In light of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and increasingly difficult visa processes, more and more Egyptians are turning to domestic tourism. Yet, while tourists continue for the most part to visit South Sinai, there are still widespread security concerns over travel in the rest of the peninsula, particularly areas of North Sinai, where movement is restricted amid ongoing threats from militant groups in the area and a crackdown by security forces following the removal of President Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013.
In an effort to boost tourism in some of South Sinai’s less frequented territories, three Bedouin tribes in the area have collaborated to run the “Sinai Trail,” a mountaineering and trekking initiative that stretches 200 km from the Gulf of Aqaba to the city of Saint Catherine, with the support of foreign funds.
Invited by the organizers to cover the project, I joined 21 other hikers and journalists on the trail’s inaugural hike. Far from the heavily-secured roads connecting various cities in Sinai, the mountainous heart of the peninsula retains a degree of autonomy, run and secured by various Bedouin tribes that have maintained good relations with the Armed Forces in the area.
“The Bedouin tribes are capable of keeping Sinai safe without arms,” says Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rashed from the Jebeleyya Tribe, and the spokesperson for the Sinai Trail. “We abide by Bedouin laws, Al-a’raf — [communal laws] that aren’t enforced by the government.”
Despite their relative autonomy, Abu Rashed stresses that the Bedouin communities in the area remain on good terms with the Armed Forces. “The Bedouins are usually misunderstood by younger, lower-ranking soldiers, but the generals maintain a deep understanding of our culture and what it stands for,” he says.
“To bridge any gaps that may have occurred between the authorities and our community, and to avoid any unnecessary violence, we make sure that younger Bedouins are also educated in the proper ways of dealing with soldiers,” he adds.
The Bedouins involved in the organization of the Sinai Trail also sought support from the Ministry of Tourism, which they say fell on deaf ears — from calls that were never returned to appointments that were never granted. Key figures from among the Bedouin community frequently tried to reach out to the ministry in the hope of securing assistance in highlighting the various forms of tourism that lie in the mountain ranges of the peninsula, not just tourism on its coasts.
“It wasn’t until we won the BGTW [best tourism project at the British Guild of Travel Writers in late 2016] that Tourism Ministry officials actually started listening to us,” Abu Rashed says. Nonetheless, no clear assistance was offered from the ministry.
The Sinai Trail provides Bedouin communities with job opportunities, and as such, its organizers are keen to continue finding ways around the obstacles they face.
In November 2016, 22 hikers from Egypt, Italy, Jordan, the US, the UK, New Zealand and Spain, accompanied by guides and a caravan of cameleers, started walking over 200 kilometers from the Gulf of Aqaba at Ras Shitan to the city of Saint Catherine.
They were the inaugural group to hike the full length of the Sinai Trail — a first of its kind collaboration between three Bedouin tribes aiming to create a new kind of tourism in Sinai that is distinct from its large beach developments.
The trail took them on rocky paths, through vast tracts of soft sand and over a few mountaintops. They came across unfamiliar plants, insects and animals. Here Mostafa Abul Fadl inspects an insect.
The Bedouin community once made a living guiding pilgrims and traders through the Sinai mountain ranges, but today this practice has become a rarity, as the government has focused on costal tourism developments, leaving central Sinai underdeveloped and under a tight security lock down. Without economic incentives, younger generations are losing the skills and culture of their nomadic past. One of the primary goals of the Sinai Trail is to train Bedouin youth in the ways of the mountains. Badr (left) and Seif (right) are two of the youngest trainees that accompanied the expedition.
Hikers would wake at sunrise and start walking around 8.30 am, reaching their next campsite shortly before sunset, around 5.30 pm. Fatigued by the day, many hikers would call it a day as early as 8 or 9 pm, while others would share stories, poetry or music.
“Life is good,” Musallem, a guide from the Tarabin tribe would repeat, like a mantra of sorts that caught on with the rest of the team.
Most days there was no shelter from the sun except for sparse trees, so the wild reeds provided a perfect refuge for hikers during their lunch breaks.
The hike passed through three tribal territories, and a convoy of cameleers from each tribe accompanied the hikers, carrying their luggage, food and water. Most of the time, the caravan and hikers walked different routes and reunited later in the day at the campsite.
The Bedouin guides would stop and educate the hikers on wildlife in the mountains, including plants. Musallem described the faith many Bedouins have in the healing powers of the plants, stressing that it only takes place if you believe in it. “Don't you take a pill believing it will cure you too?” he says.
Ephemeral evening light cuts through the mountains in the moments before the sun sets.
There aren’t many mobile phone towers in central Sinai, but sometimes when cresting a tall mountain, hikers would discover a signal and make a call or check their emails. Knowing which mountaintops are within range of a signal is one of the new skills the guides have acquired. This was especially useful when one of the trainees became sick and needed to be removed from the trail.
The Sinai Trail is one of the few cross-tribal projects in Sinai, as it passes through the territories of the Tarabin, Mezeina and Jebeleyya tribes. Although the tribes are at peace with one another, they usually keep to themselves. On the trail, senior guides, trainee guides and cameleers from different tribes have to collaborate. In this photo are Musallem Abu Farraj (left) from the Tarabin tribe and Nasr Mansour (right) from the Jebeleyya tribe.
The three daily meals were simple but surprisingly tasty. Usually comprised of freshly baked bread, vegetables, soup and various types of salads, they relied on ingredients high in carbohydrates and fiber to energize hikers.
The nawamis are a group of circular buildings near the main road connecting Nuweiba and Saint Catherine. Although people agree the buildings may date back to Ancient Egypt, there isn’t any information available on what they are or who built them.
Halfway up Mount Moses, Julie Paterson and Nick Redmayne improvised a hair salon using a Swiss knife and a shawl.
Walking through the mountain range, one encounters ever-changing terrains, from rocky and rigid routes to vast sandy plains.
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rashed from the Jebeleyya tribe, official spokesperson for the Sinai Trail, meets with the hikers. Although key Bedouin representatives have often reached out to ministry officials in a plea to include all of Sinai in their tourism campaign, it wasn’t until the Sinai Trail won the Best Tourism Project at the British Guild of Travel Writers in late 2016 that the community had any responses from ministry personnel.
After summiting Jebel Moussa (Mount Sinai) on day 10, the hikers descended just 300 meters from the summit and set up camp at Farsh Elias (Elijah's Basin). The cold was debilitating, so they gathered around the fire to recharge before heading back to the trail.
In the final days of the expedition, some hikers celebrated pushing their physical limitations, while others sat quietly, breathing in the serenity of the view and the silence.