The result of putting together my first overnight experience of camping in the desert with my eternally infinite wisdom is that I can now bestow on the external world some excellent advice on hiking/camping and the outdoors.
Do not get me wrong. I have done my fair share of travelling, walking, and some hiking over the years. And I have slept in sleeping bags (in overnighters at friends’ and relatives’ homes as a kid).
This past weekend I took my two boys (aged 10 and 11.5) to hike and camp in Wadi Degla in Egypt’s Eastern Desert just on the outskirts of Cairo. This was our first experience with this sort of activity. My two girls decided not to come. My 13-year-old daughter just simply couldn’t fathom any sort of involvement with the outdoors to begin with. My 15-year-old daughter was open to the idea, but when she was told that there were no bathrooms in the desert she backed out.
I took the tour agency’s recommended list of things to take with us in our backpacks and followed it to a T. My youngest son, Abdelrahman, wouldn’t have managed carrying everything on his back, so I put two sleeping bags on my bag. I gave Mohammed, my 11.5-year-old, the smallest and lightest of the three sleeping bags we had with us.
We met the group as agreed at 4pm at the protectorate’s entrance.
One of the first things we did was to have all our backpacks weighed. The group was composed almost completely of young men (all under 30 and most under 25). Besides me and the two boys and about 12 young men, there was only one other 27-year-old woman.
As I watched everyone unload their bags, I started to panic. Everyone had such small backpacks! Where was all the water, I thought?? Where do they all have their extra sets of clothes? What about all the snacks we’re supposed to take with us? Suffice to say, when we weighed our packs, mine (the eldest person in the group at 40 and one of only two women) was the heaviest at 18 kilos. And my boys’ packs were both heavier than most of the mens’.
I will unashamedly admit that for the past years of my existence on this planet, I’ve had tendencies to lug along large and heavy suitcases while I travel. I like to be prepared for goodness sake! What if I need a nice pair of shoes? Or if I really need my sneakers for something? Or it gets cold and I need a jacket? All legitimate needs. But I’ve managed over the past year especially to travel much lighter. So I thought I had all this down and that I could get by on less.
The group leader came over and checked my bag with me. I ended up giving one of our three sleeping bags to a nice young man who had a much lighter backpack. And I gave a ziplocked bag of four bananas and two apples to another nice young man. I then proceeded to give away all our bread and cheese to the park gate-keepers. And I removed my extra set of clothes from the bag and returned it to the car. How much more could I have done without? And the bag was still huge and heavy!!
So here’s my first piece of advice:
Always make sure your bag is completely empty before packing it for your trip.
I discovered, while re-packing after our nights’ sleep at camp that I had unknowingly left two sets of those bars that keep tents erect in my backpack (we did not sleep in tents in this trip and were told only to bring sleeping bags). I use my empty backpacks to store stuff in. Good idea in general. But you need to remove that stuff completely before you leave for a trip!
Travel light but always be prepared
Having said all that, you still need to be prepared for almost anything. I have two clear examples from our trip:
It hardly ever rains in Egypt. Hardly ever. When it does, it’s in January and February and only a few minutes a few times a year. That’s it! (Well, except for the north coast). So why on earth would I think of bringing anything to protect us from rain on a camping trip, in the desert, in June? Well, it drizzled, in the desert, in June, all night long. The drizzle was actually quite welcome because it had a cooling effect. And it really was only a drizzle. But I’ve learned my lesson: expect the unexpected.
And to prove that point a step further – and I’ll try to approach this topic as delicately and sensitively as possible – I got my period completely unexpectedly and unpreparedly (to heck with delicately and sensitively. It’s human physiology and half the human race gets it for goodness sake!). This was supposed to be a one-day overnighter. It was the 24th day of my cycle. What were the odds?? It has happened, of course, that I get my period early. But that’s only happened a very small number of times!! So why would I then prepare for something like that, especially since I really was trying to pack light like a good girl? J
Well, it happened. And I must say that I do not cease to amaze at the ability of human beings to improvise. Allow me to remind you, I had removed my extra set of clothes from my bag. So if some sort of freak “accident” were to happen in the midst of all those men, it would have been quite embarrassing. Luckily I managed to keep myself safe from that sort of exposure. I will not go into details. But I managed. And thank God that was a short trip!
My views on peeing in the outdoors
Another thing that fascinated me was how my yuck-factor went down considerably during those two days.
So what if you get some pee spray on your feet while crouching to pee behind a rock? It’s just water and minerals. And you can simply wipe it off if you are really annoyed. Do you realize how difficult it is for a woman to pee in the outdoors? I’m sure there is some sort of an art to it that I have yet to learn. And I’ve had to pee both with my pants wrapped around my feet and with them completely off. Completely off is, of course, much easier to manage. But to be able to take them completely off you can’t have huge hiking boots on your feet! It is impossible to take your pants off with your boots still on your feet. In this case, and please listen and learn, you must roll down your pants, spread your legs, and then pull up your rolled down pants to your chin as you squat. That way your pants are significantly out of the line of fire. I was smart enough to bring a pair of slippers with me for the camp at night. That made a tremendous difference with the peeing at night. You know, as you grow older, you need to pee at night more than you used to. It’s rather embarrassing getting up at night while some people are asleep and others are trying their best to, and to go behind a rock to pee. I could swear it was so silent that everyone heard the spray. But then you think: it’s human physiology. Deal with it.
Also, and in line with our discussion on peeing: so what if your small packet of wet wipes falls into your puddle of pee while you pull it out of your oddly and uncomfortably rolled up pants? Pick it up, take a wipe out, and wipe the darn stuff off. Again, it’s just water and minerals and your wet wipes are much too valuable out there in the dusty desert to just leave them there lying in a puddle of pee.
The fear factor or the absence thereof
A sense of security comes with travelling in groups. That is probably why the fact that our campsite was stalked by foxes all night did not bother me in the least. It was actually a fascinating experience. The boys, myself, and the other woman in the group all slept on the farthest left-hand side of the camp. Only two men were between us and the wilderness. But those two men did not sleep at all. They stayed awake and had their flashlights going on and off searching for foxes. I did not sleep myself (I have a theory now that eating lots of dates gives a Red Bull-like effect but I’m too lazy to do a quick Google search to verify this). So I stayed up and watched as the foxes played near us. There were four of them. Their eyes shined a bright yellow as they reflected the light from our flashlights. And I now know that when one hears a throaty cluck-cluck sound, it means the foxes are in the vicinity. I also discovered, while going out at night to try to capture the foxes on camera (I didn’t – it was too dark), that the area had desert mice. This was probably why the foxes were around too. I’m supposing desert mice make a good meal for the average fox.
A proud mother
I cannot over-emphasize how proud I am of my sons. They both carried rather heavy bags on their little bodies and walked 15 km each (and did some climbing near the end at that). Hiking and camping (and the outdoors in general) are not a normal part of the Cairene culture. I have many non-Arab family and friends who have camping and hiking as a normal part of their family experience. That is not the case with my Arab friends and family and we seem to believe that children are not up to that sort of thing. Well, they are. My boys were more limber than some of the men to tell you the truth! And they thoroughly enjoyed the experience. They made friends with all the men in the group. I think they enjoyed being around the 20-year-olds and feeling like young men themselves (they are probably around their mother a bit too much). They loved helping out in cooking our hamburgers on the open fire. They had no problem at all peeing in the outdoors (to tell you the truth they have quite a lot of experience in that anyway). They were able to carry their backpacks most of the way and we all helped out carrying them for them for a short time so their backs could rest. They loved searching for bugs and watching the foxes. They both slept quite well in their sleeping bags cuddling up against me. And they loved the drizzle of rain. Just loved it.
I cannot end my article without addressing the horrible state the Wadi Degla protectorate is in. I am assuming that when an area is designated by a government to be a protectorate that it is somehow protected by said government. This one really isn’t. The only form of protection is in the fact that you can only gain entrance to the area by paying a ticket and passing through a gate. You also need special governmental permission to stay overnight. That’s it. The amount of plastic bags strangulating the desert bushes is appalling. It is clear that no one at all cleans the place up. At all. Ever. And I did not notice any clear instructions for protectorate visitors on how to deal with garbage. The area, in the end, is enclosed and not huge. So I am not sure I understand why there are not designated garbage areas for visitors to throw their refuse to then be collected by protectorate guards.
So, I’ll use this blog as a platform to call on Egypt’s Ministry of Environment to pay more attention to its 40 protectorates. This particular protectorate lies almost inside Cairo and thus there is huge potential for Wadi Degla to bring in a decent amount of local and international tourism. But as long as the area is not taken care of, people will be turned off from visiting.