Trekking the Sinai Desert – by Magnus & Jay Mackareth
“If we’re going to Egypt then I want to ride a camel”, my wife declared one day as we were discussing plans to climb Mount Sinai. We had climbed a number of the worlds sacred mountains since 2006 and Sinai was the latest one on our list. Duly despatched to do the research I immediately went off to google for Camels+Egypt+Sinai.
Surprisingly little in the way of useful results came back, but the one that did stick out was a company called Desert Divers, based in Dahab on the east coast of the Sinai. They purported to use only Bedouin guides and drivers and delivered itineraries to suit the needs of the client. Camel trekking in the desert for 5 days sounded just the ticket so I emailed them with a request for dates and prices in 2011. As soon as the reply came back, asking what dates I would like to choose I knew that this really was going to be a tailor-made trip and not just some vague, undeliverable promise.
Now the one thing that everyone knows about camels is their propensity to spit at the slightest provocation. We’ve all seen the home video clips with some hapless victim standing blissfully unaware while the animal in question fires a ball of dark and viscous phlegm towards them at great speed.
The four camels that accompanied us on our trek however could not have been more different to that popular stereotype. Ambling magically out of the desert from seemingly nowhere with their two handlers to a pre-arranged rendezvous point, they exuded a quiet power about them, an unassuming air that seemed to say ‘we all know why we’re here so let’s get on with it shall we?’ Not that my wife and I and our fellow traveller (an English lady in her fifties) felt as though we could just go and stroke them – quiet and unassuming they may have been but household pets they certainly aren’t.
Billed as a trip into the desert wilderness, it quickly became apparent that we (or should I say the camels) were going to carry absolutely everything with us from food and water to bedding as well as our own personal bags. It was with some surprise then that we were asked to mount the camels too as our chief guide Fraej pointed to a lofty ridge in the distance as the highest point of our trek today. Saying goodbye to our driver with his new 4×4 pickup we turned to face our four legged transport that would be at our disposal for the next 5 days. Strictly speaking this was going to be more of a trek with camels than a full-blown camel trek.
Feeling jaded from our moonlit trek up Mount Sinai the night before, we found it difficult to believe that these mighty ships of the desert were going to haul us as well as all the baggage up the mountain and onto the ridge and so it proved as we were eventually asked to dismount at the bottom and climb up on foot. This happened to be something of a relief for me as I could already feel my legs being wedged apart to the point where I could see myself walking around the camp looking like some gun-slinging cowboy for the rest of the trip.
For those of you who need many and varied distractions on your holidays, bars, restaurants, beaches, churches, castles and so forth, the trekking sinai is definitely not the place for you. That said, for the rest of us who are satisfied by simply being in nature, the vast emptiness of the place is something of an illusion, especially in springtime with the myriad of plants and flowers in attendance. The desert was Fraej’s home and he took great pride in sharing his obvious passion for his home as we spent happy hours climbing mountains and exploring impossibly narrow canyons, carved with sinuous and eerie curves over the millennia by wind and water.
On many treks, the main point is the nature of the landscape being traveled through but on this journey, the breathtaking landscape was only half of the picture. What made this one so special was being led by Bedouins and experiencing something of the way they traversed the desert. This was camping with a difference. No cumbersome tents to erect and take down each day. We slept under the stars with blankets on top of our sleeping bags and our camels rhythmically chewing the cud as a lullaby. Yes the desert got cold at night and we had to keep our clothes and a woolly hat for good measure but to see every single star, planet and man-made satellite in all it’s shining glory was an experience that us city dwellers are rarely lucky enough to see. I remember being awake for most of the third night and whilst gazing first at Orion and then the Plough dancing gracefully across the night sky, I must have counted around twenty shooting stars.
As I said earlier, everything we needed for the trek was carried by the camels. Water weighs a kilo for every litre and with six of us altogether, we could only take enough water for drinking, cooking, hand-washing and the most miserly method of washing up imaginable. It was a salutary reminder that wherever we are on the planet, water is the most precious of all commodities. Once I asked Fraej where we should go to the toilet. With a sweeping gesture of the arm he indicated that we had the whole desert to choose from as long as you dig a small pit first and then cover it with sand afterwards.
The food was simple, earthy and wholesome which made it all the more delicious. My wife and I are both vegetarians and our fellow traveller indicated that she would be more than happy to forego meat for the journey which I guess made things a great deal easier for our hosts. To start with there was the ritual of the campfire – every breakfast, lunch and dinnertime. The least we could do as guests, was to go and forage for firewood and this we did quite happily as it let us feel as though we were contributing somehow. It’s quite amazing just how much dead wood the desert yields from shrubs and bushes. The golden rule of course is take only what you need and the other amazing thing is just how little you do need to get a good fire going, boil up the ubiquitous tin of sickly sweet chai (Arab tea) and then cook up some kind of vegetable stew for lunch or dinner. Watching the unleavened bread being baked in the ashes of the fire twice a day was wondrous to watch by itself and something we intend to replicate back home if we get the chance. As a self-confessed fire-gazer you can just imagine the kind of heaven I found myself in.
On day three, we got to ride the camels again, this time across the high plateau of El Guna. This is probably what you would call a lunar landscape, very different to the mountains and canyons but no less impressive in its own way and certainly my favourite bit of the whole trek. Coming down off the plateau and plodding towards our campsite for that evening we approached a dirt track with an old pickup truck heading our way. I must confess, it was quite a shock as we had seen no signs of the modern world since setting off nearly three days earlier. As it came to a halt, Fraej exchanged greetings with a driver who was almost inevitably an old friend of his. Later I asked him if he knew everyone in the desert and he replied cryptically that the Sinai is a very small place by which I think he meant that no matter how big it is, there are only relatively few people living there.
It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, if you’re visiting a country, which is noticeably poorer than your own, then there is normally no end of people hassling you to buy trinkets, t-shirts and assorted souvenirs. Such was the case in Dahab and we must of thought we’d be blissfully free of it in the desert but this was not to be the case. Thankfully there were only a handful of such incidents but it was difficult to tell whether the sellers appeared spontaneously or whether they’d been tipped off on the desert grapevine. Although we genuinely didn’t want any of the wares on offer, it was also true that between the three of us, we had very little currency on us. Try pleading poverty to the Bedouins though, especially when they know full well that you’ve spent several hundred pounds on a flight to get there. It was also imperative that what currency we did have, we conserved carefully in order to tip our guides handsomely, an absolute must on this type of guided trek.
The final day of this magnificent odyssey across the Sinai had several surprises in store. Fraej led us on ahead to a final climb, whilst the other two guides would take the camels along a low-level route to a lunchtime meeting spot. As we set off, we came across the bones of a camel long since departed and bleached pure white by the sun. Not a particularly spectacular sight but an oddly beautiful one and a fitting resting place for these bones.
As we crested the final peak, the word ‘spectacular’ seemed barely adequate to describe the Sinai panorama stretching out before us. It was true that we had seen some breathtaking views along the way but Fraej had clearly saved the best until last and it became blindingly obvious that a camera would do no justice at all to this particular gem. Several hundred feet below we spotted the camel train ambling its way along the valley floor and the one thought that struck the three of us was that the scene we were witnessing had not changed for several millennia. What a way to end the trek. Time for a last lunch together and some more of the sweet chai (please forget to put the sugar in just once – you might like it!).
Whilst we hadn’t exactly become bosom buddies with our guides, we had broken down the barriers enough that saying goodbye was tinged with a genuine sadness. As we sat round the fire I asked Fraej for a cigarette and then told him that I had given up smoking fourteen years previously, I guess to indicate to him just how truly special this trek had been. The camels departed as swiftly and silently as they had arrived and then it was back to Dahab for us. Rarely has a shave and a shower been enjoyed so much.
By Magnus Mackereth
Photos by Jay Mackereth
Magnus and Jay Mackareth did the Arada Deep Desert by Camel trek, February 2011. If you’d like to find out more about trekking Sinai with Bedouin guides, we’d love to hear from you: email@example.com