How I Foolishly Agreed to Break a Wild Camel

Some hikers use “vehicle support” when traveling quickly along a long-distance trail — that is, a driver meets them at different points along the route and resupplies them with food, water, and other equipment, thus enabling them to travel lightly. On the Abraham Path in the Sinai, hikers do the same thing, but with camels instead of cars!

“Camel support” allows hikers to use rugged trails while carrying only daypacks, while camels carry overnight equipment, food and water, and cooking gear, often along a different route. In the evening, the hikers and camels come back together to set up comfortable night camps, complete with big dinners and campfires.

But camels are also an important part of the livelihood of the Bedouin tribes who live in the area. There are few paved roads and human settlements in the mountains of the Sinai, so camels are useful for transporting people and goods, and are a key element of the local economy. Camels are valuable animals, and their owners treat them as such.

Camels are intelligent and opinionated, so their owners have to deal with them carefully. Our guides used body language, auditory signals, and small rewards to get the camels to do what the group needed them to do. One of our guides was a sort of “camel whisperer” who was known across the Sinai as particularly skilled in training the animals. 

Camels can live in the desert on their own, so rather than pen them and feed them, many Bedouin simply allow them to roam free. One might expect the animals to get stolen, but each tribe brands its camels with its own mark, and individual owners add marks of their own. When someone sees camels in the wild, they generally check to see whose they are, and then pass on the information to the next person they see.

In this way, camel owners can leave their animals in the wild for months or even years, and keep track of where they are. One of our guides said some of his animals had been out for more than a year, and the last he had heard, the females had given birth and the herd had grown. The story illustrated for us not only the place of camels in Bedouin life, but also the connections in Bedouin society that allow valuable animals to be left unsupervised for such long periods of time.

Overall, “camel support” is an arrangement that gives Abraham Path hikers the best of both worlds. During the daytime, they can explore the mountains of the Sinai freely, without the burden of a heavy, multi-day pack. In the mornings and evenings, they can get to know these fascinating animals, and catch a glimpse of how they fit into the fabric of Bedouin society in the Sinai.

It seemed like a good idea: the other two Americans on the journey had gotten to ride camels for awhile the previous day, and now it should be my turn. I had ridden camels elsewhere before as a tourist, but we all figured that if I were going to write anything about camels in the Sinai, then I should ride a camel in the Sinai.

Things quickly became complicated. We made the rounds as the camel handlers were loading everything up. Was it OK for me to ride this one, this gentle one? No, came the answer; she’s carrying enough already. What about this other nice camel? No, she’s been carrying people a lot and needs some rest. So it seemed to go for all of the camels.

Only one was left: the majnun camel, the crazy dark-haired camel that had been making us laugh for two days as it growled like Chewbacca every time anyone tried to make it do any work. Our guide told us this was a three-year-old racing camel unaccustomed to carrying people and heavy goods; it was along because its trainer, Eid, wanted it to learn.

the majnun camel

the majnun camel

Eid, it turned out, was the greatest camel-trainer in the Sinai, and I knew he wouldn’t let me ride this wild beast even if I wanted to. So I jokingly said to our guide, “Since there aren’t any others, I’ll ride the majnun camel.” The guide smiled and said no. I started off to prepare for the hike.

Then the guide called my name. I turned around and he was standing with Eid next to the wild racing camel. “Are you serious about riding this one?” he asked. “Because if you are, Eid would like someone to ride him.” Eid was nodding his head, gesturing for me to come.

So far on the trip, my general policy had pretty much been to say yes to everything. Did I want to climb this mountain before breakfast? Sure. (The climb turned out to be much harder than I thought.) Did I want to cure my stomach illness with wild herbs and dubious traditional Bedouin healing techniques that involved a painful massage of my internal organs? Yeah, OK. (It hurt a lot and didn’t work.) Would I like to try smoking a homemade cigarette made from local mountain-grown tobacco? All right. (I coughed.)

I guess that policy was why I walked over and swung my leg over the saddle of the kneeling majnun camel, even though deep down, part of me wondered if it was really a good idea to hop aboard a giant animal that had razor-sharp teeth, and whose long neck could enable those teeth to bite me in the face. My worst fears were almost realized as the camel opened its mouth, swung its head around, and bellowed angrily. Eid growled at the camel and got it under control.

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Bellowing angrily as I hop on board.

Once it got up on its feet, the camel ran in circles and tried to throw me off. I was more nervous than afraid; Eid seemed to know what he was doing. I got a little too into it and swung my arm around like a cowboy on a bucking bronco. This made the camel more angry, so I stopped.

Actually, everything I did made the camel angry. Even after Eid used a short rope to tie the camel to another camel ahead, I couldn’t move without causing the camel to bellow and rear up and try to run. If I sat completely still, the camel calmed down somewhat, but I couldn’t even reach into my pocket for my camera without an angry reaction.

I only expected to stay on the camel for half an hour or so, just to get the experience. But Eid was committed now to the training, and by extension, so was I. The rugged path took us up over high, windy passes, and I held on tight as we crested the ridges and dropped into the valleys below. I had to trust the majnun camel, but the good news was that he seemed more focused now on negotiating the narrow trail than getting me off his back.

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At that point I made the mistake of kindly patting the camel’s neck, which caused me to almost lose a finger. Eid thought this was hilarious and told me to do it again. I did it again, with the same reaction. And I suppose it was around this time that Eid and I became friends.

We stopped on a hillside and the camel guides dismounted for mid-morning prayers. I was alone now with the majnun camel and didn’t move a muscle. I was still in one piece when Eid came back, and he took out an orange and gave me half of it. We both ate and then gave the camel the peel. Something had happened now: I was still on the camel’s back, and the camel was still angry about it, but Eid pulled the camel’s head close, beckoned him closer, and gave him a kiss on the lips.

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The best camel trainer in the Sinai.

Finally at lunchtime we all dismounted, and I assumed my wild ride was over. But Eid called me back when everyone was ready to go; apparently I still had work to do. And so I rode that camel, alongside Eid and the other guides and their camels, all the way to the Blue Desert.

That was the end of the line for these guides, who were from the Muzaina tribe; going forward, we would be with the Jabaliya Bedouin the rest of the way. In the morning we bade farewell to Eid and the other men and their camels, but before they left, Eid came and gave me a big bear hug, and told me that if I ever came back to Sinai, I would ride that camel again.

My time on the back of the majnun camel might have been the best time I had in the Sinai, and it wasn’t because I didn’t have to do the walking. It was because for a little while, I got to play a small role in the everyday lives of these men and their animals. I like to think that today, that crazy camel might be a little less crazy, and someone might be benefiting from that fact.

To anyone who hikes the Abraham Path across the Sinai after this, I humbly suggest that the “yes” approach to the trip — taking every opportunity to do new things and be a part of that rich and beautiful place — is a good one. Be foolish, within reason, and ride a majnun camel if you get the chance.

But don’t under any circumstances submit to the internal-organ massage. Say no to that one.

by Shay Rabineau

Pictures by Evan Bryant

Answers to the Abraham Path Trivia Quiz

Last month we sent you a quick quiz that tests your knowledge about the Abraham Path. Now, we are happy to explain the answers! But first, we would like to thank all those who submitted responses, as well as the five winners who will each receive one of our new Abraham Path T-shirts. Be sure to keep an eye out for an email with instructions on how to claim your prize.

For the rest of you, here are the answers:

This group preserves its ancient priesthood and continues to practice its religion in a temple atop
Mt Gerizim.

  • Answer: The Samaritans
  • Well known from the biblical stories of the “good Samaritan” and of the woman whom Jesus asked to draw water from a well, this ancient religious sect has survived for millennia despite severe persecution. In the present day, they live primarily in two communities: one is located near Nablus on Mt Gerizim, which is considered to be the holiest place for the Samaritans; and  a second, Neveh Marqeh, is near Tel Aviv.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/nablus/nablus-sites/mt-gerizim/

Archeological evidence found at this site, also known for its substantial expanses of copper slag,
gave rise to new understanding of human history, indicating that humans developed patterns of
settlement and consolidated religious practice prior to the advent of agriculture.

  • Answer: Feynan
  • Wadi Feynan is unique for its rich archeological history that dates back some 9,000 years. Hikers can easily spot the remnants of settlements ranging from the Neolithic era all the way to the Mamluk era; but the most notable feature is the estimated 100,000 tons of copper slag spread across the landscape, a testament to the valley’s importance during the Bronze Age.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/dana/dana-sites/feynan/

This site along the Abraham Path offers a unique opportunity to experience all four of Jordan’s
biogeographical zones in just a couple days’ walk. The four zones are: Mediterranean, which is primarily found in the highlands; Saharo-Arabian, which is primarily located in the northern region; Irano-Turanian, which is the eastern semi-desert regions; and finally, the Sudanian Penetration biogeographical zone, which represents the tropical influence on Jordanian geography.

  • Answer: Dana Nature Reserve
  • Due to the fact that it covers all four biogeographical zones, the wildlife diversity is incredible. There are an estimated 700 species of plant, 200 species of bird, and almost 40 kinds of mammals. The village is home to a world famous ecolodge, so enjoying the beauty this region has to offer is a true pleasure.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/dana/dana-sites/dana/

This mountain is made of halite and grows at a rate of 3.5mm per year. Home to many unique geological features such as the world’s longest salt cave, towering halite pillars, and plentiful fossils, this area is great to explore; just make sure you don’t look back when you leave.

  • Answer: Mount Sodom
  • Rising 250 meters above the Dead Sea but still well below sea level, this ridgeline is home to a salt pillar that is commonly associated with the story of Lot and his wife, who turned to salt when she looked back as they fled from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These days, the area is home to a spectacular variety of fossils, short hiking trails, and caves to explore. Climbing to the top is also well worth the views.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/arad/arad-sites/mt-sodom/

The rocky canyon of Wadi Qelt is believed to have inspired this famous line from the Psalms.

  • Answer: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
  • Made famous by its reference in Psalm 23, this isolated and barren valley is now home to St. George’s Monastery, which was built high on the steep, rocky edges of the canyon. Originally built in the 4th century, the impressive frescoes and beautiful decorations stand in stark contrast to the shadowy valley below.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/jericho/jericho-sites/st-georges-monastery/

This city is the ancestral hometown of a woman called Aisha bint Ahmad al Baouni, also known as Aisha al Baouniya. Renowned within her own lifetime as a Sufi mystic, poet and calligrapher, Aisha preached and published in great centers of 15th century Islamic thought such as Cairo and Damascus.

  • Answer: Baoun
  • Recognized by UNESCO for the significance of Aisha’s contribution to Islamic thought, her hometown is nestled in the lush Ajloun Region, which is home to numerous archeological sites and villages that are famous for their local wares.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/ajloun/ajloun-sites/baoun/

For hundreds of years, this soup has been served free of charge in a kitchen located in the old city of Hebron to many a hungry passerby, whether pilgrim or local

  • Answer: Abraham’s Soup
  • As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Hebron has seen its fair share of travelers. While the soup is reprentative of its unique approach to visitors, don’t miss out on the city’s uniquely layered history. The old city’s layout follows the Hoash model of habitation, where families built additional structures surrounding a central courtyard as their numbers expanded. These courtyards were further divided based on ethnicity or occupation, leading to a city that is home to concentrated sections that have a long history associated with a particular craft or people. Famous examples include the Glassmakers’ Quarter, the Yoghurt Quarter and the Armenian Quarter.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/hebron/hebron-sites/hebron-old-city/

Believed to be the third oldest in the world, this church is supposedly built on the site where Jesus healed a group of lepers while traveling to Jerusalem from Nazereth.

Abraham planted this type of tree after he had dug a well when he first arrived in Beersheva. Digging the well and planting this tree represents a crucial shift in the Abrahamic story, indicating a change from a nomadic lifestyle to one of sedentary agriculture.

  • Answer: Tamarix Tree
  • While at a glance this area doesn’t seem like the most obvious place to stop a journey, its dry climate and lack of visible water belies the fact that it lies above a narrowing subterranean riverbed that pushes the water to just below the surface. Digging a well in this area promises to quickly reach the water table.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/beersheva/beersheva-sites/abrahams-well/

According to tradition, this city houses the cave where Abraham’s mother went into hiding while she was pregnant with Abraham. She was fleeing from King Nimrod, who had ordered all children born that year to be killed in response to a dream he had that foretold of a child who would end his rule.

  • Answer: Urfa or Sanliurfa
  • Sanliurfa – which translates to ‘glorious Urfa’ –  lives up to its name with a history that includes one of the oldest religious sites on the planet, as well as a town-center that includes an incredible system of fish-filled canals and an old market that is world renown for its spices and craftsmanship.
  • Further Reading: http://abrahampath.org/path/urfa/

This mosque, once visited by famous explorer Ibn Battuta, is reported to have been built on the site where Abraham prostrated himself in prayer that God would not destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lived in these areas, is said to be buried nearby.

This mountain, named for a ninth-century Sufi mystic, is now home to a shrine symbolizing the mystic’s grave. Local veneration of the site is traditionally so great that one twentieth-century doctor recommended that his patients take their medications nearby – not because he believed the medicine would be more potent, but because he believed his patients were more likely to have faith in his prescriptions.

Wilderness First Aid Training Helps Rescue Injured Hiker

The Abraham Path Initiative strives to play a supporting role to local stakeholders. By providing advice, as well as educational and logistical support, our hope is that locally-led efforts will help the path will grow to be an integral component of the region’s economic and cultural life. One way we accomplish this is by helping to develop a network of professional guides that can bring travelers to experience the Abraham Path in a safe and professional manner, providing everything from comprehensive certification through local universities to wilderness first aid training.

While first aid certification is the sort of thing one hopes to never have to use, it still always a huge relief to have those skills when the situation requires it. Therefore we are happy to hear about about a recent instance where the training we provided to local guides proved to be invaluable in the field. About a month ago, Ayman AbdAlKareem, who was one of the graduates of the first ever Jordanian WFA course, was leading a canyoneering trip in Wadi Hidan. While his group was having a short lunch break, he noticed that someone from another group was climbing up a cliff to jump into the water below. The fall was about 30 meters and despite a few people warning her not to, she took the leap.

Wadi Hidan

The pool and cliff where the accident occurred.

When she emerged after hitting the water, it was clear that she was having difficulty swimming and that something was wrong. Ayman immediately swam over to her and carefully brought her to the shore.

After assessing her and requesting her permission to provide medical treatment, he proceeded to coordinate an extraction from the canyon. They were in an inaccessible place, about two kilometers from the closest road. Furthermore, it turned out that she had broken her back which required extreme caution when moving here. Therefore the rescue operation relied on a lot of the unique training he received when he acquired his SOLO wilderness first aid certification.

After fashioning a stretcher out of ropes, sticks and life jackets, it took about three hours to stabilize her and get her up the trail to the awaiting ambulance. We are happy to report that although she required surgery to stabilize the break, she is expected to to make a full recovery.

Be sure to check out the photo album for the canyoneering trip, which is linked below – looks like they still managed to have a great time despite all the excitement!

Experience Jordan Trip Photos

Theatre Brings Community Based Tourism to the Classroom

The Abraham Path’s success depends entirely on local investment. Therefore, much of the efforts to build sustainable infastructure for tourism along the path involve increasing awareness and understanding among local communities. This outreach can involve everything from simply building personal relationships to running skill-building workshops or programs in local schools.

A great example of this is a play that Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil, our partner organization, commisioned to be written by Manal El-Kassis. The play had 13 showings, primarily in different villages along the path. It was mostly geared toward youth, using drama and comedy to introduce the concept of community based tourism as a way to share the culture and history of rural areas with travelers from around the world.

The performances were often a part of a larger school program, where students participated in discussions and prepared research projects about the path’s role in their communities.

Click on the images below to see a few pictures of students enjoying the events, but also be sure to keep an eye out for the soon-to-be-published video!

(All pictures by Elias Halabi/API)

Pass it along––A Bedouin Classroom in the South Sinai Desert

The South Sinai is unique for many reasons, but the thriving Bedouin culture is a great reason to visit in its own right. As is often the case with traditional cultures, modernization and the shift toward cities has made it challenging to preserve the knowledge and wisdom that has accumulated from generations of inhabiting a region. Hiking tourism is unique in that it gives the traveler an opportunity experience the richness of these cultures in their own environment, and it also provides an economic reason for younger generations to learn and preserve their traditional knowledge. Evan Bryant had an opportunity to help scout trail possibilities in the Sinai for the Abraham Path and he experienced this lesson first hand:

It was important to us, while planning our trek through South Sinai, that we rely on local Bedouin guides for the duration of the journey. This is their land and their heritage, and we wanted to walk through it with the people who know it the best; to learn about their culture and to see the desert through their eyes. So naturally we were quite excited to meet our first guide from the Tarabin Tribe who would be with us for the first four days as we walked through his tribal territory.

When we met Musallem Faraj, we were reclining on cushions drinking Arab “shay” (tea) around a low table at the seaside restaurant of his Sahara Beach Camp, in Ras Shetan. The sun had already set behind us, and the jagged line of the Hejaz Mountains of Saudi Arabia towering over the Gulf of Aqaba had just blended with the deep purple sky and disappeared into darkness. He entered the palm-frond-roofed beach restaurant like a king in his castle, or quite literally, a sheikh in his tent––but without the slightest pretension––greeting his guests with twinkling eyes, and a broad, easy, white-toothed smile shining through his full, black beard, his face elegantly framed by a traditional Bedouin red-and-white-checkered keffiyeh (also “shemagh“ or head-scarf). At last he reached our table and sat down to meet us.

After cordial greetings, we dove straight into the topic which was top on our minds: the trek. We mentioned how grateful we were that we were going to be guided by him through his territory––as well as by two other Bedouin guides through theirs––expressing our interest in learning about Bedouin life.

We couldn’t have known it, but these words struck at the very heart of Musallem’s deepest love: his desire to preserve the culture of his people, which in the face of modern lifestyles and the temptation to earn easy money through consumer tourism at seaside resorts, he is seeing disappear all too quickly. Referring to the oral tradition of the Bedouin, he said,

“You, in the West, keep your knowledge in libraries and books, and you don’t really know it. We Bedouin keep our knowledge with us, and if we don’t pass it along, it is lost forever.”

Taking notes and learning about edible plants.

Taking notes and learning about edible plants from Musallem.

He then excitedly told us of his plans to open a school in Bir es Sawra, in South Sinai, to educate people about Bedouin knowledge; knowledge of nature, the desert, camels, and of food, crafts, and culture. “For my people, and people in the world, for everybody.”

As an example, he explained the traditional Bedouin desert greeting.

At a distance they first raise a hand and say, “As-Salaam Aleikum!” (“Peace be upon you”). The other replies, “Wa-Aleikum Salaam” (“And peace upon you”). This was especially important in old times, because if you didn’t say it, it meant you were an enemy. Then they approach one another and shake hands. And last, and most endearing, they touch noses and look eye-to-eye.

“Look for that when we’re in the desert. I guarantee you’ll see it.” And we did!

For the next four days Musallem continued to prove his passion for teaching about nature and Bedouin culture, something he’s done in countless tours over the past 22 years. The moment we set foot on sand at the Ras Shetan entry point in Wadi el-Melha, he gathered us around several species of plants to explain the various ways that they conserve moisture in the parched desert climate––some with a milky substance in their leaves, others with a waxy coating, and others in tightly bound fibers. He explained the traditional uses of each plant, for food, tea, dye, or medicine.

Tastes like dijon mustard

Tastes like dijon mustard

The most impressive to me was, “lasaf,” a type of low-lying caper bush (caparus sinaica), which grows pendulous red fruit, the seeds of which taste almost exactly like dijon mustard!

He pointed out subtle geological features in the towering rock walls around us. Volcanic basalt flows cutting dark stripes in the red granite. Boulders on the path with sharp edges belying their relatively recent tumble to the wadi bed, versus the large smooth boulders evidencing thousands of years of water coursing over them during seasonal flash floods.

The geology in the Sinai is spectacular.

The geology in the Sinai is spectacular.

With Musallem, every detail of the desert was full of wonder. “Subhan-Allah!” he would say. An Arabic phrase with no proper translation in English, but which indicates the beauty and wonder of creation. It didn’t take long for us to catch on…“Subhan-Allah!”

Speaking of his affection for his homeland he told us, “Sinai is beautiful, man! Mountains are a nice feeling, you feel protected, maybe you see a wall around you and you feel safe. In the big desert you feel naked. I like it here.”

Each morning we had the opportunity to watch him bake “libba” bread directly in the coals of the fire (a thick traditional Bedouin flatbread).

Baked fresh every morning directly on the embers of last night's fire.

Baked fresh every morning directly on the embers of last night’s fire.

And not only we watched and learned, but also little Ahmad, Musallem’s nephew. Musallem explained that he wanted to bring Ahmad on our trip so that he could pass the Bedouin knowledge along to him. “He is too soft. If he stays home he just watches TV and plays video games. He needs to learn!” And learn he did. Quite obediently and always with a smile, even when put to the test,

“Boy,” Musallem ordered, (he always called him “weled,” Arabic for “boy”), “…put my coat on the camel!” as he threw his black leather jacket on the ground away from Ahmad, who dutifully scampered over to retrieve it and put it away. “Boy, get the flour bag!” “Cut the onions!” “Fetch the camels!” “Load them up!”

Hajj Eid, our jolly old cameleer and Ahmad, Musallem’s nephew.

Hajj Eid, our jolly old cameleer and Ahmad, Musallem’s nephew.

Musallem also explained that the reason he’d chosen Hajj Eid, our jolly old cameleer, was that he wanted to learn from him too. “He has so much knowledge, and when he’s gone, it’s just gone.”

And perhaps most enjoyable of all, every evening we would all sit around the campfire drinking hot chai, while Musallem shared Bedouin history with us and told old ghost stories.

His school may not be open yet, but Musallem certainly has a classroom in the desert. It was a joy learning from him––and it’s an honor to pass it along.

Musallem Faraj leading the way

Musallem Faraj leading the way

– Written and photographed by Evan Bryant

Guide Training at Bethlehem University

Guides are fundamental to a good experience on the Abraham Path. Although it is possible to hike many sections of the route independently, a guide’s ability to contextualize the experience and bridge differences of culture and language makes for a far richer experience and we recommend that most first-time hikers take a guide along for their trip.

This need for more qualified guides has lead to the creation of a training program specifically designed to support the unique needs of guides along the Abraham Path. The yearlong course is held at Bethlehem University and enrolls 22 qualified students. Graduates will receive guide certification from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, and the course is slated to be completed in the spring.

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The class is comprised mostly of young professionals, men and women in their thirties, many of whom are already working in the tourism industry and are excited to enter into a new market of alternative tourism.

Although the program’s primary focus is to provide a comprehensive training that provides graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to share the Abraham Path experience with walkers, students were also intentionally selected to be geographically distributed along all of the different regions along the trail. This will create a tight-knit network of tourism professionals with the expertise to make sure that hikers are fully supported every step of the way.

So although students spend every weekend learning about everything from history and geography to hands-on first aid education and navigation courses out in the field, the weekly meetings have also given students an opportunity to network and collaborate with each other; and they are already working to improve the path experience. A number of the students have already been acting as local guides along the path for some time, so some of the most valuable education comes simply from the opportunity to collaborate and share experiences. According to Anwar Dawabsheh, one of the students with experience guiding along the trail, he has had a chance to “discuss a lot of problems which face us in the field, and I think I develop myself in these two months more than any other time.”

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Eight Questions with Daniel Baylis

We caught up with writer and adventurer Daniel Baylis just after he had spent two weeks this spring hiking the Abraham Path in the West Bank, known locally as the Masar Ibrahim. As one of the first walkers to take on the challenge of independently hiking a large section of the Masar Ibrahim, we were excited to hear about his experiences and give him an opportunity to share any advice or wisdom to others who might follow in his footsteps. Also be sure to check out the pictures from his adventures in the slideshow below. 

The time he spent walking on the Abraham Path was part of a larger project to experience the region by walking 917 kilometers on the Masar Ibrahim and the Israel National Trail. He is currently working on a book that will tell the tale of his experiences, so be sure to follow his adventures at danielbaylis.ca and @daniel_baylis, and be the first to snag a copy when it’s ready! His first book, The Traveller: Notes From an Imperfect Journey Around the World, documents a yearlong international quest to be helpful.

What attracted you to undertake a long-distance hiking trail, and what led you to choose the Masar Ibrahim?

I had wanted to embark upon a long-distance walking journey for a few years. Multiple factors steered me toward the Middle East, but the primary reason was the opportunity to learn more about a corner of the world that often makes news headlines yet remained unclear (to me). On a previous visit to Israel, I had learned about its national path system: the Israel National Trail. I decide that if I tackled the INT, to have a more comprehensive experience I would also need to visit Palestine. This catalyzed a search for further hiking options, which led to Stefan Szepesi’s book (Walking Palestine) and then to the discovery of the Masar Ibrahim.

Do you have any previous experience hiking long-distance trails? 

I don’t — this was my first attempt at a long-distance trail. Like many other Westerners, I feel drawn to the act of long-form walking, specifically as an antidote to the urban lifestyles we’ve created. Of course, hiking a few hundred kilometers is not always sunshine and lollipops, but there is something to be said about the contemplative opportunities that walking provides.

What sort of expectations did you have going into this project/experience?

One of my primary expectations was to learn more about the day-to-day lives of Israelis and Palestinians. I also anticipated a certain amount of fatigue. Both expectations were met. I received a “101” lesson in both local geography and local politics. And yes, by the end of each day I was tuckered out.

How easy was it to communicate with the locals along the path?

Because I have limited Arabic language skills, communication varied greatly. Walking with my guide Mohammed was very helpful, as he handled accommodation arrangements and often acted as a translator. But there were instances (specifically in the evenings) when he would return to his home, and I would be staying with a host family who spoke very little English. I found the situations to be quite charming: the families were gracious and welcoming, and through a game of charades we were able to communicate just fine. On another occasion, I was in Nablus by myself, searching for a hostel. I approached people and requested they point me in the right direction. Every person I asked for assistance was more than eager to assist me.

How did walking between communities give you insights into others’ daily lives? 

Walking is slow travel. I saw the farmer harvesting his field of cauliflower, the shepherd guiding his herd of goats, and the construction worker hauling cinder blocks. I also was able to smell the land — the good aromas (wildflowers) and the not-so-good aromas (rotting donkey carcass). These are the types of experiences missed in tour buses and taxis.

What was your favorite experience along the trail?

Staying with host families. During my time in the homestays I was able to establish deeper connections, bear witness to the more mundane day-to-day activities (which are arguably the most authentic) and sample traditional Palestinian dishes. For instance, when I was in the northern village of Arraba, I stayed with the Mardawi family. The men took me to their local barber for a shave, while the mom showed me how to serve a steamy chicken and rice dish called maqluba. These are always my preferred experiences.

Any advice for others who want to journey solo?

At this stage, I think it’s important to walk with a guide. Even an experienced hiker who is able to navigate GPS will benefit from the social component that a guide is able to offer. The villages throughout the West Bank are not necessarily accustomed to seeing visibly foreign hikers roaming around. For the next few years, guides will play a very crucial role in connecting hikers and locals. Plus, you’re directly assisting the local economy — which can be even more effective then international aid programs.

Anything else you’d like to add/ most important thing people should know?  

I had an incredible experience in the West Bank. For economic reasons and educational opportunities, I wish more people would go.

Leave No Trace

The Middle East is home to an incredible density of natural and historical attractions, as well as a fast-growing population shaped by a rich and ancient heritage. While these are the unique attributes that cause so many to come and experience the region, interact with the culture, and learn about its history, they also raise a host of environmental concerns related to both the impact of tourism and the effectiveness of local stewardship. Keeping this in mind, it is particularly important to develop tourism economies that both preserve this diversity and still open the region for travelers to experience.

Long distance walking trails have long proven to be great tools for accomplishing this. Bringing walkers in personal contact with the land and the people who live there reminds locals and visitors alike of the value of preservation. Traveling by foot is an opportunity to develop a deeper connection with places that are often overlooked in an increasingly urbanized society, and this connection is something we see every day on the Abraham Path.

Boyscouts spend a day cleaning along the path in the Nablus Region.

Boyscouts spend a day cleaning along the path in the Nablus Region.

This hope that a deep connection to the land, people and heritage will provide a foundation for environmental stewardship is fundamental to the goals of the path. We have partnered with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to formalize this commitment to minimizing impact on the landscapes, wildlife and heritage sites as we help develop sustainable tourism in the region. We highly recommend that all hikers pay close attention to The Seven Leave No Trace Principles as a framework for responsibly enjoying outdoor activities in the Middle East and elsewhere, and we look forward to continuing to promote environmental considerations as we engage communities along the path.

We hope to see you out there.

Seven Leave No Trace Principles:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

 

 

Between heaven and earth in the Sinai

During the second day of our trek across the Sinai, we walked up a wide-open wadi that was hemmed in by steep granite walls. We moved fast over the flat sand and stopping only for tea breaks with the Bedouin guides and a quick lunch cooked over a small fire. As we moved through the wadi, the gray-brown mountains marched past and our footsteps crunched in the gravel and we fell into a fast rhythm and covered a lot of ground. By the time we dropped our packs against the western wall of the wadi, the sun was getting low in the sky and we had covered something close to 30 kilometers.

While we were walking, our companion Ben had mentioned that it might be fun to climb the sawtooth ridge that overlooked the eastern wall of the wadi and see if we could get any views out across the Red Sea to the mountains of Saudi Arabia. It seemed like a good idea to me, and as the Bedouin guides tended the camels and started building a fire for cooking dinner, I decided to go up and take a look. As an afterthought I grabbed my daypack and threw in a few items in case I thought spending the night up there alone would be a good idea: a plastic groundsheet, my sleeping pad, my sleeping bag, and a water bottle. I crossed the wide wadi with my bag on my shoulder and my sandals on my feet and then began climbing.

I don’t know exactly how high the ridgeline was — maybe a couple hundred feet — but it was steep and the granite was a hard, fractured type that came loose in my hands and clattered down the mountainside as I climbed. From time to time I looked back down to the camp below, and when I was most of the way up I saw Ben and Evan crossing the wadi as well. Before too long I could hear them scrambling up along different routes.

This was the first time in the trip that we began to realize what a beating our equipment would take from the Sinai’s sharp-edged rocks. I had hiked all day in sandals, which hadn’t been a problem in the soft-bottomed wadi, but now on the rugged mountainside, I had to be a lot more careful. Behind me, Ben was climbing up in some camp sandals he’d brought, and encountered trouble when one of them completely came apart as he climbed. He kept going, though, and basically made it up and back with one bare foot. Evan was the best-equipped, with proper leather boots, but even those got torn up from the razor-edged rocks; for most of the rest of the trip, he protected the toes of his boots with silver duct tape.

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From the top, the view of the sunset over the wadi and the mountains beyond was amazing, but the view east was a bit disappointing — all we saw was another rock wall that rose up higher than where we were standing. “In the morning it might be fun to come back and climb that one,” Ben said. “We could probably catch a good view of the sunrise from up there.”

The thing about Ben is that he is completely obsessed with the mountains of the Sinai. I find mountains fascinating too, maybe because I grew up in northern Indiana, where the horizons were completely flat and even a small hill seemed like an oddity. But what I took as an idle comment from Ben was actually the seed of a serious plan, and the first of many similar plans he spontaneously made in the course of our trek. In night camps we would sit around fires and lean back against blanket-covered camel saddles and he would look out across the dim, jagged landscape and point out peak after peak, calling them all by their Arabic names and enumerating the ones he had already climbed and the ones he dreamed of climbing. 

So I didn’t realize it yet, but he was dead serious about doing a sunrise scramble, not only up the mountain that had just destroyed his sandals, but up the higher one that now faced us to the east. I said something noncommittal about it because I had other plans on my mind.

Before the others had arrived, I had picked my way along the ridgeline and found sort of a saddle where there was a level spot between two rocky crests. It was a little way down on the east side, hidden from the wadi in the small canyon between the two ridges. It had taken a little while, but I had moved a few dozen big rocks to create a mostly-flat, person-shaped space on a bed of hard ground. I had spread out my sheet, pad, and sleeping bag, and thus committed myself to a night alone on the mountain before scrambling back up to the ridgeline to meet Evan and Ben.

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The sun went down and we climbed back into the wadi and the cold night descended. We sat around the fire to eat and talk. When the small fire died, we lit candles and put them in cut-off water bottles. It was the kind of night that lends itself to stories of ghosts and spirits and stars. We hung on the latter topic for awhile; Ben had brought along a copy of an academic article describing Bedouin star-lore, and our guides told us about the names of different stars and constellations, and how they could be used as signs to mark different seasons. When certain ones rose in certain places, they signaled the beginnings of different harvest times, or the times when the wadis might flood, and when travelers slept in places like this at their own peril.

Eventually we all got up and turned on our headlamps and zipped up our fleeces and began the nighttime ritual of collecting our scattered items, getting everything in order for the night, and preparing in advance for the next morning’s departure. Evan and Ben and Julian all had their sleeping bags laid out in different places, and the guides stayed on the blankets already laid around the campfire area near the camels. 

I set out again across the wadi in my sandals, this time in the dark, and the world quickly narrowed into the circle of my light and the sound of my footsteps. I carefully retraced my route back up the series of ascents up the rock wall and along the ridgeline at the top, and finally reached the high point of the knife-edge where someone had built a rock cairn. In one direction, I could see my sleeping spot in the high, dark divide, barely visible in the weak beam of my light. In the other direction, I could see the lights of other headlamps in the wadi below. 

On an impulse, I thought I might see everything better if I turned off my light. I was sitting crouched on a single prominent rock next to the cairn on the ridge’s highest point, and in the few seconds before my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I felt completely disoriented, and almost fell from where I was sitting. The moon had not come up yet, and the black rock below matched the black sky above, and for a little while it seemed like I was hanging in space, and I was afraid. I panicked a little and grabbed onto the solid rock below the cairn. I held onto it as my eyes adjusted and the scene around me began to resolve itself.

When I was a kid, my family and I used to take our summer vacations to a cabin up north that my grandfather had built with his brothers, out in the middle of the deep forest where there was no electricity and there were no nearby cities. One time I went out onto the lake alone in the middle of a moonless night and decided to lay down in the wet bottom of the rowboat and look at the stars, and when I did, I was frightened by a sky whose size and brilliance I had never really seen before.

I felt something similar now as I sat on the ridgeline, suspended between heaven and earth, watching the stars appear in their billions. Down below, the headlamps of the other hikers looked like stars as well, twinkling as they moved back and forth and changed directions in the darkness. The great belt of the Milky Way stretched east and west across the sky, while the sandy bed of the wadi below ran from north to south and shone white as it reflected the light of the stars. It seemed right to stay there for awhile, so I did, and when I went down and found my bed in the darkness on the other side of the ridge, I fell asleep quickly.

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The sky was still purple when I woke up and heard the sound of falling rocks. I rolled over and saw Ben making his way quickly over the lower ridge and then heading down toward the next one to the east. I sat up, took a drink of water, climbed out into the cold, put my sandals on, and left my things behind as I picked my way down the shadowed slope to follow him. We hit the bottom of the ravine and started upward without stopping. There was a certain exhilaration for me in climbing fast in the cold air and the dawn light, and I imagine Ben felt it too. We made it to the top quickly — only to find that there was yet another ridge. 

“We could climb that one too,” Ben said with a note of reservation.

“Maybe we should,” I said.

“Yallabina,” he said, and started down. Again we descended quickly to a deep ravine and then silently shifted gears into a fast ascent. As we scrambled the higher slope using our hands and feet, the black granite gave way to yellow sandstone that was weathered into strange shapes, and whose layers broke away in plate-shaped pieces. Up near the top the steps and layers got more and more horizontal, and finally flattened out completely. 

Then we saw the dawn just breaking over the Hejaz, and the Gulf of Aqaba glittering in the sunlight, and the lines of mountains rising up from the sea to meet us. We were at the highest point of the ridgeline, save for a knob of standstone that stood above the flat spot where we were standing. “Let’s climb up there and build a rujm,” Ben said, and we did: a modest rock cairn that might not last long, but which would at least give us the sense for the time being that we had done something, and would also connect us with the ancients who had crossed these same spaces and had left similar signs of their passing: cairns, tombs, altars, and pillars.

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The Sinai is not some empty space that has somehow remained unchanged since the times of Abraham and Moses and the Pharaohs and the Exodus and all the events that today give it such historical, legendary, and mythic significance. It is a place where people live, and where roads have been built, and where jets fly overhead. It is a place that can feel quite ordinary at certain times and in certain places. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing magical about hiking there.

But sometimes there is. In the mountainous interior of the Sinai, where most of the paved roads have not yet penetrated, and where few bother to venture except for the Bedouins who know the secrets that sustain desert life, beautiful and frightening moments of transcendence can present themselves to those who seek them. The cairn I helped build between heaven and earth, on the long trail from Ras Shetan to Jebel Musa, was by no means the first that marked such a moment, and I am sure it will not be the last.

Photos by Evan Bryant

Trail-Scouting Dispatches: The Goat Rescue

One of my favorite trail encounters on the Abraham Path centered not on people, but on a small goat. My co-workers have insisted that I write the story of it up as a blog post, while I’ve been concerned that it will come off as me just talking about what a swell guy I am for helping goats. I seem to be in the minority opinion here, though, so you be the judge.

This past April, I was out scouting a section of trail in the Craters Region by mountain bike. At the western rim of the Large Makhtesh, I had finished the day’s work and was sitting in the Negev sun, eating some snacks. Suddenly, the desert silence was interrupted by a forlorn bleating. Nearby, half-hidden in the scrubland, was a small, staggering kid (ed.: a baby goat) with no other goatkind in sight. 

This is unheard of; when there are goats, there are generally either zero goats, or a crowd of more than fifty. I ran to the nearest hilltops to scan the immediate area, in case a nearby flock might have shed a member, but there was nothing. I concluded the kid must be from a large flock I had seen about 3 kilometers down the wadi I’d come up, and had somehow gotten separated.

As the saying goes, “with small goats comes great responsibility.” This little guy clearly did not belong out here, and, as far as I could see, was thoroughly lacking in survival skills. Whether by dumb luck or by the act of some caprine guardian angel, I was now tasked with discovering where the goat belonged, and seeing it safely there.

With a pat on the head, I befriended it, and soon had it following me – but not very fast. It was only around 3 kilometers to where I’d seen the shepherds and flock, but at the rate I was going, it would have taken over an hour to get there. After a painfully slow few hundred meters, I decided to stash the mountain bike and carry the goat. Aside from the occasional loud, agitated bleating and spasm of kicking, this seemed to be working. 

As I went on, the kicking grew more desperate, so I tried having the goat follow me again. Soon it seemed to become more reluctant to move on its own: each time I set it down, it would follow me for ten meters or so, then hold its position and start bleating in sadness or defiance, if those are ways in which a goat can bleat. 

Getting fed up with this, I decided I was going to have to carry the thing the rest of the way. I gave it many more chances to walk (especially whenever it got squirmy) but this seemed futile. So we continued in an awkward alternation of carrying, switching arms, bouts of kicking and squealing, deposition of goat upon ground and subsequent scooping up again. 

Although this goat likely did not understand English, I found myself speaking to it as I would to an uncooperative child. I inquired as to the purpose of all this kicking, and whether the bleating needed to be so loud that it rattled my eardrums. I explained that, since the option of being left to die in the desert was off the table, the baby goat must choose either to walk on its own four feet, or to be bundled awkwardly in my arms. I explained how much I would appreciate it if the goat would make its choice and stop complaining. I promised we would soon be home with its family, and sooner if it would please shut up.

This latter promise was not made in entirely good faith: I had no way of knowing the flock would still be there when I reached the spot, nor even whether it was the correct flock. If it were a strange flock, I didn’t know what to expect – would the other goats ostracize it? Formally initiate it and raise it as one of their own? Cannibalize it? Treat it as an interesting curiosity? Give it a wedgie and steal its lunch money? I don’t know how goats live. 

However, right flock or no, any shepherd could eventually track down the true owner; there aren’t all that many people living out in this particular backcountry. And it was the middle of the day. Typically, a shepherd will bring their flock to a certain spot and graze the area for the day, not moving too far until later afternoon when it’s time to go home. So I slogged on, counting on the hope of finding an appropriate place for my passenger.

Finally, I approached the spot where I’d seen the flock. They had been here, as evidence by the tracks and livestock poop littering the valley floor, but there was neither sheep nor goat in sight. So I set the baby goat down and told it to stay put; then, ignoring the shrill unhappy noises it began to emit, I headed up over a hill to get a view of the area. 

The profiles of several sheep a few hills over showed me I wasn’t too late. With a new burst of energy I hauled the goat (which was getting more and more upset about being carried as we went on) up to the edge of the flock, and hoped that it would be drawn to the presence of its own kind. The newcomer and the herd began to bleat back and forth at each other, but the little guy was still standing in place, not making any headway toward the flock.

I plopped the baby a bit closer to the others and finally, it wandered in fits and starts up a hillside, to where a goat that could only be its mother emerged from the crowd and started licking it. Success! On seeing this, the elderly shepherd came over and immediately handed me some saj bread (a hearty Bedouin flatbread easily cooked in the field), presumably in thanks, and introduced himself as Salem.

The whole time I’d been carrying the goat, I’d been concerned I was being too rough with it – perhaps that was the reason for all the kicking and squealing. But Salem’s first reaction was to grab the thing by its hind leg, drag it over to him, and give it a big fat kiss on the top of the head. Luckily, he did not do the same to me. Instead, upon hearing my story, he summoned his daughter to take some photos of this unusual gathering.

I needed to leave in order to catch a bus, and in any case was eager for a shower to remove the smell of goat from me. I petted the goat one last time, shook hands with Salem, and departed. I hope he’ll enjoy trying to get people to believe his tall tale of the time a foreigner in a bike helmet emerged from the desert, hauling a reluctant baby goat back to its mom.