For decades, Egypt’s Red Sea has attracted travellers from all corners of the globe with its colourful reefs, sandy beaches and electrifying nightlife. Yet, deeply tucked away in the Sinai landscape unbeknownst to many, are some majestic mountains, charming gorges and an impressive desert scape, home to the Khushman bedouin tribe. The area is now the site of Egypt’s first long distance hiking trail, the brainchild of Ben Hoffler, an avid adventurer who knows Sinai inside out. In the works for five years, the Red Sea Mountain Trail is the latest addition to Egypt’s budding adventure tourism sector. In an effort to uncover more about this promising project, eniGma’s Farida El Sayed chatted with Ben Hoffler, the man behind it all.
As a shipwreck hunter stationed in London, Hoffler always had a thirst for adventure. It was that quality that led him to Egypt approximately 11 years ago. After working in Cairo for a while, Hoffler took a break from the humdrum life of the big city and decided to move east to Sinai. “I’m a geographer by background, so I’ve always liked the outdoors and I love discovering new places. When it came to Sinai, I saw so much potential in its landscape,” Hoffler explains. His fascination with the enigmatic peninsula stimulated his interest so much, that he published a book about it in 2013 titled, Sinai: The Trekking Guide. “After going deeper and deeper into Sinai, I realised there was no guide book for the region. So I began making use of the journeys I was making there to gather information about the routes, the trails, the mountains and so forth,” he explains. “This guidebook laid the basis for everything that followed, namely trail development,” he adds.
In 2014, Hoffler co-founded the Sinai Trail and worked closely with the bedouin tribes in the region to bring it to life. Since its formation, the Sinai Trail has become a highly successful tourist attraction for local and international travellers, traversing ancient paths and unearthing hidden gems. In 2016, the trail was lauded as the Best New Tourism Initiative by the British Guild of Travel Writers. That caught the notice of South Sinai’s governor who in turn brought it to the attention of Egypt’s tourism officials. Thanks to Hoffler’s efforts, and the support of the government and Egypt’s travel community, the Sinai Trail now stands at the top of the list of adventure tourism destinations and Hoffler is recognised as Egypt’s lead trail developer par excellence.
With the resounding success of the Sinai Trail, the Red Sea Mountain Trail constitutes a natural progression for the intrepid adventure traveller and an opportunity to showcase more of Egypt’s hidden treasures. Covering a 170 km track, the trail was announced on January 28th, 2019 and is the first long-distance hiking trail in mainland Egypt, taking around 10 days to complete. The trail leads participants up spectacular summits and sweeping desert landscapes, all while taking in striking panoramic views of the Red Sea.
As hikers walk one section of the trail at a time, they are supported by a caravan of camels loaded with necessary amenities such as water, food and first-aid supplies. Every evening, they set camp on the trail and sleep under the stars in true bedouin fashion. “We follow a very natural and traditional bedouin way of moving, which makes the experience truly immersive and authentic. By the end of the hike, some people find it quite difficult to go back to the city where they had felt so comfortable before,” Hoffler explains.
In addition to the main route, there are six distinct hiking hubs that serve as independent hiking regions, each concentrated on a specific mountain massif. Collectively, the hubs add an additional 600 km to the trail. “With these additions, people will be able to hike on the Red Sea Mountain Trail and its network of trails for about a month or more,” says Hoffler. Since the trail can be adjusted and adapted to suit your abilities, Hoffler urges people not to be intimidated if they’re not in tiptop condition or feel they’re not as fit as they used to be. “Those who have already hiked the trail range from teenagers to people in their seventies, so it’s really something that can be done by almost anyone; and if someone can’t handle a certain area, there are always ways to get around it,” he explains reassuringly.
Developed in close cooperation with the Khushman bedouin clan who are part of the bigger Maaza tribe, the Red Sea Mountain Trail is most notably a community tourism project which serves as a direct opportunity for bedouins and travellers to connect, communicate, and explore the wilderness together. Co-managed by some Khushman clansmen, the trail could not have been accomplished without their indispensable insight and knowledge of the area. “The bedouins are natural trail developers, so we’ve always relied on them for all kinds of help, and their knowledge and expertise about their region.” explains Hoffler.
Through its sister project, the Sinai Trail, Hoffler has seen an evident direct impact on the livelihood of the bedouins. “The Sinai Trail has created new jobs directly on the trail and it supports some of the most marginalised and impoverished communities in Egypt. We expect something similar to happen with the Red Sea Mountain Trail in terms of job creation and economic support. By reigniting an interest in the wilderness, the trails also play an integral role in safeguarding vital traditions. Given the great risk of cultural extinction, we try to integrate the full breadth of skills and heritage of these communities in the trails to protect them for the future,” Hoffler enthusiastically explains.
While the bedouin community has been invaluable in creating an unparalleled trail experience, other interested parties, such as Omar Samra in particular, have played a significant role in the trail’s development and evolution. “Samra has been quite heavily involved in the trails over the last year. He has helped us get the backing of Rania Al Mashat, Egypt’s new Minister of Tourism. This kind of tourism really appeals to her. She’s got this ‘people to people’ focus, and that’s very much what we’re doing on the trails,” Hoffler notes.
Despite the widespread success of the Sinai Trail and the excitement he’s seen leading up to the Red Sea Mountain Trail, Hoffler says that getting officials to acknowledge the importance of adventure tourism in Egypt and the contribution it could make to the country, remains a challenge. “Sadly, compared to other countries in the region, Egypt is still lagging behind when it comes to opening the path for adventure tourism. In my eyes, Egypt is the most beautiful country in the world, with an incomparable mix of beautiful landscapes and history, and it’s also got this very well-preserved Bedouin culture. Egypt truly has something unique,” he asserts.
The Red Sea Mountain Trail’s 10 day hiking route will be officially open to the public in autumn 2019. Avid adventurers will also be pleased to learn that an inaugural hike is taking place on the 12th and13th of April, guided by Sheikh Merayi of the Khushman clan, accompanied by Hoffler, Samra and many other key players on the trail.
Hoffler’s passion for what he does runs deep and he’s excited that his dream project is finally being realised. Believing that this could be the beginning of something big, he concludes, “It’s essential to look seriously beyond traditional tourism. I strongly encourage Egypt to truly open itself up to the great potential that adventure tourism has in the region.”