A tribal system
The vast deserts of the Middle East are home to many Bedouin tribes, each of which has its own, traditional tribal territory or 'deera'. When the Middle East is seen on a modern political map, only the borders of its contemporary nation states are marked; borders between the tribal territories of the Bedouin remain invisible. Nevertheless, these territories exist in a real way on the ground and from Egypt to Jordan and other parts of the Middle East, each tribe remains deeply connected to its home territory; tribes have lived within these territories for many centuries and often longer, using their sources of water, food and other resources to survive. Bedouin tribes continue to watch their territories closely today, with an ongoing influence in much of what happens within them, including travel. The Bedouin Trail crosses a patchwork of seven tribal territories between Africa and Asia. If alternative routes are followed, the territories of 11 tribes can be be crossed. Most tribes rule that Bedouin guides are mandatory for hikers crossing their lands. Most tribes also rule these guides must be one of their own tribesmen. Bedouin of one tribe are generally not allowed to guide in the territory of another. Every tribe on the Bedouin Trail supplies guides, camels and sometimes other forms of support to hikers in its territory. When the borders of the next tribe are reached a switchover happens, with the new tribe taking over. The Bedouin have always controlled travel in the region in this way and it is how the Bedouin projects of the Red Sea Mountain Trail, Sinai Trail and Wadi Rum Trail all work today. Organising a hike with multiple tribes might seem complicated but in practice it is easy. Everything hikers need to know is outlined in the following section, with more guidance on the website of each of the three sister trails.
Travel on the Bedouin Trail happens as it always has in Bedouin areas; with the guidance and support of the Bedouin tribe whose particular territory is being crossed. It was designed as a guided hiking route and Bedouin guides are mandatory on every section, except the final part of the route in the Nile Valley, which can be traversed independently. It is the experience of walking with the Bedouin that makes the Bedouin Trail what it is today. The Bedouin Trail traverses wilderness regions that are hard to navigate and Bedouin guides first ensure these are crossed safely. Good Bedouin guides do much more than show the way though; they will explain their territory's place names, legends and tribal history; they will identify plants and show hikers how to use them. They are excellent trackers of wildlife and will help smooth introductions with other Bedouin met along the route, opening doors to interactions that would not happen otherwise. Hikers should not have any concerns about a Bedouin guide limiting their independence. The Bedouin are a proudly independent people and a love of freedom runs deep in their culture. Walking with a Bedouin guide will open new horizons for exploration and alternative ways of seeing the desert a hiker would not find alone. As much as the landscapes, it is often Bedouin guides that will be the most memorable part of a journey.
The Bedouin Trail is for the most part a wilderness route. It winds deep into some of the most remote, little-trodden desert regions of the Middle East and except for gateway towns between different sections of the route and the final passage through the Nile Valley there are no settlements, lodges, shops or easy, end-of-the-day conveniences along the way. Hikers must set out with everything needed and carry it until the end. Carrying water, food and hiking gear in the quantities needed for long, multi-day hikes over the tricky, often waterless landscapes that are traversed is not easy and for this reason hikes must be supported, either by camels, 4x4s or a combination of both. Hikes on the Bedouin Trail typically work like this: hikers and their Bedouin guide walk alone during the day, each carrying a small daypack containing water, lunch and other essentials. Bigger bags, usually called 'camel bags' - in which tents, sleeping bags, clothes and other heavy gear are stowed - are carried by a Bedouin support team to an evening rendezvous along an easier route. Hikers, guides and the Bedouin support team usually spend the nights together on the trail. There are only a few sections of the Bedouin Trail - mostly scrambling ascents up high peaks that are too rugged for camels - on which hikers must carry everything they need overnight in a backpack.
Camels or 4x4s?
For thousands of years, the Bedouin loaded their camels with water, food and tents, crossing the vast, solitary deserts of their tribal territories in search of water and grazing. Camels allowed the Bedouin to move into areas they could not have reached otherwise and represent one of the historic pillars that held their nomadic civilisation up, helping to make the Bedouin who they are today. Nevertheless, camels have been largely removed from their historic porterage roles in recent decades, with most nomadic families supporting their migrations with 4x4s instead. Across most Bedouin regions, camels are kept mostly for short errands such as fetching water from high, inaccessible water sources 4x4s can not reach or are reared for sale in markets or use in tourism. It can be hard to find camels on some parts of the Bedouin Trail today, but the more they are requested, the more the Bedouin will use them and the more the old skills and culture around travelling with them can be kept alive. 4x4s have plus points; they carry heavier loads faster, over longer distances and give a quick means evacuation in an emergency. Still, moving with 4x4s feels different to going with camels. Camels will can reach places 4x4s can not so are the only option in some areas, including the highlands of the Sinai. Donkeys may be used on some parts of the trail too.
Other parts of the path
The Bedouin Trail is a 1200km travelling passage between Africa and Asia and whilst most of it traverses remote wilderness regions, gateway towns are passed between each section and the final stretch is done through the settled heartlands of Egypt's Nile Valley. Everybody except the most committed overlanders who want to traverse as much of the intercontinental passage as possible on foot will travel the short urban sections using local transport. The Nile Valley stretch of the Bedouin Trail is a unique part of the path where hikers cross between the nomadic realm of the Bedouin and one of the first major settled regions of the world; it is a section with its own special story to tell and one that can be traversed independently and in several different ways. It is possible to hike this section on foot over three days, following minor roads and countryside lanes between small villages. It can be done more quickly over one to two days, hopping from village to village using any of the local transport that connects each one to the next. Trains and buses can be used to traverse the entire region within little more than an hour but to go so fast would be to fast-forward the passage through a region with its own special history, culture and charm.