Two and a half hours' drive and an entire world away from the bustling Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh lies the shimmering heart of the Sinai Desert. It's a place of scorching dunes, thorny acacia trees, wind-sculpted rock formations, stony plateaus and echoing canyons. At one time, it was traversed by large numbers of nomadic Bedouin, but many lead a settled life today. Severe drought has made the herding of camels, goats and sheep extremely difficult, as has urban development, which has encroached upon grazing lands. Many Bedouin have moved to the towns and cities in search of work as well as better health care and education opportunities.
Not all of them want to leave their traditional lands, however, and with the support of organizations like the Makhad Trust, makhad.org, their chances of staying on have increased. The small U.K. NGO helps nomadic communities around the globe with practical aid and ecotourism ventures.
For the Bedouin, the Makhad Trust runs working holidays in the South Sinai. In between camel treks, hikes along ancient pilgrim routes, visits to tribal villages and observing local festivals, you get to roll up your sleeves and pitch in with the locals on projects ranging from the restoration of ancient garden oases to the building of small stone dams. You may also have to cope with occasional sandstorms, but most days will be magically spent beneath the Sinai's vast skies, enveloped in primordial silence. Factor in blazing sunsets, feasts in goat-hair tents and crackling campfires, and you'll concur that hard labor has rarely been so enjoyable. Wielding a pickax not challenging enough? Then follow in the footsteps of saints and seekers who have holed up among the dunes in silent contemplation for centuries and brave the Makhad's other Sinai option: a solitary desert retreat involving three days of fasting.