Exploring Egypt: Shalateen, travel to the country's southernmost region

Nadine Abu El Atta, Sunday 23 Apr 2017

Walking towards the beach at the Southern end of Egypt (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

I was sitting with friends at a busy coffee shop in Downtown Cairo when the Whatsapp message came: “permits issued, we leave on the 26th.” 

It had been a dream of mine to visit Egypt’s southern triangle of Shalateen, Abou Ramaad, and Halayeb.

However, our request for permits took longer than expected to be approved, and the permits were finally issued just over a day before our trip.

Filled with excitement, we packed our bags and began at noon our 17-hour journey to the south of Egypt, stopping in several cities along the way.

Somewhere around 3:30am the following day, we arrived at Ras Hadarba – about 200 kilometres north of Shalateen – where we were woken up at an army checkpoint, with soldiers boarding the bus to confirm that every passenger has a permit and does not look suspicious.

This was a very common occurrence as we kept heading south.

Shalateen's city streets and houses (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

Just before sunrise we had reached the borders of Shalateen, where our permits were checked again and we were finally ushered to the start of a magical adventure.

Reaching the centre of the small Bedouin city just after 6am, we found a few shops already open; a camel’s milk stand, a bread shop, and a green grocer.

The entire market has just over 10 shops, with a goat market on one side and a camel market on the other.

The city centre has around three or so restaurants. As we settled in the larger one, we began our breakfast with gabbana, a spiced coffee – also common in Nubia – followed by a delicious traditional Egyptian breakfast feast of bread, cheese, eggs, foul, and jam.

The market and the goats

We arrived early, and our hotel rooms were not yet ready, so we spent a couple of hours checking every shop in the one-street city centre.

Even though the market is very limited in variety, Shalteen’s herb shops are very rich with options that we had not come across in other Egyptian cities, not even in Aswan.

Camel's milk small shop. (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

From Khorinjal to Sudanese garad, I bought every herb I could not pronounce. Now they are all in my kitchen and I have no idea what I should use them for.

Most shops in Shalateen do not have locals managing them. Almost all the salesmen were from Qena, with the exception of one Bedouin in the camel’s milk shop.

Intrigued, I had a brief chat with the man, who, while very friendly, was a bit cautious with his words.

He explained that he does not always have camel’s milk to sell, and thus needs to diversify his means of income. He then showed me a chilli-flavoured Sudanese cigarette packet, which, according to my smoker friends, is beyond heavy.

Locals are very friendly and welcoming; yet the significant lack of tourism in the area has rendered them inhibited when approached by any outsider.

As we walked through the poor streets of Shalateen, many asked us if we were a medical or charity convoy, our answer that we were simply visitors seemed to confuse almost all the locals.

Southern spices that will tickle your nose at the local market in Shalateen (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

It is quite a common occurrence to see goats roaming the street unmonitored, though the owner of every goat is known.

Walking towards the end of the main street, we stumbled onto the goat market, filled with all ages and colours of goats.

While to an outsider it looks like a confusing group of goats surrounded by herdsmen; each herd was skilfully separated from the rest.

The whole market shared their smiles, offered us their goats to carry, and some even asked to pose for photos.

Closing in on 24 hours, we were delighted to know that the hotel was finally ready to receive us.

The hotel

Dr Barghout’s Hotel is one of the few three-storey buildings constructions in the entire town, and probably the largest building in Shalateen.

The hotel has only one clerk, Shazly, who is also the cleaning man and the manager.

As we walked through the corridors, we kept stumbling across paper notes stuck to the walls with his phone number in case he was needed.

I only saw Shazly – who is also from Qena – twice in five days; the day he gave us the room key and the day we gave him the key back.

Otherwise, the hotel was completely void of help or security, yet completely safe.

The beds were very comfortable, and the rooms technically had modern amenities, even though most of them barely worked.

Once we opened the shower we were unable to shut it off for five days straight, and that’s just to name one example; the rest of the bathroom was also a hilarious adventure. Needless to say, we loved every bit of it. It was all part of our adventure.

Locals watching us tourists (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

The magnificent beach

To seize the day, we only rested for one hour and then headed to the beach.

The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, and we were asked to walk straight right into the desert. We walked around 1.5 kilometres (about a mile), finally reaching an emerald blue lagoon.

It is very raw out there. As you look at the sand you see the different tracks of birds, crabs, and other animals. Looking to the side, you see some Bedouins with a couple of camels standing by the shoreline.

The pristine beach in Shalateen (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

Truly, pictures do not do justice to the beaches of the south; we quickly took off our clothes and ran towards the water, partly due to excitement but mostly due to the cold wind.

The water was excruciatingly cold and saltier than northern regions of the Red Sea, but we couldn’t care less. It was gorgeous and the experience was breathtaking.

As the day got warmer, we left the saltiness of the emerald waves and enjoyed our lunch under the warmth of the sun.

We were often visited by army soldiers throughout our journey, who asked for our permits and double checked who we were; and the faraway lagoon was no exception.

As the afternoon approached, the tide began to narrow the pathway we walked to reach our secluded beach. We then quickly packed our stuff and walked back towards the main road.

The magnificent beach at Shalateen (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

By the time we made it back to our hotel it was late afternoon.

I jumped into our ongoing shower, washed off the saltiness of the sea and got ready for the night.

We sat in a local coffee shop (ahwa) and ordered Shalateen’s special; tea with helf barr, an herb found in the mountains that is believed to be very healthy for the digestive system.

As we laughed the night away, our energy finally ran out and it was time to sleep.

The beautiful camel posing for a photo (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

The camel market

Waking up with the crack of dawn, it was time for some more exploring. We began our day with a visit to the camel market.

Camels make their way from Sudan or further south in Africa to Cairo’s camel markets, though some end their journey in Shalateen.

The place is unexpectedly quiet, clean, and well organised for a camel market.

The camel market in Shalteen (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

Everyone was very welcoming and they were all very patient with the overly excited tourists; after all, it was our first time in a camel market.

The camels not only differed in size, but were visibly of different grades.

Camels from all breeds and sizes at the camel market in Shalateen (Photo: Nadine Abu El Atta)

Additionally, many of the camels had one tied leg to prevent them from running away, a common practice as explained by the herdsmen.

As we went back towards the city centre and our coffee shop, to relax and have some more gabbana, one of our friends went to buy some camel meat.

When he returned, he surprised us with a common Sudanese drink called Sharboot.

As the name would cause any Egyptian to laugh hysterically, we all took our time to absorb the drink’s name, which sounds remarkably similar to a vulgar Egyptian insult.

The drink is mostly made out of dates, herbs and spices simmered for several hours.

In terms of smell and taste, Sharboot is by no means average, it is very sharp and heavily date-infused. It is definitely worth a try!

As the day came to a close, so did our adventure in Shalateen.

We went to our hotel rooms, packed lightly and headed towards Abou Ramad and Halayeb to explore the southernmost point in Egypt.

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