Friday, 16 September 2011

El Shalateen

Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Shalateen is located about 1,000 kilometers south of Cairo, 550 kilometers from Hurghada and more than 420 kilometers north of Port Sudan. From a small human settlement, this outpost has evolved outside the usual tourist circuit. The unofficial census of Shalateen reflects about 10,000 inhabitants, a fraction compared to the metropolis of Cairo. Nevertheless, Shalateen is very cosmopolitan — on a much smaller scale. The community is composed of three tribes: Bisharin, which represents the majority of the population, Ababda, a smaller tribe, and Rashayda, a minority with only a few thousand people.


Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad

The Beja tribe, one of the main ethnic groups around the Red Sea Mountains, extends from Southern Egypt to Eastern Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. The Beja can be divided into four smaller groups: Bisharin, Ababda, Hadendoa and Beni Amer. Only the first two tribes inhabit Egyptian territories, and both originally spoke different dialects of a spoken language called To-Bedawie, more commonly known as Rotana. The Ababda tribe now speaks Arabic, while Bisharin still cling to their mother tongue — though they also know Arabic. 


Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Photo by/ Ahmed F.Ga
The Rashayda, on the other hand, form a non-indigenous, Arabic-speaking tribe that originated in Saudi Arabia, from which they were expelled in 1846.


Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Shalateen lies within the boundaries of Elba National Park, Egypt’s largest nature reserve and part of the transitional area between the Afrotropical and Paleoarctic biogeographic realms. This, in theory, leads to a diversified array of flora and fauna inhabiting the area.


Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
The Camel Market, one of Shalateen’s most memorable attractions, lies in the vast backyard of this small town and has thousands of camels on display. Buyers from all across Egypt converge here to choose from the different breeds brought by herders who come from Sudan on foot. Some buyers want fine-looking white camels, possibly for tourist-related businesses; others look for strong, well-built camels that can handle hard labor, while many are just looking for pounds of meat.
After the shopping is done, the camels are taken to the loading area, where they climb into the trucks with the help of man-made platforms and ramps. If this area is too crowded, the men have no choice but to heft the camel into the truck themselves. Riding a camel is easy, but carrying it is hard. It takes about half a dozen men to lift one small camel into a truck.
Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Trading in Shalateen is not just about camels. Giant trucks are seen around every corner of the market area: old, blue Bedford trucks that come all the way from Sudan carrying the finest of spices and frankincense. In exchange, they drive home with loads and loads of sponge and light plastic fabricants — no wonder locals call them the ‘Sponge Trucks.’ The newer ZY trucks, or ‘Zetwaay,’ are almost double in size and are slowly replacing their older counterparts.
For example, the town has several different species of Acacia trees in various locations. The endangered Nubian ibex (Capra nubiana) is much more difficult to spot, with a habitat restricted to rocky mountains and gorges. This beautiful, graceful creature has suffered tremendous population decline due to illegal hunting. Now, the national park rangers, with the cooperation of the local communities and tribes, are working to increase the Nubian ibex population.

The heritage of Shalateen is not restricted to plants and animals. Several archeological sites are scattered about the vicinity, including what locals call ‘The Water-Gate’ in Abu Safa and the prehistoric rock art site in Deef. Another nearby site worth visiting is the refuse dump where the carcasses of unfortunate cattle are taken. Don’t be repulsed by the idea; there is no lost beauty in the dump itself, but rather the path that leads to it. Everyday at around sunset, Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) can be spotted atop lampposts. This yellow-faced vulture is sometimes referred to as ‘Pharaoh’s Chicken’ because many depictions of this bird in association with man have been found on walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs.


Shalateen is considered Egypt’s last tourist frontier, because traveling further south is not an option for foreigners. In fact, foreigners will need permission to enter Shalateen in the first place, which can be easily obtained from Marsa Alam. Several tour and safari operators arrange these trips and can take care of the required permission. Although in my opinion Shalateen is a safe place whose people are more laid-back with tourists than elsewhere, it is required for travelers to be escorted by tourist police.


Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
Photo by/ Ahmed F.Gad
The community is a traditional one, male-dominated, with women playing a vital role in the household, goat herding and raising children. Out of respect for local custom, it is recommended that female visitors wear long sleeves and loose clothing. Lodging facilities in Shalateen are limited to a small local hotel, El-Harameen, located at the mouth of the market.

Shalateen is by far a different experience than the rest of the Red Sea Riviera. Though it might be a less luxurious destination, it is surely an enticing one that remains unaffected by time and development — a place that should be visited at least once in a lifetime.

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