Many Singaporeans I’ve spoken to balk at the idea of camping – not the accessible sort of glamping that took over the travel scene a couple of years ago – but a tent-erecting, grit-filled, non-showering, sleeping-under-the-stars kind of camping. With not much nature in our backyard, Singaporeans are rightly apprehensive about heading into the wild with nothing but a well-packed backpack and a sense of adventure.
Despite that, there is a growing group of well-travelled enthusiasts looking for intrepid experiences away from cookie-cutter vacations. For this particular group of people, there is a new, historically-rich, imagination-inciting hike in Egypt they might want to check out, named the Red Sea Mountain Trail.
The Red Sea Mountain Trail (RSMT) is a 170-kilometer route that takes around 10 days to hike, though there are variations you can customise to shorten or lengthen your trip. The project is fully owned and managed by the Bedouin and overseen by the Red Sea Mountain Trail Association, a small tribal organisation headed by Sheikh Merayi Abu Musallem, the head of the Khushmaan clan.
We spoke to Ben Hoffler, co-founder of the hike and Hamsa Monsour, an Egyptian solo cylist who has hiked the trail, to find out what the trail has to provide for the dauntless.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
1) Can you give a few highlights of what hikers can expect from the 10-day journey?
Hamsa Mansour: The RSMT is special in several ways. It’s unexpected – people go to Hurghada and the Red Sea for the beach, and may not imagine the magic those mountains have to offer. The contrast between RSMT’s vast wadis and tall mountains is overwhelming; it reminds oneself that we are but a speck in the scale of things.
The RSMT is rougher than most trails because it hasn’t been walked in a very long time, and because of how the mountains look – unforgiving from afar. This changes when you start walking in the valleys, where magnificent pools and greenery, canyons, Roman roads, ruins and prehistoric drawings reign. When you hear the stories of this land and its people from the guides, your perspective shifts. You become more curious to unveil all of this magic, one wadi and mountain at a time.
One of the most precious moments for me was when we got to stay with nomadic families in the area. The hospitality and generosity of the Bedouin is unparalleled and they are willing to share their stories, culture and home with us. The trail has a lot of breathtaking scenery. Mount Gattar showcases a magnificent labyrinth of wadis and summits; the sunset view over the Nile bank’s mountains can be seen from Mount Um Samyuk; El Negatta features a rare green waterfall and so much more.
2) What allure do you think this hike will hold for both beginner and experienced hikers?
Hamsa Mansour: Beginners will take the moderate version of this trail and they will be explorers walking through ancient trails, experiencing the solitude and amazing views while being guided by the Bedouin guides.
Experienced hikers will take the adventurous trail, scrambling and learning to be particularly mindful of their steps, especially when climbing mountains.
The trail is both challenging and rewarding for both beginners and experienced hikers.
3) What advice would you give to someone preparing to tackle this hike?
Ben Hoffler: As hiking trails go, the RSMT route is challenging; definitely more than its sister project, the Sinai Trail. Hiking the RSMT involves following old paths that have sometimes not been walked in decades and there are plenty of steep uphills and downhills.
There are five high summits on the trail. The highest peak of all – which is also the highest peak in mainland Egypt – is the 2187-metre Jebel Shayib El Banat. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete but a decent level of fitness will help with the scramble to the top, so building up stamina with regular long walks would be helpful. It’s true some parts are challenging – even for fit, experienced hikers – but experienced Bedouin guides are with the hikers throughout. Plus, every mountains, steep paths and tricky scrambles of the RSMT – can be avoided with alternative routes when needed. The RSMT was developed to be hiked and enjoyed by everybody, from beginners to experienced hikers, regardless of their hiking abilities.
Honestly, I’d say the most challenging part of the RSMT isn’t physical but mental, because most of the tricky stuff can be avoided. Most hikers might be used to walking trails which pass close to towns or villages, or at least where there are lodges, shops and conveniences along the way. The RSMT is a wilderness route where hikers will not see any settlements, and perhaps not even any other people except their Bedouin guides, from start to finish. Hikers go far away from comforts, easy conveniences and regular contact with friends and family. Some people love that deep solitude but others can find it unsettling, at least at the beginning.
4) Are there any geographical features unique to the region/trail?
Low hills around the Red Sea Mountain Trail, from Jebel Um Anab. Image: Ben Hoffler
Ben Hoffler: It is a rugged, mountainous desert landscape, with lots of variety. The landscapes change fast. It has everything from high, aggressive mountains to huge, sweeping plains and wadis filled with huge acacia trees. There are also surprises like oasis of beautiful springs and pools.
Two Roman towns are found on the trail: Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites, both of which were old mining colonies. Stones were dragged out of quarries around the town then hauled over the desert on wagons to the Nile, where it was shipped north to the Mediterranean and onwards to Rome. Today, you can wander the old streets and explore old rooms and temples in the towns.
Ancient rock art of giraffes and exotic animals can also be found along some parts of the RSMT. Nabataean graffiti can be found on rocks along with Bedouin rock art. The history the Bedouin landscape resonates with old legends and stories, and are still remembered today. Many people think of the desert as an empty place but at least in these Bedouin deserts, where nomads have lived and died for centuries, it is exceptionally rich and overlaid with many layers of memory.
5) Are there any initiatives in place to counter the potential negative effects on the host communities, such as littering/pollution issues?
Ben Hoffler: The Bedouin are natural conservationists who pioneered a sustainable existence. Bedouin guides are members of the same Bedouin community that still lives from the landscape and they act as its guardians. It is their homeland and they need its resources to continue their traditional lifestyle, so it is absolutely in their interests to protect it. Many of the concepts that we talk about in sedentary societies – like conservation and sustainability – are just an everyday part of life for the Bedouin.
Walking the RSMT gives hikers a chance to re-connect with the natural world and learn how to use its resources, from water to plants and wood in a responsible, sustainable way. Bedouin guides will ensure hikers know how to protect natural resources which are used by nomadic families who live along the RSMT.
Before any hike on the RSMT, guides will explain cultural norms hikers should respect, with regards to things like dress codes and photography of Bedouin women. We will always seek to ensure hikers understand the importance of sensitivity and respect for the Bedouin who live along the RSMT.