Sinai Desert: Nomadic wonder

Bedouins are showing tourists the secrets of Egypt's Sinai desert - lush gardens, multi-coloured mountains, and ancient biblical sites. Will Gethin joins them

As we huddle around a campfire in front of a long Bedouin tent, a waning moon throws a mystical light over the surrounding wadi, a dried-up riverbed the size of an Olympic stadium. Teasing the fire with an acacia branch, Ide, our Bedouin host, recounts tales of tribal warfare as flames flicker over his entourage of Muzeina tribesmen, resplendent in keffiyehs, tweed jackets and flowing robes. Explaining how the seven Bedouin tribes of Sinai reached their present harmony, he finishes with a description of a Bedouin wedding which serves to celebrate this unity: "All the tribes bring goats and tents, there's dancing and a big camel race!"

Within just three hours of the plane touching down at Sharm El Sheikh, we were immersed in the wild and silent heart of the South Sinai Desert - the hallowed abyss linking Africa and Asia and dividing Mediterranean and Red Sea. This unique experience had been organised by the Makhad Trust, a Gloucestershire-based, not-for-profit organisation that strives to preserve the culture and heritage of nomadic communities worldwide.

In Bedouin, the word "makhad" means "meeting" and this journey was essentially a sharing of skills and resources and a melting pot for cultural exchange. In partnership with the Bedouin, the Makhad Trust has developed a series of working projects in the Sinai, allowing visitors to contribute directly to the development of the local communities. On this trip, we would be working on a garden restoration project in the High Mountains before making a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai and St Catherine's Monastery and continuing down towards the Red Sea for a final day's rest.

Reaching the crest of a mountain, jabal, for sunrise, an orange hue gathers above our Bedouin camp. It's freezing cold. A vista of flat-topped mountains merges into the horizon: once seabed, the ancient sandstone plateau has been broken down - its vertical walls the result of flash flooding and the erosion of wind and heat.

"The biggest cause of death in the desert is from flash flooding," the Makhad's geologist, Aonghus Gordon says. "A single inch of rain can have enormous consequences."

Guided by Muzeina Bedouins, on camel and on foot, we trail the caravan route along which Moses reputedly led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land 33 centuries ago. It's a white-sand wilderness, punctuated by narrow gorges, precipices and towering peaks. Crevices decorate the rock faces, imbued with an astonishing symmetry of colours - reds, yellows, purples - pigments of limestone, striped in a blazing trail. At nightfall we eat around the campfire and sleep out under the stars. This journey took the Israelites 40 years, but hosted by the Makhad and aided by four-wheel drives, we complete it in just two days.

"Totally off the map," says Danny Schmulevitch, our group leader, who has been guiding journeys here for 13 years. Usually inaccessible to tourists, this area is now exclusively available to the Makhad. While the desert has been home to Bedouins for centuries, modern legislation requires that they settle outside it for at least part of the year and many have migrated to the coast, making a living fishing and buying and selling land. But according to Ide, the Bedouin nomadic impulse is deeply imbedded.

"We cannot be in one place," he sighs, "we have to be by the coast for our children's schools. But nature is in our blood - sure we have houses, but we sleep outside!"

Merging with an ancient trade route that ran from Cairo to Jerusalem, we stumble across archaic rock drawings of stick men on horseback. "Message boards," says Danny, "the only trace the Bedouins have left of being here."

A primeval burial ground at Wadi Tarabin marks the end of the Israelites' 40-year wanderings and from here we travel in 4x4s towards Amran Garden, one of hundreds of "lost gardens" in the High Mountains which are the heritage of the Jebeliya tribe. Brought into Sinai from Eastern Europe 1,500 years ago to protect St Catherine's Monastery, the Jebeliya were given gardens to cultivate. These provided their livelihood until coastal tourism tempted many to desert the land and the gardens fell into decline. By helping the Jebeliya to restore these gardens, the Makhad offers them an alternative to working on a Red Sea building site.

"We are also trying to work with tourism," says Danny. "At St Catherine's Monastery, groups of tourists come for two hours and leave mess and chaos, making no meaningful connection to the Jebeliya and the monastery."

The Makhad Trust has linked the gardens with a local NGO to help the Jebeliya sell their goods and they are applying for EU and Unesco funding. Over the next two days, we help to renovate a burial ground for Byzantine saints and Bedouin sheikhs, clearing a pure-water spring and building a surrounding terrace and organic seating area.

The gardens bloom with a myriad of life-generating trees, flowers and plants - olive, fig and plum; date palms and Judas trees; sunflowers, love-in-a-mists and herbs for cheese. "I don't want to be a tourist any more," says Gus, a horticultural expert with the Eden Project in Cornwall, "I want to work when I travel, get to know the locals."

Continuing our ascent towards Jabal Achmal, Red Mountain, we trek through Lord of the Rings-style landscapes, snaking along steep pathways and winding through lush mountain valleys, as we climb into peripheral Sinai, ancient terrain where for hundreds of years hermits meditated in caves. Reaching the top, the falling sun glows cerise, shrouding the jagged peaks in a purple haze. Towering mountains, strewn with labyrinthine caves, are alive with etchings of a million mournful faces. Rising at 2am the next morning, we descend the Steps of Redemption down Jabal Musa, Mountain of Moses, where we see our first tourists - a group of Japanese, eager for a Mount Sinai sunrise experience. Orange lights illuminate St Catherine's Monastery, the site where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments and where the Burning Bush still flourishes.

St Catherine's was founded by monks who, following persecution by the Romans at the back end of the Holy Roman Empire, fled into the Sinai wilderness where they lived in mountain caves from AD3 to AD6, before re-emerging into the community to build the monastery. When the pagan Jebeliya came from Europe, they converted to Islam; the monastery was duly sanctified by Mohammed, Jesus was recognised as a prophet and the monks formally accepted Islam by building a mosque in the monastery. This rare example of Muslims and Christians coexisting side by side has continued harmoniously for 15 centuries.

By special arrangement of the Makhad, we attend Dawn Mass in the monastery chapel, where monks in hooded cloaks recite from the scriptures, chant incantations and perform rituals with flickering flames and incense. This ceremony has taken place every day for more than 1,500 years.

Later, at the Red Sea's Basata Eco Lodge, I activate my mobile phone's video facility and ask Ide to honour me with a token memoir from the trip.

"Bedouin," he grins - "strong like the desert, soft like the sand, moving like the wind, forever free."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with the Makhad Trust (01242 544 546; www.makhad.org), which offers eight-day itineraries in the Sinai desert, including road transfers from Sharm El Sheikh and a two-day restoration project at Amran Garden for £830 excluding flights. Forty per cent of the cost goes towards local projects and the conservation of Bedouin culture. XL Airways (0870 320 7777; www.xl.com) flies from Gatwick to Sharm El Sheikh, as does GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.gbairways.com); Egyptair (020-7734 2395; www.egyptair.com.eg) flies from Heathrow via Cairo.

VISITING THERE

The Makhad Trust also tailor-makes Sinai itineraries involving painting, dancing or experiencing the solitude of the desert or mountains.

MORE INFORMATION

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk).

Discover Egypt: 0870 755 8466; www.discoveregypt.co.uk

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