INTERVIEW: The designer of Sinai’s longest hiking trail on trekking with Bedouins – Health – Life & Style


Hoffler has designed a trail across Sinai mountains through which hikers can directly interact with the Bedouin and their culture and get in touch with nature.

The path shows the best of Sinai’s landscapes and history while underlining the beauty of the region’s nomadic heritage to the world, Hoffler believes.

He talks to Ahram Online about the challenges to, and prospects of, Egypt’s adventure tourism, which could easily become one of the pillars of the economy.

 

Ahram Online: Tell us more about yourself and the Sinai trail.

Ben Hoffler: I’m 39 years old, I’m from the UK and I’ve been based in Egypt for nearly 15 years.

I first came to Egypt when I was 25. The first time I went to Sinai I climbed Mount Sinai, watching the sun rise; and it made the biggest impact on me from the first time I saw it.

I loved it and went back to St Catherine as much as I could, setting out to climb more mountains; I got pulled ever more deeply into the region until it was my biggest focus in life.

Sinai became an obsession for me. I left Cairo to live in St Catherine and found a small house to rent.

As much as it was the mountains, it was the Bedouin side of Sinai that I loved; the hospitality to guests, the strength and courage of the Bedouins in the mountains, the close, intelligent relationship they had with the natural world. Sinai gave me some of the biggest treasures of my life and the Sinai Trail is one way I’ve tried to give something back.

The Sinai Trail grew out of us wanting to show a different side of Sinai; we wanted to show its positive, uplifting and inspirational side.

We wanted to challenge the mainstream narrative of Sinai as a place of danger, challenging misconceptions about it and boosting the tourism that was so important to the region.

Other countries such as Jordan and Lebanon had created successful long-distance hiking trails and a group of us in Sinai wondered if something similar could be created in Egypt; a single, long-distance path showing the best of Sinai’s landscapes and history while underlining the beauty of the region’s nomadic heritage to the world.

We wanted to create something that would be of real, tangible value – creating legitimate work, jobs, and opportunities in some of Egypt’s most remote areas – so that it would be seen as an asset and truly embraced by local communities.

Moreover, we wanted the trail to create not just any kind of work; but a specific kind of wilderness-based work in which the region’s traditional Bedouin knowledge, skills, and heritage would be used in a real way and thus kept relevant and alive in contemporary times.

We envisaged the trail starting off as a 220km path running from Ras Shetan on the Gulf of Aqaba to Jebel Catherina – the highest mountain in Egypt – and crossing the territories of three tribes; the Tarabin, Muzeina, and Jebeleya.

Working with a Bedouin leader called Faraj Mahmoud of the Jebeleya in St Catherine, we approached leaders in the other tribes and began to talk about how such a path could work.

We agreed that everything would be divided equally on the trail between the tribes, ensuring everybody felt treated the same and had the same rights and the same incentive to get involved; the path would be a 12-day trail and each one of the three tribes working on it would take a four-day share.

Each tribe would guide hikers through their lands – working principally as guides and cameleers – to the borders of the next tribe, who would then guide the hikers onto the territory of the next.

The trail opened in 2015 and one year later it won the BGTW Award for the Wider World’s Best New Tourism Project.

As the trail gathered momentum we walked thousands more kilometres and held many more days and weeks of meetings with new leaders, extending it from a 220km, 12-day trail into a 550km, 48-day trail that would cross the territories of every one of the eight Bedouin tribes in the southern part of the peninsula.

The long version of the Sinai Trail – which is the one hikers walk today – was launched in 2018. For me, the Sinai Trail is the best way of showing the world who the Bedouin are; I see no better monument to a nomadic culture than a path.

AO: How do you describe the response to the project when it comes to different nationalities?

BH: The global response to the Sinai Trail has been incredible. Sinai has received a lot of negative coverage in the media in the last decade but there has always been a tremendous support for the trail from hikers in Egypt and around the world. In terms of hiking demographics, most hikers come from Egypt.

The Egyptian hiking community has boomed in the last 10 years. More people in every age bracket are giving hiking a go and it’s about a 50-50 split of men and women.

The Sinai Trail is also popular with foreigners who work in Egypt. After Egypt most of our hikers come from the UK; after that, from various parts of Europe and North America. Hikers have visited the Sinai Trail from China to India, Columbia, Argentina, Australia, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Something in what Sinai has appeals across every culture.

AO: What is the allure of Sinai that attracts people worldwide and sets it apart from its counterparts?

BH: What truly sets it apart for me is the Sinai’s Bedouin heritage.

Sinai’s Bedouin tribes have lived here for many centuries. Walking with the Bedouin feels like turning the clock back; it opens our eyes to a world that feels much older than the modern, technological one most of us are used to.

The Sinai Trail takes us deep into an ancient wilderness that has changed very little over the last millennia. When we go to the desert with the Bedouin we see how they use the land to survive, we see their knowledge in everyday use, we feel their hospitality, companionship and generosity, their strength and courage in the mountains, and we listen to their stories and wisdom around the fire at night.

Going to Sinai connects us to simple things we don’t have in the modern world – stars, sand, fires and silence – but which feel precious as soon as we experience them.

AO: What are the challenges you face to maximise the success of this route’s tourism?

BH: Tourism has been down for a decade in Sinai. The Sinai Trail has survived, but it has not been easy and low levels of tourism and uncertainty about the future are an ongoing challenge for the long-term.

Egypt is one of the world’s greatest tourism destinations but most people still see it as a destination for history and beaches.

Countries like Jordan and Oman have successfully presented themselves as world class adventure tourism destinations for decades and Saudi Arabia is beginning to do the same. There is a great opportunity for Egypt to do the same, making adventure tourism one of the pillars of its tourism economy.

We must remember how important adventure tourism can be in creating jobs across the country – especially in remote desert regions – and it must continue to promote its wilderness as a core part of its tourism offering.

AO: Is the route suitable for anyone? What are the levels of fitness and resilience required?

BH: The Sinai Trail is a challenging hiking route and it requires a good level of fitness and mental resilience.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to be as tough as it sounds. People should not be intimidated by the trail.

There are ways we can make it easier and more accessible. People don’t have to walk the whole 48-day trail. They can walk half day to one day to multi day sections. They can focus on the easiest parts of the trail, avoiding difficult ones. Hikers can ride camels instead of walking and we can pace the whole trail slowly for people who are not so fit. We’ve seen people in their 70s hike the trail. We’ve had people who are overweight and differently abled walk the trail too. The key thing is to go in a group whose members have the same basic capacity to yourself.

AO: How do you describe the character of the Egyptian Bedouins and their cooperation to make the trail activities a success?

BH: The Bedouin make the Sinai Trail what it is today. They are kind, hospitable, courageous, and companionable and their knowledge and wisdom are a highlight of any journey.

They show us how to be connected and at peace with a natural world many of us feel disconnected from today.

There are eight Bedouin tribes on the Sinai Trail; the Tarabin, Muzeina, Jebeleya, Awlad Said, Garasha, Sowalha, Hamada, and Alegat.

Each tribe has its own history, dialect, and identity and from the beginning to the end of the trail hikers will cross a tapestry of different tribal cultures.

The tribes of southern Sinai have always been connected, but their collaboration on the Sinai Trail marks the first time they have worked together on a travelling route for over 100 years.

 

The tribes agreed to work together in a special meeting in which they took an old Bedouin oath, swearing to stand together until ‘the sea is dry and hairs grow on the palms of our hands.’ The Bedouin own the trail, they are the ones who work in frontline roles on the trail and they cooperate in managing the project today.

AO: What other activities need to be encouraged in the desert? How about mountain-climbing?

BH: New forms of tourism we’d like to see developed on the trail include rock-climbing and mountain-biking. We are most interested in low impact, human powered activities; they are better for the environment than motorised tours on quad bikes or 4x4s and help leave the wilderness as the truly natural place we believe it should be.

AO: Are there future plans to expand the idea to other hiking regions in unexplored jems of Egypt, may be in the western or southern areas?

BH: Alongside the Sinai Trail, we have created another trail called the Red Sea Mountain Trail in the highlands of Hurghada, developing it over five years with Bedouin of the Maaza.

It is the sister trail of the Sinai Trail today. Egypt is a country of many natural highlights and one of my dreams is to extend the Red Sea Mountain Trail into a 1,000km hiking route that traverses the length of Egypt’s Eastern Desert north to south, from the tablelands of the Galala Plateau in the north – where the Monastery of St Antony stands today – to Jebel Elba in the south.

Egypt has the potential for short- and long-distance hiking trails and other kinds of wilderness tourism from Siwa to the Western Desert and beyond.

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