There were no signposts in the desert, but Faraj Mahmoud knew the way. A veteran guide of the mountain-dwelling Jebeleya tribe, he was escorting me – bumpily, in a 4×4 – to the Blue Desert in Egypt’s South Sinai. We rattled onto the plain, named after its now faded cerulean rocks, painted in 1980 by Belgian artist Jean Verame to mark the previous year’s Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
I was joining a group of hikers that had set out eight days earlier from coastal Nuweiba, crossing the lands of the Tarabin and Muzeina, two of the founding Bedouin tribes behind the Sinai Trail, Egypt’s first long-distance hike. I was cutting in for the 50km-long, Jebeleya-guided ‘Roof of Egypt’ climax, which spans the Sinai Peninsula’s most iconic peaks and Unesco-listed St Catherine’s Monastery. After a mercifully short wait under the blazing late-morning sun, the hikers’ scattered silhouettes emerged like a mirage on the horizon.
The Sinai Trail has been dubbed one of the best new hikes in the world by Wanderlust magazine, and was awarded best new tourism initiative, ‘Wider World’by the British Guild of Travel Writers in 2016. While there are harder, headier walks, none are so rich with history – and none are built upon such unlikely bonds.
Bedouin tribes have long escorted pilgrims from all corners across the Sinai – Muslims en route to Mecca, Christians to St Catherine or Jerusalem – with each tribe handing them to the next at its border. “Then came cars and planes, and people forgot this way,” Mahmoud said. Deprived of guiding work, many Bedouin sought jobs in the city. The Sinai Trail, a fusion of old pilgrimage, trade and smuggling routes, counters that.
The granite peak of Mount Sinai, the trail’s most iconic landmark, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments, according to the Book of Exodus. It’s also where, much later, Ben Hoffler encountered Mahmoud. One was an earnest young English geography graduate keen to discover the region, the other a gruff outdoorsman and BBC documentary fixer decades his senior, who knew the Sinai better than anyone. Without realising it, the improbable duo would pave the way for the Sinai Trail.
I got the story of their 2008 meeting twice, like superimposed images. “One day I’m at the top of Mount Moses waiting for the sun to rise,” Mahmoud said, using another of Mount Sinai’s monikers. “I find a man taking a lot of pictures, and I feel that this man has something, like something lost. I feel that this man can help.”
It wasn’t something lost, but found: post-degree at Oxford University, Hoffler had worked for a year in Cairo and then drifted, not drawn to the typical path of a house and family. Then came the Mount Sinai epiphany. “As soon as I saw the sun coming up, something woke up,” Hoffler told me. “I had to come back to the Sinai and do a different mountain. But every time I got to the top of one mountain, I saw three more that I wanted to climb.”
Hoffler’s guide that day had seemed to be phoning it in, with Mahmoud interjecting to field Hoffler’s many questions about the surrounding landscape. They swapped numbers and met to walk and talk whenever Hoffler came down from Cairo. His eventual move to the town of St Catherine, which sprouted around the storied monastery, cementing their bond.
As Hoffler’s interest in the mountains morphed into an all-out fascination with the Bedouins’ nomadic ways, he spent a decade hiking 10,000km across the peninsula (resulting in a book, Sinai – The Trekking Guide). All the while Mahmoud strode at his side or called on connections to remotely smooth the way. “I’m not sure why Faraj helped me,” admitted Hoffler, too embarrassed to ever ask. “Maybe he saw us as similar in a way.”
Post-2011 Arab Spring, Sinai tourism collapsed, preoccupying both men. Mahmoud felt that Bedouin guides must unite to survive, rather than running scattered hikes across the region. Hoffler cited the success of long-distance routes like the Jordan Trail – and they decided that their best chance was to focus on a single path, uniting swathes of the community around it.
Mahmoud, a Jebeleya leader well respected across the peninsula, approached the Sinai Trail’s two other founding tribes, and selected representatives with enough sway to get things done.
“He’s the unsung hero of the Sinai Trail,” said Hoffler, who is a co-founder but not credited on the Sinai Trail website. Mahmoud is credited, but reticent about his role. I had to drag this story of the trail’s founding out of both of them; it doesn’t appear anywhere.
The trail launched in 2015, weeks before terrorists downed a Russian airliner over the Sinai, adding to existing woes (the region is still red-lit by most governments). But with the awards came hope – and venturesome Cairenes, their trip photos blazing a virtual trail that’s boosted traffic on the real one.
Joining 16 hikers, bound by blisters, was as disorienting for me as the relentless, rocky landscape soon pounding my shoes. The first night, at 1,670m, we huddled around a fire in a windswept valley under a canopy of stars. The routine was quickly set for the next three days: wake at sunrise, walk for four or more hours, and shrink back into the scant shadows for lunch – feta and salad wraps, oil and juice dripping onto the burning rocks – and a siesta. Several strenuous hours later we’d reunite with the camels bearing our camping gear, and have dinner and a fireside story from charismatic Jebeleya head guide Nasser Mansour. We zipped tents at a tame 20:00.
Mansour has been showing visitors the Jebeleya’s backyard for 20 years (his ancestors first came to the area in the 6th Century, to protect the monastery). In taking logistics off his hands, the trail has made his life far easier. “I wish it had happened 10 years ago,” he said.
With the Bedouin culture slipping away, Mansour’s nightly tales, passed down from those forebears, felt like testimonies. “People need to know our history,” he said. “Just to see is not enough; you also have to listen.” While he could identify the other tribes from a distance, they’d been ships in the night before the Sinai Trail. Now they run like a relay team. “When we work together we are stronger,” he said.
“Yalla bina,” Mansour yelled in the morning, dragging on a roll-up. “Let’s go.” By lunch we made camp near Elijah’s Basin, washing in a rare well with a tin of Cretan olive oil. That night, high above our tents, my head torch illuminated a pair of eyes. Exposed, I froze in horror, but the camel regarded me dully through long lashes: he’d seen it all before.
No-one had been blasé a few hours earlier when three mountain ibex appeared midway up Mount Sinai’s final 750 torturous Steps of Repentance, begun by a sinful 6th-Century monk. We tiptoed higher, penitent when they scarpered, but soon were consoled by the summit, its Toblerone-shaped shadow projecting back on the ridge that we’d come from.
Heading to Mount Catherine, we took ancient paths laid by the Byzantines, early patrons of the ‘Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai’, to pay St Catherine her dues (the monastery is alleged to house the Burning Bush, from which God revealed himself to Moses). “People say there are no more places like this in the world,” Mansour said. Switching back across blazing slopes behind the camels, we piled onto the snug summit, higher than all in Egypt – an equally beguiling thought.
A forlorn brick shelter with a metal roof semi-open to the stars housed our final dinner: warming lentil soup and vegetable pasta with memorably yellow cheese. After a story about the saint whose mountain we sat upon (monks found her body after a dream), one of our group asked Mansour if he had a dream. “Yes,” he said, not elaborating. And then, finally: “To continue living in the mountains, just like this.”
And it seems that his dream will become a reality. Three weeks later, in early May 2018, the Sinai Trail expanded from 220km to 550km, with five more Bedouin tribes joining the co-op after the founders saw the chance to extend its benefits and do further justice to the Sinai’s legendary sights. By reviving age-old union the Towarah Alliance, which once bound seven South Sinai tribes (and adding the Tarabin, who were not part of the original agreement), it has opened up a travelling route not hiked in more than a century, according to Hoffler – bolstering the Bedouins’ heritage and shifting visitors’ perspectives of a region that, right now, severely needs it.
Our hike was to be the last on the original trail; it is now possible to cross the whole Sinai Peninsula, from the Gulfs of Aqaba to Suez, in 42 days. The first organised group hike of the new route, which is the most viable option for solo hikers, is slated to begin on 26 October 2018. It will last 24 days (the first through-hike will happen in 2019), with the possibility to join halfway through.
“People look different when they come in from the desert,” Hoffler had told me intently, and the romantic proposition had lodged in my head. Now, like an echo, I heard Mahmoud: “For some people, the Sinai is like medicine, it can fix your problems,” he told me. “Forty-two days in the desert is really not easy,” – longer than Moses on his mount – “but some people need it I think.”
For me, four days wasn’t enough. I’d return, and next time I’d be going the distance.