THE GEBEL ELBA NATIONAL PARK
Permits to visit this area may be difficult to obtain – Please contact Steven@marsaalam.com for the latest information.
Gebel Elba (meaning Mount Elba in Arabic) is the name of a mountain and a region in the remotest south eastern corner of Egypt. The mountain, which rises to a peak of 1,435 metres, and the surrounding national park are situated in what is known as the Halaib Triangle. It’s an area of territory disputed by Sudan and Egypt, but currently under Egyptian government control.
It lies 250 km south of Marsa Alam and the main coastal road runs through the national park. However, getting permission to visit is difficult and even if it is given you may need to have a police officer with you on your expedition. This is due to the close proximity of the Sudanese border and also to concerns about the impact of tourism on the delicate environment. As a result Gebel Elba is one of the least explored areas of the country, which is a great bonus for anyone who obtains the necessary papers as it has an ecosystem and range of species unparalleled anywhere else in Egypt. For most who do manage to go, it is a magical memory that lives with them for ever.
The national park was set up in 1985 and covers an area of 35,600 square kilometres. That’s considerably larger than Belgium, Wales or Massachusetts. It includes a vast stretch of coral reef and mangrove coastline, 22 Red Sea islands, a 20 km wide stretch of desert coastal plain and a mountain range, whose main peaks include Gebel Elba, Gebel Shellal (waterfall mountain) at 1,409 metres, Gebel Shendodai at 1,526 metres and Gebel Shendib at 1,911 metres. Gebel Elba lies closest to the sea while the other peaks are located further south and inland near the Sudanese border.
What makes this area unique is that, although it is well within the Saharan region, it has an unusually high rainfall. This is caused by a combination of prevailing the north east rain bearing winds, a bend in the coastline which causes the coast to align itself across the path of these wind currents, and the mountain range which forces the moist clouds upwards. This causes cooling, condensation and finally precipitation.
Only a little of this precipitation comes in the form of heavy rain. Mist clouds form what has been called a mist oasis around Mount Elba and to a lesser extent the other summits. As the humidity of these clouds approach 100 per cent, the tiny water droplets coalesce into large ones and precipitation occurs in the form of a light drizzle.
Also, as the surface temperature of the rocks and other exposed surfaces cool overnight a lot of the remaining water vapour in the air condenses into droplets, in the form of dew.
Mount Elba can get up to 400 mm of precipitation a year. That’s higher than the annual average for Greece. And it’s a much higher figure than the 15 mm average for the Eastern Desert region.
The area’s relatively high precipitation levels, combined with the cooler temperatures of the higher altitudes, sustain a surprising variety of wildlife. An astonishing 458 species of plant, forty species of birds, thirty species of reptiles, and twenty three species of mammal have been recorded in the Park.
The area supports an incredibly diverse range of vegetation. Mangrove swamps and salt marshes fringe much of the coastline which is otherwise fairly arid although the occasional acacia tree and Balanites Aegyptiaca can be spotted.
You can read a little about mangrove and acacia trees in our Wadi El Gemal section, but the balanites aegyptiaca is an equally fascinating species and highly adept at desert survival.
They are surprisingly tall, growing up to height of 10 metres, with long dark green spines portruding from which leaves emerge at the base. The tree is highly resistant to camel grazing, livestock activity, drought and floods and its bitter but edible fruit usually appears even in periods of little or no rainfall. Parts of the tree have also sometimes been used for medicinal purposes and animal fodder although it’s not known whether it is used in a similar way locally.
As the altitude increases inland, the diversity of vegetation increases to a maximum in the mid-altitude areas between 500 and 1000 metres, especially in the northern and north eastern regions of Gebel Elba which face the sea. The northern slopes in particular are marked by two wadis (or valleys) – Wadi Yahameib and Wadi Adeib, where the vegatation is so dense that a study of Google Earth satellite images (shown at the bottom of this page) reveal that there may be ten thousand or more trees in Wadi Adeib alone. It is a virtual forest – something which you will not find anywhere else in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.
At this altitude you will still see many acacias but they are also joined by the large 5 metre high delonix flowering trees, usually with a dense canopy of colourful fern like leaves. In fact in some parts of the world it is grown for ornamental purposes and its’ (usually) red blooms have earned it the nickname of the flame tree.
Higher up, nearer the summit, you should be able to spot the strange looking maringa (or ben) tree. Much of it is edible and the leaves are rich in protein as well as vitamins A, B and C and various minerals and protein too. 100 grams of fresh maringa leaves have twice the protein of 100 grams of Yoghurt, four times the calcium of 100 grams of milk, more potassium than 100 grams of banana, more vitamin A than 100 grams of carrots and more than 3 times the vitamin C as 100 grams of orange. There is probably no other “superfood” on earth which can compete with that. Come on Tesco, Aldi and Wallmart – can we have fresh maringa leaves please !
However please note that the results of such nutrition analysis depends highly on the variety of maringa and also the soil and climate conditions. Nevertheless, it certainly could be the world’s next wonder crop.
The tree is fast growing and drought resistant. And the multitude of tiny leaves it produces can help fight malnutrition and have also been used in traditional medicines worldwide to fight diseases. And more besides.
The ancient Egyptians and today’s Bedouin extracted oil from the seeds and have used it for perfumes, cooking and skin lotion. In the autumn Bedouin men work, often in pairs, to harvest the seeds which hang in long pods from the tree and sell it on to middlemen who transport it to Cairo’s souks.
However prices may soon increase. Although the marinda tree remains relatively common in the Gebel Elba National Park, in the Sinai this tree has been used extensively for firewood and has become endangered.
Birds of Prey in the Gebel Elba National Park
The Gebel Elba National Park is home to four species that are now rare in other parts of Egypt. These include –
1. The gypaetus barbatus or bearded vulture. They have a feathered head which differentiates them from bald old world vultures and a diamond shaped tail which is unusual for a bird of prey. Unlike most vultures, they have often been known to occasionally attack large live animals such as wounded goats, but seem to prefer to eat bone marrow rather than meat.
2. The Egyptian vulture, sometimes known as pharaoh’s chicken. They feed on carrion, small animals, birds, reptiles and eggs. They are known sometimes to use tools – dropping a pebble for instance on a large egg in order to break it or twigs to roll up wool for their nests. However power lines and hunting elsewhere in Egypt have thought to have reduced their numbers, leaving the Gebel Ebel National Park as the bird’s last remaining “safe area” within Egypt.
3. Verreaux’s eagle, sometimes known as the black eagle. It is a huge bird of prey with a wing span of up to 2.2 metres (same as the height of the world’s tallest man) and preys on small mammals such as the hyrax as well as large rodents. Males and females pair off for life and sometimes even hunt together.
4. Bonelli’s eagle, a medium sized eagle, some 55 to 65vcm in length with a wingspan of up to 1.8 metres. It always hunts live prey, usually small mammals or birds. It has been occasionally known to foster chicks of the same species under the right conditions. They are also extremely aggressive in the defence of their nests, sometimes fatally injuring other larger birds.
Mammals common to the Gebel Elba National Park
1. The Barbary sheep, a species of caprid (goat-antelope), originally from North Africa but which can now also be found in Spain, Texas and California. They are sandy brown in colour with distinctive horns curving backwards, and stand around 80 cm to a metre tall at the shoulder and vary greatly in weight, weighing anything from 40 kg to 140 kg.
They like to have a siesta in the early afternoon but when active can be very agile – being able to achieve a standing jump of up to 2 metres. They are well suited to the difficult terrain of high mountains which helps them avoid predators at lower altitudes.
2. The aardwolf is a member of the hyena family and looks like a small hyena with pointy ears and a bushy tail, but without the sharp teeth and strong jaws. Unlike other hyenas, the aardwolf doesn’t prey on other animals except occasionally carrion. Its main interest is insects and its favourite food is termites – the aardwolf can eat up to 200,000 in a single night using its’ long sticky tongue. They also enjoy maggots and grubs. Yum. By day, it likes to sleep in a well hidden underground burrow. However, unlike the Barbary sheep, it prefers the lower coastal plain and is seldom found on the higher slopes of Gebel Elba. Nor can it be found anywhere else in Egypt outside the Gebel Elba National Park.
3. The striped polecat or zorilla, a member of the weasel family and looking similar to the North American Skunk. Within Egypt, the species is only found in the Gebel Elba National Park. The striped polecat is usually 50 to 60 cm in length (including its tail), but surprisingly light in weight – even the larger males rarely weigh more than 1.4 kg – that’s considerably less than your average chihuahua ! But don’t let its’ small size fool you. It is a ferocious carnivore with extremely sharp teeth and its’ diet includes rodents, birds and even snakes. Its rear end is equally dangerous and it can spray any animal that dares come near (normally inquisitive dogs) with a noxious fluid that will temporarily blinds it.
4. The genet, which is related to the mongoose and more distantly to cats. They are very agile with amazing climbing skills, aided by their very long tails which acts as a counterweight when they are perched on a high branch or rock. They are nocturnal animals but can sometimes be spotted around dusk and just after sunrise.
5. The Egyptian leopard ( nimr in Arabic ), last heard and tracked in the Gebel Elba National Park in 1994, but not seen. A Bashari tribesman also reported one at a waterhole in 1991. Unfortunately, there have been no recent sightings and it might now be extinct within Egypt. However it’s hard to be sure as they are very wary and evasive nocturnal animals. Bedouin in the Sinai have also claimed to have seen the local sub-species recently but if they have survived in Egypt, Gebel Elba is the most likely location to still find them. They feed on mammals of any size as well as birds and reptiles although in the Gebel Elba region the Ibex and the rabbit like rock hyrax would probably be their favourite prey.
6. The rock hyrax ( wabar in Arabic ) is definitely the cutest looking of all the Parks’ animals – a little rabbit like in appearance with long whiskers, a short neck but no tail. It lives in large highly socialized groups and usually close to rocky cliff areas. They are active in the day, especially early morning and just before sunrise you have a good chance of spotting them but they will quickly disappear. Always on the alert to danger, one member of the colony usually keeps a look out for predators, especially verreaux’s eagle. The hyrax’s diet is mostly vegetarian, especially acacia leaves and seeds, although occasionally they may eat insects and even small reptiles.
You might also be able to see the feral donkey or wild ass, Ruppel’s sand fox, the Ethiopian hedgehog, the ibex and the timid but still numerous dorcas gazelle, for which some basic information is given on our Wadi El Gemal page.
Geology: The mountains in the park were formed approximately 550 million years ago from hot magma which forced its’ way up through the earth’s surface.
Environmental threats: The region has been suffering from a prolonged drought with the water table edging lower year by year, and the usual mist cloud that surrounds Mount Elba often absent.
As the population has increased, overgrazing has become an increasing problem as well as the increased felling of Acacia and other trees for firewood. There has also been an increase in the feral dog population which has posed a threat to some of the Parks’ mammals including the Ibex and the Polecat.
MAP OF THE AREA AROUND GEBEL ELBA
Below is a map of the Mount Elba sector of the Gebel Elba National Park.
Source – Library of Texas – Map in the public domain. Please note this map was last updated in the 1930s and 1940s. Neither it nor any other map on this website should be relied upon for navigation. Entrance into the Gebel Elba National Park requires a permit and a guide.
MAP OF THE IMMEDIATE APPROACHES TO THE MOUNTAIN
Source: Library of Texas – in the public domain. Map last updated in the 1920s and 1930s. No maps on this website should be used for navigation. Entrance to the Gebel Elba National Park requires a permit and a guide.
A SERIES OF SATELLITE IMAGES OF GEBEL ELBA
Showing how green the northern slopes and particularly Wadi Adeib were in 2004