Caught Out in the Desert

By | 2nd November 2017

Behind the beach camps at Bi’r Suwayr, in the direction of the interior of the Sinai peninsula, is a range of desolate hills that form a spectacular backdrop to the camp. One day I thought I would try to climb part the way up and take a photo looking towards the sea. After leaving the camp I walked across several hundred metres of barren red dirt and crossed the main road before climbing up into the hills.

View of the camps from the hill

View of the camps from the hill

I managed to get an expansive view without going too high but on my way back down the slope, just before I got to the road, I saw two men coming towards me. They had come from a concrete shelter on the side of the road, near the start of the driveway into the camp and were shouting something to me. I noticed one was quite heavy set and dressed in plain clothes while the other wore some kind of police or military uniform. Both had Kalashnikov assault rifles slung over their shoulders.

I realised they were probably the same men I had seen a few days earlier when Clare and I had gone for a drive into the nearby town of Nuweibaa with one of the staff from the camp. I’d asked our driver what the men were doing sitting there at at the end of the driveway and he said they were employed by the camps for security reasons.

The two men did not speak English. They escorted me back to their outpost by the side of the road, while asking me questions in Arabic. When I heard the word ‘passport’ I realised I didn’t have it with me. It was inside my luggage back at the camp and I tried to indicate that to the men. When one of them began to make a phone call, I realised I would have to stay put until the whole thing was resolved. I was confident that things would be fine because I could see the camp several hundred metres away and I knew the guards would know someone from the camp.

Before long, a black van approached and pulled up alongside. There were four men inside the vehicle. The man in the passenger seat was a heavy set Egyptian, built like a gorilla, but dressed in a smart white uniform and wearing dark sunglasses. The driver and the two men who jumped out of the back were dressed entirely in black and carried similar Soviet-made assault rifles. They made it clear to me that they were the police, but could easily have been military.

Without speaking much English, they asked me for my passport which I again tried to indicate was back at the camp. I handed over my UK residence permit instead and they wrote down some details from it in a logbook. They searched through my backpack, taking everything out and examining it. I suggested they call the camp and speak to a staff member who I mentioned by name. The big man in the white uniform pointed to the hills from where I had been spotted and indicated that they were dangerous. He then asked my if I knew who Daesh was. I nodded and told him I understood.

I’m fairly sure they knew I wasn’t an ISIS operative but I guess they also wanted to ensure visitors to the region just didn’t wander off and get captured by actual ISIS operatives. That wouldn’t look good for Egypt at all. Suddenly all the police and military presence between the border and the camps made sense. Several years ago there had been various incidents of ISIS-related violence in that particular region although several locals had indicated there was no longer any real danger, at least not in the camps and the resorts along the coast in the southern half of the Sinai.

After a short while, I could see one of the staff from the camp walking down the driveway towards us. He seemed to take forever and was certainly in no hurry. When he arrived he greeted the guards and explained that I was staying at his camp. It suddenly became all quite friendly. I shook hands with my interrogators and apologised as best I could for causing any trouble, then made my way back to the camp. Clare had been doing some yoga and meditation and was oblivious to what had just happened so it made for an interesting story.

Abandoned camp structure, Bi’r Suwayr

Abandoned camp structure, Bi’r Suwayr

During more relaxed walks along the beach at Bi’r Suwayr, Clare and I noticed that some of the other camps had been abandoned and had fallen into a state of neglect. More substantial beach apartment structures built of brick and mortar and employing various traditional design elements were also scattered along the beach and sometimes also abandoned. Their elegant Egyptian-styled shells, with unfinished interiors and surrounded by disused construction materials, were left to bake and collect debris in the sun.

It all made for a unique environment and while there were signs on the periphery of possible danger and troubled times, we were able to enjoy a truly relaxing time away in a setting that felt natural, exotic and peaceful. We stayed at Aquarium Camp for a full week before we got a taxi to Eilat and a bus back to Tel Aviv.

We spent our final two nights in a comfortable self-contained Airbnb flat in Jaffa before we flew back to London. In Tel Aviv we visited Carmel Market and walked around the region known as ‘White City’ where we saw some Bauhaus buildings after which the region is named. Due to the immigration of German Jewish architects from the 1930s, Tel Aviv has the largest collection of Bauhaus buildings of any city in the world. Some of the architecture we saw, whether Bauhaus or not, was quite interesting, as was the market that specialised mainly in food. It was a nice way to re-adjust to city life in preparation for our flight back to the UK, where we would spend the next five weeks preparing for our next big trip away.

Back in Jaffa and Tel Aviv

One thought on “Caught Out in the Desert

  1. Beti Hand

    It makes me very anxious to join you both, or else hurry the days along till I can see your next offering!


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