Trekking, safari and the law

In the Sinai if you venture out of the cities into the wilderness, you have to be accompanied by a Bedouin guide by law. This is for different reasons: for your own safety, as the desert can be potentially dangerous; to support the local Bedouin community whose main income is from tourism; and because some areas are off-limits to foreigners and occasional restrictions might be in place. It is possible to organise an off-road adventure with your own car, if you live in Cairo or another city and have one – you still need a support car with a Bedouin guide or a Bedouin guide who you take on board, if you go off the main asphalt roads. Your guide knows all that is to be known about organising a great trek or safari, and he is a guarantee of your safety and security: according to Bedouin law, you are his and his tribe’s guest.

Note: Although in the Sinai you must have a Bedouin guide when you venture out to the mountains or desert, the guidebook still comes useful. There are many excellent Bedouin guides, and most guides are quite good, especially when it comes to catering for visitors, but there is a tendency to walk past some of the best sights without showing them. Having this guidebook, you will know all the practicalities and attractions, so you can plan ahead, discuss the itinerary with your Bedouin guide before setting off and orientate yourself along the trek. This is the best for both of you: you can choose convenient places for breaks and while your Bedouin guide makes a tea or lunch in the shade, you can discover the little secret gems – found often only a few steps off the main tourist path.

Tribal laws

Apart from government laws, in the Sinai there are Bedouin tribal laws covering all aspects of life, including trekking and safari activities. There are several Bedouin tribes in the Sinai with their own tribal territories, and they might have somewhat different laws. If you go on an organised tour then it is all irrelevant as everything is included, Bedouin guide, camels, jeep as needed. An important point here is that you have to have a Bedouin guide even if you have a foreign or Egyptian tour leader, both according to Bedouin and Egyptian law. The best is to go straight to a good Bedouin operator, but you can also try to organise Bedouin guides, camels and transport on the spot in many cases – although it won’t necessarily be cheaper this way.

A unique Bedouin system is the “dor”, a rotating system designed to distribute work evenly among the community. In some cases it is more organised, in other cases more spontaneous. The Jabaleya have the most regulated system, both in the High Mountains (organised by Sheikh Mousa) and at Mt. Sinai. The system, as any system, has positive and negative sides. As for visitors, they cannot choose the guide they want but are allocated the next in turn. If you have a specific preference, a guide you want, you have to pay both guides: your choice and the one from the “dor”. It makes things more expensive for individuals, although for a small group of people it becomes irrelevant as you would need another guide to help with the chores anyway. With regards of the community, this system means that the more sophisticated guides don’t get more work from the “dor”. However, the most sophisticated Bedouin guides – and there are more and more of them – these days have their own websites and FB pages and build all these costs in their prices. On the positive side, the systems provides work for those guides and cameleers who otherwise wouldn’t get much work. Whatever your take on the issue is, one thing is sure: it is up to the Bedouin community to formulate their own laws. As an outsider, especially without full understanding of the situation, we shouldn’t be judgmental.

In the desert in most cases the law is more relaxed and you can take the guide of your choice if you know someone. Camels always have to be taken from the tribe on whose territory you are, even change to other camels if your trek or safari goes through another tribe’s territory. In the desert you find small settlements everywhere, and many provide guides and camels, such as at Ras Ghazala (Sheikh Hmeid), Ein Khudra pass (Sheikh Joma), the Nawamis settlement (Sheikh Farraj), the Arada Canyon (Sheikh Freej) and the Coloured Canyon (guide association). However, unless you want to do it the hard way and organise everything yourself on the spot, the easiest is just to get a reputable Bedouin operator who understands what you want.