Sinai Trail: Egypt's first long-distance hiking path
Seen from above, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is a dun-colored triangle of desert, a vast wedge that splits Asia from Africa.
Move in closer, and the desert resolves into a landscape of high peaks and sandy valleys, dunes and rocky peaks.
Tracing a route across that terrain is the Sinai Trail, Egypt's first long-distance hiking path, which was established in 2015 and winds roughly 230 kilometers (143 miles) from the Gulf of Aqaba into the mountainous interior.
This past November, I was one of 17 men and women undertaking a 14-day through-hike of the Sinai Trail, the first crossing of the full length of the trail. Led by male members of three Bedouin tribes and an Italian organizer, the group was as varied as the topography, a convivial assortment of novice hikers and fit backpackers, mainland Egyptians and foreigners.
We started near the Red Sea community of Beer Sweir, climbing the Sinai's coastal mountains with hazy views of Saudi Arabia at our backs. After two weeks of hiking, our travel reward was a frosty 6 a.m. sunrise from the slopes of Mount Katherine, the highest mountain in Egypt.
Basalt rocks are scattered across the desert. Courtesy Jen Rose Smith
Our path led through broad valleys flanked by stony ridges, and climbed over pale, shifting dunes. I slept in the open with a down sleeping bag to keep me warm, and watched the waxing moon cast shadows over the sand.
It's an arid landscape that's starkly beautiful. But for all of Sinai's charm, the trail's most vital geography is human.
The Sinai Trail crosses the territories of three Bedouin tribes -- the Tarabin, the Muzeina and the Jebeleya -- pastoral nomads whose lives have traditionally been shaped by the search for rain-fed grazing land and other desert resources, and who have guided Sinai travelers for generations.
Official population estimates for the Sinai Peninsula vary widely, but local tribal leaders believe that in South Sinai there are roughly 1,500 Tarabin, 50,000 Muzeina and 5,000 Jebeleya people.
Two of these tribes, the Jebeleya and Muzeina, are members of the Towara, a traditional alliance of eight territory-holding South Sinai tribes, but the Tarabin also have land in the region that the Bedouin regard as South Sinai. (The natural border of the Tih Plateau, which Bedouin see as the line between South Sinai and North Sinai, differs from the modern-day political boundary between the two Egyptian provinces.)
Following desert custom, we traveled with each corresponding tribe's guides as we moved through their territory.
At territorial borders, we met members of the next tribe along the way -- exchanging greetings and news from the desert and trading our weary camels for fresh local ones who would carry all of our belongings.
Our days on the trail were shaped by Bedouin rhythms.
Each morning, the guides woke when the stars were still bright in the sky, kindling the day's first fire to boil kettles of sweet tea and cardamom-scented coffee. They kneaded bread for breakfast on floured sacks, stretched it thin then slapped rounds onto a smoke-blackened metal dome.
Camels groaned as our backpacks and gear were cinched onto their colorful saddles.
When walking through the heat of the afternoon, or gathered around the evening fire, we heard story after story: the man who made friends with a wolf, the golden city locked inside a Sinai mountain and the many centuries of Bedouin whose memories linger in the names of peaks and valleys.
Like the legends themselves, the warm afternoons had a timeless quality. We laid down to rest in the dappled shade of acacias and heard only the sound of breath and footsteps as we climbed the steepest rocky trails.
Hard times in Sinai
Camels carry gear up a rocky pass.Courtesy Jen Rose Smith
Despite the quiet of the desert, the years since the 2011 Egyptian revolution have been difficult for the Sinai Peninsula and the Bedouin tribes who call it home.
Within the province of North Sinai, ongoing unrest has brought clashes between militants and the Egyptian authorities. On November 24th, the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history drew the world's attention to the Sinai Peninsula after worshippers were slaughtered at a Sufi mosque.
The Sinai Trail passes through South Sinai, starting about 279 kilometers (173 miles) away from the border with the Gaza Strip, which has been a focus of insurgent activity and Egyptian military intervention.
While South Sinai has seen relative calm, occasional violence has targeted tourist areas, and the 2015 crash of a Russian plane also brought larger-scale tragedy to the province. Following the crash, governments across the globe issued travel warnings, airlines canceled flights to Sharm el Sheikh and some package tour operators pulled out of the peninsula entirely.
As of July 2017, all US government personnel visiting Egypt in an official capacity were still prohibited from traveling overland in the Sinai Peninsula.
Because both tourists and Egypt's Coptic Christians have been targeted for attacks in the past, some roads are officially closed to both foreigners and Egyptians whose state-issued identification cards list them as Christian.
In international coverage of the violence in the Sinai Peninsula, the dramatic distinction between North Sinai and South Sinai is sometimes unclear, and the stories have had a deeply chilling effect. South Sinai is a region that relies on tourism, but recent visitors to major Sinai resorts have found towns with few travelers.
A threat to tradition
Jebeleya guide Nasser Mansour. Courtesy Jen Rose Smith
In the interior desert where most Bedouin traditionally live, the impact has been even more stark, and the devastated tourism industry has left many out of work.
According to some observers, Egypt's Bedouin have been a marginalized group at the best of times, often cut out of mainstream tourist developments. But guiding hikers through the desert once meant consistent work for the Bedouin, a sustainable way to maintain traditional ways and culture.
The loss of tourism has been catastrophic.
Strapped for income, with no hikers to guide, many guides have sold their camels to members of other tribes. That is why, as we walked with the Tarabin tribe from the Red Sea coast, our gear was shuttled to campsites on Jeeps, rather than camels. As members of one of Sinai's smaller tribes, the Tarabin guides weren't able to round up enough animals for our group of hikers.
"We want to teach our sons to work with camels, and to learn about the desert," said Tarabin guide Musallem Abu Faraj, who helped found the Sinai Trail in 2015. These are our traditions, passed down through generations."
With no camels, and no work, however, some of Sinai's Bedouin are faced with difficult choices: Move to a town for wage labor, or try to survive in the desert in hope of better times to come.
A Bedouin world
Shaping bread for the evening meal. Courtesy Jen Rose Smith
And for the Bedouin of South Sinai, travel is more than a job—it's both an origin story and an identity.
While the local tribes have deep roots in the Sinai, their ancestors' paths predate the national borders and conflicts that now fracture the Middle East.
The Jebeleya, whose tribal land stretches through the Sinai's most rugged peaks, trace their family trees back to Romania. When the Monastery of St. Catherine was established in the 6th century, the Byzantine emperor Justinian dispatched a contingent of guards to the Sinai to ensure the safety of pilgrims and monks.
Tribe members name those Romanian guards as their forebears, and though the Jebeleya have long been Muslim, they still hold their duty sacred. They stood watch over the Orthodox monastery during the turmoil following the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
On the Sinai coast, Tarabin family trees point back across the Red Sea to the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, and what's now Saudi Arabia.
Like others among the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Peninsula, they express a feeling of kinship with Bedouin groups that goes beyond national borders, from the Bdoul of southern Jordan to the Negev Bedouin, who make their home in the desert of southern Israel.
"We believe that the Arab world is our world," said Musallem Abu Faraj. Standing in the heart of Tarabin territory he swept his hand across the desert, as if showing the way back towards the Arabian Peninsula. "We believe the world is our world."
A new path
Sunset on the Sinai Trail. Courtesy Jen Rose Smith
So when a cross-tribal group of Bedouin guides gathered to forge the Sinai Trail in the fall of 2014, it was more than a new hiking route. It was an attempt to support their cultures, establishing a new path into a more stable future for South Sinai.
For the guides, who formed a unique cooperative of the Tarabin, Muzeina and Jebeleya tribes, the trail would mean income and an opportunity that could be shared with their tribes.
But overcoming fears about the Sinai, both among foreigners and mainland Egyptians, has proved to be as important a task as charting a route through the mountains.
As the guides created maps and planned logistics, they launched a simultaneous campaign called "Sinai is Safe." Organizers hiked Mount Katherine (Jebel Katherina in Arabic) carrying signs emblazoned with that message, sharing their efforts across social media platforms. (Social media, and especially Facebook, have proved popular with Bedouin people. Remote patches of the Sinai backcountry that have cell phone service are sometimes marked with stone cairns.)
And for our group of hikers, who'd traveled from Cairo, Jordan and beyond the Middle East, the guides' assurances of our safety rang true. A tightly knit community and gossip network meant that seemingly every tribe member knew our whereabouts as we crossed the desert, and on some nights, our guides' friends and acquaintances emerged from the dusk to share tea and conversation around the campfire.
As we walked, occasional scraps of the outside world appeared at the edge of our path—a dusty patch of marijuana, twisted metal and barbed wire left by Israeli troops when they departed the Sinai, part of the 1979 peace treaty negotiated by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. But we slept soundly at night, reassured by the protection of the tribes.
On one shimmering-hot afternoon on the trail, we came across a woman draped in head-to-toe black, tending a herd of sheep far from any settlements. A traditional division of labor in Bedouin households means many women spend their days in the desert on foot, alone or with other women, seeking out the best foraging spots for their animals.
I was deeply struck by the sight of a lone woman in a country where sexual violence and harassment are epidemic, and where many locals expressed surprise that I would travel by myself—even in the popular tourist destinations of the Nile Valley.
Our all-male guides explained that her safety in the desert was made possible by Bedouin laws enforced on the local level by community leaders. Far from being a lawless frontier, the deserts of South Sinai are regulated by longstanding traditions. Painfully aware that the world sees the Sinai Peninsula through news stories about extremists and terrorist attacks, local Bedouin know very well their communities' livelihoods depend on keeping travelers safe.
The next adventure hotspot?
Petroglyphs depicting camels and riders are etched into trailside boulders. Courtesy Jen Rose Smith
And for would-be adventurers willing to look past the headlines, Sinai offers a world poised between hope for the future and its long and often tumultuous history. Though the Sinai Peninsula rarely makes modern lists of hot vacation destinations, it's drawn hardy travelers for thousands of years.
Long the overland link between Africa and Asia, it was familiar ground for merchants and pilgrims. Today's hikers can find traces of the travelers who precede them: centuries-old crosses are etched into red sandstone boulders, and petroglyphs depict the distinctive lines of camels' humps.
Some scientists even speculate that the Sinai Peninsula may have been an overland route for a human migration from Africa to the Levant that took place roughly 120,000 years ago. If they're right, the history of Sinai travel is tightly linked to the origins of human travel itself.
As a destination for hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking, however, the Sinai is largely untapped.
Each time we reached a high point of land, we earned views over a landscape that's wide open for exploring.
First crossings and first ascents are low-hanging fruit in Sinai. Even as we made the first trek across the full length of the Sinai Trail, we passed Welsh cyclist Graham Parry headed in the opposite direction, blazing the trail's first complete mountain bike crossing from the high peaks to the Red Sea with a lone Bedouin guide.
Jebeleya guides from the mountains report taking rock climbers on discovery trips that yield one unclimbed route after another.
And when we descended into the Blue Desert, we entered a surreal landscape of granite boulders painted blue by Belgian artist Jean Berame, inspired by the peace accords. A climber's dream, the boulders remain mostly unmapped and unclimbed, while the blue paint fades from the precise shade of a United Nations Peacekeeper's helmet to the natural color of desert rock.
As we walked through some of the Sinai Peninsula's most iconic desert canyons and washes, we never passed another group of hikers, but Sinai Trail guides are working to turn the ebbing tide of travelers.
It is a race against time, headlines and the heartbreaking disasters of the outside world. Now, as the internet fills with images from the recent mosque attack, Sinai residents are already hastening to convince outsiders that their own home is safe and secure.
So with a bit of luck, and maybe a few more camels, Sinai's Bedouin are betting that hikers may someday return to the wonders of the Sinai Peninsula for good.
How to make the journey
Sunset on Mount Katherine (Jebel Katerina) Courtesy Jen Rose Smith
Learn more about hiking the Sinai Trail at www.sinaitrail.org. To reach the Sinai Trail, hikers may fly to Sharm el Sheikh, then continue by bus to Nuweiba, a beach community near the start of the hike. It's also possible to travel to Nuweiba by bus from Cairo, or by ferry from Aqaba, Jordan.
The full hike concludes at the town of Saint Catherine. From Saint Catherine, taxi service is available to Sharm el Sheikh, and a daily bus departs for Cairo.
Group hikes are scheduled regularly and posted on the Sinai Trail's Facebook page, and it's possible to arrange guides for private groups. For both private and organized groups, guided hiking trips on the Sinai Trail start at 550LE (about $31 USD) per person, per day for groups of 6 or more people.
Guides are available for trips throughout the year, though many choose not to work during the month of Ramadan (from May 15 to June 14 in 2018). The moderate temperatures of the spring and fall make March through May and September through November the most popular times to hike.