Many Thursday nights see a stream of vehicles leaving Cairo, filled with Cairenes in search of some much needed sun and succour, as they seek to leave the stress of normal life behind for a weekend away. Most point their cars towards the beaches along the Red Sea coast, from Hurghada to Sinai, and spend their time swimming, kitesurfing, diving or simply lazing on a sun lounger. For those in search of something new there is now a different way to enjoy a weekend away: rock climbing.
Not far from Dahab, a little town on the Southern point of the Sinai peninsula, the majestic mountains of the Sinai rise up to the almost always clear blue sky. The variety of the formations is endless, some mountains sport gently sloping sides but others have steep, nearly vertical walls that rise up from the sandy desert floor. These are the sites that are perfect to test your mental and physical strength as you make your way to the top, one foothold at the time.
Rahim and Adham Hamada are two brothers who have been organising trips out of town for the past few years and rock climbing is the latest activity on their itinerary. “It started when we wanted to go diving for a weekend with a few friends,” Adham explains. “We are both diving instructors so it was easiest for us to pick a location and handle the logistics of the trip.”
When the weekend was a success and other friends (and friends of friends) expressed an interest, the brothers began to organise getaways during the long weekends of the year, like the Eid holidays and Sham El-Nessim, for more and more people. “In the beginning the trips revolved around diving, in different places around the Red Sea, ”Rahim said. “When we became kitesurfers we added that activity and it just grew from there. Our friends like to do something active during a trip and so do we, and we are always on the lookout to add something new.”
A weekend of climbing the faces of the Sinai mountains starts on a Thursday night in Cairo as the workweek comes to a close. Instead of taking private cars the trip to Sinai is taken by bus since, “the weekend is filled with physically challenging activities and it would not be safe for everyone to drive back to Cairo at the end,” Rahim said. After several hours of travel the bus arrives in Dahab at a small hotel.
After an easy start to the day, and a hearty breakfast, the climbers leave Dahab around 11am. The Bedouin guides that from now on will accompany the travellers drive robust 4×4 cars and 10 minutes outside the centre of town the cars go off-road and make their way deep into the mountains. The first climbing site can be found in an area called Wadi Genai.
Scaling a vertical mountain face looks like a strenuous activity, but according to the Hamada brothers you do not have to be super fit to join the fun. Describing rock climbing as being in between climbing a ladder and trying to make your way up a glass wall, Adham said “as long as you are not obese and in reasonable shape you can have a go at rock climbing. There are different grades of difficulty in the climbs, so there is something for everyone.”
There is some special equipment that you will need before you can have a go at the mountain wall, but this is provided. “Everyone gets a pair of special shoes, a helmet, a T-shirt if they need it and of course you wear a harness,” Rahim explained.
There are several routes that have been prepared for climbers. Special chains are attached high up on the rock face and these function both as the anchors for the rope and the highest spot to reach during a climb. Upon arrival one of the local guides rapidly scales the mountain wall, making it seem extremely easy. The guide carries one end of the long rope to the anchor chain, loops it through and brings it back down.
One end of the rope is attached to the harness of the climber while the other end is locked in the harness worn by the belayer. The belayer is the person on the ground who secures the climber, keeping a close eye on the climber’s progress and letting out slack to the line by releasing the belay, a special device that locks the rope a little at a time as the climber slowly ascends. If a climber were to slip, the lock on the rope and the experience of the belayer prevents a nasty fall.
Different locations offer different routes up the mountain, and depending on the difficulty levels the members of the group want to try (and the amount of belayers), several people can climb at the same time. A typical climb will take around 15 minutes but that makes it sound easier than it is. “You will come down soaking wet from the effort, but it is a great feeling,” Adham said. Since the climbs are relatively short, everyone gets a nice break between climbs to catch their breath and it is fun to watch other group members finding their way up the mountain.
Going down is one of the fun parts. “Once you have reached the highest point you lean back and as the belayer releases the rope bit by bit, you ‘walk’ down the side of the mountain,” Rahim said. “You may have to use this technique while climbing as well,” Adham added. “If you see that you cannot find a new handhold around the area where you are climbing, and a little to the left or right from where you are there is one; you tell the belayer to give your rope some slack and you walk horizontally on the mountain to reach that spot. This is called a swing.”
The first day
On the first day the chosen climbing spot allows everyone to make two or three climbs. The climbing sites are selected based on the time of day, because some sights are better to climb when they are in the shade and some cannot be climbed if the sun is shining directly in the face of those trying to conquer the rock. The highest climb is over 30 metres but the heights vary and the difficulty of the route often presents more of a challenge than the height.
Around 4.30pm the group drives to the next stop, a beautiful stretch of beach where a dip in the sea will wash away the sweat and dust gathered during the activities of the afternoon. After watching the sun set over the sea it is time to go back into the desert for a dinner, in true Bedouin style. A camp will have been set up and, after enjoying the meal, the rest of the evening is spent around the fire until it is time to sleep.
The camp is simple and the site secluded, surrounded by mountains that keep the winds at bay. Sleeping bags are a must because it gets cold in the desert at night but it is worth not sleeping in a tent; Sinai is famous for the views of the stars at night.
The second day
Wake up time is early, around 5am, and after a traditional breakfast the camp is packed up and the 4×4’s trail through the desert to a new climbing site that offers new challenges. Here too there are several routes with different levels of difficulty, ranging from one for the easiest to six that presents the biggest challenge. Each participant will get the opportunity to do another two to three climbs and around noon it is time to go back to Dahab.
In the afternoon the brothers organise a dive for the certified divers, usually in one of the famous dive sites of the area, like the Blue Hole. Non-divers can snorkel on the reefs that are close to the shore, or enjoy some leisure time on the beach. Once everyone is back on dry land a final meal is enjoyed at the end of the afternoon. Then it is time to get on the bus and the group arrives back in Cairo in the evening.
Where to climb
Since there are so many mountains in Sinai, climbing sites could potentially be found everywhere, yet at this moment there are only a few available. “You cannot just climb any mountain wall,” Adham said. “To do it safely you need to climb on a site that has the chain that guides the rope secured on the wall. This must be done properly and the chain must be well maintained.” The chains that are in place were installed a few years ago but the local Bedouins that guide the climbers are rigorous in the maintenance, and make sure the chains are safely anchored in the mountain.
There are several agencies that offer climbing trips around Dahab but it pays off to be careful when selecting your guides. “Some guides gather the ropes that are deemed old and worn out by the better organisers and use them for their guests,” Adham said. The brothers work with a local couple, a Bedouin guide and his Canadian wife, who organise the climbing trips and have a good safety record.
“We have heard there are other sites in Sinai that have rock climbing chains in place and we are planning to investigate and try them out. If they prove to be safe, we will add them to our options,” Adham said. The brothers plan to stick around the area the next time they take a group to go climbing, to see if these other locations are up to standard. “We always try them out first ourselves, and if we have a good time it is likely that the people that come on our trips will have one as well,” Rahim said.
Rock climbing is more than just the physical challenge to reach the top according to the brothers. “Getting to the top is literally done one step at the time,” Rahim said. “And this is how you have to deal with it when you are climbing. If you stand at the bottom and look up a sheer vertical wall it can be overwhelming and you may think you can never get there. But when you climb you think only of the next place to put your foot, or the next little ridge where you can find a handhold.”
“It is a mental challenge as much as a physical one, maybe even more so,” Adham added. “During your climb you are completely concentrated on one thing and one thing only. And this is why it is such a perfect way to relieve stress, your mind is completely on something else, just as it is with diving.”
The upper limit of people that can join for a rock climbing weekend is 12. “Most climbing sites are only accessible for one to one and a half hours per day, depending on the sun. With a group of 12 everyone will be able to climb each site two to three times per day and the wait in between the climbs will not be too long,” Rahim said.
When asked what drives the Hamada brothers to organise these trips Rahim said, “it just developed naturally. We like to go and explore and experience new things and so do our friends. It fits with my philosophy, I like to meet people, go places and do things. And no matter how simple that sounds, it sums it up nicely.”
For both brothers organising these trips is not their main job; Adham works in a travel agency and Rahim makes 360 degree, photographic virtual tours. Both brothers feel that their previous experience as diving instructors and guides is invaluable when it comes to organising these getaways. “We understand how to maintain good safety, we have a huge respect for nature and we know how to move groups of people around and handle logistics,” Adham said.
“There are still many areas of Egypt that nobody visits during the vacations and long weekends. The country has a lot more to offer than just the beaches, no matter how nice they are,” Adham said. When asked if the amount of people joining their trips has changed since the revolution Adham said, “it seems that anyone who can afford it wants to get out of the city whenever they can. Besides that, people also have more national pride and it seems they are more interested to explore everything that Egypt has to offer.”
A passion to travel and explore keeps inspiring the Hamada brothers to find new areas and activities to share with their growing group of friends; already several hundreds of people look to them to come up with fun ways to spend a weekend or longer away from the city. But they do not plan to become a huge travel agency that offers several activities a week. “We think that part of the reason why the trips are successful is because we are there. We put the trip together the way we like to spend a weekend away, and only do things we have fun doing. We think of what to do and how to implement it, and we make sure it is done in a way that is relaxed, fun, and safe. That means of course that we work for a niche market but that is fine,” Adham said.
After years of working together the brothers still get along well. “Of course there are times we irritate each other, but overall we get along really well and we like the same things,” Rahim said. “We both have our strong points and after all this time we automatically gravitate towards the things that each of us does well. That way everything gets done,” Adham added.
With organising diving courses, dive trips and safaris, kitesurfing weekends and now rock climbing weekends in Sinai, the Hamada brothers seem to have their hands full but they said there is more to come. “Egypt is beautiful and extremely diverse, there are still many places left to explore,” Rahim said.
When asked what is still on the wish list Adham was quick to answer, “Gilf Kebir in the Southwest top of the country. That is not so easily organised however, it requires all kinds of permits and an official escort and bringing all the food, water and spare parts you could need along. It is also much longer than a long weekend; it would take at least two weeks. It is not so much a trip as an expedition.” “That would be a great trip though,” Rahim added.