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

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

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.

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.

Don’t Compromise, Contextualize: Navigating the Abraham Path experience as a woman

I’ve stumbled across dozens of articles with titles like “Traveling in the Middle East for Women” or “Solo Female Travel in the Middle East – Is It Safe?” In general, these articles offer helpful tips about what to wear, how to act, when to shake hands – tips which largely apply to the regions along the Abraham Path. But over the last few years, I’ve begun to realize that some situations and struggles are unique to hiking in the region as a (foreign) woman – and, even more specifically, to the intensely community-based experience of hiking the Abraham Path. I’m still very much in the process of learning how to deal with these situations and struggles myself, but here are a few tips I’ve gathered from that process so far:

  • Leave your pride behind.
    I have two least-favorite sentences in Arabic: Haram lil-binat! and Kayf as-sabayah? The first means, roughly, “Oh, but it’s a shame for the girls!” Any time I’m out on a hike and my group wanders across a shepherd or a village resident or a Bedouin in his tent, I hear this sentence. It’s usually followed with a few others: “Aren’t those bags heavy?” “The sun is too strong!” “You know it’s a looong way?”

    And the second sentence means “So how are the women doing?”

    One particular memory will probably always come to mind when I hear these sentences. I was out with friends and coworkers scouting a new section of trail along the Abraham Path. The route started in a small village and quickly descended along a rocky path into a deep wadi. One of our local contacts decided to send three men from the village to help us find our way. As we began the steep descent, I found myself walking in front of these men and could hear them asking among themselves, “Why are they taking those two girls along? It’s dangerous. I can tell that they don’t know how to walk. They won’t make it. They’ll just give us problems.”

    By the time we had reached the bottom of the wadi, one of them had twisted his ankle, two had nearly run out of water, and all declined to eat.

    We called our contact in the village, and he agreed to meet us with a car at the road on the other side of the wadi to collect the injured walker. I reached the top of the wadi an hour or so later and found him sitting in his truck. He greeted us, asked how the trail had been so far, and then, with a grin, winked at the man standing next to me and asked Kayf as-sabayah? in a tone which seemed to imply, “It’s so sweet and accommodating of you strong men to indulge these girls and let them walk with you. I really admire your patience” – at least, that’s what I heard.  We stood there at the top of the hill, chatting as we waited for the others to catch up. Upon parting ways with the truck a while later, I began to rant to my companions, childishly imitating the man: “Kayf as-sabayah? Kayf as-sabayah? Well, sir, this sabiya is standing here talking to you right now. Where are all the zlam (guys)? Fifteen minutes behind and hobbling! The sabayah are just fine, thanks!” My friends, who had known him longer, laughed and shook their heads. “He’s just used to talking that way. You could make your case all day long and he’d just keep on saying the same things.”

    So I shook my own head, rolled my eyes, and joined them in laughing at my silly frustration. When our contact met us at the end of the trail and made tea for us over a fire, I thanked him in good spirits, appreciating his hospitality and marveling at the boundless trove of local lore he shared with us as he collected herbs from the surrounding vegetation and added them to the water boiling over his small fire.

    As a woman hiking in the Middle East – a relatively rare breed – you will probably be tempted to prove that you are just as fast, just as strong, just as tough as the men. And feel free to prove that to yourself with every kilometer you cross and with every mountain you summit. Feel free to try to prove it to those around you, too – just remind yourself frequently that the value of the experience does not lie in being lauded for your speed, strength, and fortitude.

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  • Don’t cling to the seeming privilege of “man’s world.”
    In some of the more conservative communities along the Abraham Path, you may find the realm of men and the realm of women to be strictly defined and separate from one another. The nature of this division varies from village to village, but here’s what I’ve often seen: when guests come, the men sit together in the living room, drinking coffee and smoking and talking politics or economics or agriculture; and the women congregate around the kitchen area and prepare the meal. As a foreigner and a woman, you will often find yourself in a strange limbo between these worlds – politely welcomed to sit with the men and to receive coffee and snacks and to rest your weary feet, but also invited back to the kitchen to help the women and children. I know that at times I insist on placing myself squarely inside the realm of the men. I am educated! I like to discuss important things! Don’t overlook me! I have opinions! But before you do so, ask yourself: did you come to the Middle East to sit on a couch and contemplate countless variations of the question “So, what do you think of Obama?” Or would you rather learn to cook local dishes while a small child climbs into your lap to show you her picture book and another clamors to teach you the marble game he’s playing under his mother’s feet on the kitchen floor?

    Another story. I was on a short walk with a group of colleagues one spring evening and found myself naturally keeping pace with an American coworker and one of our local contacts. As the three of us ambled through the ephemerally green desert scenery, the two men struck up a lively discussion about a recent news story. Having just read an interesting article on the topic, I waited for them to ask my opinion, fighting back the urge to wave my hand eagerly in the air like the deplorably overachieving students of movie trope fame (think Hermione Granger). That time never came, though; and as we climbed the last sandy hill before arriving at our destination, I still had not said a word.

    As we entered the Bedouin tent, our host and his sons welcomed us with trays of hot tea. I was just settling in on a cushion when I spotted a group of little girls peering around the corner of the tent bashfully, giggling and waving at me. I went out to say hi; and within minutes, all four of them had grabbed my hands and were tugging me in various directions, treating me to their own haphazard tour of the area. They showed me their baby camel and discussed various possible names for the creature; they introduced me to their mother and their infant brother; they sat me down on what was apparently the only chair to be found on the premises and wove wildflowers all through my hair, giggling and telling me stories all the while. When I came back to the tent half an hour later, my coworker sighed. “See, that’s an experience I, as a man, could probably never have,” he said.

    Navigating between man-realm and woman-realm in the Middle East can be tricky and frustrating and confusing, and it might seem unfair that you have to figure it out when your male friends don’t. But pay attention to the many, many unique entry points into the local culture and experience that you gain in navigating those realms. Revel in them. They are unbelievably valuable.

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  • Remember that you’ve come to learn.
    I’ve known a lot of women who have come to the region wanting to serve as an example of a “strong, liberated woman”. Realize, though, that this mindset naturally emphasizes the ways in which you feel you are different from those around you and suggests that you have something to offer. Instead, learn to identify with the women around you and – perhaps even more importantly – learn to be someone with whom they can identify. Cliche as it may be, the most memorable moments of intercultural experiences are usually those in which we find commonality with others, often learning something about ourselves as people in the process – not the moments in which we try to teach others to be more like us.

    A few years ago, I walked with a very wise woman who’s been in and out of this region for well over 40 years. She told me that maybe the biggest lesson she’d learned in her time here could be summed up in one sentence: “Don’t compromise, contextualize.” You don’t have to let go of being a strong, intelligent, independent woman when visiting the Middle East. But be willing to enter into new contexts humbly, eager to overcome obstacles in your desire to learn and experience how that context feels from the inside.

Photos by Frits Meyst and David Landis

 

 

German Radio Piece: A Pilgrimage from Nablus to Hebron

Deutchlandfunk, a German public radio station, recently broadcasted a program about the Abraham Path in which Alexander Davydov and Martin Franke (check out their other work here) recount their experiences walking the Abraham Path in the Hebron region. Their ability to connect the things they learned from the cultures and landscapes they encountered with the rich history that is a big part of Abraham Path’s focus is impressive, and although the piece was originally produced in German, we have published an English translation on our blog to share it with a wider audience. While you’re at it, don’t forget to also check out this video piece they produced for the German television channel ZDF. 

It’s sunrise over Bethlehem in the West Bank. The air is still crisp and a couple of cars are rolling along the hilly streets. The holy land is the birthplace of three world religions and it is a walking paradise. Not many people know that the oldest pilgrim route on earth, the Abraham Path, leads through here. It is 1000s of years old.

Mohaned Banura is a tour guide on the Abraham Path. The Christian Palestinian guides tourists who are searching for the patriarchs. His road in the West Bank leads from North to Southwest from Nablus to Hebron. Our walking tour starts beside an asphalt road near a little village named Tequoa and from there the dusty path winds along through narrow wadis. Thorny bushes and wild thyme emerge from the dry earth, and shepherds frequently cross our path with their flocks. The children are sitting in the winter sun, they greet us with surprise because they hardly ever see any walkers in this area.

“We are currently in a rocky valley. To our left are a couple of goats on the road with their shepherds. One has his son with him, he is teaching him how to tend the herd. But there are also greener surroundings. We see plants and little plots of farm land scattered about. To our right, we see someone seeding his land with grains or wheat.”

Mohaned is a sporty type. He wears jeans while he is walking and carries a small backpack. In 2005 he decided to move to the United States to live with his uncle because of the economic situation at home. After three years, he returned to the West Bank at the age of 37. He says that the connection to his land was too strong. Shortly after returning, he heard about the Abraham Path – for him the path has become a symbol of plurality.

“I very much like the idea of the idea of the Abraham Path because it shows a different picture of Palestinian society. Palestine is not only made up of cities. Palestine is not only the conflict with Israel. There is so much more: our nature, our culture, the Bedouin. You can learn more about us in the villages, and as Palestinians we have an opportunity to learn as well.”

As a tour guide, he has walked this stage more than 30 times but he always finds something new. There is a Bedouin family on their way home. A mother is at home with her two daughters, cooking a meal while the father and son are guiding the goats through the mountains. For Mohaned this is a very special chance encounter.

“There is always something new to discover. These people are living in a cave, and that is fascinating to experience. They don’t even live in a tent. I find it really impressive that they spend their whole life like this. They live there in the summer and even in the winter.”

The Bedouin guard their traditions. They still live like Abraham. God called him to leave his land and walk through the Middle East, all the way from present day Iraq to Beersheba. According to the Old Testament He had a tent with entrances open to all four directions. This symbolizes the transparency and hospitality of the culture – because no one should encounter closed doors.

We approach to meet the family. The father’s name is Ishmael and just like Abraham, he too welcomes strangers in his home – the desert. He knows every path there. He is able to follow the tracks animals make, and he can set up his tent anywhere. However he is not averse to progress, evidenced by the Arabic music blaring from smartphone in his bag. Despite the deep connection to tradition, things have are much different for his family. His grandparents never saw electricity or telephones, and we are curious to hear his thoughts about the changes he has seen. Mohanad asks him if he could imagine himself living in a city in Arabic. He is quick to respond:

“I would never consider living in the city and in a house. There are too many people and there is no nature… or at least the nature there isn’t as she is in the desert.”

Based in Bethlehem, the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil coordinates walking trips along the path. George Rishmawi, Executive Director, believes that walking is the most fundamental way to get to know a land. They have won multiple awards thanks to this approach to alternative tourism.

“Our vision is for the Abraham Path to be a integral part of the community based tourism here. We would like to connect tourists with the local experience, because Abraham also came as a traveller, that is his story.”

Rishmawi explains that the Masar Ibrahim’s goal is first and foremost to strengthen tourism in the country, and is therefore non-political. However even though it is not a project of peace, there is potential for more understanding to develop between people, cultures and religions. Tourists are coming from Germany, France, and even travelling 1000s of kilometers from the United States to experience the path.

“In the high season, meaning in spring and fall, we organize several walking tours every week. The number of participants is growing steadily.”

Around 1200 travelers have traveled the Abraham Path since 2010 and the rate is always climbing. Much like the path we are taking, which has also been climbing up a mountain for some time now. The terracotta colored hilltops of the wadi loom in the distance and my tongue is covered by a fine layer of dust and sand, gluing itself to the roof of my mouth. They recommend that a walker should bring three to four liters of water to avoid the thirst. Unfortunately there is no such recipe to guard against the flies swarming my head. Our guide Mohaned has tied his jacket around his waist to stay cool, one doesn’t find any shade from the hot afternoon sun.

Walking the Abraham Path means crossing large expanses of dry, cracked earth, but at the same time it is a path where relics from times long gone find a home. For instance, shepherds still bring their goats and sheep to an old Roman well in order to quench their thirst. Mohaned explains as we pass by:

“That is a well in the desert. There are several around here. The Bedouin use them for themselves and for their goats. This here is a big well – located between Beni Na’im and Arugot Na’im, a Bedouin village. I guess it was dug 2000 years ago in Roman times.”

From here the road leads out of the desert as if cut with a pair of scissors, and grazing fields suddenly begin to appear on the side of the road. This transition from barren desolation to fertile farmlands is not far away from Beni Na’im, an ancient travelling hub. The caravans used to stop here on their way from Cairo to Damascus. You will also find a place mentioned in the Bible here: this is also the final resting place for Lot, the Abraham’s nephew.

“Beni Na’im is one of the villages around Hebron. You can see how this land is different from the desert. There is desert on one side, but on the other there is agriculture. This area is known for its vineyards and wine but it also produces grains, eggplants, tomatoes and lots of other things.”

We halt in Beni Na’im. There are several families who have furnished rooms for pilgrims to rent. Tea is served, and we talk about God and the world. There are also delicacies: homemade bread with hummus, several different kinds of salads and olives. The main dish is chicken with potatoes, but there is more than enough variety to make vegetarians happy as well.

Palestinian hospitality is found throughout the Abraham Path. The people here are convinced that the path will benefit the local economy. Although this project is still in its infancy, there is much optimism to be found as Rula Ma’aya explains:

“Although there are political problems and although we are still under occupation, we hope for more tourists in Palestine. We are not an industrialized country and we have no oil. Therefore tourism is our oil. Masar Ibrahim is a very important project because it allows people to come here and experience a different kind of tourism – a community based tourism. To walk here means to visit those places that Abraham visited thousands of years ago.”

The last stage in our journey leads us to Hebron. It is here where and his wife Sarah are thought to be buried. Mohaned leads us through the oriental market in the old city and brings us to the Machpela, known to be the resting place of the patriarchs.

There are two entrances to this holy place: one to the mosque for Muslims and another leads to the synagogue for Jews. That which belongs together is separated in the Machpela. Abraham would probably have imagined that differently.

“Abraham is a father to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Because of that we are all related. We should be fiends – a family – we shouldn’t kill each other because of religion, because of ethnicity or because of our nationality. Because of Abraham, we all belong together.”

A group celebrates a bar mitzvah in the Jewish part of the Machpela. It is already evening by the time we meet these young men, and they are full of joy and a deep belief as they sing in a place that marks the end of the Abraham Path. This too is a part of his living heritage, along with the legends, and along with the path that is now accessible – 4000 years after Abraham.

 

– Translated with permission from the authors by Aaron Cederberg and Theo van de Laar

A week biking in Jordan

There are many different ways to experience the Abraham Path and with many of the sections being navigable on mountain bikes, API staff-member Julian Bender (the guy who is responsible for all of these maps) decided to take some vacation and explore the breathtaking landscapes of Wadi Rum. Here are some excerpts from his travel journal recounting the welcoming hospitality, soaring sandstone cliffs and sore legs he experienced along the way: 

 

I headed out on this particular cycle-touring expedition after several months of riding a desk, and accompanied by a couple who are on a year-long bike trip around the world. Without conditioned cycling legs, I struggled to keep up with my companions on the 900-meter road climb up to the tiny village where we stopped at a military post to ask for water. At first, we were looked askance, warned repeatedly that we couldn’t proceed south toward the Saudi border, asked how we knew the way.

 

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Then we were asked repeatedly if we needed anything. “Well,” I said, not knowing how long our route would be to the nearest village, “maybe a little bit of bread?” Upon which the high-ranking officer who’d been ordering servings of tea also called for bread, oranges, bananas, cheese, such that I had to refuse half of it, out of inability to carry it all. “You need anything, come back here!” was the parting salutation.

 

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In Wadi Rum, the going became difficult, a mix of rideable surfaces and sandy dunes too soft for anything but slow walking. The majesty of the area’s legendary scenery was tempered by the intermittent slog of pushing bikes through red sand. The first flat-tire (of many) slowed our pace even further. During a supply stop in Rum village I offered a local the opportunity to try my fatbike – my camel, as I introduced it.

 

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The weather was as perfect as we could have hoped for – warm breezy days and cool still nights – as we pedaled away from Wadi Rum into the unknown lands to the north. To the east, weirdly straight wadis ran down from the high plateau that spreads, table-flat, all the way to the Tigris and Euphrates; I was lured to this wilderness by the feeling of being at the edge of the world.

 

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As the afternoon grew golden, four little girls strolled up to say hello, the oldest displaying an impressive knowledge of the local geography for the age of no more than ten. The inevitable tea invitation resulted in a visit with the whole family. Here the names of the local landmarks were discussed, and the family members, goats, and donkeys were all confirmed to be in excellent health – and thus, my linguistic abilities neared their limits.

 

In Humeima, our lunch stop was enlivened by the entire population of a nearby boys’ school on lunch break, who mobbed us and the bicycles, demanding photos, chirping “What’s your name,” attempting to engage in linguistically-hampered theological debate, in which miming a holy man’s beard played a surprisingly large part. The younger boys grabbed at the parked bicycles; the older yanked them off with a scolding. We munched on our falafel and grilled chicken, bemused by the hurricane of youthful activity.

 

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The search for scenery competed with the search for good, rideable bike routes; there were tough climbs hoping for the reward of a roaring jeep track descent on the other side, and meanderings in the hallway-valleys between sheer sandstone cliffs (siqs in the local Arabic). A simple fare of beans heated on a tiny campfire sustained us at night, and squeezable cheese in a box kept us going through the days, all scooped up into the mouth with saj flatbread. Away from the villages and main tourist centers, we were alone in the desert, spotting only the occasional homestead on the horizon or nestled beside a rocky hill.

 

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A good year for rain meant a good few weeks for grazing, and for gazing out at purple-bathed fields of ephemeral flowers. The springs and wells were full of good water, far apart as they might be. The maze of high limestone hills and rugged canyons called “the waterfall area”, south of Petra, lived up to its name and brought grey skies suggesting rain.

 

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Just shy of Petra and running short on time, we turned west for a 40-km/h descent down an empty, well-paved back road into the Rift Valley, the long-awaited counterpart to the first day’s grueling climb up the Aqaba Mountains. A final flat tire on the long flat Dead Sea Highway exhausted the supply of spare tubes, and while my fellow riders continued on pedal power, I hitched to Aqaba in an iPhone delivery truck. By no means the most fitting ending for an adventure, but as always, representative of the unexpected, often helpful strangeness that permeates the road less traveled across the Middle East.

 

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All Photos by Julian Bender

How Bedouin Survive in the Desert without Gear

A few weeks ago, we compared the typical trekker’s packing list with a Bedouin gear list in this blog post; the comparative simplicity of the Bedouin list was incredible. But how do Bedouin get by with so little in the harsh desert climate? Shay Rabineau follows up on his last post with a bit of explanation:

During our trek across the Sinai, each of us probably carried a total of thirty or forty items. Most of those items were in our overnight packs, which traveled by camel. Some were in our daypacks, which we took with us while walking, and the rest were in our pockets.

But right away we noticed that our Bedouin guide carried much less equipment. He told us that even this was more than he would carry if he were traveling on his own. So we asked him: What would you carry if you were crossing the desert by yourself?

He thought about it and listed a few key items right away: water, tea, a knife, and something for making a fire. When we pressed him, he added a couple more things: a lightweight blanket for the night and a few handfuls of food. But this short list was hard to believe. We had more questions:

Wouldn’t you need to carry more than just one or two water bottles?

He told us he could go from spring to spring; and if he needed to, he could walk a day without any water.

What about boiling water for tea?

Not a problem – in places where people regularly camped, there was usually a tin can left there for that specific purpose.

He was similarly dismissive about most of the rest of our questions:

What about a flashlight?

I don’t need a flashlight if I have fire.

What if you make it into camp after dark?

I would never make my camp after dark.

But you smoke. What about cigarettes? 

OK, I guess I would bring cigarettes too.

It is clear that wilderness skills and local familiarity can enable hikers to carry far less. The Bedouin guides who have intimate familiarity with the rugged terrain of the southern Sinai Peninsula are an amazing example of this. How do they do it?

First, they are familiar with the Sinai, its navigable paths, its caves and shelters, and its food and water sources. What may look like a remote wasteland to outsiders is surprisingly rich in resources to the people who know the area. Springs, cisterns, wells, and oases provide water and nourishment when necessary.

Second, they are acclimated to the terrain and climate of the Sinai and know their physical limits when traveling. One of our guides said that in mild weather, he could walk about a day without needing water, and could get by on a handful of dates for food if he had to.

Third, they are well-connected with the other Bedouins across the Sinai. In the event of an emergency, Bedouin guides know where the nearest human settlements are, and are adept at scanning the landscape, near and far, for signs of human presence.

Fourth, they know how to adapt to the dangers of the desert in different seasons. During the heat of the summer, they might carry more water; during the winter season, they watch the weather, keep an eye out for flash floods in wadis, and are sure to camp on high ground.

All of these factors help keep local Bedouins from getting into trouble in the first place, and enable them to trim down on emergency gear. Their comfort with the desert helps them also weed out gear western hikers might consider essential. The wadis of the Sinai are clean and sandy, so groundsheets and camp chairs are unnecessary. Warm weather eliminates the need for a tent or a sleeping bag; our guides generally slept in their clothes and added warmth by wrapping up with a single blanket.

Bedouins are resourceful to the point that they don’t just survive in the desert; they thrive. A few scraps of dead wood, gathered during the day’s walk, are enough for building an evening cooking fire; loose clothing is perfect, when kneeling, for fanning embers into flame; a rusted tin can found in the bottom of a wadi makes a fine tea-kettle; and a bag of flour and just a few other staples can give rise to a surprising variety of backcountry cuisine.

Add a camel to the equation, and a Bedouin guide can travel almost without limit.

Photo by Evan Bryant/API

Walking to Petra: 7 Pillars of Beauty

Reposted from the Huffington Post:

 

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Rated among the 15 best treks in the world by National Geographic, one anticipates a great deal in walking across southern Jordan to Petra. Seven reasons why this section of the Abraham Path still exceeds anyone’s expectations.

1. Descending Wadi Dana

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On the King’s Highway towards Dana village there are still patches of snow, remnants of a storm two weeks ago that closed off parts of mountainous Jordan from the rest of the country. But spring has commenced. From breakfast at the Dana Lodge, we descend 900m, seven hours and four ecosystems into Wadi Dana. This is Jordan’s largest nature reserve and one of the few where you can hike both independently and with a guide. We wander past granite rock formations, limestone, and sandstone cliffs. The wadi is pristine, its trail rocky, then smooth, then overflown with a stream that carries away the last melting snow from the 1600m ridge above us. Dana hosts 700 plant species, 200 kinds of birds and 40 types of mammal: not the diversity you would associate with the Middle East.

2. Feynan Stargazing

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We end our first day at Feynan, arriving at the point where Wadi Dana opens up into the Araba Valley: the middle of nowhere. I heard much about Feynan Ecolodgebefore, as one of Jordan’s most inspiring, off-the-beaten-track places to stay in Jordan. But there’s nothing like the special feeling of entering someplace unique after a day’s journey on foot. The lodge is entirely off the grid and powered by the sun for its core needs; the 26 rooms and restaurant use less electricity than one city apartment in Amman. Hundreds of locally made candles light up at night. Every detail and every color belongs. Staffed entirely by locals from the area, 80 Bedouin families benefit from preserving nature and their own culture at Feynan.

After the sun sets, the evening pastime is stargazing on the rooftop terrace. Suleiman is the master of its larger-than-life telescope. With his green laser pen he points out how to navigate one’s way from one constellation to the next. In eloquent English he instructs us: “Follow the Big Dipper and draw a line that extends five times from the distance between the final two stars. There: you arrive at the North Star. Oh, and this is where I was born”, he points his laser to a cave about four hundred meters from the lodge, “and where I live now”, shifting the green beam to a Bedouin tent one hundred meters further. He then reprograms the telescope. “Here are the rings of Saturn. There, the four moons of Jupiter.” Peddling through time and space, Suleiman hosts us between earth and sky.

3. Walking the Rim of Mt. Safaha 

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Many travelers know Jordan is abundant with remote wilderness, but few places will have such shifting vistas as the landscapes on this trek. On the rim of Mt. Safaha for some eight hours, one epic set of scenery unfolds after the other. There is no lack of amazing scenery across the other 1000 plus km the Abraham Path presently features across the Middle East. But I have not walked any region where the land shifts so dramatically at every turn as between Dana and Petra.

4. Mysterious Little Petra 

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Few visitors to Petra take the time to visit Petra’s smaller sister. Seven km north of the main city, Little Petra is secluded in the Siq al-Barid or “the Cold Canyon”. Cold because little sunlight can penetrate the backside through which we enter and descend past carved temples and villas, following a maze of rock-cut stairs winding up the cliffs without beginning or end. In Nabatean times, trading caravans stopped here, with their masters refreshing themselves before visiting the larger city for business. Two millennia ago, this region was the epicenter of cosmopolitanism, the New York City of its era: crossroads of art, trade, and a mind-blowing blend of classical architecture. One villa still features a rare painted ceiling in which a lush tree hides a winged cupid with bow and arrow. Walking trails, however narrow and nimble they are on the map of human activity, have this amazing ability to connect the hidden gems.

5. Petra

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The trail between Little Petra and Petra takes us past small sand dunes and mellow green patches of winter wheat, followed by a Bronze Age settlement, steeper cliffs, and then, the city of Petra, member of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Visitors entering Petra the traditional way -from the village of Wadi Musa through the Siq towards the Treasury — experience a blend of amazement and déjà vu. Yes, it is amazing, and yes, you have seen it many times before: in a dozen movies, videogames, novels, and thousands of travel magazines and guidebooks.

We enter through an alternative route, a “back stage” entrance into Petra. No déjà vu for us. (A practical note is in order here: you do need to have entry tickets pre-arranged). We walk from up high on the flanks of Mt. al-Deir towards the Monastery. This is Petra’s largest monument, its iconic urn visible from afar. Few sights in the world can be more rewarding after a few hours of walking. The dimensions are incredible: the doorway is taller than a house; the urn on top over 10m high. In front of the Monastery we sit down for tea and philosophize on our journey these past days and how the world can get familiar with the other face of the Middle East. We come up with a long list of travel and film celebrities who should make the foot journey we have just made.

6. Mt. Haroun Hospitality

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“Maqamaat”, holy shrines situated on mountain tops have always fascinated me. On top of the highest peak in the Petra region sits the Maqam of Haroun, Arabic for Aaron, the brother of Moses. It is visible from many of the cliffs nearer to Petra: a bright white dome on top of a distinctive mountain peak, a sacred place for the Abrahamic faiths. According to tradition Aaron was buried here. There are competing narratives on locations elsewhere in the Middle East, but pilgrims have climbed up here for centuries. It features Byzantine ruins, large water cisterns, and a set of beautiful steps up to the highest point of the Maqam.

Just before our final ascent, we reach a plateau with a small house. A local police man stands guard here. His duty is lonesome: he stays put for a week on the mountain and then is released by another officer. He invites us for tea, and we talk. His middle and last names are Salaam, “peace”. Through a cracked screen on his phone he shows us pictures of the snow that he was in just two weeks ago. Only a trickle of people now pass each day, sometimes no one. A year ago there were dozens. These are tough times for tourism in Jordan. He seems content we’re making it up the mountain and advises us an ancient path to take back. I give him my Abraham Path passport and he signs in Arabic: “Jabal Haroun, 8 March 2015”.

7. The Bridge on Foot

For long Jordanian tourism has struggled with the question of how to bridge the gap between its very solid safety record and security perceptions in the rest of the world. There is a group that is literally bridging that gap with their feet and they deserve more attention: a wide collective of Jordanian outdoor leaders and explorers have come together to create the continuous 600+ km Jordan Trail connecting the forested hills of Um Qais and Ajloun in the north to the spectacular deserts of Wadi Rum and Aqaba in the south. The Abraham Path follows and supports this route, of which Dana-Petra is one spectacular section. Jordan’s hiking scene is homegrown with thousands of members and developing rapidly as its leaders are sewing together the best that the country has to offer in people, nature and cultural heritage. They are laying the basis for a new kind of tourism in the country: slower, fairer, more enriching. And they are drawing on a crowd that is more resilient to the frenzy of Middle East geopolitics than conventional tourism.

On our way back from Mt. Haroun, we finally pass Petra’s movie star icon of the Treasury, traditionally the first site visitors drop their jaws at. Opposite is a cliff with high up, at its very edge, a small tent. Here one of Petra’s most amazing rock climbers hovers far above the tourist crowds. My friend David calls him “the Mystic Bedouin”. When the Dana-Petra route was explored last year, the team took a winding footpath up the cliff and asked about any direct ways to the Treasury below him. His answer: “if you open your mind there are many ways.”

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Photo credits in order of appearance: Stefan Szepesi, David Landis, Bashar Alaeddin (for Feynan Ecolodge), Dick Simon, Paul Gray (2x), Stefan Szepesi, Sumaya Agha. 

Dana to Petra can be walked in 4 (very experienced hikers only), 5, or 6 days, or parts of the trail for those with less time. The walk is possible both independently, and with guides and luggage transfers. Options for lodging are varied between luxury ecolodges, Bedouin tents, wilderness camping and guesthouses/hotels in Petra. Elaborate details on the walk (maps, GIS, tour operators, site descriptions, etc.) can be found at abrahampath.org/path/dana.