CAIRO – 2 February 2018: Becoming a mother is a turning point in the life of any woman. Before I gave birth to my daughter, even during pregnancy, physical activity was a huge part of my life: yoga, tai chi and occasional hiking in Cairo's Wadi Degla protectorate.
Because I am a person who is hugely drawn to physical activity, being a new mother who spends her days nursing, changing diapers and rocking her baby to sleep was a big transformation for me. However, being who I was, I tried to bounce back as soon as I could. I was introduced to the life of backpack traveling, camping and trekking by a friend of mine, and since then it has become my new addiction. Doing this with a baby required very careful planning, willingness to step out of my comfort zone and a lot of courage.
My first backpack traveling and camping trip was in September 2016, when my toddler, Nour, was 20 months old. Although I was very anxious at the beginning and the trip was difficult, it turned out to be a life-changing experience that taught me countless and priceless lessons.
Descending a mountain in Ras Shitan in September 2016
The first challenge
started months before the trip when I was trying to hunt for a good-quality rucksack that was also reasonable in price, which, turns out, is a very challenging quest in the present state of our economy. During that step, and throughout the entire experience, I was aided and guided by a friend who is an experienced backpack traveler and mountain climber. I finally settled on a sturdy rucksack that was not very light in weight, but was the best option available.
The second challenge
was packing: how to pack everything I would need in the trip without killing myself with extra weight. In addition to learning a lot about the science of backpacking and how to engineer your bag optimally so that everything becomes accessible, well-seated and comfortable to carry.
Nour and I in a hike to Abu Galum nature reserve between Sharm el-Sheikh and Taba in July 2016
My first backpacking and camping trip was laborious for many reasons. First, my daughter still wore diapers at the time, so I had to carry about 20 diapers in addition to clothes, food, water, tools and the sleeping system (mine consisted of a sleeping pad and a cover), and I had to interrupt the group whenever she needed to change, plus having to carry the wet diapers all the hike and back, sometimes for more than 24 hours, until I could throw them in the trash.
The third challenge
was that she was still dependent on breastfeeding at the time, so I had to stop the group and interrupt the hiking for nursing as well. She had to be carried most of the time, and because most baby carriers sold in the Egyptian markets support babies to the maximum of 12 months of age, I had to devise a baby carrier that consisted of a 5.5-meter-long piece of cloth that I would wrap around my body and then seat her in, and when I was not carrying her, I would carry the cloth itself in the bag, which was very heavy and space consuming.
Nour helping me by carrying my sleeping pad in June 2017
At the beginning, it was very tiring to carry her for kilometers at a stretch along with the rucksack on my back, and especially difficult when trekking and scrambling to mountain tops, but I gradually gained not just the muscle strength and stamina necessary for it, but also the boldness that makes it less likely to get trapped in panic attacks.
Speaking about panic attacks, I remember that on that first trip we ascended a 160-meter-high mountain, which might sound like a short distance, but trekking and scrambling for 160 meters up a rough terrain is no easy task at all.
On the way up, exactly in the middle, we took a short break. Before the break, I had been going steadily up without thinking, but when we sat down and my mind started to think, or rather overthink, I had a panic attack and asked myself questions about the safety of what I was doing.
Luckily, I was assisted by the leader of the group, who is an experienced trekker and mountain climber, and I calmed down and resumed the trek. The answer to my question was yes, there is definitely a percentage of risk – a small one – in what I was doing, but so does everything that is worth experiencing. Besides, doing something difficult and physically demanding with your child and knowing that mistakes and failures are not an option multiplies your performance tenfold.
Nour enjoying the Red Sea on her own in June 2017
The main difference between staying at a hotel or any other form of accommodation and camping in the desert or by the seaside is that in the second case you get to enjoy nature in a very intimate way that is not possibly accessible otherwise. Camping on mountain summits gives you an indescribably beautiful view of the stars and the sea if it is nearby. The wind on the summits is strong and vigorous, and coupled with the fresh and clean air, it makes you feel extraordinarily alive, as if someone suddenly removed a thick cloak of dust and rust off your lungs and your brain.
The silence, the serenity and the peace of the desert are intoxicating. Camping on the beach and listening to the waves crashing against the rocks all night while gazing at millions of stars and occasionally catching the glimpse of a shooting star or two is exhilarating. And what a nice surprise it is to bump into a fox or an owl in their own environments, a territory where humans can only be timid visitors.
Nour in Wadi el-Weshwashi in June 2017
What camping and trekking did to me and to my daughter is remarkable in every way.
The intimate connection with nature is not only de-stressing and detoxifying, it also heals whatever damage is done to the connection between me and my daughter because of leaving her for 10 hours in the care of her grandmother when I go to work.
Traveling and hiking trips seldom leave time for technology; I do not get the chance to check my Facebook or WhatsApp often, and even when I do get that chance, I do not really find myself too keen on spending time on my phone.
Nour and I on the way to Wadi el-Weshwashi in June 2017
Backpacking taught me a lot about minimalism. We tend to use much more stuff than we actually need, and backpack traveling taught me to conserve, recycle, choose multi-purpose items and to create new purposes for what is commonly thought to be single-purpose items. I had to pack food, water, clothes, diapers, a sleeping pad, a cover and tools, all without exceeding the weight limit after which the bag becomes a burden up to the point of making it impossible to hike and resulting in ruining the whole trip.
On the other hand, camping made me reformulate my definitions of luxury. A week of camping means that we bathe and wash our clothes in the sea, and that we feed on raw and dry food, such as dried fruits and nuts, almost exclusively for quite an uncomfortable stretch of time, and it becomes ever more uncomfortable with a toddler who is not always willing to be convinced to eat this or that.
Swimming with Nour in Wadi el-Weshwashi, Nuweiba in June 2017
However, this initial discomfort yielded miraculous results, for Nour now eats camping food with pleasure and without complaining, as if she realized that this is what it takes to enjoy the awesomeness of the sea and the mountain. Eating raw food for a week or a few days, along with intense physical activity, is a very good detoxifying strategy, and we go back to Cairo with a quite a calm digestive system.
Surprisingly, the de-stressing environment makes us eat far less than we do in Cairo, even with the intense physical activity of trekking and with being constantly on the move. Sleeping in the open resets our biological clocks, so no matter how much of a night owl I turn to be in Cairo because of staying up late to finish this task or that, I go back to Sinai and I wake up at day-break and sleep a couple of hours after sunset.
Nour in the early morning before breaking camp in Dahab in July 2017
Hiking for several kilometers and trekking through and up rough terrains pushes the body and the mind to its limits; add to this the heat and the incessant demands of a toddler, and you get a situation where you have no option but to learn patience and resilience.
As for Nour, she has grown tremendous boldness and courage because of her times in the mountains and the desert. She can now trek on her own most of the time; she climbs rocks on her own whenever she can and I only assist her when the rocks are too big for her or when she is too tired to walk.
On the summit of the Camel Humps Mountain in Ras Shitan, Nuweiba in November 2016
She swims with a swimming ring on her own, which I consider a huge improvement because she used to fear the water and clutch at me until we are out of it. On our last trip to Sinai, she was the only toddler her age who was swimming on her own in the middle of the 130-meter-deep Blue Hole in Dahab. She was laughing in extreme joy, and such moments are what make all the challenges of our trips worthwhile.