The tribal system
The Red Sea Mountains are a chain of rugged peaks running the length of Egypt's Red Sea coastline. Every part of these mountains are controlled by Bedouin tribes. Three different tribes - the Maaza, Ababda and Bisharin - are found in the region today. Each tribe has its own territory, which it watches and controls closely. In the Red Sea Mountains, as in the Sinai and other Bedouin regions of Egypt, every tribe rules guides are mandatory for hikers. Tribes also rule hikers must be accompanied by one of their own tribesmen. In the lands of the Ababda, a tribesman of the Maaza is not permitted to guide alone. Similarly, tribesmen of the Ababda or Bisharin can not work as guides in Maaza territory. Every tribe will supply its own tribesmen as guides. The Red Sea Mountain Trail is in Maaza lands. Moreover, it stands in the territory of a single clan of the Maaza, called the Khushmaan. Guides are usually clansmen of the Khushmaan, but Maaza tribesmen of different clans can work with Khushmaan permission. Every hiker must have a Bedouin guide and permission to walk the Red Sea Mountain Trail from the Khushmaan Sheikh. Walking the Bedouin wildernesses of Egypt is not like hiking trails in other parts of the world, where everything operates more independently: hikers here must - as visitors have done for centuries - secure the backing of the local tribe first. Although this may sound complicated, it's straightforward. The Red Sea Mountain Trail is managed by a small tribal organisation headed by the Sheikh of the Khushmaan: Sheikh Merayi Abu Musallem. To organise a hike on the Red Sea Mountain Trail, simply contact the tribal organisation - which deals in Arabic and English - and tell them what you want and everything will be organised for you.
Bedouin guides are mandatory on the Red Sea Mountain Trail. Hikers are not permitted to walk without them. Guides will be arranged by the Sheikh of the tribal organisation managing the trail. Good guides will not only show the way; they'll tell you about the place names, the legends of the landscape, the tribal history and boundaries; they'll tell you about the plants and how to use them, along with the tracks of the animals. They'll keep you safe in a remote environment the Bedouin have lived in for centuries and they'll speak on your behalf with people you meet on the way. Few hikers feel Bedouin guides constrict their independence. The Bedouin are a fiercely independent people who value freedom and guides often become the most memorable part of any journey.
Supporting a hike
The Red Sea Mountain Trail traverses a remote desert wilderness. There are no settlements, lodges, shops or easy end-of-the-day conveniences on the way. You must set out with all you need and carry it until the end. Carrying all your water, food and gear is difficult over multi day hikes and consequently hikes are supported, either by camels or 4x4s. The system works like this: hikers and their Bedouin guide walk during the day with a small backpack containing water, lunch and other essentials for a day. Bigger bags, usually called 'camel bags' - with tents, sleeping bags and other heavy overnight gear - are carried by the support team to an evening rendezvous on an easier route. There are only a few sections of the Red Sea Mountain Trail where hikers need to carry everything and they are always for short overnight hikes lasting no longer than two days, all of which can be avoided if necessary.
For thousands of years, the Bedouin loaded their camels with water, food and tents, crossing their desert territories in search of water and grazing. Nevertheless, camels have been largely pushed out of their historic roles today, with most nomadic families supporting their migrations with 4x4s instead. Today, camels are kept mostly for short errands to spots 4x4s can not reach - e.g. water from a high, rocky wadi - or are sold in markets or used for tourism in desert villages. The reality is it is hard to find camels to support hikes on the trail today, but the more they are requested, the more the Bedouin will use them and the more the skills and culture around travelling with these animals can be kept alive for the future.
In the 1980s, only four families of the Khushmaan owned any form of motorised transport. Today 4x4s are used by almost all nomadic families of the region to get around the desert. 4x4s can carry heavier loads and allow faster travel. Camels have been left mostly redundant and their role has changed within Bedouin society. Most parts of the Red Sea Mountain Trail are accessible by 4x4s and the Bedouin typically use motorised transport when supporting a hike. Travelling with 4x4s gives a means of quick, easy evacuation in an emergency, which some hikers may prefer to have. Nevertheless, it feels totally different to travelling with a camel and hikers should be aware of this. Consider which you prefer and request it when organising your hike.