Lawrence answers: It’s clean.
It’s a good thing T.E. Lawrence died a long time ago, because he’d be absolutely horrified if he saw the condition of the Sinai desert today.
When I first visited the Sinai 30 years ago in December, 1980, I was awe-struck. I’d never been in a place that looked so stark and felt so empty, so unsullied by modern life. I remember looking at the Sinai’s towering folds of jagged rock, the endless craggy peaks splashed with rust or slashes of black fault lines running for miles from the desert floor to peak and thinking: who needs Eden? This is purity. This is paradise.
Even more striking was the contrast with the seemingly endless array of tropical fish and coral just under the surface of the clean, clear waters running for hundreds of kilometres along the Sinai’s eastern coast. You’d be swimming along in the water with fins and snorkel one moment, stop, look up, take off the mask, and be equally dumb-struck that such a barren landscape could be the backdrop to the completely foreign world teeming with life just below.
Not that it was complete wilderness back then, but aside from a few paved roads and some scattered coastal villages there was hardly any sign of human intrusion. What was to become the all-inclusive, charter-flight Eurotrashed hell hole sprawl of Sharm-el-Sheikh at the peninsula’s southern tip was still a modest little town. I really wish it had stayed that way, because if you travel overland by bus for nine hours as we did from Cairo to Dahab, you will be astounded at how dirty and spoiled it is, both from afar and up close.
How can they have allowed one of the world’s most beautiful expanses of coastline to be cluttered with faceless holiday villages, many of which stand empty as half-built ruins? The horror show starts about 15 minutes after you leave the tunnel under the Suez Canal and start heading south. You start seeing one ugly clump of concrete after another, and it goes on for miles and miles. On the northern end closest to Cairo the resorts look ready for business, but they look empty of guests. As you travel further south you see the more recent attempts at construction: columns and slabs of bare, grey cement with no sign of activity for miles, the site abandoned for who knows how long to the salt air and desert. Those piles of rubble that seem closer to completion but remain unfinished are often linked to the roadside by a crumbling entranceway, the road behind it to the resort lined with the stumps of palm trees left to dry out and die in the sun.
As you leave the last military checkpoint heading north out from Sharm-al-Sheikh toward Dahab 90 kilometres away, the visions of what the world might look like after the apocalypse get even worse if you dare to look up close. The sight as you slowly rise through a wide expanse of desert ringed by high mountains on either side should be awe-inspiring, and I’m sure it once was, but today it’s sickening. How else to describe the feeling of seeing mounds of discarded plastic strewn about everywhere? It’s like driving through a garbage dump, only instead of the garbage staying in one place, it’s spread out for miles. Whipped about by constant winds, it’s even creeping up the mountainsides to lodge in crannies hundreds of metres above the desert floor.
Once we were settled into our place in Dahab I could ignore it and really enjoyed the place, but as soon as you venture away from the coastal strip you’re jarred back into reality.
This is the main street of Dahab running parallel to the tourist strip along the water:
This was a stone’s throw from a beach where tourists were taking windsurfing lessons:
This is the coastline just north of Dahab:
This is the garbage dump / desert landscape along the highway running past Dahab:
I looked at the pile of empty plastic water bottles we’d accumulated in our week in Dahab and knew that because they obviously make no attempt to dispose of their waste properly, to say nothing of reusing or recycling, that our mere presence there was actually making the situation worse. I know that the cash we spent on our hotel rooms and daily restaurant visits helps support jobs in a country where unemployment is high, so that’s a good thing, but how much more can the environment take? How much more garbage will have to lodge itself into the landscape before tourists are so turned off by the sight they’ll stay away? I guess Sharm-al-Sheikh will always attract the last-minute crowd, the idiots who don’t give a damn about anything beyond their immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption and never leave their tourist ghettos unless it’s via air-conditioned bus to another pre-fab tourist ghetto …forgive me, I’m starting to rant here….
But if they really cared about the place, they’d do something about it. If they have enough money to build concrete ruins, if they have enough money for all the military installations littering Sharm-al-Sheikh, if they have the money to build, staff and maintain the array of military checkpoints you have to go through, then they have enough money to collect and properly dispose of waste. There’s no excuse for it, I don’t care if it is happening in a developing country like Egypt.