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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

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