Egyptian Camel School
A retired teacher, a tribe of Jabaleya Bedouin and a select band of their camels are bringing responsible tourism to Mount SinaiFeatured February 11 Words by Linsday Carroll
St Katherine sits 1,600m above sea level in the southwest region of the Sinai, toward the tip of the peninsula and about two and a half hours from Sharm El Sheikh. To reach it from the coasts of the Sinai peninsula, you must travel from the mountains that fringe the striking blues of the Gulf of Aqaba, over rocky plateaus and into the desert. Closer to the city, you encounter the Sinai High Mountains, their craggy reddish peaks surrounding small towns and valleys dotted with scratchy shrubs and an occasional tree.
It is here that Gordon Wilkinson, a 54-year-old British former schoolteacher, set up Yalla Jabaleya (yallajabaleya.com), a programme designed to integrate tourism with the culture of the Jabaleya, the Bedouin who live around the Sinai mountains. The Jabaleya had established a tradition of leading pilgrims up Mount Sinai, the place believed to be where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God, and Wilkinson says that in the three years he has been running his company he has taken great care to work sensitively with them. "My aim was not to trespass on the Jabaleya domain, but to support and enhance what they were doing through my skills as a teacher," he explains.
Working with Zarzora, an Egyptian tourism company that specialises in tours in the Western Desert, he teaches more independent-minded travellers about the history, astronomy, camel-riding and herbology that is so crucial to local tradition. For Wilkinson, the Sinai experience is not adequately fulfilled by a standard package tour. His hope is to create "responsible" tourism in the Sinai - tourism that is integrated with the people who live there and benefi ts their community. His goal is to sustain a unique social and cultural environment through mutual respect, and "to prevent the destruction of Bedouin culture that happens when you package it into cliches marketed to tourists."
Mount Sinai, or Jabal Musa (Moses' mountain) in Arabic, is a holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, but even the most committed atheist couldn't fail to be moved by the place. The red granite mountains seem Martian at night, and they are embraced by majestic star fields that wheel overhead. Christian monks began establishing hermitages in the mountains during the early Byzantine era, and the emperor Justinian founded St. Katherine's monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in 527 AD.
It's not surprising, then, that the trek up Mount Sinai to see the sun rise has become a must-see attraction for tourists in Egypt - the mountain averages about 1,000 visitors per day. But it is Wilkinson's hope that through Yalla Jabaleya, he can convince travellers to have a more substantial stay in the Sinai. His excursions provide a more in-depth view of life on the peninsula, taking travellers through the area's valleys (wadis in Arabic) to herbal gardens, centuries-old monastic enclaves, and to Mohamed Musa Abu Krishan's camel school.
The school is the latest addition to Yalla Jabaleya's programme. It was 20-year-old Abu Krishan who originally taught Wilkinson how to ride a camel, and now the two men, along with a team of Jabaleya camel instructors, teach riding lessons near to Abu Krishan's home in Wadi el Firee'a, a long, flat desert valley surrounded by the mountains of St. Katherine. Wilkinson says that before they started the camel school, tourists had only used camels to carry supplies. "This wasn't real camel riding, and the tourists were not trusted to handle a camel on their own," he continues. Wilkinson and Abu Krishan hire one teacher for every two students for safety, a ratio that also makes for an ideal learning environment: "The Bedouin is proud and excited to pass on his skills, the tourist is curious and excited to learn."
Riding a camel is supposedly easier than riding a horse ("A camel is more like a well- trained dog than a well-trained horse; they are very loyal to their owners") and Yalla Jabaleya's tourists often fall in love with their mount. Wilkinson says his experience as a schoolteacher helped him to create a teaching method for camel riding, though he admits he's continually improving and adapting his technique.
First, riders learn the safe way to mount and dismount a camel, then they learn to fit the saddle and control the camel, as well as change its direction and bring it to a halt. Changing the camel's pace comes next, going from a walk to an easy gait to a gallop, and during the final lesson students take their camels on a trek and bring them back to the wadi.
All of Wilkinson's programmes are designed in partnership with the Jabaleya, a principle that allows him to bring change to the Mount Sinai area. The star observatory, the camel school and the herbal gardens are all owned by the Jabaleya, and all aim to provide something more than the obligatory snapshot at the top of Mount Sinai. "It's a perfect situation for breaking down suspicion and mistrust and building up respect and friendship," Wilkinson concludes. "All the visitors who have passed through the school have commented on how they enjoyed riding the camels, but also that they could build a real relationship with their Bedouin teachers."