The Sinai Trail has been dubbed the world’s best hike, and, while there are harder, headier walks, none are so rich with history – and none were built on such an unlikely friendship.
There were no signposts in the desert, but Faraj Mahmoud knew the way. A veteran guide of the mountain-dwelling Jebeleya tribe, he was escorting me – bumpily, in a 4×4 – to the Blue Desert in Egypt’s South Sinai. We rattled onto the plain, named after its now faded cerulean rocks, painted in 1980 by Belgian artist Jean Verame to mark the previous year’s Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
I was joining a group of hikers that had set out eight days earlier from coastal Nuweiba, crossing the lands of the Tarabin and Muzeina, two of the founding Bedouin tribes behind the Sinai Trail, Egypt’s first long-distance hike. I was cutting in for the 50km-long, Jebeleya-guided ‘Roof of Egypt’ climax, which spans the Sinai Peninsula’s most iconic peaks and Unesco-listed St Catherine’s Monastery. After a mercifully short wait under the blazing late-morning sun, the hikers’ scattered silhouettes emerged like a mirage on the horizon.
The Sinai Trail has been dubbed one of the best new hikes in the world by Wanderlust magazine and was awarded best new tourism initiative, ‘Wider World’by the British Guild of Travel Writers in 2016. While there are harder, headier walks, none are so rich with history – and none are built upon such unlikely bonds.
Bedouin tribes have long escorted pilgrims from all corners across the Sinai – Muslims en route to Mecca, Christians to St Catherine or Jerusalem – with each tribe handing them to the next at its border. “Then came cars and planes, and people forgot this way,” Mahmoud said. Deprived of guiding work, many Bedouin sought jobs in the city. The Sinai Trail, a fusion of old pilgrimage, trade and smuggling routes, counters that.