The Austere Beauty of Egypt’s Long-Distance Hiking Trails
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.
While on a 2008 climb to the summit of Mount Sinai, Mr. Hoffler, an Oxford-educated Englishman, was so moved by the power of Egypt’s mountains — believed to be where Moses received the Ten Commandments — that he went on to traverse some 7,000 miles 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.
“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,” Mr. 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 350-mile 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 Mr. 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.
A safari truck navigates through the Red Sea Mountains.Credit…Sima Diab for The New York Times
New trails throughout the region
Over the past 15 years, new long-distance trails, some inspired by America’s Appalachian Trail, have been developed in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the occupied West Bank, ranging between 300 and 400 miles in length. Those routes joined lengthy trails already established in Israel and Turkey in the 1990s. Other long-distance trails are currently 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.
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, Mr. 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 Al Ula sites in Saudi Arabia, some 300 miles 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. 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.
Separately, 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 — and introducing to visitors, and their own citizens — long-overlooked natural wonders, and on using the trails to dispel negative perceptions of the historically turbulent region.
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 Mr. 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.
“In itself, it’s an exciting thing — it sounds good, and it’s easy to promote, and people will walk it,” Mr. 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 origins
Among 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. And in contrast to the planned Neom megaproject in northwest Saudi Arabia, whose website promises 750 miles 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 Mr. 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.
The Bedouin guides on the trail say they find peace in the desert wilderness, feeling a strong connection to their tribes and lands. They know the way over sprawling passes and through mazelike gorges, which plants can be used to make soap and poultices, which animals leave behind what kinds of droppings and tracks. They also maintain the legends tied to the most prominent places on the route, like the tale of the sisters who tied their long locks of hair together and jumped to their deaths from Jebel El Banat, a mountain peak along the route, to escape arranged marriages.
Clockwise from top left: etchings on a rock in the Red Sea Mountains near Wadi Nagaata; a hermit cell, also near Wadi Nagaata; a trail marker used by Bedouins to navigate difficult terrain; and a collection of pottery shards.
An initial end-to-end hike
When I first met Mr. Hoffler in the autumn of 2019, I was joining a handful of trekkers on the first end-to-end hike of the Sinai’s western side — a 125-mile section reaching from Saint Catherine, a town and tourist hub in the center of the trail, to Serabit el Khadem, near the Gulf of Suez. We crunched along a high winding path of pea-size granite strewn with jagged boulders. To the left was a mountainside of crumpled dark granite; to the right was a soaring granite curtain in beige. Nearly 5,000 feet up, at the crest of the pass, called Naqb el Hawa, or Pass of the Wind, I almost expected to hear the swell of an orchestra as a far-off vista of sandy flats and striated peaks came into view.
We were stepping on rock that dated back some 600 million years, on a footpath trod by nomads thousands of years ago and, around the sixth century specifically, by Christian settlers journeying from Cairo to Mount Sinai.
“The desert has always been a place of insight, a place of transformation for people,” Mr. Hoffler said as we made our way down the pass. “All of the prophets, they’ve come out with very deep insights that have changed the course of human history.”
The landscape continuously changes: from craggy olive hills to bulbous beige outcroppings, from charcoal gray peaks to rose-colored cliffs. Constants are the black veins of granite running through the mountains like arrows on a fever chart. Where two lines intersect near the base, the Bedouins tell us, there is certain to be water and a stand of flat-topped acacia trees.
Of course, many visitors simply hike for a day or two on shorter sections of the trails, which feature dozens of desert valleys (known as wadis), sites of historic interest and named mountains.
Atop my list of recommendations are hikes around Um Bogma, a ghost town atop rugged tablelands in the northwest corner of the trail, near the Suez Canal. An abandoned manganese mining camp run by the British in the 1900s during their occupation of Egypt, with breathtaking views of mountain ranges unfurling into the horizon, the tiered settlement of Um Bogma is frozen in time. Rusted steel cables stretch like ski lifts for miles down to the sea. Pitched-roof barracks have been stripped bare, as has a manager’s house with a wraparound porch overlooking a massive cliff that divides the Sinai.
Members of the Hamada tribe, which oversees this section of the trail, extracted the manganese when the British occupied Egypt, until the 1950s. Egypt took over the Um Bogma mines for a number of years, but they were shut down, and the site abandoned, during the Israeli occupation of Sinai from 1967 to 1982.
To some hikers, the scarred landscape is a legacy of colonial exploitation. To the Hamada, though, it was a source of jobs. And to Mr. Hoffler, it’s a rich opportunity for tourism. “I think this is just a jewel for the Hamada,” he told me.
Other standout segments can be found in the Red Sea Mountains, a two-hour drive from the seaside city of Hurghada. Unlike in the Sinai, where you’re surrounded by mountains soon after landing in Sharm el Sheikh, the mountains in this section of mainland Egypt seem more jagged and imposing, clustered into massifs with fanglike peaks. Here, the government has not yet allowed overnight camping on the 100-mile Red Sea Mountain Trail, so the Bedouins can run only day hikes.
The trail is contained within the territory of the Khushmaan clan of the Maaza tribe, and features Roman ruins and the mainland’s highest peak, Jebel Shayib el Banat, which rises to about 7,200 feet. The clan’s 1,500 families trace their origins to Arabia a few centuries ago, and most still live in the desert mountains, according to its leader, Sheikh Merayi Abu Musallem.
At Wadi Abul Hassan, the hike starts up a steep slope blanketed by boulders and turns down into a secret enclosed wilderness — a narrow canyon lined with pink granite on one side and charcoal-colored granite on the other. Few outsiders have entered the wadi since the American academic Joseph J. Hobbs visited while researching his book “Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness,” in the early 1980s. The depth of perspective in the canyon is astonishing, especially when cottony white clouds in a sapphire sky and pyramid-shaped peaks in the distance add an extra dimension to the tableau.
Elsewhere, the trek through Jebel Gattar and Wadi Nagaata is a strenuous climb up a series of massive granite shelves that reveal the historical origins of Christian monasticism. Atop the barren ledges are several hermit cells made of stacked rocks where, as early as the 300s, ascetics lived in extreme deprivation. Hikers can enter the silence of one of the small, semicircular chambers and imagine a contemplative looking out from the same entrance — toward a wall of beige granite honeycombed with scoop-like craters. On a nearby plateau stands a roofless, three-room stone building that was likely once a worship space, and a forerunner to the earliest monasteries, like Saint Catherine’s Monastery, built in the sixth century at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Developing 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 much of the past decade. The U.S. 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.” Mr. 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, told me that some of her friends were worried about her taking the hike.
“It’s a part of Egypt that’s ignored and we know nothing about, to some extent,” Ms. El 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.”
Ms. El 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 closed 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 United Nations annual climate conference, known as COP27, held the following month in Sharm el Sheikh. If all goes as planned, the Sinai Trail will host its first end-to-end hike of the 350-mile route next October.
Returning to traditions
For 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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, Mr. Barakat told us after a dinner of grilled sheep and vegetable soup, which was followed by Mr. Barakat singing a traditional love song while thwacking a tabla drum.
“We have internet, we have phones,” he said. Very quickly, he and his people have “become like the Egyptians,” he said.
With the Sinai Trail, though, Mr. 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.”
Patrick Scott is a writer based in Thailand. You can follow his work on Instagram.
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