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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Hike the ancient Bedouin lands on the Sinai trail

The newly expanded, 550km trek preserves tradition as well as showing off the abundant wonders of the Peninsula to those who walk it

Sunrise over the Mount Katherine summit Yasmin El-Beih
Sunrise over the Mount Katherine summit Yasmin El-Beih

Egypt’s first long-distance hike, the Sinai Trail has really caught the world’s attention. It was dubbed one of the best new trails worldwide when it began as a 12-day hike spanning 220 kilometres from Ras Shitan, on the northeast coastline of the South Sinai governorate, to the summit of Mount Catherine further inland.

Earlier this year the team announced the hike was expanding and would extend from coast to coast, exploring a wider scope of the Sinai’s natural attractions on the rugged terrain, on a 550-kilometre 42-day journey. When I walked the 220km trail early in 2017 as part of the second cohort on the trail, three Bedouin tribes – the Tarabin, Muzeina and Jabaleya – assisted as tour guides, cameleers, cooks and other support crew, making the trip an unforgettable experience as we crossed their territories.

From coastal hills to highlands, fabled oases and wadis, to windswept deserts, the landscapes we explored were wild, jaw-dropping, surreal and incredibly varied.

The new trail is even richer, almost rivalling the 650km Jordan Trail in length, making it the second-longest trip of its kind in the great outdoors in the region. “We felt that the old trail didn’t go justice to everything that the Sinai has to offer, and we wanted to run a hike that would further showcase as much of this beautiful place as possible,” explains Ben Hoffler, an old-hand at the Sinai Trail who has trekked in the peninsula for several years.

“There are so many landscapes in Sinai that weren’t on the original trail that we wanted to show to the world.”

The expansion of the hike’s length to the other side of the coastline now requires the involvement of five more tribes – The Awlad Said, Garasha, Sowalha, Hamada and Alegat cover the new territorial lands.

Tourists up for an adventure in the mountains usually, due to logistical reasons, get in contact with a guide near the coastal cities of Dahab and Nuweiba in the southeast or a Jebeleya guide near Saint Catherine, a small town that draws visitors from around the world to the local monastery and Unesco World Heritage Site of the same name. The lands more southwest of the Peninsula, on the terrain of the five new tribes, have mostly only witnessed minimal tourism previously; the only exception is parts of Wadi Feiran on the Alegat lands, where temples and the turquoise mining site of Serabit El Khadem lie.

Nasser Mansour, a seasoned Bedouin guide from the Jabaleya tribe and one of the founders of The Sinai Trail, tells me that this collaboration is historically unprecedented, especially since cars reached the Peninsula. Merchant caravans from all eight tribes inhabiting the Sinai had once worked together to facilitate trade from mainland Egypt in the east and Arabia in the west, but this collaboration dissolved as technology and infrastructure developments created the possibility for individual trips.

It takes in almost every peak in the Peninsula. Yasmin El-Beih
It takes in almost every peak in the Peninsula. Yasmin El-Beih

Trekking the Sinai, the typically hospitable Bedouins speak to visitors about their history and legends, both mythical and true tales orally passed down from generation to generation, about loot, women, tribal brawls and legendary creatures. Along the way, hikers will also be exposed to the varying dialects, mannerisms, customs and the different origin stories each have. While the Hamada trace their lineage back to the times of the Pharaohs, the Jabaleya believe their first indigenous ancestors inhabited the Saint Catherine area 1,500 years ago, arriving as distant descendants from the Roman Empire to protect the monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Local guides may offer fruits such as figs and apricots from orchards on the trail, the availability of which varies as the scenery transforms on different territorial lands, as do the types of plants, many of which have healing properties. While Bedouin law is fairly similar regionally, customs differ from tribe to tribe. “It was a challenge to bring all eight tribes on board, but we wanted to keep their endangered knowledge alive and show the world each of the different tribal cultures,” says Hoffler, who has travelled different parts of the trail with the rest of the team extensively to ensure the final route is as historical, interesting and safe as possible.

Hiking tourism, whether it is a short stroll of merely a few days or a series of more challenging climbs, keeps tribal knowledge relevant; instead of young members of the tribe seeking jobs as beach camp clerks or taxi drivers, it gives them a sustainable, legitimate income. The Sinai Trail has arguably succeeded in incentivising young Bedouins to stay in the desert and mountains, creating jobs and opportunities without removing them from their heritage.

The route takes hikers through wide sandstone desert plains, then further down to the immense mountains of the Sinai before the terrain turns to deep gorges and valleys housing spectacular flowing waterfalls and jungles of bamboo. The landscape later transforms to stunning high tablelands. The extended trail breaks from the old path at Jebel Makhroum, a massive rock formation with a big hole cut through, in the sandy, open desert plain, merely days after crossing fabled oases such as Ein Hudera and Ein Furtaga, as well as ruins of prehistoric structures dubbed Nawamis.

 Ein Hudera, one of the Sinai's most fabled oases. Yasmin El-Beih
 Ein Hudera, one of the Sinai's most fabled oases. Yasmin El-Beih

From there, hikers begin lesser-trodden routes by visiting Wadi Hammam, a gorge of twists and turns so dramatic that the sky narrows up ahead, before reaching Jebel Feyrani, elevated, isolated mountains where tourists can look out to see much of the rest of the Sinai. The tour then stops further south at the breathtaking oasis of Ein Kidd. After taking in the jaw-dropping scenery – a deserted haven of flowing streams and chirping birds cradled between red, rocky gorges – hikers ascend to reach Jebel Sabbah, a high peak where climbers can see the Gulf of Suez at one end and the Gulf of Aqaba at the other, witnessing the Red Sea extending between Africa and Asia. Then there’s Jebel Um Shomer, a summit once believed to be the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments before Mount Sinai was named the holy site. Legend has it that a fairy hid at the top of Jebel Um Shomer where she was being hunted down, and she remains forever in hiding in a crack between the rocks.

Other attractions include Jebel Serbal, a mountainous route dotted with old monasteries and Byzantine pathways, where an ancient Nabataean temple lies at the top near a labyrinth. The peaceful, tree-lined path is also home to the only convent in the Sinai, known as a home to anchorites as far back as the third, fourth and fifth centuries. Further north, on the southeast side of the triangle forming the trail, there’s Jebel Banat, which is the scene of an old Bedouin tale of two sisters who committed suicide by braiding their locks together and jumping from the top of the mountain to their deaths when their father sought to marry them to men they didn’t love. There’s also Serabit El Khadem, where the only Pharaonic temple still in existence in the Sinai lies, and which has been a long-standing site for turquoise mining since ancient times. Other spectacular natural wonders are the canyons of El Raml, high tableland mountains that take three days to cross and from where visitors can look out to almost all of the Sinai.

Almost every mountain and peak in the Peninsula is now part of the Sinai Trail, making every day on the 42-day adventure as diverse as it is spectacular. The complete new hike won’t be available to those who want to walk it before 2019, though, however, the team is launching a 24-day version of the hike, featuring a section of the new trail, in October this year. Travellers can opt to do part of the challenging route or the entire length of it at once.

The Sinai Trail is making history by revolutionising the perception of hiking culture in Egypt and the opportunities available to the Bedouin who dwell there.

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