In London, where isolation means having a garden that isn't overlooked by the neighbours and remote means living more than ten minutes away from a tube station, it's difficult to get any sense of space. In Sinai, it's difficult not to.
I always thought that the desert necessarily meant undulating sand dunes with the occasional clump of palm trees, but in Sinai one soon discovers the same variation of landscape that Miss Smilla observed in snow. At times the scenery looks almost lunar and at others it's barren and rubble strewn - as if vast areas had been levelled in preparation for a layer of concrete and a new car park. Jagged mountains soar into the cloudless sky, as if God had chopped them up with a axe, while others squat in the sand, eroded into looming, sphinx-like shapes that look both sinister and beautiful. Now and again there's a lone camel, or a herd of goats with a Bedouin girl hunkered in the shade of a solitary tree, or a woman swathed in black walking, seemingly aimlessly, off into the distance.
Our hotel on the coast near Nuweiba is off the beaten track, even for Sinai. We are alone except for a 'resting' French actress, a few Israeli beach-bums and a goat. There are also about ten Germans doing something called Desert Experience which sounds like some sort of bizarre Teutonic YTS scheme but just means they sleep on the beach and disappear for long periods on camel-back. The amiable staff outnumber the guests by at least five to one but do not intrude - since the actress has a penchant for walking topless along the beach, they are mostly to be found following her up and down the sand.
We have two little chalets on the beach, each surprisingly well equipped. A fridge, an air conditioner, a mirror that makes one look half a stone lighter and satellite television. However, out of the eighteen channels we receive, nine show Euro Sport and one Polsat which features American soap operas with a man reading all the parts in Polish just a little louder than the original soundtrack. The kids watch Indian MTV. mesmerised by a succession of fat men in turbans singing songs that sound like entries for the Eurovision song contest.
We do the obligatory tourist stuff - the desert sleep out, the treks and even swim with some tame dolphins. We hire a taxi to take us to St Katherine's - the oldest monestary in the world nestling at the foot of Mount Sinai. Here the crowds are back. Sweating, red-fleshed tourists fill the narrow paths around the main chapel, all jostling and pushing like the first day of Harrod's sale. I'm explaining to my younger son that 'No Smoking' is not one of the ten commandments when a tour guide asks me to be quiet - I'm interrupting his lecture. I only just manage stop myself breaking both his neck and the commandment about taking the Lord's name in vain as we are pushed past the Chapel of the Burning Bush. There are too many people to make this a spiritual experience. The scent of sun-tan lotion overwhelms the incense in the Byzantine church but when I struggle to extricate myself from the midst of a group of Huddersfield pensioners, I catch the bemused, soft-eyes of a monk and he smiles at me, transforming the day.
Out in the garden, peace returns. There is a pink stucco building which contains piles of assorted bones and a wall of grinning skulls. According to the guide book these are the disinterred bones of the previous generations of monks and supposed to remind the current monks of their impending death. But death is never far away in the Sinai. One can't help feeling a creeping sense of desolation in the cracks of the dried up river beds, or in the reddish rock that crumbles into dust underfoot. On another trip, we drive through the desert to explore the winding valleys of the Coloured Canyon when our four wheel drive coughs like an emphasemic old man and shudders to a halt. Suddenly one realises that a half-bottle of mineral water isn't going to last very long in the brutal heat.
But the landscape isn't as forsaken as one imagines. The routes we tourists follow are well worn. Another Toyota land-cruiser appears with almost the same frequency as it would in Kensington High Street, albeit full of sun-burnt American matrons with crescents of sweat under their breasts instead of a single, pampered baby. The drivers all seem to know one another and stop to offer help, but who needs the AA when you have a driver like Saeed? He fixes the faulty fuel lead with a spare from his trunk and then, when we break down again a couple of kilometres further down the trail, he whips out a length electric cord and fits it underneath the steering wheel. When we have a puncture fifteen minutes later one begins to see why Moses spent so long wandering in the wilderness.
Saeed wants to reward us for our patience and takes us on a small detour to pick some Babounij - a sort of wild camomile. He tells us that when wet, the plant gives off a sweet, fragrant perfume. We are all suitably enchanted until Saeed takes a big slug of bottled water and spits ferociously over the flowers before ceremoniously presenting them to my eldest daughter.
However, we've really come here for the beach. The Red Sea is warm, calm and salty enough to mean that all one has to do is plop in and float. The coral reef is just meters from the shore line and teeming with technicolour fish. The kids go snorkelling, itemising the fish they've seen - one calmly announcing she'd spotted a barracuda lying on the sea bed. The others play in the sand with a collection of grotesque plastic 'Boglins' they brought from home. Within minutes the usual trickle of children from a nearby Bedouin village wander along trying to sell us bracelets. We wave them away. If we buy any more we beads will have to resort to coiling them round our neck like a Masai warrior.
Undeterred, the girls crouch at our feet, spreading out necklace after necklace, stroking them lovingly. 'Your sister big she buy bracelet' one insists, pointing to my elder daughter. I shake my head and hide behind my book. They try their luck further up the beach but the goat doesn't want anything either and soon they're back, hovering by my chair. They watch our children build a Boglin city and fascinated, they inch closer until they're helping with the walls and driving toy cars along sand-flattened motorways, commerce forgotten for the moment.
The smallest Bedouin girl spends the rest of the morning crooning to Barbie while the other gazes entranced at a yellow blob of plastic that looks like a toad with fangs. When they finally leave, half the population of Boglinville mysteriously disappears with them.
The food in the hotel is practically inedible and within days I am following the strict Sinai diet of bottled water and Lemotil which is more successful than months of weight-watchers. Between this and the magic mirror I soon imagine I am playing the female lead in the English Patient and take to wearing filmy scarves while adopting a pained expression. I'm surprised to find husband sleeping beside me instead of Ralph Ffiennes but fortunately husband is a champion mosquito swatter which reconciles me to reality.
Unfortunately the diet isn't so popular with everyone. The kids are tired of eating barely defrosted hot-dog rolls for breakfast and we search out the local bakery for fresh bread. It's a breeze-block building on the edge of what passes for the town centre with an awning made of torn up cardboard boxes. It is also closed. We pick our way fastidiously through the assorted debris lining the street. It's an informal rubbish dump, a ripe cocktail of crushed tins, discarded olive oil cans, rotting vegetables and worse - not unlike Portobello Market at the end of the day. Except that here, no garbage truck ever comes.
The supermarket is a tiny shop selling melting ice cream, and Cadbury's chocolate - obviously we are not the first tourists to come in search of snacks. We leave clutching a couple of packets of custard creams, a box of cereal and two bags of crisps which seem to cost the same as a full weeks shop at Sainsbury's, and head back to the tranquility of the beach.
I lie in the sun, an ice cold beer in one hand and William Boyd, figuratively speaking, in the other. The sea is lapping at my toes and the only sound, apart from contented children's laughter, is that of the waiter's heels crunching in the sand as he adjusts the angle of my parasol. I know sun-bathing is dangerous and skin cancer surely the punishment of a cruel, Calvanistic god visited on slothful, Red-haired Scots such as myself. Ah, but what the hell - pass the sun-block.