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9 -15 November 2000
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Into the hillsBy Ragi Halim
If you've ever flown over southern Sinai, or regarded the vast expanse of the jagged, rust-coloured horizon from the top of one of Saint Catherine Protectorate's dusty mountaintops, then you know that to the hasty observer, the desert of southern Sinai can seem like nothing but craggy hills as far as the eye can see. Picturesque though they may be, they are not the usual draw for Sinai's tourist influx, with both foreign and domestic travellers often heading for the luscious coastline and its silky blue waters.
A former trek suggested by the National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes had been a satisfying success (See Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 505), so once again I headed out to the wadis (ravines or valleys) of Saint Catherine Protectorate with a hired Bedouin guide. Emboldened with a little experience and inspired by my need to explore, I found myself in the company of Ramadan Musa Abu Said, a Bedouin famous in the area as the only man to have tamed and bred a curious desert creature called the hyrax.
It was 9.00am when we started for Wadi Arbi'in, which extends from east of Gabal Rabba to the monastery of Deir Al-Arbi'in, west of the famous Gabal Musa (Mount Moses). I grew less sure of myself, as I realised that one Sinai trek does not a trekker make -- the trip, from its scenery to the nature of information I learned from my guide, was a different experience altogether from my last. As we walked along the stunning landscape of Wadi Arbi'in, I was awed by the raw power of what nature's forces have carved. I had heard about the flash floods caused by occasional heavy bursts of rain in Sinai. I knew, too, that when the winter snow melted, water that had been dammed up in rock enclosures could sometimes force itself out, creating a waterfall of tremendous power to dash down the valley, carrying with it rocks, soil and seed. But I never realised how striking the result of ages of natural sculpting could be.
That's no elephant! The desert creature known as the rock hyrax is excruciatingly shy in the wild, but the hyraxes kept by Ramadan Musa Abu Said, a Bedouin from southern Sinai, have been tamed --just one of the small adventures among the treks of Saint Catherine Protectorate
photos: Ragi Halim
Huge boulders stand vigil at the mouth of Wadi Arbi'in, as if warning of the imposing nature of the rockscapes to follow. To my right rose Gabal Shamia, to my left Gabal Al-Milgah. The morning was silent, punctuated only by the gentle flustering of the occasional camel bird. About a kilometre from the entrance of the wadi is another large boulder called Magar Al-Majariin. Littered with small rocks on its top, it is known as the "wish boulder." My guide Ramadan told me that if you throw a stone and it comes to rest on top of the boulder, your wish will come true. I tried. I missed.
Eruptive folding and faulting of the land in southern Sinai has resulted in a wild and tortured landscape with some mountain ranges up to 2,500 metres high. Dry gorges and naked valleys expose rockscapes that look like a painter's palette -- shades of azure, pink, yellow, grey and ochre lie alongside streaks of deep blue carbonates and dark brown clay. One is reminded that the creativity of nature can often outshine the contrivances of man.
We arrived at the so-called Rock of Moses, which is cut by 12 fissures. Monks from the area hold that this is the very rock that sustained the children of Israel during the Biblical Exodus. Ramadan told me that the Jebeliya (the tribe of the mountain) believe that the clefts in the rock represent the places where 12 springs erupted when Moses struck the rock -- a story related in the Qur'an (Sura 2:60). There are stories that pilgrims once came to drink water from the springs, but if the springs were ever there, they are now dry, and no pilgrims come any more.
We continued up the camel path for another kilometre or so until we reached a notice marking "Site 6." This was our cue to take a smaller, branching path that leads to where Ramadan and his family live. There, shaded by towering rocks and enclosed in a sort of natural pen, resides Ramadan's prize flock: the rarely-seen hyrax. A small, brown, somewhat jittery mammal once mistakenly classified as a rodent, the hyrax is a shy inhabitant of the mountain ranges of southern Sinai. Hyraxes are most commonly found in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, but if one is going to bother to search for the indigenous rock hyraxes of Sinai (there are also tree and bush hyraxes), one will have to be happy with little more than the streaks of urine left at the edge of mountain caves that are usually the only sign of hyrax activity. Bedouin use hyrax urine as a medicine -- "but I have never used it," Ramadan assured me.
The hyrax is not only interesting for its introverted ways -- it is also the unlikely cousin of some far more powerful ungulates (hoofed animals), sharing traits with such animals as the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus. With stubby but strong little legs and an inquisitive, quivering snout, the hyrax uses its remarkable agility to scurry away from any intruders into its domain. Herbivorous and gentle, the hyrax is the smallest of the ungulate creatures. In his book Natural Selections: A year of Egypt's wildlife, Richard Hoath describes the hyrax as "one of nature's most improbable creatures." Musing on the family of ungulates under which the hyrax is classified, Hoath adds, "The size of a large rabbit, there is little from its outward appearance to suggest that its closest relatives include the elephants."
As I looked at the peculiar, but endearing animals, Hoath's words rang true: it was certainly difficult to associate any aspect of this rat-like creature with an elephant. Nevertheless, the small side trip from our trek was certainly worth our while -- if not for my introduction to the hyrax, then for the relaxing tea break that Ramadan offered. We sat sipping tea with habak (an anti-colic plant) and watched the hyraxes in their enclosure, which consists of three rocky burrows.
Ramadan has become famous in Sinai for domesticating a small group of hyrax -- although it was neither his intention, or his expertise, to breed wild, anti-social animals. "Six years ago my children brought four newly-born hyraxes from the mountains," explained Ramadan, as we watched some of the hyraxes dart around the enclosure. "We fed them on goat milk and almond tree leaves. When they got older I changed their diet to bread and clover. Now we have 40 hyraxes."
The females give birth once a year to a litter of two or three. "In the wild, hyraxes don't drink water, but as you see, they drink and eat from me," Ramadan noted proudly. I asked him whether there were many hyraxes in the area, and if he planned to release any back into the wild. He estimated that there were probably about 20 more hyraxes in the surrounding mountains, making his brood double the local population, but for now, it seems, Ramadan's hyraxes prefer the pampered life. "When I set my hyraxes free, they come back after a while," he said.
Bidding farewell to Ramadan's pride and joy, we took off to continue our trek, which like my last turn around the grounds of Saint Catherine Protectorate, included a bit of a biology lesson. I was taken to a plant enclosure monitored by park rangers. The area is known for its biodiversity and for the numerous plants growing there that are used for medicinal purposes. Here one can find Al-Awsag Lycium Shawi (known by Syrians and Bedouin as Al-Kaysoum), as it is cultivated in the area. Wild flowers known as Al-Kanna also grow in abundance.
There are dozens of trails offered by the National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes, and as I returned from Wadi Arbi'in, I realised that every trek can yield a different experience. It was not my first trip, nor will it be my last.
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