What I learned when I walked in the desert for 12 days!

What I Learned When I Walked In The Desert For 12 Days!

Photo by: Mahmoud Ragab

I love hiking, and when I say so I know very well what the word “love” means. There’s nothing in life I do with passion and mindfulness as being in the mountains, regardless the weather or the company.

The longest time I spent hiking was 12 days when I walked the Sinai Trail last winter; a long distance hiking trail traversing the Sinai Peninsula from the east near Nuweiba till the highest point in Egypt at St. Katherine. Since then I’m craving for more long hikes, dreaming to walk legendary longer trails around the world. I want to see the world through the trails and thru-hiking, not through big cities.

I started hiking in 2013 with short hikes over weekends, mainly around St. Katherine. At that time I heard about multi days hiking or camping, which seemed to be a distant dream. But at one of those magical moments where you find yourself right in front of what you have always dreamt of, I stumbled upon the announcement of the 12 days Sinai Trail thru-hike. I knew about it 6 months before the hike, which seemed to be enough time to be prepared, according to my definition of being prepared back then.

I used to have a full-time job taking most of my life so I needed to settle things there before leaving for 12 days. I also made a list of gear and stuff I need to buy, that I had to carefully research, pick and pack. I also had to be physically prepared and in “perfect” shape. I thought this is all that I needed and this is all that it was about. This trip turned out to be way beyond my physical preparations, it challenged my mind and brought me to a closer realization of who I am and what I really want in life. I was a perfectionist who went to conquer the unpredictable wilderness, where everything is bigger than me, and not under my control. Here’s what I learned after this unforgettable hike.

Lesson no.1: The Mind Doesn’t Always Tell The Truth

I worked out so hard a couple of months before the thru-hike, thinking that this is all that I had to do to be in perfect shape because my ego refused to be the last one in the group. On the trail I found out the mental challenge was the main thing, to adapt to a wild environment different from the predictable urban one I got used to, for 12 subsequent days. On the other hand, the physical challenge for this trip was reasonable and varying along the course of the trail. Some days had a couple of hours of tough hiking and others were easy walking in wide open deserts. Actually, it wasn’t so difficult to adapt, but it was surprising that all my worries and concerns had gone in vain.

I discovered that everything starts and ends in my mind. When it thinks it can do something I do it, when it thinks it can’t I don’t do anything. Moreover, I could change what my mind thinks about myself and my abilities, I can consciously tell it what to think, the true inner voice became much louder and recognizable than logic or fear in my head, and when I let it take over it became clearer that my mind just worries most of the time and its worries are not necessarily true. I toke this back home, and I learned to listen to my instinct and true self rather than the famous battle between the heart and the mind.

Lesson no.2: Less Is More

We were in the desert, away from everything I used to, many of which I thought I can’t live without. Everything I had was stuffed in an 80 litres bag that travelled with us on the camels. The Bedouin were ultra-light backpackers by nature, I observed how they were quite aware and understand what does it mean to have limited resources, to pack only what is necessary, and to use water, food and firewood wisely.

As the trip went on, I knew that I didn’t need one-third of the things I packed with me and that they were weighing me down and slowing the packing process in the morning. When I understood how much stuff I really need and packed away the unnecessary things I found out it was so liberating. I toke this with me back home and gradually became kind of minimalist. I watched everything I have but don’t use, packed it away as a primary step to get rid of it. I spent the last year paring down my possessions, making sure that everything is either used or loved. Nothing stayed there under the claim of “just in case”. That was so liberating, and the more I did this the less attached I became to things.

Lesson no.3: Consistency; Whatever Happens, Keep Moving

Camels and tents mix during sunrise in a campsite near the Nawamis

Image credit: David Degner

Along the course of the 12 days, the daily routine was simple and consistent, we used to wake up with the first sunlight, pack our stuff and the sleeping gear – while our Bedouin guides prepare breakfast and bake fresh Bedouin bread – then we eat our breakfast and move. We keep walking until noon, stop for a quick lunch, then we continue walking till dusk to reach our next camping spot, and hurry to set up our sleeping gear before the darkness.

This simple daily routine kept repeating, unlike the varying nature and landscapes that kept dramatically changing under our feet from day to day, from valley to valley and from a tribal zone to the next. It felt like moving from one world to another.

Of course, there was a difference between the walking ability of the hikers and the Bedouin guides, I thought it was just because this is their job and this is what they’ve been doing their entire life. But that wasn’t the only reason. A hiking buddy told me the secret he found out about this. He told me whenever you feel tired and exhausted, walk right after the Bedouin guide, move your feet with him, follow the pace and observe his steps. I did so and realized the secret, it was consistency.

They were walking at a steady pace, always the same, uphill, downhill, soft sands or in rugged rocky terrains. That was one of the many wise things I learned from the Bedouins. Walking like this was just like meditation. I sat the pace and walked, resisting the temptation to hurry up when I could, avoiding to waste all of my energy at the easy parts to save some at harder ones. That was the most practical mindful exercise I ever had, and I was grateful for every step my leg walked and carried me in. I toke this back home, I learned that whenever I have a big goal ahead, to walk towards it in a steady pace, saving my energy to the last bit, which is actually the hardest one, and that was another lesson.

Lesson no.4: The Last Part Is The Hardest Part

Sunrise on the top of Mountain St. Catherine

Image credit: Enas ElMasry

There was a part of the trail that I will never forget, it was a magical moment that symbolized many challenges in my life. That was after 8 days of walking and finishing 2 thirds of the trail. After we crossed the spacious Blue Desert, we ended up at the foot of a rocky ascent at the beginning of the high mountains range of St. Katherine. We had to go up quickly before sunset to reach our camping spot for the night. There was a transition going on there, the heart beats became faster and the mode of the group changed. The trip was getting closer to the end, and we were ascending watching the peak of mount Catherina ahead of us, our ultimate destination and the last point on the trail. Watching the peak while ascending gave me incredible energy to continue, to move with the high spirit despite being so tired after the long day. We ended up on a wide rocky plateau, where the whole landscape changed around us to rugged rocky terrain and the temperature dropped dramatically. That was the ultimate inspiring moment for me, amazed by that reservoir of extra energy that was released as I got closer to my goal and had a reason to keep moving. I realized that the last part of any journey is the hardest part. That seeing the goal ahead in the clearest possible representation is a motive to keep moving. I toke this back home, knowing that the last part of a long journey is the hardest and that I can search for the extra boost of energy by putting my goal ahead, and keep remembering and visualizing it.

Lesson no.5: Gratitude Matters

With baby goats in Sinai desert

Image credit: Nadine Abdussalam

The moment of ending the thru-hike on the top of mount Catherina was another special one. I just sat on the top, looking back at the trail I walked below. I felt deep gratitude in that moment, I was grateful to every moment and every step, every long deep conversation and small talk.

Living such a simple life for 12 days and being not buried under electronic distractions, I had the luxury to enjoy simple things that I used to take for granted. The salty smooth taste of the cheese with a pinch of thyme, the quenched thirst with a cup of Bedouin tea or an orange, sitting in the shade under an acacia tree after a long walk in the sun or simply sleeping under the stars.

As I returned back home I could feel the difference between what I was at and what I became. I came back with one major change, the inner voice of my true self, was louder than ever before. I knew that I have changed, and I made major changes and big decisions in my life, I realized the value of my life and the value of my mere existence.


Nada AlShazly

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