Editors Note: Intrepid travelers are again returning to the Egyptian Sinai, which Houston native Victoria Harper says is one of the most beautiful undiscovered places in the world. Harper, who lives in the sparsely populated desert region that is a base for diving and snorkeling, filed this report.
I loved Ras Shitan before even seeing it because of its unusual name. In colloquial Arabic, Ras Shitan, means Devil’s Head. What exactly might one encounter on Satan’s own beach?
The friend who told me about Ras Shitan didn’t actually know where it was. All he could tell me was that it was somewhere between Taba and Nuweiba. This seaside stretch extends for almost 50 killometers along the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba and is dotted with dozens of hotels and more rustic affairs referred to as beach camps.
Usually these are just a scattered bunch of reed huts, a main dining area and bathrooms tucked in the back. Hammocks often swing under a shady structure of palm trees close to the water, where people of several different nationalities hang out, sometimes chatting, but mostly reading or just staring at the sea and gazing into the distance towards the pink-and-orange mountains of Arabia beyond.
Security in the area is tight and has been since 2010 when a hit-and-run battle ensued between government troops and a branch of ISIS way up north close to the Mediterranean Sea. But along the Gulf of Aqaba, 200 miles to the south, things are mostly quiet, except that officers in the army-run checkpoints may want to see your papers and find out where you’re going.
At the first checkpoint, I asked for directions to Ras Shitan. The officer didn’t hesitate, “It starts here and goes all the way up to Sonesta Taba.”
“Tell people it’s completely safe, nothing to worry about,” he added, remembering his civic duty to put in a good word for the country.
Twenty years ago or so, this exceptionally charming stretch of beach was a mecca for Israeli tourists. But since then the tourist population has shifted. First the Italians came, then the Germans, and now the Russians rule the roost.
A few miles on, I spotted a quad bike rental establishment called Gammal, or Camel Man, perched on a hill on the left side of the road, sporting flags from several countries. A dog, a cat and two men were napping in the front room. But in the back of the building, I came across a tall, dark and ruggedly handsome young man tinkering with a broken bike.
“Ras Shitan is just over there,” he pointed across the road to a sign marked Castle Beach.
“It’s a rocky formation that looks exactly like a skull,” he said. “You can’t see it from the road, because it’s about 20 meters under water, so you’ll need diving gear to get to it.”
So I crossed over to Castle Beach and spoke to the owner, a man from the Bedouin tribe of Tarabeen, who soon contradicted this information.
Secret code name
Mutawea was in his mid-twenties when he set up his camp on this spot, nearly quarter of a century ago. After strolling around a cluster of bougainvillea-clad huts, we stopped in a palm-frond pergola for a chat over cups of aromatic Bedouin tea.
“Is there really a skull-shaped rock in the sea?”
“Nonsense,” Mutawea told me, shaking his head.
According to Mutawea, a group of teenagers, including him, came up with the name years ago.
When they were young they needed a private place where they could meet and escape the prying eyes of their parents, so they invented this secret code name.
“Let’s meet at Ras Shitan,” they would say to each other, referring to a spot known only to them. Ras Shitan wasn’t a rock formation, it was freedom.
“Over time, the name became associated with the big rock over there.” He pointed at a bluff near the edge of the water a hundred meters away.
Selim, who works at a nearby camp called Ras Sinai, later on filled me in on the history of this area.
Long ago, this part of the beach was called Ras Shattain, which in Arabic means Head of Two Beaches. With time, the name was shortened to Ras Shittan, or Devil’s Head, catchier and easier to remember.
Further down the beach, I found another collection of huts scattered on the side of a small hill. Lene, a suntanned blonde from Oslo, to whom I had given a ride from the market earlier, invited me to meet her friends back at the camp.
Four women were relaxing on hammocks near the beach, some reading paperbacks, others simply gazing at the glittering silvery-blue surf rippling quietly with the breeze. You get some waves here on windy days, but usually the Gulf of Aqaba is like a big lake. Northwards, it leads to Jordan and Israel, but for the most part it’s a 20-mile wide body of water squeezed between Egypt on the west and Saudi Arabia on the east.
This camp, called Little Head, has a devoted clientele of Northern Europeans with a taste for alternative life styles. One of the women, Jikke (pronounced Yikka) owns a Dutch travel company, Zinai Travel, which runs tours for people interested in a mix of desert travel and meditation. "Zinai Travel arranges journeys, not just trips. We want people to have the chance to travel within," she told me.
There are hardly any barriers between the half dozen, mostly Bedouin-run camps nestled along this coast. You can visit them all by walking along the edge of the water for half an hour or so, striking up conversations with strangers, or just zigzagging along the beach, inspecting calcified remnants of ancient-looking rock formations.
Meditation Camp and Bedouin Star
Meditation Camp is another in this beachfront group considered part of Ras Shitan. Owned and run by an Egyptian couple, Ahmed and Dina, the camp began as a destination for meditation groups from Switzerland, Germany and Norway, but now attracts visitors from all over. Room structures vary from Thai-style huts on stilts right on the beach, to self-catering chalets with ACs further back towards the restaurant.
A few steps away is Bedouin Star, owned and run by Hassein, a local Bedouin, and his Dutch wife Patricia. The bungalows are spread out on the beach among palm trees and a lush growth of bougainvillea.
Patricia was tending her flower and vegetable garden, but took the time to show me her best bungalow, a plywood and reed hut, complete with an en suite open-air bathroom in the back where you can shower with a full view of the imposing granite mountains nearby. The hut’s door opens onto a gravel-lined yard with an unobstructed view of the sea.
My journey ended, an hour later, in Sawa Camp, which my friend had insisted has the best fish dish in all of Sinai. It was not among the group of camps near the rock (underwater or above water) known as Ras Shitan. It was almost 30 miles up north, toward Taba.
“Who told you we were in Ras Shitan?” said Salama, the owner, obviously puzzled when told him that I scoured miles of beach looking for his establishment.
His camp wasn’t even close to Ras Shitan, although a little mental confusion is to be expected after a few days of mesmerizing sand and surf.
Salama showed me around his reed huts. This is what all camp owners do even if you don’t ask. And it is usually done with an air of pride. Pride in the reed huts, in the simple sponge mattress laid directly on the floor, and in the hammocks pulled across the porch.
But above all, pride in the open skies above, the undaunted rock mountains that stand guard on both sides of the gulf as they have done for millennia, and in the star-studded skies that will enshrine the place after dark. It was sunset, and the sea was glowing a violet shade of pink, reflecting the color of the mountains.
It was hard to tell where the sea ended and the mountains of Arabia began, a panorama of soft pastels combining both, the colors shifting every minute or so, from silver to pink, from pink to bluish grey, before the tints of the night approached with their calming effect.
The sands of international travel continue to shift on this ancient landscape. On October 31, 2015, a Russian charter plane crashed in central Sinai, killing all 224 persons on board, the outcome of a terrorist bomb. Since then, tourism in Sinai has dwindled to a near halt.
But Ras Shitan, is still there, quieter than usual, but beautiful as ever. And when enough time has passed for frayed nerves to recover, chances are the enchanting beach-front camps will thrive once more. Visitors will once again enjoy the approaching night to the sound of the lolling waves, first star rising above the distant mountains, then followed by another and another, until the sky is filled with more shining dots than all the troubles of our past, than all the uncertainties of our future.
Over the distant mountain, a tiny crescent glimmers, beckoning us like it did so many itinerant travelers before, shining on a land that long ago thought of it as a talisman, a protector. And still does.
East Delta buses (Cairo - Nuweiba EGP 70-90) — Online schedule at www.bedouinbus.com. Camp owners will arrange minibuses to and from Cairo for 6-10 passengers for around EGP 800 (about $110 US).
www.nuweibabeach.com offers information about all camps along the Gulf of Aqaba.
Victoria Harper is a Houston native who lives and works in Egypt.