog, and one camel. I didn't think camels did so well over such rocky terrain. Pack animal with water is the key.
Realizing this, I wasn't going to squander my opportunity in the wilderness. I continued on to explore in solitude. The canyon, steeply sided, sometimes even vertical, for heights of 300 meters/1,000 feet - echo-y, soaring with ravens and a few raptors, full of petroglyphs. I copied a selection of them in my little sketchbook but the camera on this computer doesn't present them in focus, but I'll try to update this blog with a photo of my sketches when I find a better camera. The petroglyphs are remarkably similar to those I saw in the Chihuahua desert last winter - male figures and animals mostly. The animals here are camels - men riding on them with lifted spears - and gazelles with their graceful long horns. Fascinating. They suggest that people have not only visited this particular canyon throughout the ages but that they considered it sacred in some way.
The modern additions were limited to some boundary markings - Latin alphabet, not Arabic - that seem to me to be from mining surveys and a small abandoned settlement of buildings with a palm grove of sickly looking date palms. The collection of seven or eight buildings were built within the last 30 years but look like they never were used. I speculate that some mining firm had some ideas about the chalk and other mineral resources but it never materialized.
On the ancient side again, I poked my head into several caves in the canyon walls; one with petroglyphs as well but the passage was blocked after 10 meters. Ropes, shovels and lighting could lead to a good time in the mountains there. (And a partner for safety.)
The other remarkable feature that I contemplated was that the steepness, color and dimensions of the canyon walls clearly gave inspiration for the great pyramids from the time of the Pharaohs... the pyramids of Giza, less than 100 kilometers away, look just like them. Even the step pyramids mimic the nature here because the rocks of the canyon are blocky limestone, some sandstones, silicious and calcitic inclusions - lots of chert/flint - and form natural steps. If I were a Pharaoh with all the money in the world, I suppose I could command a mountain be built out behind the palace and expect that it look just like the mountains in the canyons beyond.
I had no problem making a camp each night - the blocky chalk makes nice sleeping platforms and a framework for my wee little tarp. I gathered enough small branches from the scrubby vegetation to have a fire for several hours each evening just after sunset to warm my little space and heat small rocks to bring inside after the fire died down. The temperature only dropped to the mid single digits (40s), so it's not like 'real' winter camping in the European or North American sense. The crescent moon didn't overpower the glorious canopy of stars and my planisphere made for dimlit entertainment before bed. A note for the 'fraidy cats out there: no water in the canyon means no fearful wild animals; the only noises at night were the occasional distant rockfalls echoing through the canyon. Peaceful music. Sunsets, sunrises...two days up, two days back down. Lovely solitude.
Knowing I had to retreat back to the highway, and that it's too dangerous to walk along the highway, I exited to a military checkpoint and had them flag me down a car to take me to the destination. Minor adventures only, but I got the the monastery late in the afternoon. I wish I could say I was well received, but these things don't always follow script. The monk assigned to greet all foreign visitor was a cranky old grouch and gave me nothing but a hard time. That I'm not a regular tourist was of no issue to him; that I was on foot meant nothing. He brushed his hands together and told me where I slept was not his problem but it wouldn't be within the extensive and lengthy walls of the monastery. It was an ugly situation and in the end, with no help, I could think of nothing to do but sleep another night in the desert outside the walls. I asked for something to eat - got a small bowl of cold soup; I asked for a place to wash - got a cold shower in a filthy bathroom; I asked for an extra blanket since I wouldn't have the luxury of a fire - got a stinky, mildewy filthy old thing. Ah well, I was too tired to suggest they rethink their idea of hospitality. A shame, though.
I saw the monastery properly very early in the morning, before the rainy dawn, and climbed up to St Anthony's cave 1,000 feet higher up the canyon wall and enjoyed the tiny space with three Ukrainians - one a priest - who were having a little service there. Experience on my pilgrimage to St Andrew two years ago allowed me to jump right in and join in the 'hospady pomiloy' chorus. The rest of the soggy time at the monastery was soggy as well - I dared to ask for something to eat again and got a small bowl of cold beans and some cold feta cheese. I still had some chocolate bars and peanuts the wonderful Coptics of Cairo set me off with. It wasn't an issue of going hungry.
The monks refused outright to tell me the way over the mountain to the monastery of St Paul of the Desert, my next destination. They were adamant that only by paying a Bedouin guide 1,000 pounds could I even consider it, but because I'm a woman, it's far too dangerous... arghhhhhhhh
Uncooperative at every turn.... they wouldn't reason with me and I was far too weary to fight... the Ukrainians came to my rescue and took me there by their little tour bus. I enjoyed St Paul of the Desert only as a tourist, not as a pilgrim. Still too beaten down by mean monks to argue, I took the sympathetic and well-intended advice of the Ukrainians and carried on with them to Hurghada where I can get a ship across the Red Sea to Sinai and continue on. I want to walk, really and truly, but no pilgrim can do it without help. The sexist pasty monks who live in modern comfort and have never left their walls on foot were unwilling to help and the Ukrainians helped the best they could. Ukrainians have so often been extraordinarily good to me =)
The Coptics in Hurghada are making up for the sins of their cloistered brethren (it's pretty sinful to deny hospitality to a pilgrim). I'm being well taken care of now as I wait until the ship sails tomorrow morning. Onward to the monastery of St Catherine, a Greek Orthodox community and I'm assured they have guest houses just outside the walls to accommodate pilgrims. The great pilgrimage continues.