Distance: 35 miles (56.3 km) approx.
- 2 days
- Possibly one day, if you are guided and/or make an early start. That being said, sleeping out in Egypt’s Eastern desert is an experience not to be missed.
Start / Finish:
- Upon request, the bus that runs between Suez and Hurghada will drop you at the turnoff to St. Paul’s monastery. From this point, it is a 13km road walk (or hitch if you are lucky) to the monastery. Alternatively, try linking up with one of the pilgrim tours that run from Cairo.
- There are no public transport services to St. Anthony’s, so unless you have prearranged private transport, hitching will be your only option.
- Leaving the monasteries seemed easier than getting there. Generally speaking, monks and pilgrims are pretty friendly folk, and more often than not they will be happy to give you a ride if politely asked.
Season: Any time but summer.
Maps / Info:
- Hmm, good luck. Apart from a basic sketch map of the area in my Egypt & Sudan (1994) Lonely Planet, I was unable to locate any sort of hiking map. My primary source of information was an article I read in the November 1995 edition of Egypt Today magazine. The article was ominously titled Hiking in Devil’s Country. The author, I think he was an American or a Brit, ended up getting lost, running out of water, and eventually being saved by some passing Bedouins!
- For general information on the monasteries and the Eastern desert, try Lonely Planet’s Egypt guidebook.
- Everyone you ask about this hike will tell you that you need a guide. If you are a desert ‘virgin’ and are looking for a worry-free experience, this is probably good advice. You will have a better chance of hiring someone at St. Paul’s, rather than St. Anthony’s.
- If you would prefer to hike without a guide, you need to have good route-finding, compass and scrambling skills.
Route / Conditions:
- The two monasteries are about 25km apart as the crow flies. They are separated by the cliffs and plateau of Gebel al-Galala al-Qibliya.
- From St. Pauls, head north along the intermittently cairned route. Long before you reach the start of the climb, the trail ascending to the plateau is clearly visible. In 1995, there was a metal barrel (see photos) sitting near the southern edge of the plateau. What it was doing there I am not really sure. Nonetheless, it makes for a good reference point in confirming that you are headed in the right direction.
- Once on the plateau, continue to follow the clear trail until you reach the northern edge. This is where I made an error in judgment by following cairns which led in a westerly direction. After a couple of hours, these rock markers terminated at a very dramatic, but nonetheless very frustrating dead end. I spent a fruitless hour or so trying to find a way down from this point, before finally swallowing my pride and retracing my steps back to the point where I originally turned west.
- Rather than heading west at the above-mentioned northern edge, look for cairns heading straight down off the plateau. These may not be easily visible at first, and note that depending on whether or not you find the right path, there may be a bit of scrambling involved.
- Once you have descended to the desert below, head west towards St. Anthony’s. Along the way, you will need to negotiate the occasional wadi (dry riverbed) and pour-off.
- Other than finding the correct route, the most important thing to remember on this hike is WATER. I kid you not, bring loads of it (at least 9 or 10 litres), as there is none to be found on the route. If you choose to camp on the plateau, I would recommend bringing along food that doesn’t need to be cooked in order to cut down on the amount of water you need to carry.
- There is no shade on this trek. A hat and sunscreen are essential.
- Both monasteries have guesthouses for visiting pilgrims. It is best to prearrange your visit with the Coptic Christian church in Cairo.
- If you are going to overnight in the desert, bring a sleeping bag and ideally some sort of mat for insulation. Night time temperatures can get very cold.
- The monasteries of St. Anthony’s and St. Paul’s are incredible places that more than merit a visit in their own right. They date back to the 4th and 5th centuries respectively and are Egypt’s oldest monasteries. If you have the time and can obtain permission, I wholeheartedly recommend a stay of at least a few days at one or both of these amazing sites. It was one of the highlights of my time in Egypt.