Finding my own place
◆ John Hill is a renowned garden designer based in the Cotswolds and is a Director of SKGR CIC.
There was only one thing to do today and that was ‘to find the right place’. This was the place I would spend the next three days, on my own, in the magical, wild yet wonderfully protective sand, rock and sky of the Sinai desert. There had to be a small flat area of sand to lay out my sleeping bag, some shelter from the wind, some feeling of containment and seclusion, but mostly ‘just the right place’. So climbing the dune above our Bedouin camp, turning right between two rock walls, down to a stone plateau, up a steep scramble of sand and rock, down into a wide valley, across the stone pavement skirting the base of a big dune and there, tucked between the side of the dune and a protective rock wall, was ‘my place’. Perfect, like coming home. Now I could collect my water and blankets and settle in and settle down.
This was only the second full day of my week in the Sinai desert on a desert retreat. I’d arrived on the Sunday evening, catapulted in by Easyjet to Sharm el-Sheikh. then a minibus to the road-head, a jeep across the desert sand and finally a walk to our Bedouin tent for a body and soul-warming soup cooked by our Bedouin hosts and to meet my companions for the week ahead.
A sleep that night under the stars, which had been turned on full (for my benefit, I knew) and I woke as the sun replaced the crescent moon over the rocky outcrop below the camp. A breakfast of flat bread, feta cheese, tomatoes and eggs, and the first of a series of ‘check-in’ meetings with the rest of the group, who were to become such close fellow travellers over the next few days.
The first full day was spent making friends with this beautiful landscape. Here was raw planet: soft sandstone mounts rounded by the wind into a succession of female, breast-shaped forms with sand dunes and rock pavements in between. A very manageable, friendly and intimate landscape; a place you could get to know and gradually map in your mind. So that’s what we did: walked and climbed for most of the day, becoming familiar with its slopes and faces. We struggled up steep dunes and slid down the other side. We crossed wide valleys of rock and scrambled up Jebal Matamir for a spectacular 360-degree view. And at the back of our minds we knew that somewhere would be our chosen retreat spot for the days ahead. Our Bedouin hosts had brought lunch up to a shaded gully high between two rock faces, lit a fire and brewed hibiscus tea. We felt at home in our new world (less than twenty-four hours in) and rested contentedly in the shade.
A steep descent, a traverse over sheets of sandstone pavements and finally back to the Bedouin camp. We relaxed and spent time talking about the meaning of retreat and how we had each come to be here and why; baring our souls in preparation and feeling the benefit of doing so.
Another evening meal around the fire with good conversation, hearing about the Bedouin lives, and back out under the stars again. They were becoming good friends. and so to Tuesday, the second day, a day of preparation: finding one’s retreat spot, more useful things to know for the days ahead – how many bottles of water to take, and not to forget to take some salt (I did forget). How to leave messages on a chosen rock to signal that everything was okay. Otherwise there would be no contact between us until Friday morning. And more conversation on the deeper meanings of fasting and retreat, with poetry from Rumi to lighten the heart.
It felt exciting now, but gently exciting, somehow being aware of the long heritage of fasting and retreat that this extensive landscape of Sinai has supported over the centuries. We were joining into something with real history – the desert fathers, the monks of St Katherine’s monastery, mount Sinai. Who knows how many great spirits had encamped here.
After a pre-fast soup we met on the dune for meditation and leave-taking and quietly headed out for our chosen spots, slightly excited, slightly apprehensive, looking forward to finding out how to be on one’s own, the rocks and sand and sky and oneself as companion, no food but copious water and plenty of time. All that happened in those sixty hours is another tale to tell. Certainly on every level I felt very safe, supported, protected, and continually nourished. I didn’t even think about food – it would have been something added on. The sun, the landscape and my water bottle were quite enough. And all that time…well, with absolutely nothing I had to do, the time became rich and full, sometimes sitting, sometimes walking – simple, secure, healing and very sweet.
We met back on the dune for sunrise on Friday and greeted our companions with real warmth. A breakfast table had been laid out on the sand above the camp – an exquisite feast for body and soul prepared by our Bedouin friends, whom one knew understood the process we had been taken through and had maintained a quiet support throughout our journey.
We ate and each spoke something of their own story of the last two days, each with gratitude for their experience. We’d been broken open and it was good to tumble our souls together in that condition.
Then we were given a still-warm bottle of herbal wash made by our Bedouin friends from herbs collected from their desert home. We returned to our own retreat places for a sand bath and herbal ablution. We packed up, returned to base. A simple lunch and we set off across the desert by camel or foot some fifteen kilometres to another special spot, Jebal Baraka (mountain of Grace). This was a journey across a wide and different desert with big views and resonances of Arabian Sands; the sense of just setting off across the surface of the planet with no mark of man, or road, or sign post. The Bedouin had pitched their tent ahead of us and that evening we had a feast to follow our fast and sweet companionship around the desert fire.
Another night under the stars. An early climb up Jebal Baraka with a rocky scramble to the top for a view across the whole world as the sun rose. Breakfast had been laid out on the desert sand. Camp was struck and we headed off for another good journey as the sun rose high in the sky.
Surprisingly we parted company that afternoon. Had it really only been a week? I doubt it, whatever the calendar said; but if it was, it was a week like no other. I know I had been supported, healed, and washed through. I felt lighter and clearer and great gratitude for such an opportunity.
I think this is something everybody should do. At least once.
◆ This retreat journey was organised through the Makhad Trust, a charity that works to sustain the environment and natural heritage of the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai mountains and desert in Egypt and other nomadic regions of the world.