What I Learned Walking for 12 Days Across Egypt’s Mountain Range

In our deviation from nature and our growing distance from how man was meant to live, rehabilitation centers have become a socially accepted resort to helping people get back on their feet and back in touch with their true-selves and instinct. However, scarcely does anyone seek help for excessive use of technology or spending too much time in a work cubicle, despite their undeniable negative influence on our general well-being.

Hoping to quietly retreat from the ambient noise of the city, I joined 21 other hikers from Egypt and around the world on the Sinai Trail as we walked for 12 days from the Gulf of Aqaba to Mount Saint Catherine crossing over 200 km.

The Sinai Trail — a trail built by South Sinai’s local Bedouin community, with support from outdoor professionals from Europe and other parts of the world — connects some of the peninsula’s oldest trade, pilgrim and shepherd routes, to give Egypt a hiking route for modern times.

Hoping to open up more windows of opportunity for Sinai’s Bedouin community, the Sinai Trail team – Musallam Abo Faraj, Nasr Mansour and Faraj Soliman — led the first organized group of hikers across the full trail, an epic journey that came to a successful end on December 10, 2016.

Although crossing the trail was a huge challenge for me in terms of the duration spent in the wilderness and the distance covered per day, I remember how I sat on top of Jebel Katherina for the first time ever, and instead of celebrating this new achievement, all I could think of was how much I had learned from the trail; that was the real treasure.

Fear is as Real as you Allow it to Be

Writing a note in the hikers’ log book on the summit of Jebel Katherina after watching sunrise. Credit: Mostafa Aboel Fadl

Before embarking on the trail, I had two primary concerns: that I would always fall behind everyone else, and that I would be too exhausted to reach our final two summits of Jebel Musa (Mount Sinai) and Jebel Katherina. As a matter of fact, I did almost always fall behind, and even though I was fairly exhausted by the end, I still managed to reach both summits.

It wasn’t until my first emotional meltdown that I openly spoke of my restlessness about falling behind and holding everyone back, a matter that I was instantly assured to only be in my head. From this point on, I grew more confident of my pace and I respected what my body was capable or incapable of achieving. With that out of the way, plenty of space was cleared in my mind, allowing me to take in more beauty.

After ten days on the trail, we encountered another uphill path that I mindlessly started walking up, not paying it much attention, until it hit me halfway through that we had been walking uphill for longer than the usual, finding out that I was already halfway up Jebel Musa. At that moment, I stopped for a couple of seconds, laughed at my previous fears, and carried on hiking what I hadn’t even noticed to be a mountain.

Beyond the Land of the Strong and Independent

Hiking through one of the rockier parts of the Sinai Trail. Credit: Enas El Masry

Growing up both as a millennial and a girl, being a strong, independent woman was almost as important a goal as being virtuous or finishing my education. For many years, I have clashed with society on many scales in pursuit of those two qualities. However, unlike the city where we take pride in hiding our vulnerability behind a veil of strength, the wilderness strips you off all pretenses, including that of being inherently strong and independent.

Throughout the 12 days, I have seen a group of strangers open up one bit at a time, sharing snippets from their personal lives as they laughed and as they cried. I have seen them offer helping hands and motivating words to make sure no one fell behind, and mostly that no one felt alone.

Surrounded with such energy, it was inevitable to always keep a vigilant eye on anyone who needed help but was too proud to ask. We had no other way but to look out for one another to make sure we all made it to the end. Our vulnerability exposed by nature created new genuine bonds, binding us together and making us stronger as individuals and as a group.

The Similarities in our Differences

Bedouin Nasr Mansour (left) and Italian Cristina Gheza (right) share a moment of genuine joy over morning coffee on Jebel Katherina. Credit: Enas El Masry

Much of the violence we witness in our modern times spurs from people who are too afraid or too indifferent to venture out of their comfort zones and understand one another. Far beyond our comfort zones, the Sinai Trail saw a family form in 12 days whose members came from Jordan, New Zealand, the UK, the US, Italy, Spain and Egypt. Despite our different backgrounds, it wasn’t hard to see how we were all similar on the most basic level.

United by our goal to finish the trail and enjoy every possible moment, there was little to no cultural difference in adopting that. With no luxuries to distract us, we remained bound by the most basic human needs to survive and connect. Whereas the easiest getaway would have usually been escaping to our gadgets, the scarce portable power sources, paralleled with the common unavailability of network reception encouraged everyone to reach out past the seeming differences, even in times when people had no common language to converse in.

Each night as we gathered around the fire, waiting for exhaustion to take over, I saw Bedouins recite poetry one time, narrate folk stories the other, or even break out into an episode of singing Tracy Chapman songs. I have seen an American and a Jordanian Bedouin exchange vocabulary, or clap to songs they don’t even understand and people gathering around the same fire because away from all the luxuries that set us apart, we share the same desire to stay warm on a cold desert night.

Coarse Lands and Tender Hearts

Mostafa Aboel Fadl (left), Jordanian Mohamed al-Zaeadeen (center) and Bedouin Mosallem Abu Farraj (right) play with a kid in Wadi al-Arbaeen. Credit: Enas El Masry

According to what most of the mainstream media portrays today, the civilized cultures of the urban communities are much more evolved than many of the indigenous cultures around the world who have very little access to technology and most of its feats. However, out in the desert and in the embrace of mountains, I have seen kindness towards all that nature brings like I haven’t seen before.

At heart, the Bedouin life is a very rough nomadic life that takes them through nature and all of its swift and grave changes. While one may guess that it only takes someone as rigid as the mountains to survive them, our Bedouin guides proved this idea as false as it can ever be. Throughout the trail, they would often explain to us how to treat nature so that the scarce resources, especially water and plants, would be fit and abundant for everyone; human and wildlife. Consequently, we were constantly reminded to not dip our dirty hands in any pools of water, to watch out for insects and avoid stepping on them and to always throw the dates’ kernel in the desert in hopes of them growing into palm trees one day.

While the urban life forces people to look out for themselves, over-consuming what they don’t need just because it’s the norm, the scarcity of the desert was always a reminder to share whatever little is available, lest you find yourself in need one day and hope someone out there has something to share.

Nature Where the Only Constant is Change

An asphalt road that has been built and rebuilt several times as the seasonal floods flash in, leaving the road in utter destruction. Credit: Enas El Masry

Although the trail only took us across parts of Sinai, change was the constant undertone of our journey, from drastically changing weather to an ever-altering succession of rock types and terrains. Although some parts of the trail were more enjoyable than others, we appreciated all forms of nature as we passed through them, preparing ourselves for each part differently and in accordance with what was expected ahead of us.

Oftentimes, when nature is mentioned, most people think of seas, mountains or forests, but what a lot of people tend to overlook is that human nature is intrinsically part of nature, and is accordingly ever-changing. Just like walking the trail, there will always be times along our constant waves of change that we enjoy more than others, but with acknowledgement for recurrent change and proper preparation for it — even if it’s only psychological preparation — walking through life is most likely hoped to be a lot smoother and more enjoyable.

It is, however, very dangerous when we continue to turn a blind eye to the course of nature, a moral that manifests clearly on the trail. Among the most iconic failed attempts of urbanization is an asphalt road in the heart of Sinai that is today left in havoc after being destroyed by floods and rebuilt several times. Despite the money and effort invested in such projects, which was essentially meant to facilitate the lives of the locals, the inevitable laws of nature proved — as they always will — to have the upper hand. If it’s meant to befall us anyway, then we’d better work with it and not against it.

All That Goes Up Must Come Down

Eid, one of the trainee guides, overlooks Ein Hudra where we had camped the night before. Credit: Enas El Masry

In order to cross the trail, there were times when we walked through plain and straightforward valleys, while there were other times when we had to scramble our way through rigid paths, hike up many steep routes or trek to the summit of mountains. By the time we had reached the top of anything, we were usually out of breath with knees on the verge of failing us, but it was always worth every bit of effort invested in the climb. Nonetheless, the top was never a place to dwell on for long, for we had to move on.

Oftentimes, success is visualized as a linear path that only goes upwards as we move forward — a faulty image that undoubtedly tampers with our acceptance of how real life transpires, and how we define both success and failure. Everything in life goes in a wave form, and since we have nowhere to go but forward, we must always face both ups and downs, embracing them as part of the process.

While the view from the top was almost always breathtaking, we all knew that if we wanted to climb more mountains, we had to honor the descent as much as we honored the climb that brought us to the top.

Published on Community Times

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