You should include Wadi Itlah in any walk. It lies below the cliff wall that rises so precipitously out of the village of Katrine. Because it’s at a lower elevation, it receives all the run off from the High Mountains and remains perpetually green. This wadi has the highest concentration of gardens in the region, with ancient gnarled carob trees providing shade.
From there, you can clamber up Wadi Shagg Tinya, a steep gulley that breaches the cliff wall. It’s here, after rainfall, that water collects in pools or cascades down into Wadi Itlah. In winter, the pools can freeze up.
From Wadi Shagg Tinya, you can ascend Jebel Abbas Pasha where the demented son of Mohamed Ali once planned to build a palace. From the rubble of his dream, you can view the village of Katrine in the haze below.
From Jebel Abbas Pasha, you can discover small mountain basins with isolated stone houses where the old men of the village were born and grew up. Below them lie the gardens of Wadi Zuwatein which have now been converted into camps for the intrepid walkers that get this far. The gardens are rich in fruit trees.
The following morning, you should set off for the Blue Pool. It’s at the bottom of a canyon with a steep zigzag descent. A fig tree grows there, its ancient branches stretching over a deep pond with boulders from where you can plunge into the clear water. From there, you can wander to a camp in Wadi Rumana, named after the pomegranates that grow in profusion.
Or you could head for Wadi Mathar. Here there are traces of antique dramas when early Christian ascetics holed up under rocks and forged a new way of being. Their cells and tombs can still be seen, mute testimony to an age more heroic than ours. And round about lie Byzantine ruins, the remains of monastic communities inspired by the desert hermits.
Here, as well, you can climb a mulberry tree and feast off the squishy berries. The trees are always found outside the Bedouin gardens and are left for everyone to enjoy, a privilege much appreciated by the young Bedouin children who scramble up the branches in June and stain their galabeyas with the purple juice.
From Wadi Mathar, you have two contrasting mountains: Jebel Ahmar, the most fantastic in Egypt, formed of red granite, lofted up into massive dome ridges, to walk them is like riding the back of a giant whale, space slipping away from you into unfathomable depths; and Jebel Katrine, formed of black granite thrust up into jagged peaks, an image of the land of Mordor, to scale them is like breaking into another kingdom, clouds are at your feet and the heavens above.
The pleasure of the mountains lies in the fresh weather and good light. The Bedouin guides are experienced. The camels carry all the food, sleeping gear, water and firewood. Overnights are spent in the gardens where there are usually toilets and simple stone rooms to sleep in, though tents can be supplied, or you can sleep under the stars.
This is a Bedouin world. Since the revolution, the government has become more retiring than ever. But times are hard as tourism figures have plunged. The Bedouin are finding it difficult. By visiting the mountains, you are helping the Bedouin by providing work for the camel boys, the guides and the garden owners.