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Friday, 19 January 2018

Exploring Egypt: A taste of the Sinai Trail

A trek through the mountains of Sinai offers some stunning scenery, the peace of the desert, nights under twinkling stars and a distinctive Bedouin culture. Following the Sinai Trail makes it all possible

Soha Elsirgany , Wednesday 13 Dec 2017
sinai trail
The Sinai Trail (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
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Through deep valleys, up the highest peaks and everything in between, hiking the Sinai Trail shows off the splendor and diversity of South Sinai, and connects with its Bedouin culture.

 

The award-winning full trail (also called the Thru Hike) is the first long-distance trail in Egypt, and it takes around 14 days to complete the 250km trek – between St. Catherine and Bir El-Soweir (near Ras Shitan).

 

I joined a five-day hiking and camping trip covering the first 47km - between St. Catherine and the Blue Desert - that was organized by the Sinai Trail cooperative in conjunction with adventure trips company Wild Guanabana.

 

The journey was beautiful, challenging, peaceful and invigorating, leaving my brain quieter, my heart fuller, and my body stronger.

 

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Between Wadi Sebaiya and El-Furoosh (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

 

Journey's start

 

The trail is run by the Sinai Trail cooperative, consisting of three Bedouin tribes who reside in different parts of the peninsula – the Jabeleya, Muzeina and Tarabin – along with Englishman Ben Hoffler. A resident of St. Catherine for many years with strong ties to the Bedouin, Hoffler penned the Sinai Trekking Guide and organized the "Sinai is Safe" initiatives.

 

Our starting point was the Desert Fox Camp in St. Catherine, where Ben told me how the trail was designed in the spirit of honoring Bedouin heritage, seeking to benefit their communities by encouraging the local tourism business, which has taken a hit in recent years.

 

“We wanted to do something that would be a counter-narrative to all the bad news and reflect the real Sinai," said Ben. "We felt what would really help is a hiking trail. Let’s use that path to show the beautiful ways of Sinai and how rich the culture is. We felt we have something unique but that people are afraid of, so we wanted to give them an accessible way in.”

 

And so, between 2013 and 2015, four men went into the desert and picked out the best route. We were introduced to one of them, Nasser from Jabeleya tribe, at the Desert Fox camp. He would be our main guide, along with Hemeid, Ramadan, and Christina, who organizes the short trips.

 

Our overnight bus from Cairo dropped us at the camp around 10am, just in time for breakfast. After freshening up and bidding farewell to civilization (showers, phone networks, chairs, sinks, etc.), we began our hike toward a nearby Bedouin orchard, where we would spend the night.

 

On trips like these, the first day is always a detox from busy city life. The restlessness melts away as I adjust to the pace, and my senses become attuned more and more to the silence, the earthy colors, scents of the herbs that we pass by, and the gentle light of dawn that wakes me up.

 

Every day from then on, we rose with the sun, had an early breakfast, packed our things, and got going. Then we were on the move all day, reaching the campsites by dusk.

 

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Farsh Elias (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

 

Closer to the sky

 

The big stars on our part of the trail were Mt. Saint Catherine and Mt. Sinai (also known as Mt. Musa). While Mt. Saint Catherine had us walking up a long zig-zag path on the mountainside, Mt. Musa was a steeper hike of 750 stone steps. Strangely enough, I found that I liked Mt. Musa more. I felt I was being hugged by the mountain; the place felt more spiritual to me.

 

Although the itinerary was set, at some points Nasser would give us options for side-hikes, or the option of which path to take, and we split into groups according to our preference.

 

On the first day there was the option of forming a small group and hiking up Jebel Abbas Basha, Egypt’s second-highest peak. I’d climbed this one before, so I passed on this option. For the record though, it’s very much worth it. It’s a relatively easy hike and the wide peak is a special one, featuring the ruins of the stone palace for Abbas Basha that was never completed. And of course, the view is fantastic – but in Sinai it always is!

 

I did, however, go for the side-hike up a less famous mountain called Ras Sefsafa, and that proved to be a highlight for me. I found scrambling boulders to be more enjoyable than hiking up a sloped path. There’s something about feeling the stones and using the whole body in the climb that made it all the more immersive. This one was like a conversation with the mountain.

 

Towards the top, the shapes of the rocks around us got more and more beautiful – nature’s artwork. While going up, Ramadan, the youngest guide, told me that this underrated peak is among the highest, but it was his first time hiking up it. He is among the few Bedouins in his generation that care about being in the mountains and working as a guide. Ben and the Bedouins hope to change that; by preserving the local culture through the trail, they can pass it on to the younger Bedouin who consider leaving to work in the big cities.

 

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Naqb El-Talla (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

 

On the beaten path

 

In between all these stunning peaks, the trail took us through a wonderfully diverse landscape.

 

“We looked for the most beautiful way, sometimes the most historic way," said Ben. "The Bedouins have a very rich mental map of the desert, so we relied on them taking the lead, each tribe in its own territory.”

 

Listening to Ben, I reflected that sometimes the roads most travelled are the best.

 

Among the highlights for me was an area where the rocks are a smooth and silvery white, marking where the streams would run after the rain. Then there was Wadi El-Arbain around Mt. Catherine, a never-ending downward slope into a deep, deep valley. In the area around Sefsafa, we passed by little old chapels (that aren’t in use), and a tree with beautifully twisted bark.

 

As we walked, our guides would point out different kinds of plants and their uses and benefits, some of which only grow in certain areas. We picked up bouquets of those we liked. When our water bottles were empty, we filled up from the mountain springs, sometimes pulling it up from a well, other times from the slim pipes in the gardens.

 

“We don’t carry the water. The water carries us,” Nasser said, reminding us to stay hydrated.

 

In Wadi Sebaiya we walked along a ledge with mountains to our right and open desert to our left. We crossed flat plains, a welcome change after the rocks and cliffs, and came across a herd of camels. I remember vividly layers of mountains on the horizon against a striking orange-purple sunset.

 

Many times, I would be hiking solo in between the two groups. I was treated to the most humbling moments in the silence of the mountains. There was no one within sight or earshot, just blue skies and the beautiful rocky arrangements.

 

I constantly reminded myself to look up and around me, because it’s so easy to get caught up in watching your step and forget to "really see" where you are.

 

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(Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

 

Cozy campfires

 

Apart from frequent short breaks to catch our breath and grab an energizing snack, our main stop each day was for lunch.

 

I have a soft spot for all kinds of bread, but the flat bread of the Bedouins is easily among my favorites. We would use it to wrap whatever was for lunch; tuna, salad, cheese. These were light and simple meals prepared on the road, and we cherished them more and more every day.

 

In addition, we sampled a few delicacies of desert cuisine, such as the fantastic grilled chicken and delicious mashed potatoes. Around the camp fires, there was always tea and karkade.

 

Unexpectedly, I had hot chocolate over breakfast, and even more unexpectedly Rotella – the long-lost twin of Nutella. This was such a hit that it was devoured in no time.

 

We were lucky enough to have musicians and a singer on the trip, and they entertained us through the evenings, while Nasser told us stories.

 

Huddled by the fire at Farsh Elias, he told us about Stevens, a man who years ago wanted to join the monks but whose request was refused.  Wanting to do something better than transporting goods among the monasteries, he built the paths surrounding Jebel Musa. On a cold day after it had snowed, Stevens was found frozen to death in one of the caves. His body is still preserved in its seated position in the St. Catherine museum.

 

There was another story about the old trade routes, and how the tribes exchanged goods with each other, and another about a bad drought and a monk who prayed for rain. At some point, Nasser looked at the clouds gathering above us, and gave us serious instructions: If it rained at night, he would call out to wake us up, and we should quickly move our tents out of the way of the floods, taking shelter in the stone hut.

 

Despite the danger, I couldn't help secretly thinking it would be cool to witness a flood. In any case, it didn’t rain, and we slept soundly with no drastic midnight adventures.

 

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El-Furoosh (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

 

Notes on expectations

 

Sinai’s mountain hikes are a well-known attraction, but most people – locals and tourists alike – only experience a small part of the peninsula.

The trail is far from any unrest or danger in North Sinai. It's just a great way of getting to know this special land and its knowledgeable, generous people, while supporting their communities, which often feel marginalised.

 

Depending on your perspective, the focus can be physical, spiritual, social, visual or photographic – or a mixture of them all. The trekking is leisurely to intermediate in terms of difficulty, but the whole experience will be more enjoyable if you are well prepared for camping and have a good fitness level.

 

That said, various levels of fitness are accommodated for, with the group dividing into smaller groups to ensure everyone is comfortable with their pace. Having a knee injury, I was proudly with the slow group, which turned out to be wonderful. Going at a slower pace gives you time to really take it all in.

 

Each night we camped in a different orchard, with tents provided by Wild Guanabana, and one night we had the option of a sharing a room. Only on the last night did we camp in the open desert, wedged between mountains.

 

There was always the option of “the million star” hotel, with just a sleeping bag and no tent, under a blanket of stars.

 

You can book a hike with the Sinai Trail through their website, where you’ll find all the necessary information and maps of the route. The trips are also announced on their Facebook page. The shorter trips are a convenient way to explore the trail in segments, without committing to a two-week vacation, but those interested in the full trail will not be disappointed.

 

In the meantime, Ben hopes the project will expand to include more tribes and become a platform for sharing Bedouin culture through different mediums.

 

“We’re just beginning to discover all the pieces of heritage that you can discover walking this path,” he said.

 

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On the Sinai Trail (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

 

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