For most of its history, the Sinai has been little trodden. It was a land of rugged mountains, wide plains and windswept deserts. Its Bedouin tribes – who numbered just a few thousand until the 1960s – moved between seasonal pastures in their territories. Everybody else passed through on major desert routes, such as the pilgrim trail to the Monastery of St Katherine, the Darb el Hajj to Mecca or trade routes along the coasts. Everything has changed today, especially in South Sinai. Hundreds of tourist resorts have appeared on the coasts; tarmac roads give quick access to the interior parts of the peninsula, and jeeps allow travel to all but the most difficult mountain areas of the region. Tourism can be a force for positive change, supporting local communities and helping them make a better present and future for themselves, but all too often, it’s not. It’s important to visit the Sinai and hike the Sinai Trail in the right way, with an understanding of local issues and an awareness of our own impact on the region.
Up until the last century, large tracts of the Sinai remained accessible only by foot or camel. The bulk of the Sinai’s wilderness remained largely untrodden by outsiders. Today, that has all changed. Hundreds of tourists visit the desert every day, or hike the trails up Mount Sinai, and the impact is starting to show. It’s not just the numbers; it’s the attitude. All too often, tourists don’t respect the environment or give it the sensitivity it needs. They don’t live with it, connect with it, or see any reason to preserve it once they’ve gone. Remember, the Sinai’s Bedouin communities interact with the landscape daily, using its plants, water and resources. They deal with the impact of visitors after they’ve left, so it’s esssential to keep it pristine.
Litter management – Litter wrecks the pristine desert landscapes of the Sinai. Orange peel can take over six months to decompose, plastic bags over 10 years and glass bottles thousands of years. You can help manage litter effectively by minimising group size. Bigger groups create more litter and it’s hard to manage the waste in one spot. You can remove excess packaging before you hike, in the villages. On the trail you can burn flammable waste such as food, cardboard and paper. For all waste you can’t burn you should carry it out: keep a small bag for all the pieces of litter you accumulate on trail and take it back to town with you. Don’t use bins you find on trail as these will only have to be emptied by someone else.
Respect wildlife – Desert wildlife has narrow margins for survival so it’s important to give it all the sensitivity it needs. Don’t pick wild herbs or flowers; these are integral to local ecosystems and should be left alone. Don’t feed wildlife on the trail; in some places, human leftovers have become part of the diet for local animals. This weans them out of foraging habits and isn’t necessarily good for them. Don’t linger around wildlife either: get one good look, then leave. Especially if it is an animal with young. Camp carefully too, ideally 100m from open water sources; these are important drinking spots for animals and many will avoid drinking rather than risk approaching a human camp.
Conserve water – Water is precious in the desert. It’s always important to conserve both its quantity and quality. Never waste water. Wash clothes after a trek, not on it; clean pots with bread, gravel and paper wrappers. Keep designated drinking sources pristine. Never wash hands in them, clean teeth in them, or anything else. Use cans left by the side of springs to scoop out water. Even when you find water that is not from a designated drinking source, such as a well or spring, keep the water clean. It is possible to swim in some water sources, but don’t use any chemical pollutants like soaps or bio detergents, even ones claiming to be eco friendly. Animals drink from these sources.
Good fire practice – Fires have long been central to the Bedouin. Bedouin guides always make fires on hikes, for tea and cooking. Nevertheless, in some parts of the Sinai, especially the more popular ones, wood is getting more scarce, as more is being used. Use gas cylinders wherever it’s possible, either small ones or bigger ones for large groups. If you must use wood, always use dead wood you gather from the desert floor. Do not use branches from live trees. Wherever possible buy firewood off trail: this will often have been gathered from lesser trodden areas on trail that can recover more easily. Always use established fireplaces where you find them and cover embers when you leave.
Going to the toilet – There are basic toilets at the Ein Hudera oasis in the middle of the trail. There are also natural composting toilets in a number of Bedouin gardens in the St Katherine highlands. Generally though, toilets are a rarity. Most of the time hikers must simply find a convenient spot in the wilderness. The National Parks of Egypt recommend you go at least 100m from the nearest water source. Choose your spot carefully, digging a small trench at least 30cm deep with the heel of your boot where possible. Cover the trench back up when you have finished. If you use toilet paper, burn it on the spot. Don’t bury it as it might be uncovered by winds or dug up by animals.
Other ways to help – Walking outside the busier times of the year helps the environment. It helps to spread the impact of activity over several months, rather than focusing it on the landscape at the same time. It also spreads the economic impact around the year, which is good for communities. Never leave graffiti on rocks or add marks next to ancient graffiti: this defaces an extremely rich historical record in the same way scribbling over a precious ancient manuscript would. Don’t take rocks or semi precious stones from the desert; these are harvested for the tourist market in some areas. Always try to use camels for travel rather than 4x4s too: their impact on the enviornment is much softer.
South Sinai was transformed into a major tourist destination – Egypt’s so-called Red Sea Riviera – under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s. The Egyptian government trumpeted its development as a major success story, but the Bedouin didn’t all see it the same way. They claim large tracts of tribal land were taken without proper recompense and sold to Egyptian or foreign hotel chains with no connection to the place. Furthermore, many claim they were frozen out of the beach economy developed in the Sinai thereafter. In hiking the Sinai Trail and heading into the interior, Bedouin areas you will be making a difference already: hiking the Sinai Trail gives Bedouin communities a legitimate means of earning a living, bringing marginalised communities into the economy.
Support local businesses – Use small, locally owned businesses such as shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes when you’re off the trail, wherever possible; these all give an area its real local character, reflecting the community. To survive and flourish as businesses they have to be used.
Buy local produce – Fruit, vegetables and other local produce is often available from Bedouin orchards in season. Ask orchard owners to see if it’s available on your hike. Buying it puts money directly in the pockets of people who use the land to live. These are the ones tied most closely to the place and the ones who have its best interests at heart. They are the best possible guardians for the land.
Encourage local skills and trades – Traditional skills once key to Bedouin survival are becoming irrelevant to modern life across the Sinai and consequently forgotten. From foraging skills to tracking and navigation. As much as being worthy of preservation in their own right, these skill are valuable on hikers and only the Bedouin have them. This gives them a strong position in the hiking market. The best way to keep these skills alive is to put down an economic demand for them. This makes them relevant and desirable again. As well as hiking the trail, consider other activities, such as a weekend learning medicinal uses of desert plants, or camel skills, Bedouin survival skills, or wilderness cooking.
Support local women – Bedouin men suffer high unemployment in the Sinai. Nevertheless, things are tougher for women. They are the most economically excluded group of all. One of the few ways they make any disposable income is by selling handicrafts. If you need repairs doing to trekking gear, Bedouin women will often help for a small fee. Some Bedouin women offer accommodation in the desert and the mountains too. Using these places helps support these enterprising women.
Spread the wealth – the Sinai Trail crosses the east side of the Sinai; traditionally, this is the side that has received most tourism. Other parts of the Sinai, such as Wadi Feiran, a big valley near St Katherine, or remote mountain areas in the south receive much less tourism. If you visit these areas after a hike on the Sinai Trail, you will be spreading the benefits of tourism into the more deprived areas. Trails will be developed in these areas by the Sinai Trail team in the future to incorporate more Bedouin tribes.
The culture of the Sinai is changing, reflecting its changing demographics. In the 1960s, the population of South Sinai was thought to be about 5000 people, mostly Bedouin. In 2003, it was over 100,000; in 2017, it could even be over 300,000. Following its tourist development and resettlement programmes, mainland Egyptians outnumber the Bedouin in many parts of Sinai and Western beach tourism has a year round presence too. Relatively isolated in the wilderness before, Bedouin culture is more exposed to outside influence than ever today and it’s changing fast; some say at such a speed nobody knows whether it’s for better or worse; which change they want, which they don’t, and whether they have a choice anyway. Change will happen and whether it’s good or bad is a Bedouin debate; but always try to be respectful of Bedouin culture and sensitive to the pressures it is under in a changing Sinai.
Dress respectfully – Dress codes are conservative in the interior of the Sinai and you should try to fit in. It might not seem like a big issue but dress affects how you’re seen and it sends out signals about how much you respect local norms. People might not say anything if you’re not dressed in the way they’d expect, but it doesn’t mean they like it. Being dressed inappropriately in some parts of the Sinai will make you feel more awkward than anyone a lot of the time so always try. For men and women, it’s best to wear full length trousers and shirts that cover the shoulders and upper arms. Women should wear a headscarf when enteringany holy site like a mosque or a Sheikh’s tomb.
Aim to understand – local Bedouin culture has different norms to Western culture and the culture of mainland Egypt. There are contrasting attitudes on everything from women’s rights to how an animal should be slaughtered. Take care not to come across like you’re trying to enlighten people on the best way with these: i.e. the way you are used to. Ask questions, listen and try to understand why the local culture adds up as it does, even if the resulting principles are a contrast from home. Wherever we are, between cultures; one thing is common, nobody likes a know-it-all lecture.
Photograph sensitively – Ask before you photograph local people. Don’t photograph a woman unless both she and her husband agree. Often, people like to see their pictures so if you can, exchange email addresses or postal addresses, and send them over once you get back home.
Encourage local pride – Taking an interest in local culture breeds pride. Tell people when you see something you like as it underlines its importance and reminds them to value it. Traditional knowledge about plants, stars, place names and legends is being lost as modern change sweeps over the Sinai. With much of this knowledge never written down – the Bedouin never kept written records – once it’s gone it will be gone for good. Asking questions about it encourages people to keep the knowledge alive.
Etiquette with food – food has a real cultural importance to the Bedouin, where it’s central to codes of hospitality, which have long underpinned life in the desert. Nobody will expect you to be fully versed in the nuances of food etiquette, but it will help to know a little bit. Always share; when you meet Bedouin in the desert they will always, without question, share what they have generously, even if they go hungry. Reciprocate and be as generous as you can if Bedouin come to your camp. Receiving guests generously is important in the desert; small acts of warmth mean a lot in places as hard to survive in as this. When drinking tea, it’s customary to drink no more than three glasses per sitting. If you’re served food in a large circular tray to eat communally, imagine it divided into equal sized wedges and eat from yours; don’t dip into those of others. Don’t eat using your left hand; this hand the Bedouin use to clean themselves after the toilet and it’ll be assumed you do the same. Generally, alcohol is considered haram or forbidden and it can create barriers between you and your guides so it’s better left off-trail.