From camel safaris and horse-back riding to quadrunning and starlit dinners, the Bedouins of Sinai can turn your vacation into an unforgettable experience. Rasha Sadek embarks on a desert adventure
Click to view caption|
Protect your face as you conquer the desert on quadrunners; Bedouins preparing their exotic tea with habak; a belly dancer entertains guests at a party in the desert; camel trekking in Sinai
Try to imagine the Bedouins of Sinai, and you will see: a tent, low tables, and a man wearing a galabiya and a black- and-white scarf around his head serving you tea. Now use your imagination to look outside the tent, and you will see the camels grazing nearby. A Bedouin woman, dressed in black from head to toe, is bending over a tray filled with decorative beads. Then look around this image you have created in your mind, and you will see that you're not alone. For there are Bedouins sitting with you, talking to you in whatever your language happens to be, about whatever subject you choose. For this is Bedouin life today, as it interacts with tourism to provide the best entertainment it can for travellers.
Thus I set off for Sharm El-Sheikh, my personal favourite destination, to indulge in an all-Bedouin theme trip. My options were various: I could choose between camel trekking, a starlit dinner amidst the desert, quadrunning, horse- back riding, and long-range safaris to Dahab, Saint Catherine's, the Coloured Canyon or Abu Galoum. And then the most crucial choice of all: whether I would prefer to discover the pure magic of the desert itself at sunrise, or at sunset.
Most of the short desert excursions take place in Wadi Al-Aat (Al-Aat Valley). Thirty minutes into the desert by Jeep or bus you reach the valley. Before you stands the so-called Echo Mountain. In several areas you can stand and listen to your voice as it ricochets back and forward through the huge space.
As far as advance planning is concerned, there will be no problem at all. Most hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh arrange Bedouin-guided trips to the desert, in some cases as often as three trips a day, in others once or twice a week. Beyond the hotels, you can also take your pick from the excursion booths scattered along the Neama Bay promenade.
BEDOUIN FEAST: Well I'm a romantic, so the first thing that appealed to my taste was a starlit dinner in the desert. Night in the desert has its very own charm and mystery. The trip left at 8pm from my hotel in Neama. Within 10 minutes we were driving into the desert to reach Wadi Al-Aat. We stopped at the Echo Mountain, which seemed to be lit with hundreds of candles. Karim Abdu, my guide, whispered in my ear that my eyes had deceived me a little, for it was only the lower half of the mountain that was actually decorated with candles; the upper part was illuminated by candle-shaped lamps. For imagine if the wind blew and suddenly the whole of the magically-lit mountain were to be plunged into darkness!
Rugs and klims surrounded the big tent providing a comfortable seating area. Some of the seats were roofed with goat's- wool cloth, but I opted for the unroofed area. After all, it's the desert and you shouldn't miss out on the bright stars in the sky above. As I took a deep breath and tilted my head backwards in the hope of seeing a shooting star, a Bedouin lad served me some tea.
Don't imagine that this was any ordinary tea. Bedouin tea tastes a lot better. Added to tea is habak, a mint-like herb that grows in the Sinai desert in winter. Mashed with tea and boiled on coal, the result is unique and delicious. And you can bet that shisha isn't the same with Bedouins, either, though I don't really know the secret behind that one: some sort of nomad magic, perhaps?
As I sat and sipped my tea, I was introduced to Selmi, a Bedouin from the Amzina tribe in south Sinai. Dressed in a galabiya and 'oqal (headrope), he explained to me what it is like to be a Bedouin, and how one has to respect the tribe and the traditions of Bedouin marriage. His headrope indicates his ability to uphold the obligations and responsibilities of manhood. Selmi, a settled Bedouin, is the owner of the Echo Mountain. Ownership in the desert among Bedouins isn't decided according to written contracts, but rests instead on verbal agreements. Selmi grew up near the Echo Mountain, and so he has taken the site as his home, for him and for Etewa the camel, his companion.
As I took the last sip of my tea, a belly dancer appeared on the dance floor, shaking in time to the rhythms of old folk tunes and Arabic songs. A little later, she invited the guests to join her in the dance. Umm Khaled approached me with a blue-beaded necklace in her hand. I'd seen her sitting in front of the tent as we arrived. She asked me to wear the necklace, because it matched my white shirt. "It's a present," she said, and walked away with a smile in her eyes.
I gazed up at the stars again, when all of a sudden a Bedouin show performed by three women and two men took to the dance floor. As they danced, the lad who was serving tea approached with another cup, announcing we would be having dinner shortly. Following the Bedouin show was a fellahin dance of the kind by which Egyptian farmers celebrate a fruitful harvest.
The open buffet dinner was exceptional in every way. I bet you have eaten rice, potatoes, and chicken a million times before, but you haven't eaten them in the Bedouin style. Coal is the key. Chicken and kofta are grilled directly on the coal, while the rice and potatoes are cooked over the coal fire too. Bedouin bread is a whole other story. Freshly baked, served from the oven to your plate, it melts in your mouth and it tastes like heaven. Karim, the guide, told me about some rich Bedouin dishes such as mandy, which is goat meat buried in sand to be heated slowly by the rays of the sun. A few days later, the goat is taken out, rapped in tin foil and cooked on coal.
After dinner came another round of tea served to Arabic music, and another belly dancer. But by now none of the guests were able to dance, they were all stuffed with the heaven-sent delicacies they'd just consumed.
The show then continued with the tanoura dance, a Sufi rite in which the participants seek to identify with God through hypnotic music and exhaustive exercise. It was unique indeed, for the longest tanoura dance I'd ever seen before had lasted for about five minutes. This one went on for more than half an hour. It was quite simply incredible.
The show ended to our smiles. I looked upwards to the stars bidding them farewell, for I'd never before seen them in such huge numbers. At 1am, we got back to the hotel -- the star- less hotel.
The Four Seasons Resort programme adds to the magical Bedouin night in the desert. As guests arrive, they are greeted by Bedouin torch-bearers on camel-back and are offered a cup of chilled hibiscus juice. Next, an Egyptian folklore show begins with a stick duel before going on to belly dancers. The open buffet includes roasted lamb and salad accompaniments, followed by dessert.
Prices for Bedouin dinner range from $25 at the San Marino, the Jollie Ville sports club and Sun n Fun excursion booths to $30 at the Red Sea Star sports centre. Hotels such as the Four Seasons offer this excursion for $85, the Mövenpick for LE230 and Cataract Resort for LE130. All the excursion booths mentioned are situated in Neama Bay along the promenade, while other travel agencies are scattered around Neama, Umm Al-Sid Hill and in the hotels.
If you would like to include camel trekking in your experience, San Marino will put Etewa the camel at your disposal for 15 minutes for LE10. The Hot Spot booth offers you a trek from the entrance to the desert to the dining tent (about an hour's ride) with the return by bus for 30 euros, while Sun n Fun adds $5 to the price of the trip. The Four Seasons Resort includes camel trekking for free.
Bedouin dinner excursions are not daily trips, most hotels and booths arrange them once or twice a week.
QUADRUNNER TRIPS: You are an adventurer and you want to conquer the desert on a four-wheel motorbike: so you go on a quadrunnnig trip. Despite being a romantic at heart, after the Bedouin feast night I felt an urgent impulse to drive through the desert when I noticed a long line of lights amidst the silent dark desert. At first, I wondered why the city lights had approached so fast. But in fact, they were only the quadrunners. I knew then that I wanted to be among them.
The very next day I was seated on a motorbike, setting off into the middle of nowhere. There were mountains on one side, and open desert on the other. After a while, there was only the open desert. But the thing about quadrunning isn't so much the scenery as the speed with which you drive, releasing whatever negative energy may have been churning up your body.
Quadrunning doesn't really require a driver. You just place one finger on a button and off you go. They are usually automatic, so if you want a manual motorbike, you should ask in advance. Quadrunning vehicles can seat up to two persons, so you can drive alone, or take a partner along behind you and switch.
Your guide will tell you that headropes are a must in quadrunning, and they are. As you drive at high speed through the sand, dust and sand will batter against your face, so you need to be covered. Your guide will teach you how to fold the headrope so that it can withstand the wind. You don't want to return with your body all sand- coloured and worn.
The trip lasted for two hours. After 45 minutes of driving, we stopped at a Bedouin tent in Wadi Al-Aat to drink some more Bedouin tea. We rested for half an hour before we started on our way back. Night was falling, and I found myself driving in the middle of a long line of lights. I knew that somewhere in the desert someone was watching us wondering how good it felt to race against the wind.
Quadrunning trips are organised daily, at sunrise, mid-day and sunset. In a few cases these excursions can be combined with other trips, such as the six-hour Mangrove trip. This journey includes two hours by Jeeps or quadrunners to the Mangrove area near Ras Mohamed. (This area is home to nearly 50 per cent of the Mangrove trees to be found in the northern hemisphere. This plant is ecologically unique, as it works to sweeten the sea water, thus enabling more forms of life to exist around it). After you reach there, you can swim and snorkel for about an hour before the Bedouins serve you lunch. The return journey can also be made by quadrunners. This trip can be arranged by San Marino for $30.
Prices for quadrunning excursions range from $20-30 for singles and $35-40 for doubles at San Marino and Red Sea Star excursion booths, to $42-50 for singles and $63-70 for doubles at the Jollie Ville, Sun n Fun and Hot Spot centres.
CAMEL TREKKING AND HORSEBACK RIDING: It feels like you're on a rollercoaster as you straddle a camel and it slowly and majestically rises to walk you through the desert. Camel and horse safaris generally last for one or two hours, during which time you will feel like you are Lawrence of Arabia.
Discovering the beauty of the desert in this way is an unmissable experience, especially as you are guided by the Bedouins behind Al-Aat Mountain, or when your return is punctuated by an ardent sunset or a mystical sunrise among the sand dunes. Situated at the highest point in Wadi Al-Aat is a Bedouin tent where you can rest and drink herbal tea. And all the time, you'll be hearing and seeing nothing but nature.
At some hotels and excursion centres, horse and camel rides can be incorporated into some other programmes, such as the 12-hour trip to Abu Galoum, situated six kilometres from Dahab. This long safari starts off at 6am from Sharm El-Sheikh. As you approach your destination, you can switch to a two- hour ride on a camel to tour the beach, followed by a 90- minute swim and snorkel. The excursion ends with a visit to the city of Dahab, Sinai's largest bazaar, before returning to Sharm El-Sheikh by the afternoon.
As with quadrunning trips, camel and horse excursions are usually organised more than once daily. Prices are around $20- 30 at San Marino, Jollie Ville, Red Sea Star and Sun n Fun excursion booths.
NOT ONLY IN THE DESERT: Living the Bedouin mood is an experience that enhances your sense of serenity and inner calm. Bedouins are famous for their hospitality and warmth. They wait on you as if you're a king. Before you have time to ask them for something, they're already doing it for you. Their smile is the purest I've ever seen.
During my stay in Sharm El-Sheikh, I wanted to go as far as I could in getting to know these nomads, to understand how they clear their hearts of everything and remain as kind as they are.
Even during the days when I wasn't able to go on an excursion in the desert with the Bedouins, I tried to stay in the Bedouin frame of mind. Along Neama Bay's promenade with its heavy cocktail of nationalities are a number of Bedouin-style open-air cafés. Overlooking the Red Sea, the cafés are waited on by waiters dressed as Bedouins, and though only some of them really are Bedouins, they will all make you feel the hospitality of the desert. The seats are very comfortable, with klims, rugs, pillows and low round tables scattered across the ground. You can sit any way you want: sit back, lie down or any way that makes you comfy.
At Aladino, one of the Bedouin cafés, I spent quality time chatting with these inhabitants of the desert. They are happy to have their guests share all kinds of activities. If your kids go with you, they will soon be off your hands, as the Bedouins find ways to entertain them for you. One waiter, of Nubian origin, was a delight to all the guests. They call him Bakkar, after a famous Nubian cartoon character. His dark complexion sets off his white teeth -- and you can always see them, as he is always smiling.
Aladino, like Tamtam and many of the other Bedouin cafés, do their best to entertain their guests to the fullest. Some of the cafés host singers accompanied by the oud, while others will let you choose whatever you want to listen to.
If the desert-dwelling nomads of Sinai bring to mind such evocative images of shifting sands, folk music, flowing robes and the long, loping stride of the camel, the image I took away is both richer and simpler. It is the image of a kind heart and a pure smile.