Um Bugma’s mysterious charm on Sinai Trail

Among the hikers, who are using the trail in increasing numbers, Um Bogma appears as an astonishing place wrapped in mystery.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Hikers in Um Bogma. (Antoine Naggar)
Hikers in Um Bogma. (Antoine Naggar)

UM BOGMA, Egypt - Walking through the manganese-rich mountain of Um Bogma, which is a 4-hour hike from the South Sinai village of Abu Sahow, Egypt, a ghost town that dates to the times of the British mandate arises amid the path.

Named after the mountain, the area covered by Um Bogma is said to be bigger than the city of Saint Catherine by the local Bedouins of the Hamada tribe and it preserves most of its infrastructure and facilities, although they have fallen into disrepair. However, the site has been almost forgotten for several decades, frozen in time.

Um Bogma is starting to carve out a place on the map thanks to the award-winning Sinai Trail, a 550km, a 42-day hiking trail that crosses South Sinai. The ghost town has become one of the key spots along the trail as it crosses the traditional land of the Hamada, who, despite scarce information documenting the history of the place, say they know its origins.

“The story says that a Bedouin found manganese [in the mountain] and gave it to a British man, who took it with him to send it to the United Kingdom, where they found out that it was of a very good quality,” said Antoine Naggar, a member of the tourism company Wild Guanabana and facilitator of trips in the area. “Then, they sent engineers to study how they could exploit it and [finally] built the town.”

Ahmed Shams, an external consultant to the School of Archaeology at Oxford University, pointed out that the British established the mining company that would exploit Um Bogma in the early 20th century but the start of the World War I forced them to halt their plans.

“The exploitation of the manganese mines, which required some facilities, was delayed during the war and reached the production stage from 1918 onward. So, it is safe to say that the mines and consequently the town became in full operation post-WWI and during the British mandate in Egypt,” said Shams, the founder of Sinai Peninsula Research.

Um Bogma is on high and rugged tablelands facing the biggest sand desert in South Sinai, called El Ramla, and the plateau of Hadabat el Teeh, a natural divide between North and South Sinai, said Ben Hoffler, who helped establish the Sinai Trail.

“All around Um Bogma are deep gorges that cut deep down through spectacular granite,” he said. “These are both narrow and twisting gorges with oases of palms and pools and waterfalls after rain.”

“Um Bogma is like a high island surrounded by these beautiful gorges.”

Shams said that, during the British mandate, the lease by the Egyptian government covered 225 hectares acres, a 10km cableway and a 17km railway to transfer ore from the mines to the seaport of Abu Zenima. Shams said 853 Egyptians and 26 foreigners worked in the mining town and produced 55 tonnes of ore in 1921.

The British legacy in the area reaches the nomenclature of surrounding natural spots. “The British gave places around Um Bogma numbers as names, and today the Bedouin still use these,” explained Hoffler, who said an oasis known as “Arbatashar” (“Fourteen”), is an example.

The British company continued operating in Um Bogma until the 1950s, when it became an Egyptian public company, likely nationalised by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. During the next two decades, the mines were operating and the town expanded until its current size.

It was with the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula following the 1967 war that Um Bogma was abandoned.

“The Israelis mentioned that it was economically infeasible to operate the mines due to the difference in the nature of Israel’s market economy and the Egyptian socialist economy at the time,” Shams said.

Among the hikers, who are using the trail in increasing numbers, Um Bogma appears as an astonishing place wrapped in mystery.

“A mining ghost town in the middle of the desert is not something you see every day,” said Barbara Rogers, a Swiss hiker who had recently been in the town. “[The place] is a bit spooky because there is nothing there anymore.”

“When you are up there, you first see the mine itself with the old cable cars that used to carry the manganese out of the mine and walking past that you get into the old town and walk through the old abandoned homes,” recounted Sarah Nour, another hiker. “Exploring that is a lot of fun but best of all is the breathtaking view from up there.”

“Going to Um Bogma feels like walking into a post-apocalyptic world,” said Hoffler, “you find antique telephones and typewriters and old paperwork and WWII helmets and beer bottles.

“It is like the clocks stopped and a moment in history was frozen,” said Ben Hoffler, who helped establish the Sinai Trail.

A camel grazes near the remains of an old building in Um Bogma. (Thibault Adeline)