Following the Sinai Trail the Bedouin way

John Henzell hikes the length of the new Sinai Trail, a 200km walking route in Egypt.

Hot sweet tea is brewed over a fire. Photo by John Henzell

It took more than half the Sinai Trail for us to understand why our Bedouin guides seemed to visibly relax when they left civilisation behind.

For a week we’d been settling into the quietly comforting rhythms of desert travel, in which we rose with the Sun and then went to bed soon after the last glow of dusk had been replaced by the starriest skies I’d ever encountered. We’d watched the terrain change at walking pace as we plodded beside our camels along routes used for millennia by everyone from Nabataean traders to religious pilgrims and modern goat herders.

We dozed in shady hideaways to avoid the heat of the midday sun, drank endless cups of hot sweet tea every time we encountered another group, cooked over a fire each evening and watched as our camel man Taiwee passed on his skills to his 10-year-old son, who was accompanying him on his first multi-day camel trek.

By the start of the second week on the trail, we understood. And we also appreciated why the Sinai Trail had been created by a regional non-governmental organisation to prevent these ancient rhythms being displaced entirely by the steady intrusion of modernity into Bedouin life.

The Sinai Trail’s goal might be good but its timing has proved to be spectacularly bad. One reason why it was created was because the 2011 Egyptian revolution had severely curtailed tourism on the peninsula, but then just a couple of weeks after the trail was launched, the local ISIL franchise smuggled a bomb on board a Russian charter flight from Sharm El Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board.

All charter flights were suspended and tourism suffered a cataclysmic drop to virtually nothing. Guides who hoped to be leading hikers through the wilderness had to nurture subsistence gardens so at least they’d have something to eat. What was particularly galling for the local Bedouins was that the radicalised tribes were 700 kilometres to the north and this part of the interior of the peninsula was safe.

This made more sense when you realise there are two distinct parts of the Sinai. The so-called “Egyptian” part has the resort towns such as Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba and St Catherine, where there are lots of police and soldiers with guns, all of which left me feeling less safe. The “Bedouin” part of the Sinai – basically everywhere else – features little obvious security, but we soon became aware that part of the Bedouins’ mastery of desert life includes being fully aware of absolutely everything that happens on their territory.

This awareness was demonstrated to us during our hike when the peninsula was lashed by a once-in-25-years storm, causing the wadis to flood bank-to-bank. The trail organisers knew we were in the middle of our hike and began calling Bedouins they knew in the area, who were able to provide a scarily precise location of everywhere we’d been in the past few days.

Modern CCTV systems, we quickly realised, were no match for the Bedouin grapevine. Had radicalised members of one of the northern tribes ventured south in search of tourist targets, they would have been outed as soon as they crossed into another tribe’s land – well before they got to here.

Musallem, our first guide, was one of the lucky ones and still had a thriving business running an unpretentious collection of beachside huts at Ras Shetain. Although there was plenty for him to do there, he jumped at the chance to guide us for the first four days through the Tarabeen tribe’s territory. “I prefer to be in the mountains,” he said.

He gently introduced us to the rhythms of Bedouin life, teaching which native plants had nutritional or medicinal roles. Sitting around the fire after the last cup of tea, he would recount ancient parables which in the days before widespread literacy was how the culture was passed down the generations.

At Ein Hudera – an oasis thought to have been Hazeroth, cited in the Quran as the place where Moses sought shelter in ancient times – we were handed on to Farag, of the Muzeina tribe.

He was knowledgeable and patient, but some of my fondest memories of this part of the trip were from watching his two camel men, Taiwee and Eid, and their troupe of seven camels, including many two-year-olds being inducted into camel trekking for the first time. Taiwee was also teaching his finely honed skills to his son, Mohammed, who had manifested a mix of childishness and a determination to make his dad proud.

When we reached the country of the Jebeleya tribe we were looked after by Nssr, the quick-witted and perpetually smiling guide who knew these mountains like the folds of his kandura and whose knowledge of both ancient folklore and the strange quirks of westerners showed he comfortably stood astride the old and new Bedouin worlds.

After watching the Sun set from the summit of Jebel Musa – Moses Mountain, as Mount Sinai is known locally – we then scaled Mount Catherine, Egypt’s highest peak, where we could look back to the north with the knowledge that we’d walked from farther than we could see.

By then we wanted to keep going and find new trails to explore and to delve even deeper into Bedouin life. But modern schedules intruded and we headed for the airport instead, hoping to have the chance to tell as many as we could that this part of the Sinai is safe.