The austere beauty of Egypt’s long-distance hiking trails

A Bedouin leads a camel carrying hikers’ belongings through a wadi along the Sinai Trail in Egypt. (Photos: NYTimes)
Ben Hoffler has heard one sound more than any other during the past dozen years: that of footsteps — crunch, crunch, crunch — pressing into the sandy gravel that carpets the desert valleys of South Sinai, a seemingly endless landscape of granite mountains, colorful canyons, and verdant oases.اضافة اعلان

While on a 2008 climb to the summit of Mount Sinai, Hoffler, an Oxford-educated Englishman, was so moved by the power of Egypt’s mountains — believed to be where Moses received the 10 Commandments — that he went on to traverse some 11,270km of this high desert wilderness with its bedouin inhabitants.

He wrote a trekking guide to South Sinai in 2013, and shortly after began working with the area’s bedouin tribes to create one of Egypt’s most extraordinary tourism projects: the Sinai Trail, the country’s first long-distance hiking path.

An acacia tree in the plains of the Red Sea Mountains outside of Hurghada, Egypt, along the Red Sea Mountain Trail.

“There’s something very special about the desert — very harsh and austere and beautiful in a way that I don’t find in lush, easy-to-survive-in landscapes,” Hoffler, who’s 39 and resembles a young Elton John, told me during a walk on the trail just months before the COVID-19 pandemic upended global tourism.

The first parts of the Sinai Trail opened in 2015. In 2018, it was extended into a 560km loop across the bottom half of the triangular Sinai Peninsula. Along with the Red Sea Mountain Trail, another long-distance path on Egypt’s mainland that Hoffler helped the Maaza tribe open in 2019, the trail has put Egypt firmly in the ranks of a booming hiking movement in North Africa and the Middle East.

New trails throughout the regionOver the past 15 years, new long-distance trails, some inspired by the US Appalachian Trail, have been developed in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the occupied West Bank, ranging between 480km and 640km in length. Other long-distance trails are under development in Saudi Arabia, as part of futuristic megaprojects being created by the kingdom in its western deserts, and in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Through the windshield of a safari truck, the Red Sea Mountain range outside of Hurghada, Egypt, along the Red Sea Mountain Trail.

And now, some of the key players in the hiking movement in the region are envisioning clusters or transnational trails that, for the first time, would physically or symbolically link these rediscovered ancient nomadic pathways and newly forged routes, traversing modern national borders.

For the past three years, Hoffler has been working in southern Jordan with bedouin tribes and Tony Howard, a hiking and climbing pioneer in the region, to create a sister trail to the bedouin-governed routes in the Sinai and the Red Sea Mountains.

There has long been talk, though nothing conclusive has come of it yet, of a route that would link the Nabatean archaeological sites at Petra, in Jordan, and the AlUla sites in Saudi Arabia, some 480km to the southwest.

And a new long-distance trail network is taking shape to unite the Jordan Trail, the Palestine Heritage Trail, and the Lebanon Mountain Trail, in a partnership with European backers and a trail system in France.

Mohammed Muteer, a Bedouin guide, and Englishman Ben Hoffler, who worked with tribes to create the Sinai Trail, the country’s first long-distance hiking path start a fire to prepare tea in the South Sinai region of Egypt, November 18, 2019. 

All of this echoes the efforts of the Abraham Path Initiative, an American nonprofit that has been promoting trail building and trail networks in the region since 2007, though its main focus now is funding and supporting work on the Kurdistan trail.

What many of the trails have in common is a determination by their creators to bring tourists and jobs to distressed villages in the deserts and mountains. These creators are also intent on preserving long-overlooked natural wonders, and introducing them to visitors and their own citizens, and on using the trails to dispel negative perceptions of the historically turbulent region.
Over the past 15 years, new long-distance trails, some inspired by the US Appalachian Trail, have been developed in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the occupied West Bank, ranging between 480km and 640km in length.
As a cluster, the embryonic network that includes the Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon routes could share best practices for the marking of trails, the establishment of emergency services, and the cross-promotion of hiking, according to the organizers. Trekking exchanges, however, run into the reality of geographic and political impediments. Physically linking the trails in Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon, for example, is impossible since Lebanon shares no border with the West Bank or Jordan. And the political obstacles seem equally insurmountable since Israeli and Palestinian passport holders are barred from entering Lebanon.

To Howard, who spearheaded the popularization of climbing and hiking in Wadi Rum, a valley in Jordan, in the mid-1980s, the orchestration of what he calls super trails in the region makes too much sense not to bring to fruition.

Etchings, said to date to Roman times, on a rock in the Red Sea Mountains near WadiNagaata in Egypt, along the Red Sea Mountain Trail.

“In itself, it’s an exciting thing. It sounds good and it’s easy to promote, and people will walk it,” Howard said. But trails also benefit the areas they pass through by increasing tourism and helping to preserve both nature and culture.

Before the trails were blazed, “there was very little realization in Jordan that people wanted to visit villages and walk hills,” he explained. “It started the need to protect some of these areas.”

Bedouin influences and originsAmong all the long-distance routes in the region, Egypt’s trails are unique in that they are owned and managed by Bedouins, whose nomadic ancestors, centuries ago, forged many of the pathways on foot and camelback. Unlike the self-guided trails in Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, the Sinai and Red Sea Mountain trails require bedouin guides.

A hermit cell in the Red Sea Mountains near WadiNagaata in Egypt, along the Red Sea Mountain Trail.

And in contrast to the planned Neom megaproject in northwest Saudi Arabia, whose website promises 1,200km of trails in the coming years, features renderings of luxury chalets and boasts of “immersive digital experiences,” Egypt’s trails try to replicate how the nomads’ forebears moved through the wilderness. Hikers drink from wells, sleep fireside under the stars (or in tents), and dine on flatbread baked in acacia coals and seasoned with mountain salt. The bedouins are relying more on camels to haul the cooking and camping supplies and colorful woven rugs.

The Sinai Trail was founded by Hoffler and three Bedouin tribes, whose members serve as guides, cameleers and cooks. And when it was extended in 2018, five more tribes joined the group. The tribes saw the trail as a way to create sustainable tourism while preserving ancient pathways and traditions that were fading in this era of smartphones and pickup trucks.

Safety concernsDeveloping these trails was less about clearing new paths than it was about recovering existing routes that highlighted the myriad landscapes and legends. It was also about challenging the notion that the Sinai is a hostile and dangerous place. Egypt has been battling Islamist militants in North Sinai for much of the past decade.

Pottery shards by a hermit cell in the Red Sea Mountains near Wadi Nagaata in Egypt, along the Red Sea Mountain Trail.

The US government advises against travel in Sinai. For the rest of Egypt, including the seaside resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in South Sinai, the State Department advises citizens to “reconsider travel to Egypt due to terrorism”.

According to the Sinai Trail’s website, “There has never been an attack on tourists in the interior bedouin parts of South Sinai, where the Sinai Trail is.” Hoffler maintains that in addition to Egyptian security forces across the peninsula, hikers have a safety net in an extensive Bedouin network that keeps tabs by camel, pickup, and foot and shares information about visitors.

One of our fellow hikers on the Sinai Trail’s western side, Leena El Samra, a 33-year-old from Cairo who works at a development bank, said that some of her friends were worried about her taking the hike.

The ghost town of Um Bogma, along the northwest corner of the Sinai Trail in Egypt.

“It’s a part of Egypt that’s ignored and we know nothing about, to some extent,” Samra said, motoring through the gravelly sand. “This is a part of Egypt where you feel very safe with the people. It’s very nice, it’s pristine, it’s undiscovered. It’s very different than most of what we do all over Egypt. And I like building some muscles.”

Samra was among a small but growing circle of Egyptian adventure travelers and endurance athletes who turned to hiking, running, and competing in triathlons after the failed revolution and subsequent military takeover early last decade. Many saw the activities as a way to release frustrations and exert their independence, or simply to discover their country.

Hiking is still a niche activity in Egypt. The Sinai Trail hosted a few hundred hikers before the pandemic, which forced the trails to close for most of 2020. Numbers dwindled to the dozens in 2021 because of travel restrictions. But more hikers returned this year, including 70 people from around the world who arrived for a weekend hike in October tied to the UN annual climate conference, known as COP27, held the following month in Sharm El-Sheikh.

Julie Paterson, a trip organizer, and Jacobus Nederpelt, a hiker, at the summit of a 200m ascent through a mountain pass in Egypt.

If all goes as planned, the Sinai Trail will host its first end-to-end hike of the 560km route next October.

Returning to traditionsFor the bedouins, the trails are a way to return to their roots and make a living in the mountains.

During a drought in the 1990s, many Sinai Bedouins moved to coastal cities or farms in the Nile Valley for work, said Youssuf Barakat of the Alegat tribe, who spent two years with Hoffler mapping out the trail’s South Sinai routes and served as a guide during the COP27-related hike in October. Modernity and the collapse of tourism early in the last decade also pulled Sinai Bedouins away. Barakat, 36, returned to the mountains to work on the trail after working as a cook in his family’s restaurant in Abu Zenima on the west coast, he said.

The Bedouins have been forced to change, Barakat told us after a dinner of grilled sheep and vegetable soup, which was followed by Barakat singing a traditional love song while thwacking a tabla drum.

A camel, tied, at lunch stop for hikers along the Sinai Trail in Egypt.

“We have internet, we have phones,” he said. Very quickly, he and his people have “become like the Egyptians.”

With the Sinai Trail, though, Barakat and his fellow tribespeople have an opportunity to return to their time-honored way of life.

“We start step by step,” he said. “We hope in five, 10 years, the Bedouin life will come again.”

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