There are some places in this world that require you to walk long and far and with a certain amount of risk to life and limb in order to reach them. Months and sometimes years of training are needed to achieve the physical strength and the mental willpower necessary to take you to these places. These places are worth seeing.
Our night ascent to the summit of Egypt’s highest peak was grueling at times. We were pushing hard and were not taking breaks. The moon shone bright over our heads. Our headlamps were not required. My breathing became heavier and heavier as we went higher and higher. I began to feel the weight of my backpack that was carrying four-days-worth of clothes and snacks. “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” I thought. “I am not enjoying this. I feel miserable. What is wrong with me?”
We reached the summit in a short three hours. My best friend Arwa slumped down on the floor of the summit hut, shivering. I took her in my arms and rubbed her back to warm her. We ate a quick snack and jumped into our sleeping bags, lying side by side with our two Bedouin guides barely a meter away.
After a very restless sleep – altitude gives me nightmares – I woke up and saw the door to our stone hut was lined by a dim halo of light. I put on my sandals and fleece jacket and opened the door.
This was why I did it, I suddenly remembered. Below me lay a wide expanse of clouds and mountain range, shining under the rising sun.
Getting to this point was not easy. Arwa drove for six hours from Cairo to get us to the small southern Sinai town of St Katherine where our hike began. About 1.5 hours away from the town, the Egyptian police stopped us from entering Wadi Feran, the long valley road that leads to St Katherine. The road was closed to non-Bedouins, we were told. It was dangerous. And he began to relate to us horror stories about kidnappings and banditry that regularly happened down that road. We had no choice but to call our Bedouin guide and ask him to make the trip to where we were and guarantee our safety to the police.
It was nighttime when we managed to start driving through the narrow valley. It was eventless, save for the chatter that was going on in the car. “The police exaggerate,” our Bedouin guide, Badri, told us. “There is nothing at all to fear. You can see for yourselves. The road is safe and nothing is happening. Besides, I belong to the tribe that does the kidnapping,” he said, trying to calm any concerns we had. “My tribe would never approach you while I was with you. They are all busy anyways. Opium harvest season runs from February through May.”
The conversation was so surreal that there was nothing to do but laugh.
We arrived safely in St Katherine and Badri took us to his home where we ate a warm meal of roast chicken, potatoes, rice and salad. About an hour later we started our way up Mount St Katherine, Badri leading and our second Bedouin guide and cook, Fetayh, pulling Asfour the camel behind him.
Arwa and I came to adore Asfour over the coming three days. He was such a character. Only eight-years-old, he was relatively young still. His long strides on the mountain rocks were steady and sure most of the time, except when the trail was too narrow and rocky and he seemed to fumble a bit to gain his footing. Asfour, meaning sparrow in English, really disliked getting geared up for a trip. I must admit he carried quite the load. He carried food and water for the four days plus much of Arwa’s gear, my sleeping bag, and the Bedouins’ gear. He would give a great deep grunt of disapproval while Fetayh loaded him up. I would feed him bits of cardboard box in the meanwhile to keep him occupied. Asfour loved cardboard. “Gimme cardboard,” he would grunt to me. I’d feed him another piece. “Thank you!” he’d grunt again. Fetayh told us that all camels ate cardboard. “It’s nutritious for them,” he explained.
At night, Asfour transformed from a brown, medium-sized camel to an almost white, gigantic camel twice the size. Arwa and I will swear to it. One night as we readied ourselves for sleep deep in the Sinai mountains, Arwa told me, as a matter of fact, that the Bedouins had sent Asfour home and there was another one in his place. A long argument between the two of us ensued. There was no way that the camel standing outside our door was not Asfour, I told her. Just before dawn I opened our hut door to go to the bathroom. I pointed my headlamp at the camel for a close look. He was white and twice the size of Asfour, just like Arwa said. As soon as the sun peeped up from beneath the horizon, I asked our Bedouin guides why they sent Asfour home. “He’s standing right there!” they told us. Asfour was a super camel by night and a normal camel by day, it turned out.
Over the course of three days following our summit of Egypt highest peak, Arwa and I hiked through the valleys of southern Sinai. Spring was showing its green face on the desert. I had visited this mountainous area many times before, but never at this time of year. The desert was budding with life. Almond and walnut trees were bursting with pink and white flowers, their aroma wafting for meters outside the stone walls of the gardens in which they were grown. The melting snows from the tops of the mountains slowly collected in small streams that ran through the valleys, coalesced, and fell in waterfalls into little lakes beneath. Badri took us scrambling over large boulders, ascending at first and then descending to reach one of those lakes. The second I saw the waterfall I thought: me standing underneath it in a bikini washing my hair like in the movies. I needed to tick that one off my list. “Badri! I need five minutes of privacy!” I yelled, as he began to prepare a small meal for us. Badri disappeared far away into the mountain while I stripped down to my bra and underwear. Arwa watched with incredulity as my feet touched the freezing cold water. “I can do this!” I told her. “I swam in the icy cold waters of Italy’s Mediterranean in late October. This is nothing compared to that!” Little did I know…well, little did I know. I kept forcing myself to take more steps forward, expecting my body to eventually accept the coldness around me. When the water reached my upper thigh, I threw the rest of my body in. “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” I yelled. My body was in shock. This was not like my Mediterranean experience! This water was unbearably cold! I made it only halfway to the waterfall and quickly swam back to the shore. I threw my clothes back on and warmed myself in Arwa’s jacket. “Well that wasn’t one of my smartest ideas,” I told Arwa. Nadia standing under a waterfall in a bikini remains on the bucket list. I did once stand under a waterfall (fully clothed) in Spain. But I was to discover that it was the effluent from a nuclear reactor. Yes yes. You can all attribute the craziness to that. Alas, I’m not counting standing under a nuclear reactor waste waterfall as the experience I need to tick off my bucket list.
Our nights in southern Sinai were spent by a campfire that had the dual purpose of keeping us warm in the cold desert and barbequing our evening meal. The owner of the camp was a 60-year-old Bedouin who could talk hours on end. The Sheikh, among many other things, taught us that the best honey one could buy was opium honey. He said once a person tries it he keeps going back for more. He also explained that camels expand themselves at night in order to keep warm against the cold. That’s why Asfour looked so different. He told us that camels were agitated during the winter/early spring months because that was their mating season. And that in their testosterone rage they might even kill their owners. When that happens, he told us, the camels feel really badly afterwards.
The Sheikh also told us that the younger Bedouins were finding it more difficult to marry these days. Their women were demanding too many goats as dowry. The young men had started marrying from the province of Kafr El-Sheikh in the Nile Delta, he said. Kafr El-Sheikh women didn’t need expensive dowries. All they wanted was to have all their relatives gathered up in a small bus and honk around town to celebrate the marriage. But while Bedouin wives never asked where their husbands were going or what they were doing, Kafr El-Sheikh wives insisted that their husbands treat them well. If a Bedouin husband mistreats his Kafr El-Sheikh wife, she gives him a beating, the Sheikh told us. The Bedouin men don’t seem to mind, though. Many of them would rather get beaten than have to pay an expensive dowry. Two things I wished I could take home with me from that trip: Asfour and the Sheikh.
After four days of hiking, Arwa and I were weary but very pleased with our experience. Badri sent us on our way home. He rode in the car with us past the first police checkpoint. They wouldn’t let us pass through Wadi Feran without a Bedouin. We let Badri out of the car a few miles after the checkpoint. He would drive back with his brother who was following us in his truck. “Someone I know will ride with you the rest of the way through the valley,” Badri told us. Arwa and I felt reassured that we would have another Bedouin man with us as extra protection. Instead of a typical Bedouin, however, a scrawny young 20-year-old man dressed like a normal Egyptian climbed into the car. Arwa began to drive down the 1.5-hour-long road while I started interrogating the young man, Diaa, to find out who he was.
“I just got out of prison yesterday,” he told me, to my dismay. I put on my journalist face and continued to ask him questions as if I heard that sentence everyday. “Ah. So what were you in for, Diaa?” I asked him as if I was asking what he had for dinner last night. “Transporting drugs,” he told me. “But I swear I am innocent,” he continued. “I was drafted with the army, driving trucks for them, and I picked up two hitchhiking Bedouins who needed a road out of the valley. I felt sorry for them. When we reached a police checkpoint they jumped out of the car and ran. The police searched the car and found drugs that they left and I ended up taking the wrap for them,” he concluded. Uhuh, I thought. That’s what they all say.
Diaa was originally from the Nile Delta region. His army draft took him to southern Sinai. He was placed for three months in military prison for transporting drugs. In prison he was fed beans and cheese for breakfast and chicken and rice for dinner. Prisoners were never allowed out of their cells. Several men are kept in each cell and their bathroom is in that same cell. The prison held both military prisoners and civilian prisoners. The civilian prisoners were in for anything from drug dealing and stealing to kidnapping and rape. Do drugs find their way into military prison? I asked. Small amounts did, he said. What kinds? I asked. Everything, he said. Sensing that I was interested he added, “Would you like me to wrap a cigarette for you?” he laughed. I laughed in turn, silently wondering if he had any on him. “No thank you,” I said. “I have never even smoked a normal cigarette in my life.”
My strategy was to keep the convicted felon riding in our car busy. Keep him occupied, Nadia. That way he might not have time to hatch a plan to do something bad to us. He was a little fellow. Next to me and Arwa he looked like a little mouse. But I realized he could very easily have people waiting for him somewhere along the valley road. We needed to keep a very watchful eye on this fellow.
We reached the end of the valley safely. “Safe journey, Diaa,” I told him as I signaled to Arwa to stop. He seemed to politely imply that it would be nice if we could take him further but he did not want to impose on us. We did not let him impose on us.
The rest of our ride home was tense. Arwa and I learned some lessons the hard way.
- It’s not smart to let strange men ride with you in your car even if they come recommended. They could turn out to be convicted drug felons.
- People you do business with are people you do business with. They are not your dearest friends. Don’t expect them to necessarily treat you as such. Sometimes they think they know someone but it turns out they are convicted drug felons.
- Never travel out onto desert roads without gathering every single bit of information you can find on safety before you set out.
- Make sure that someone you trust knows when/if you are entering a potentially dangerous area and that they follow your progress. Make sure you have a million backup plans in case things get rough.
Our four-day hike through the mountains and valleys of southern Sinai were inspiring, refreshing, and breathtaking. Sleeping under the stars, walking barefoot in the rocky streams, eating green leaves directly off the mountain, and hiking hours on end…this is what I’ll remember from that trip. More importantly, I’ve learned important lessons about safety; lessons I already knew but found myself in a position where they were not implemented. We were very lucky to get home safe. Taking risks does not mean you depend on luck. It means you calculate the risks and you take all the necessary precautions to make sure they do not happen.
Some places are worth a certain amount of risks to be seen. Some places are worth the physical exertion. But never depend on luck.
Egypt is a beautiful country. It has countless hidden gems. Do everything in your power to see them. But do so smartly and keep safe.