Egypt’s new Red Sea Mountain Trail offers glimpse into nomadic heritage
HURGHADA - In ancient times, the remote mountainous area on the outskirts of the Egyptian coastal city of Hurghada, on the Red Sea, was a busy and dynamic region.
Especially during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, trade and travel caravans that crossed the territory towards the Nile intersected with ancient hunting routes. This created a mosaic of lively mountain trails that, as people moved out of the region, were travelled only by local Bedouins.
Until the 1980s, it was common for locals to use camels or walk to get around. Only a handful of Bedouins owned pickup trucks and, as a result, the ancient paths remained in good condition but with more widespread motorised transport, travel changed and the mountain trails that had once been so vital went unused and fell into ruin.
However, the historical network of trails is being reborn through the Red Sea Mountain Trail, a 170km route that connects the paths in what has become the first long-distance hiking trail in Egypt.
The trail, which takes approximately 10 days to navigate, was designed by the Khushmaan clan, who are part of the Maaza, one of Egypt’s largest Bedouin tribes and whose roots trace back to the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula. In Egypt, the Maaza’s territory lies in the northern half of the Red Sea Mountains and it is through their traditional land that the route runs.
“We are giving people a reason to walk [those paths] again and, by walking through them to revive them,” said Ben Hoffler, co-founder of the trail. “Nothing teaches the names and stories of the land, its plants and its animals better than a path.”
“For travellers, a path is almost a blood vessel that keeps the place and its culture alive,” he said.
Aside from its historical diversity, the Red Sea Mountain Trail runs across a wide range of scenery from vast plains to labyrinthine valleys and from circuitous rocky canyons to cool water pools. It includes six hiking hubs connected to various pathways to notable locations such as Jebel Shayib el Banat (2,187 metres) or Jebel Gattar, regarded as one of the most unknown places of Egypt’s wilderness.
“Our fathers and grandfathers taught us about these mountains,” said Mohammed Abu Busha, one of the guides on the trail. “We walk [these paths] behind the camels and the goats,” he explained, evoking a time when, as a child, he would follow the rains in search of grazing areas with his family.
“The more we see the scenery, the more we get attached and get to know it,” he added.
The Red Sea Mountain Trail was meant to develop a model of grass-roots sustainable adventure tourism in the region. This is to serve as a counterbalance from the mass tourism industry around resorts, particularly diving, that has taken over the Red Sea, and which differs from the lifestyle of local Bedouins to whom that kind of tourism has minimal benefits.
“A path like the Red Sea Mountain Trail creates legitimate economic opportunities for [the local Bedouins] and it puts them at the front line because nobody is more qualified than the Bedouin to work in this field,” said Hoffler, whose focus is exploring ways to combine modern tourism and the preservation of ancient nomadic heritage.
The Red Sea Mountain Trail was opened April 12-13 by a group of 19 hikers.
“It is always adventurous to try a new trail and see some wilderness,” said hiker Rasha Amro. “Long-distance hikes let the Bedouins tell us their experiences, their stories, give us their culture and, by doing so, make us part of it.”
Moataz Elewa, another hiker, said the trail offers a unique opportunity to get to know a part of Egypt that is often forgotten.
“It is important for people in Cairo to understand that Egypt is not Cairo,” he said, “but rather that there are a lot of other peoples with different backgrounds, history and traditions to respect and to support.”