“The mountains are always good. They tire the legs and relax the mind.” – Nasser Mansour, Jebeleya Tribe, South Sinai
Stretching from the gulf of Aqaba to the roof of Egypt, the recently established Sinai Trail is certainly one to go on every long-distance-hiker’s list. It begins in the coastal plains near Nuweiba and ends in the mountain town of St Katherine, weaving through 250km of diverse desert and mountain landscapes giving the hiker an intimate experience with the nature, heritage and the culture of the Bedouin people.
The trail is much more than just the landscape and the hiking. It is about the people. Here I have shared with you some of my experiences and what I learnt, but if you want more you are just going to have to go and walk it yourself 😉
It was established by Bedouin guides from three separate tribes, the Tarabin, the Muzeina and the Jebeleya that have connected old trade, travel and pilgrimage routes into this one incredible trail. It was created not only to be able to share this unique landscape with other Egyptians and travellers, but also to preserve their heritage and improve the community economy since the downturn in tourism that so greatly affected the whole of Egypt, and in particular the forgotten Sinai.
The Sinai Peninsula of Egypt has the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Red Sea to the south, “mainland” Egypt to the west and Israel to the east. It is divided into two goveronates, the South Sinai Governorate and the North Sinai Governorate. Unfortunately, the South Sinai region often gets a bad rap, being rolled up into one with the North Sinai, a region that has become increasingly unstable and unfortunately has been the victim of past and recent terror attacks. The Tih Plateau runs east to west through the peninsula creating a natural barrier between the North and South Sinai. The south is secured by police patrols, checkpoints and the Bedouin people that have firm control of their tribal territories. No outsider can go into the deserts or mountains unnoticed by the Bedouin. They are like the secret guardians of the South Sinai, ensuring safety for all those who come to visit.
I was lucky enough to be invited along to trek the trail by a photographer called Frits Meyst (check out his brilliance at www.4ever.travel) who I randomly met when I was in Mongolia of all places! He had been asked to photograph the trail for the Sinai Trail Organisation and needed ‘hiking models’. As I was already planning to be in the area, I happily jumped at the opportunity. Upon arrival I was welcomed straight away by the lovely Sinai Trail team who have done much groundwork for the trail and were also part of the hiking shoot.
“When you walk in the desert, you do not think.” – Musallem Abu Faraj, Tarabin tribe
The entire trail takes 12-14 days to walk, however we did it in six days, using camels to carry supplies and jeeps to cover some of the long distances to speed up the process (all hikers can choose to do some or all of the trail). We started off by the sea, hiked into the hills and camped under the stars. Donned with my honorary Bedouin name – Salma (meaning ‘peaceful’ or ‘safe and sound’ in arabic) – we set off early the following day to make the most of the photogenic early morning light. What followed over the next few days was an incredible journey through desert plains, wide wadis, coloured canyons, green oases, rugged sandstone peaks and tall granite mountains.
The Bedouin people and the Bedouin life are an essential part of the journey, enriching the experience like nothing else. They are the proof that people can live in this harsh and dry environment. Knowing where to find water, what plants are edible and which have medicinal properties and how to care for their animals. Navigating through this landscape is a skill on its own, something that the local Bedouin can basically do with their eyes closed. Nobody else knows the Sinai as well as they do.
“I learn from you, you learn from me. We all learn from each other.” – Nasser Mansour, Jebeleya Tribe, South Sinai
The Sinai Trail has created jobs and a sustainable economy for the local people. This has allowed them to maintain their traditional lifestyle. The younger generations of Bedouin receive training and guidance from the older generations on everything required to become a guide as well as english lessons and training in wilderness first aid. Much of the Bedouin knowledge and history remains unwritten. There are many place names, stories, songs and poems that contain the skills needed to live in and pass through this arid and unforgiving landscape. By providing meaning, a future and a genuine source of income to these vital Bedouin skills and knowledge, they hopefully won’t get lost.
We were guided by the three head Bedouin guides and their apprentices in their respective territories: Musallem Abu Faraj from the Tarabin tribe, Faraj Suleman from the Muzeina tribe and Nasser Mansour from the Jebeleya tribe. We were also fortunate enough to meet Faraj Mahmoud and Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rashid, two key Bedouins working hard behind the scenes on establishing the trail and maintaining good relationships between the tribes.
The secret for a happy and long life by Doctor Ahmed Mansour (Jebeleya Tribe) – “Eat less bad food”
We drank tea by the fire, shared stories (including local ghost stories), laughed and ate incredible fresh food prepared by the Bedouins. (Why have I never made my own bread while out hiking? It was so delicious!). In St Katherine we explored the Bedouin gardens tucked into the mountain valleys and had the chance to meet the lovely doctor Ahmed Mansour, who for many years has treated the various ailments of the local people. He has noticed over time that more and more people have been coming to him for reasons other than physical problems: stress, anxiety and other mental health issues. Doctor Ahmed puts this down to the modern lifestyle that puts too much pressure on people these days. When asked what his key was for a happy and long life he said: “Eat less bad food”.
The trail ends at the ‘roof of Egypt’ in the town of St Katherine. At over 1500m altitude, here the nights were quite cold! Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa, 2285m) is the holiest and most famous mountain of St Katherine, with legends saying this is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. It lies next to the highest mountain in Egypt – Mt Katherine (Jebel Katherina, 2629m). Sheltered inbetween the high mountains of Egypt, lies St Katherine’s Monastery. It is one of the oldest working Christian Orthodox Monasteries and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, guarded not only by the Egyptian Police, but also the local Bedouin people who help keep the monks safe. We were there for the annual Feast Day of St Katherine where monks from all over the world were present. The ceremony included night-long prayer and chanting and a procession around the church with the relics of St Katherine (her hand and her head).
“This is a place where all religions have come together. We can all live together in peace. Religion is for god, the land is for everyone” – Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rashid
I have never done a guided multi-day hike before, always choosing to go solo. But this hike is different. It would not have been the same without the guidance of the beautiful Bedouin people. For their ability to keep people safe in the desert, for sharing their knowledge of the places and plants and for their hospitality and kindness I am very grateful. If you take away their mobile phones and modern-looking backpacks, it is like seeing a piece of history, one that I truly hope will continue to guide, teach and inspire. And with the help of the Sinai Trail Organisation and changes in the perception of the safety of the South Sinai, these people and traditions will not become lost in the desert.
I had a wonderful time! Happy hiking everyone!
All the details about the Sinai Trail and how to experience it can be found on their website: http://sinaitrail.org or check out their Facebook page for any upcoming thru-hikes or other events. The hike can easily be tailored to your individual needs, time constraints or physical abilities.
Take a read of my other posts from Egypt here:
- Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza – Egypt
- Luxor – Egypt
- Aswan and Abu Simbel – Egypt
- Alexandria – Egypt
- Catching the train in Egypt
- My survival guide for the solo female traveler in Egypt