Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Treasure oasis

Victoria Harper finds an unknown paradise

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: our Bedouin escort Selmi describes the many uses of an arak tree; palm trees near Nakhlet Al-Tel beach; Nabq's marine life rivals that of Ras Mohamed Below: secluded beaches in Nabq are a Camper's dream

The reception at Nabq Protectorate was unusual. This Ramadan afternoon in August, no one was at the ticket office to collect five dollars from foreigners or five pounds from Egyptians, as per regulation, but 100 metres on, a small kiosk appeared with the silhouette of two soldiers against its eastern stone wall.

As we approached the security barrier, one of the soldiers got up and walked in our direction, turned around as if having second thoughts, and grabbed his rifle before coming to the car window. It was only two days after gunmen had attacked the border police in Rafah, so precaution was in order. I rolled down the window; the soldier took my licence and walked back to the office to register the numbers.

The Nabq Protectorate, extending over 600 square kilometres, is a real gem. With some marketing and a few upgrades it could easily attract thousands of visitors it deserves.

Earlier in the day, I spoke to Essam Saadallah, deputy director of South Sinai Protectorate Office in Sharm El-Sheikh. He said that with an initial expenditure of LE2-3 million ($500,000) he could guarantee the government a return of about LE10 million per year. He was not only referring to Nabq but also Ras Mohamed to the south and Abu Galum to the north. Of these three protectorates situated along the Gulf of Aqaba, Ras Mohamed is the one that has acquired international fame; while slightly smaller than Nabq, it gets most of the business. In terms of diving attractions, snorkelling, bird watching and temperature, some would say that Nabq is even better than Ras Mohamed. But for some reason, tourism operators have yet to take notice.

A few minutes after my exchange with the soldier at the checkpoint, I was talking to someone who knows Nabq like the back of his hand. Selmi Abu Faisal, a Bedouin from the Tarabin tribe, has worked for South Sinai Protectorates since 1994. He started out as a skipper, or boat captain, but today he rarely ventures out into the sea. Instead, he is asked to escort minor dignitaries, a status I accidentally acquired by talking to two senior officials back at the protectorates' headquarters 30 kilometres to the south earlier that morning.

We're sitting at a picnic table in the shade, not far from Ghargana Village. From our table, I can see five or six children playing with makeshift toys, in this case, jerry cans set on wheels like small go-carts. The village got the name Ghargana, which means "inundated", from the high tides that flood it in the winter months, making it difficult to move from house to house without a boat.

Over tea -- I'm drinking, he's not -- Selmi reminisces about the way things used to be. "Twenty years ago, tourists were more connected with nature. They would come here on their own with tents and camp out. They didn't have schedules. They didn't have tour operators telling them where to go and what to do."

Selmi liked it that way. He was young then and enjoyed the company of the free spirits who flocked to Sinai for meditation and a little adventure. Now, at 60, he sees himself as an old man, and so do others. He's often called upon to smooth out the kinks in relations between the local community and the authorities. For example, when the government banned fishing in the protected areas, local fishermen protested since this was their main livelihood and the only thing they knew how to do. Without fishing, they also lost their connection to their habitat. Selmi explained this to officials and a compromise was reached. Although commercial fishing is still prohibited, "artisanal fishing" is allowed so that Bedouin fisherman can continue to work within traditional parameters using their traditional methods.

Ghargana doesn't look like much. It may have a fantastic sea view, but the houses are makeshift huts, slapped together from pieces of billboard and plank. The reason the houses are so rudimentary, Selmi tells me, is that these are but the summer homes of the 50 or so families who live here, most of them from the Mezeina tribe. In wintertime, inhabitants move to the village of Khereiza about 20 kilometres to the northwest. Their "mountain" homes in Khereiza are more substantial and the local school is there.

Education means a lot to the children playing nearby. If they want to support their families while keeping their traditions alive, they will have to find the right kind of jobs, either in tourism or nature conservation. For now, the level of education among the Bedouin is below the national average, especially when it comes to college degrees.

Back at headquarters, Essam tells me that the protectorate has 200 jobs earmarked for locals. These are simple jobs such as drivers, guards, and boatmen, but there are dozens of other high-end jobs available for biologists, marine experts, geologists, and conservationists. All of these are filled by Egyptians coming from other parts of the country. So imagine what would happen if the children playing on the nearby beach finish their schooling and make it to college. It would inevitably change the face of Ghargana.

The opportunities for scientific research in Nabq are immense. Come to think of it, a scientist might actually have more fun than a tourist. What looks like a jumble of bushes or an expanse of rolling hills to a layman, they are gateways to intricate ecosystems that require years of exploration for a scientist.

The northern stretch of the protectorate even has a scientific reserve, which I am told is a large area restricted to all but the most specialised of researchers because of its unique habitat and the endangered species present. We're talking about a freshwater source, for example, that keeps the ibexes, ospreys, and egrets alive. The ibex is a mountain goat with exceptionally long horns curved backwards like a scimitar, egrets are herons and ospreys are sea hawks.

Ibexes, Selmi explains, are usually sighted at dawn so unless you're camping out, which is not exactly legal at the moment, you are unlikely to see them. I was, however, fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a large white bird that landed about 50 metres away and definitely looked like the pictures I've seen of the egret.

For those seeking a taste of non-organic adventure, there is the Maria Schroeder shipwreck. We had been driving deeper into the preserve for about 20 minutes on bumpy mud trails, when suddenly it rose from the sea like a ghost from the past. Fifty-five years ago it was a commercial ship, now it's a piece of history. Framed against the horizon, the Maria Schroeder stands proudly, like a twin mountain of scrap metal. Its rusty iron glistened in the late afternoon sun with a reddish glow matching that of the Saudi Arabian mountains across the gulf. Maria Schroeder's commercial career ended on 11 April 1956 on a sail from Jordan to Germany on routine business. She ran aground in the shallow waters off Nabq, right where she lies now, jammed into the coral reef. The wreck seemed so close I was tempted to walk right up to it across the salt marsh that separated us. I made it for a good 200 metres and could possibly have gone all the way had I more appropriate footwear. But once my sneakers were soaked through, I abandoned the quest. Maria Schroeder's not going anywhere I thought, making a mental note to bring rubber sandals next time.

What I saw of the Maria Schroeder was only the tip of her bulk. Underneath the water at a depth of 20 metres or more lies the rest of her mutilated hull, gathering barnacles and waiting for inquisitive divers to inspect the unusual scene.

For those who prefer to explore dry land, there is the arak, a curious tree that thrives on sand dunes, looking tough and gnarly as if it's about to pick a fight with unwanted visitors. Selmi guides me off the road and over to the largest arak tree in the protectorate. He says this is off-limits to tour buses because drivers go crazy in the dunes, careening like Mad Max, trying to impress the clientele. No wonder the arak looks on edge.

No one is allowed to take anything from a protectorate, not a piece of coral, not an interesting shell, not even a twig from the arak tree. But had I not been aware of the rules, I would have definitely taken a piece of arak. Arak twigs are known as siwak and have been used for dental hygiene since time immemorial. Prophet Mohamed was quoted in hadith as saying, "Were it not that I might over-burden the believers I would have ordered them to use siwak at the time of every prayer."

The arak is not only for the teeth, Selmi says. According to Bedouin tradition, tea made from its leaves is used to flush sodium from the body.

Mangroves, Nabq's most famous indigenous plants, are beneficial to our health too. Scientists say that mangroves excel at sucking carbon dioxide from the air, thus mitigating the greenhouse effect. They also stabilise the coastline and provide shelter and food for both marine and terrestrial life. Selmi takes us back to the beach and along the coast line for several kilometres to the huge Abu Zabad mangrove trees.

To the casual observer, the mass of reeds poking out of the water looks like someone placed them there by hand. In fact, these are what marine biologists call pneumatophores, loosely translated as air conduits, or aerial roots. They function exactly like snorkels, allowing the plants to take in air straight from the atmosphere. Otherwise, the mangroves would suffocate in the oxygen-poor mud. This unique root system also grounds the plants firmly to the shore, thus protecting it from strong currents, high tides and storms.

After the excitement of the twisted arak, the mangroves have a calming effect. Peaceful, quiet and bushy -- just right for small birds, miniature crabs, and tiny lizards. Unfortunately, they are attractive to all the refuse of humanity as well. Plastic bags, soda bottles, a bicycle tire, and other flotsam and jetsam are among the objects I had noticed earlier in the mangroves near Ghargana.

Here, the Abu Zabad mangroves are cleaner and more pristine perhaps because of less human incursion. But it's only a matter of time, I think, unless some effort is made to clean up the protectorate regularly. These unique ecosystems may one day be overpowered by the waste of daily life.

When I expressed my concerns to Emad Hamdy, a marine biologist and deputy director of Nabq, he informed me that two people have been assigned the task of keeping the protectorate clean. Perhaps we need more than two people to get the job done, or perhaps more supervision, but when it comes to garbage drifting in by air or sea, the protectorate could use some more protection.

Back in the car, we drive over more bumpy dirt roads for another 10 minutes to a beach called Nakhlat Al-Tal, or Palms of the Dunes. It is here that Nabq challenges Ras Mohamed's diving and snorkelling. An easy sand access leads into clear expanses of water. We see a lone swimmer a few metres out and Selmi indicates that is where the coral reefs are.

In contrast to the busloads of tourists swarming Ras Mohamed, this beach is positively secluded. I fantasise about pitching a tent and having the entire place to myself. Selmi says that although the security officers at the coastal gate checkpoint don't allow camping, the Bedouin and rangers are fine with it. The trick is to use the entrance gate at the Khereiza village turn off the Dahab-Sharm El Sheikh Road. There is no security checkpoint there.

"You can use the shower at the Visitor's Centre, no problem," he adds, practically encouraging me to break the rules.

But then again, maybe not exactly, as the map of Nabq I have in my hand clearly indicates the existence of a camping site. The rules against camping, as far as I can tell, are not written. They were enforced by security measures in pre-revolutionary times. Now that things are changing and tourism is once again a top priority, perhaps they need to encourage campers once more.

Driving along the sprawling protectorate, almost 40 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, I noticed that something was missing. Not the migrating birds, not the camping sites, not the presumed marauding tribes of Sinai. Visitors were missing.

On that hot summer afternoon, the protectorate was almost deserted. There was the one swimmer in the sea, without a snorkel, and as far as I could tell, no divers. Earlier in the day I spotted one tourist bus with maybe 15 or 20 Russians, but they were gone now. There was nothing but silence around us.

It was 15 minutes before sunset when I drove out of the protectorate, with memories of an egret, a half-sunken ship, and a gnarly plant that's good for flossing.

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