On December 24th, a group of some of the brightest minds in Egypt gathered together for a special trip to Sinai – to St. Catherine, to be precise. It was a trip designed to showcase a different approach to healing Egypt’s ailing tourism and one which Cairo Gossip’s Mahmoud Hussein got the chance to get in on – one of the very few members of the English-language media to do so.
As a mountaineer-in-the-making, he jumped at the chance; but the three-day trip also gave him a firsthand look at how dire things really are…
It’s become the biggest cliché in the country, but tourism in Egypt really is in the dumps. There were signs that suggested this could change earlier in the year, but things took a turn for the worse in October when the Russian plane that essentially disintegrated over Sinai after taking off from Sharm El Sheikh shook the world’s confidence in Egypt even further.
In Cairo, we might not quite realise the impact of these kinds of incidents, but for those who make a living from the tourism industry both directly and indirectly, the struggle is real.
Being an aspiring mountaineer, I was bouncing off the walls when I was invited by Al Masry Al Youm to represent Cairo Gossip in an initiative launched by a collaborative effort between the newspaper, the United Nations Development Program and Omar Samra’s Wild Guanabana – one intended to support tourism, particularly ecotourism, in Egypt.
The mission? To climb St. Katherine.
For me, Sinai is the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of Cairo; a peninsula full of culture and unique identity; a vast land of sand and beautiful beaches jam-packed with coral reefs; a land full of mountains and wildlife. The ‘Sinai experience’ is close to my heart.
Other than the vast landscapes and soothing beaches, Sinai is of course home to the 2,629-meter-high mountain, St. Katherine – the highest point in Egypt.
As soon as I landed from the plane, I could feel how bad things were. Sharm El Sheikh Airport was completely empty. Everything was closed, including the Duty Free shop, with only one cafe open – a damning sign of the times.
We woke up at dawn, had breakfast and were on our way. Having climbed St Catherine Sinai last spring, I knew what to expect to a certain extent. I wore four layers of clothing – including two pairs of ‘kalosun’ – plus a heavy-duty jacket. Pretty soon into the trek, though, I realised that I had wildly overcompensated and was roasting under the layers.
This wasn’t going to dampen my spirits, though; my phone was in my hands the whole time, ready to take photos of every corner of the mountain. We were around 30 people of journalists and influencers as well as the expert Wild Guanabana team. I was in great company; I was doing what I love most with the likes of Mohamed Sallam, who is in the running to be part of the crew that will be sent on a one-way trip to Mars in 2025; adventurer, Omar Mansour, who has biked around Africa; Yasmin Helal, founder of Educate Me. In short, people who have made a positive impact in Egypt; people that we should all look up to.
With Samra leading the pack, we reached what I like to call the ‘south summit’ – the last rest stop before the actual summit – by 12.30PM. Some decided to call it a day; others felt that it would be a shame to come this far and not go all the way. I didn’t think twice. The summit was on the horizon; I could see it.
We rested for a while, leaving some people behind, and made our way to the highest point in Egypt. The hike was a little bit more difficult than the rest of the mountain, however. I was as tired as anyone, my feet hurt and the bag I had decided to bring with me was a pain in the neck – literally. But three things kept me going; the feeling of achievement, the stunning view that was waiting for us and the rumours that there was a toilet up there.
I reached the summit around forty minutes later and found a rock to sit on. I immediately became lost in the beauty of the view – so much so that I sat in my place looking around me for an hour and a half. I wasn’t thinking of anything. I felt high. I wanted to spend the night on the summit, but they wouldn’t let me – party poopers.
The way down was much easier. It took me half the time to reach the valley, but I was just as much in awe of my surroundings – to the degree that I found myself lost at one point and couldn’t figure out if the group was ahead of me or behind me. I eventually reached the valley, but had no idea where I was. I was really, very lost, until I found three Bedouins who refused to give me directions until I have tea with them – an offer I couldn’t refuse.
In bringing back together this remarkable group of people for this remarkable trip, these types of initiatives can and will change things. But as we left our camp, one image will stick with me: the sight of an empty camp with a look of uncertainty and worry on Sheikh Mousa’s face, the camp owner.
He looked defeated. The warm hospitality he had shown us on arrival turned into despair – it all sound like a dramatic movie scene, but I couldn’t quite fathom as to why a place this beautiful was deserted. Is it awareness, or lack thereof? Is it the outside world’s skewed understanding of what things are like in Sinai? You know those list articles that pop up regularly online? The ones that are called something like 20 DESTINATIONS YOU NEEDS TO VISIT BEFORE YOU DIE – Egypt should have multiple entries on these kinds of articles, but they rarely appear.
We were the only people at Sheikh Mousa’s camp and he wasn’t expecting anymore guests anytime soon.
By Mahmoud Hussein