The mountains of the Red Sea seemed inaccessible to Sara Ghenem during her childhood in the Egyptian city of Hurghada. Desert peaks rise beyond the western outskirts of the city, which Ghenem often gazed at from his family’s balcony.
âAs a little child, I would always watch them at sunset, saying that I wish I could climb this mountain one day,â Ghenem explains. âBut for a very long time you could only see them. There were only the Bedouins, the nomads who live in the desert, who knew how to walk there.
Years later, Ghenem, now a doctor in Cairo, finally climbed the mountains that had drawn so great in his imagination. In 2019, she was part of an inaugural group invited to walk the newly created 106 miles Red Sea Mountain Trail (RSMT), which winds between the highest peaks in mainland Egypt and is run by local Bedouins.
The RSMT is mainland Egypt’s first long-distance trail, opening up to foreigners an area few travelers have explored in recent decades. So far, no hikers have been recorded hiking the trail from start to finish, but in February 2022 a small group is expected to complete the entire trail.
It will be a rugged adventure requiring 10 days of walking along steep canyons and high passes. Those who persevere will have access to granite massifs, a desert dotted with acacia trees, and a tradition of hospitality rivaling anyone on Earth.
This trail is only the last in a network of hiking trails opening up through the Middle East. Some, like RSMT, are community tourism projects that help support local economies and build bonds between visitors and residents.
Because hiking is a “slow trip” in the most literal sense, such trips indicate a more sustainable type of tourism – and the sight of these trails can be life changing.
Putting hiking boots on the ground
When Ghenem finally walked into the mountains of the Red Sea, she found the scenery infinitely more complex than the view from her balcony. âYou look at the mountains from the city, and it looks like an abstract painting, you don’t see any detail,â she says. âWhen you actually go into the desert, you find that it is a huge network of mountains and valleys. “
âIt’s a real kind of granite desert – a labyrinth of these mountains,â adds British hiking expert Ben Hoffler, co-founder of RSMT who lives in Egypt and wrote Sinai: the hiking guide. Footprints are rare; the ground is carved by traces of lizards, beetles and Nubian ibex with curly horns.
The RSMT joins a growing network of long-distance trails crossing the deserts and mountains of the Middle East. One is the 342-mile Sinai Trail, a sister trail to the RSMT that traces a three-sided circuit through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Other walking trails include the 392 km Lebanon Mountain Trail, established in 2007, and the 205 km Palestinian Village-to-Village Heritage Trail, opened in 2014.
Newer is the Jordan Trail, a 404-mile route established in 2017 that crisscrosses the country from north to south, sending hikers through a paint-box landscape of rolling olive groves, flowery valleys and sandy washes. When hikers reach the desert in the southwest of the country, they enter directly into the Nabataean city of Petra and enter the rock-hewn UNESCO site on foot, as travelers have done for thousands of years.
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These trails evoke the long history of Middle Eastern walking tours, from ancient camel caravans to pilgrimage routes connecting the region’s many religious sites. New paths are being forged now: in the northern parts of the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, a new hiking network is expected to be launched in the coming years.
When seasoned hikers and mountaineers from the UK Tony Howard and Di Taylor first mapped Jordanian trails in the 1990s, recreational hiking was largely unknown in the area, they say. Many Jordanian townspeople were wary of the wilderness, asking the couple why they would walk when they could afford to drive instead.
In the years that followed, local interest in hiking flourished. Groups of hikers have formed from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Amman, Jordan, where vans filled with impatient walkers roll out of the city every Friday morning.
Overcome stereotypes one step at a time
A growing number of visitors from outside the Middle East have also donned hiking boots to explore the region. But, says Howard, some foreigners mistakenly think the Middle East is just too risky for such adventures.
There have been high-profile incidents, such as the 2009 arrest and jail of three American hikers who wandered from Iraq to Iran, and the 2019 tourist bus terrorist bombing near the Pyramids. of Giza in Egypt, but such tragedies are rare.
Hiking has particular power in bringing a better understanding of the area, says Olivia Mason, a postdoctoral researcher at Newcastle University who studies the geopolitics of hiking trails. “When you move foot to foot and have these daily encounters where you actually talk with people, these dominant narratives mean nothing, they are constantly questioned,” says Mason, who has walked hundreds of miles. . the Jordan Trail.
Another common concern is that women will not be safe hiking in the Middle East. Mason recognizes that in certain regions, it is still rare to see a woman walking alone.
(This temple honors the Egyptian queen who reigned as king.)
Harassment can be a serious problem in parts of the Middle East, says Hamsa Mansour, an Egyptian documentary filmmaker and adventurer based in Cairo. âIt’s very hard to live in Cairo as a woman.
But Mansour, an outdoor enthusiast who has done solo treks in Egypt and Morocco, feels an extraordinary freedom while exploring the wild places of her region, unlike the challenges of city life. âI never feel more secure than when I’m in the mountains,â she says.
Find hospitality among the peaks
This is especially true, says Mansour, in the mountains of the Red Sea. The RSMT crosses the homeland of the Kushmaan clan of the Maaza tribe, a Bedouin nomad whose livelihood includes foraging for food in remote corners of the mountain range. Trekkers need permission from the chieftains to visit – a centuries-old custom – and must travel with guides from Kushmaan.
âPart of their culture is how much they value and cherish their guests,â says Mansour, who created a short film about the RSMT after hiking there in 2019. Walking alongside of Bedouins who knew every plant and every animal, she felt deeply secure.
Exploring with local guides is a highlight of hiking the Red Sea Mountains, Hoffler thinks, as it turns an experience in the great outdoors into a chance to learn about traditional life. âThe old ways are still alive,â says Hoffler. âYou meet the last guardians of this very ancient nomadic culture.
Maintain and change traditions
Sheikh Merayi Abu Musallem, who heads the more than 1,500 families of the Kushmaan clan, is among those working to preserve this culture. The RSMT offers young members of the clan the possibility of finding work in the mountains, explains Musallem, co-founder of the trail. It is a livelihood that preserves ancient knowledge while creating opportunities for sustainable employment and cultural exchange.
âThe path teaches a lot of things to the younger generation,â he says. âI am amazed at how quickly young Bedouin learn. Musallem adds that he would like the Kushmaan girls to train as hiking guides as well, a break with tradition he considers important.
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Learning, he says, is mutual. Hikers from outside the Red Sea mountain range, like Ghenem and Mansour, tell their own stories at campfires where travelers congregate after long days on the trail. If they leave the mountains feeling changed by what they encounter there, Musallem says their Bedouin hosts are also transformed by such experiences.
âWhen the guides sit down at night and talk after dinner, that’s a plus. They learn from visitors, and that gives the Bedouin more diversity, âsays Musallem. âWe are learning the best things on the track.
Vermont-based travel writer Jen Rose Smith covers outdoor adventure, remote places and traditional cuisine. Follow her on Twitter.