Egypt's hikers: If only camels had wings

Injy El-Kashef, Saturday 22 Feb 2014

As the tragic saga surrounding the deaths of four hikers last week in Egypt's Saint Catherine mountains continues to raise a national storm, Ahram Online seeks experts' answers off the beaten track

A Bedouin on Sinai's St.Catherine mountain (Photo:Reuters)

Aiming for the breathtaking vistas offered by the Saint Catherine National Park’s mountain trails, eight Egyptian young men and women were caught by an unforeseen blizzard a week ago. When the rescue team succeeded to locate the stranded hikers, only four were still alive while the rest had by then offered their last frozen breaths to their nation’s future – the purpose of the group’s trip, we now know, having been to promote internal travel as Egypt’s tourism industry continues to be battered by the political unrest that has gripped the country since the 25 January uprising in 2011.

The hikers’ tragedy took the country by storm. Anger, heartbreak and confusion raged high all week, fuelled by conflicting reports and a prevalent unfamiliarity with the nature of the activity they were engaged in as well as the exceptional weather circumstance which caught them unawares. Blizzard, hiking and mountains are words the average Egyptian simply does not often hear.

Speaking to Ahram Online, however, pioneer of hiking in Egypt Mohamed Mabrouk and administrator of the 6,572-member strong Facebook group SaharaSafaris which organises regular courses, workshops and expeditions related to adventure travel, revealed that prior to the January 2011 revolution Egyptian mountains received no less than 300,000 hikers a year – 95 percent of whom were foreigners – who mostly headed to Mount Sinai in the Saint Catherine National Park. “My estimates [for the number of hikers] to other places in Egypt are around 10,000 every year, about half of whom are Egyptian,” he added.  

Considering the challenges posed by the activity, and the relatively significant numbers who undertake it in Egypt, Ahram Online asked Mabrouk to detail the measures set up by the state to safeguard hikers’ lives and how they correspond to global standards.

There are many differences between countries, the hiking guru replied, “but one thing seems common among them and different from our case in Egypt: flying and air evacuation. In very underprivileged African countries, ambulances are not possible because of non-existent roads [in hiking areas], so flying is the best way of moving hikers. In developed countries such as Canada and the USA, remote [hiking] areas are so distant that planes are also common. Egypt is between the two, with very remote areas – like the South Sinai mountains and the [Western Desert's] Oweinat region – but no air ambulance. Desert safaris and mountain hiking depend on people’s best efforts [during emergencies] and not on any established evacuation system.”

What rescue measures are then provided by the South Sinai Governorate, since it receives the most hikers? The hiking area is part of the Saint Catherine National Park, Mabrouk said, “Tourists pay tickets to enter the town of Katrina -- which is at the core of the protected area governed by laws imposed by the Ministry of Environment alongside Egypt’s civil laws. There, in an office, sits a medical ranger entrusted with the role of reaching people in the mountain to treat them.”

In emergency situations, he continued, the local Bedouins who inhabit the area and know its trails like the backs of their hands invariably depend on their own means -- such as camels and individuals from among them to carry injured hikers down from the mountains -- because no vehicles can access the elevated rugged terrain, only planes. “Some trips are equipped with satellite phones, which [require a] licence in Egypt, but not all [expeditions] stipulate them since," in the absence of an air ambulance number to contact, Mabrouk added “the only means of rescue still remains on camelback.”

But weren’t last week’s hikers accompanied by a Bedouin guide as well? “Yes,” Mabrouk confirmed, “They had a guide, but one from outside the official channels of Sheikh Moussa who runs the tourism business of the whole tribe and whose office coordinates with, and is licenced by, the state. The company that organised [this expedition] usually chooses to do so [hire an outsider guide], which is not the common practice. But although the trip was not arranged through them, the local Bedouins’ response to the emergency did not differ. They reacted as soon as the alarm reached the town through a messenger, as the city of Katrina itself was plunged in a complete blackout of all mobile and landline communication, which impacted everything.”

Although army helicopters air-lifted the blizzard’s victims once the latter had been transported to a clearing on camelback, “The Jabaliya Bedouin tribe inhabiting the area,” Mabrouk stressed, “were — without a doubt — the unsung heroes [of the rescue mission]. This must be documented and told. Their honour code, which dictates that every visitor is received with all legendary traditional hospitality, is what preserves the lives of their guests.”

As the news of the four young hikers’ deaths struck Egyptians with grief, some voices began to emerge wondering if such an adventurous activity should not be discontinued without a permit or licence. Egyptian journalist and hiker Nadia El-Awady, who scaled the forbidding peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain, towering 5,895 metres above sea level – commented on the suggestion by drawing a simple parallel during the Wednesday 19 February episode of TV host Yousri Fouda’s popular talk show aired on ONTV: hiking is like swimming, and the mountains are like the sea, she said. Just as no one is required to obtain a special permit to swim – despite the potential risk of drowning – so too no permit should be required to allow a person to hike, stated El-Awady, adding that in areas known to attract swimmers or hikers, basic safety measures must instead be available. 

Additionally, Mabrouk clarified that the large majority of Egypt’s mountain hikes necessitate no preliminary experience whatsoever and can be undertaken by children as well as the elderly. “Only tour leaders and organisers are required to have some experience and ability to handle situations,” he said, adding that the route chosen by last Saturday’s unfortunate Saint Catherine hikers “was not really a problem, although others may have chosen one closer to town for faster and easier evacuation.”

Mabrouk stated that, as a rule of thumb, hiking in the Saint Catherine area during the winter season is always discouraged. “The weather forecast poses an additional problem because the definition of a blizzard or sandstorm requires some experience in reading the wind regime and forecast, precipitation as well as the geography of the area. This [incident] should sound an alarm for weather forecast authorities to provide suitable information for specific activities, such as hiking – just like the specialised forecast for boats is unlike that for planes because their activities are different,” he said. 

Combining snowfall and a wind storm, when a blizzard starts while you walk, “You cannot see the trail/road or the landmarks you use to find the way (houses, fences, mountains, etc…) but you have to keep walking to warm yourself,” Mabrouk explained on his Facebook group, proceeding to list the subsequent stages inflicted by the ruthless weather condition, ending with the shutdown of bodily functions in the final stages of hypothermia.

A blizzard in temperate climate such as Egypt's is an extraordinary occurrence, yet extraordinary events are precisely the necessary ingredient often required to shed light on ordinary conditions. 

Speaking to Ahram Online, long-time ecotourism pioneer and recipient of the Egyptian Tourism Authority’s 2009 award for his contributions in the field, Walid Ramadan stressed that regulations must govern activities of a potentially hazardous nature such as hiking. “Ecotourism is a great source of revenue for the country. It’s not chemistry to plan it properly,” he said. “This is a wake-up call for all concerned authorities to institute the appropriate safety measures without making the endless permits usually required of travelers so forbiddingly complicated that Egyptians and foreigners alike are left with no real choice but bypass them,” Ramadan warned.

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