Sinai hosts very dramatic mountains, and to get up to them and come down on the other side is often very adventurous, spectacular or both. Steep gullies run between the peaks of the high mountain ranges, in many of them you find a foot path and in the bigger ones a path suitable for camels too. The climb up is tough, while coming down you really feel the depth, it’s almost like climbing down a steep ladder to a valley a few hundred metres below. Smaller passes lead over lower ranges on the outskirts of the high mountains and in the desert connecting different areas, and while the climb is less adventurous, the view from the top of the pass can be stunning. The gullies and the passes of the desert plateaus connect the top of the flat ranges and lower lands, and as far as depth and the sense of adventure are concerned, they are equal to the high mountain gullies.
As it happens often with geographical features, they overlap a bit or different terms are used. A gully can be defined as a “ravine formed by the action of water” or “deep narrow valley”, while in turn ravine is defined as “a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides” – and it just goes on. Similarly, different terms are used in the local Bedouin dialect. A small gully is called “rod”, but often “naqb” is used which actually means pass, and some of the steepest gullies in the high mountains are called “wadi shaq” which translates to a narrow valley. A pass is “a route over or through mountains”, and “naqb” is exactly that. The top of the gully or pass, the “low part of a ridge between two higher points or peaks” is the saddle, in local usage “sharafa”. These features are found, and called the same, in both the high mountains and desert, although they are a bit different.
In the high mountains you find narrow, long, very steep gullies, often with huge boulders in the middle, offering stunning views all along the climb. Arguably the most impressive of them is Naqb Shaharani, one way to the top of Jebel Serbal in the Wadi Feiran area. It is one of the highest mountains in the Sinai, but its base is quite low from sea level, so this gully is the longest one. The climb can take up to a day, but at least a few hours even for the fittest trekkers. As you look down at any point, you feel the depth in your bones. Around the town of St Catherine, where the highest peaks are concentrated, gullies and passes lead every direction. The Stairs of Repentance that leads up from the Monastery of St Catherine to Mt Sinai is in a steep gully of a similar type, although here big steps laid by monks centuries ago make the climb easier. The pass most used by locals and trekkers is Abu Jeefa, the gateway to the high mountains, which is also accessible to camels. It’s not very high, but offers a great view on town and a beautiful example of a Bedouin garden, built in several steps on the steep slope. From the top you could descend to Sid Daud, a steep gully of a different type. It’s a challenge to find the path among the huge boulders blocking the way, and at one point it leads through a chimney under the rocks. A rarely used route to Mt Katherine, via Farsh Raba and Jebel Ahmar, is Naqb Abu Heyman which looks and feels more like Naqb Shaharani, except it’s not as long. Leading from the high mountain massif to lower ground, a truly stunning gully is Wadi Shaq Tinya. If you approach it from the top, the first sight of the steep descent really hits you – coming the other way around it’s obvious from first look it will be a challenging climb. At the top of the gully there is also a spectacular permanent water pool.
There are less steep, gentler gullies and passes, connecting higher lying wadis and plains to a somewhat lower lying area. These routes are easy, camels can usually access them, but you still get great views, especially first reaching the saddle at the top. A nice example of such a pass is Naqb el Hawa, connecting the plain of Wadi Raha to the plains around Sheikh Awad. It was part of the traditional pilgrim route to St Catherine and there are stretches paved centuries ago with big rocks. Similar to it is the Naqb Dirwa pass, connecting the Wadi Isbaiya area of St Catherine to the Blue Desert. Further in the desert the Pass of Ein Khudra, known locally as El Gaby Shee, is a similar sight but in a sandy environment. Coming from the top, first you walk across a desert plain to reach a small pass where you suddenly realise there is another plain a little below.
In the desert gullies are often sandy, very much like a sand dune stuck between the narrow walls of sandstone hills. Jebel Matamir features many such gullies, some of the most impressive ones in the desert. A wadi or a plain is often separated from another area by a small hill or ridge with a pass over it. These shortcuts often feature fantastic views, such as the pass connecting El Kiri to the Jebel Barqa area, known as Naqb Seh Hashen. In a different area of the desert El Breqa is another good example, where a small pass connects the Jebel Berqa area to the Tarabin region’s biggest sand dune.
The gullies and passes of the flat ranges and long plateaus in the north of South Sinai are different again. You can see the mountain layer by layer like a contour map as the water carved its way in the massif. In the Umm Ajraf area near Serabit el Khadim you see some great examples. From the Tih Plateau many gullies descend to the plains of South Sinai, the bigger ones are accessible for camels and some even for cars. A picturesque one is Naqb Ayana at Jebel Dalal. The Guna Plateau is very similar to the Tih, in fact once they were one, but now the two are separated by Wadi Zalaqa. One of the stunning passes of this range is Naqb Ghlim, slowly leading up to a ridge on one side, but then dropping deeply into a big water catchment area on the other and offering an unparalleled view on the desert from the top.