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This Egyptian Woman Is Leading a Team of Kayakers across the Red Sea from Sinai to Jordan

Led by Yara Shalaby, the Exodus team will retrace the steps of Moses' Crossing of the Red Sea, in the hopes that their voyage will tear down borders between two neighbouring nations.

“All the voices of everyone who had said ‘ya benti where do you think you are? You’re not in Europe or America. This idea is absurd’ echoed in my head the minute I touched the shore in Jordan,” says Yara Shalaby.

Two years ago, the 35-year-old mother of one, and self professed adrenaline junkie, made the unlikely journey from Taba in Egypt’s Sinai to Aqaba in Jordan – by kayak. Along with four others from the Cairo Nile Kayak Club, a local kayaking organisation, they paddling for eight consecutive hours for 20 km across the sea against swirling currents and powerful winds. And this year, come the end of November, she is planning to re-embark on that precise crossing once again.

Initially, the entire idea was born almost at random. While on holiday in Marsa Alam in 2015, Shalaby – who is also the founder of Gazelle, Egypt’s first all-female rally race team and was featured in our 15 of 2015 list – began experimenting with how far she could paddle out to sea in her kayak. “After about four or five days, I reached the cargo ships. So at that point I figured if after five days I could reach the halfway point to another country, then if I trained properly, I could probably actually reach the country on the other side,” Shalaby says simply. 

I really believe in no borders between people and countries

Determined, Shalaby immediately went about trying to make it a reality – only to be met with the reaction that she was clearly delusional. Undeterred, she continued reaching out to entities she believed could help her realise the crossing, and she managed to get Orascom on board for her trip, followed by professional kayaking group, Cairo Nile Kayak Club. “We’re big proponents of long distance kayaking tours,” says Ahmed Nayer, one of the three co-founders of the organisation, “When Yara got in touch with us, we had already actually completed a five-day, 200-km Luxor to Aswan trip. And then we had the chat with Yara about taking it to another level and doing a cross-country journey.”

With everyone Shalaby needed on board, the rest was history; the crew of five did the training, obtained the permits, and successfully paddled their way to Jordan in October 2016. Their overarching aim is to make this crossing an annual pilgrimage – and despite their inability to complete their second trial due unpredictably high winds - this year, they’re re-launching the initiative with renewed enthusiasm.

You don’t actually need an airplane; you really can cross from one country to another in such a simple way, by just kayaking to it

“One of our main aims is we want to use this journey as a mean to promote eco-sports and ecotourism,” explains Shalaby, “A lot more people are into them now and it’s important that in this day and age, you promote a form of sports – and alternative tourism – that is environmentally friendly. And we want to make this initiative a regular trip that anyone can apply for online.”

The Exodus team – so called because their trip attempts to retrace the steps of Moses when he crossed the sea – also hope that their journey tears down borders between two neighbouring nations, in both a physical and symbolic sense. “I really believe in no borders between people and countries. It’s such a strange feeling to enter another rowing,” says Nayer, who has also cycled from Egypt to Sudan, “One of our main goals is to connect these two neighbouring countries; you don’t actually need an airplane and all that – you really can cross from one country to another in the simplest way."

This year, the trip will see 15 people – triple the amount of the last trip – set off on the 30th of November, spend two days in Jordan, and then make the return journey by kayak as well. To achieve this, they’ve been training for two months, every weekend, to build up the stamina required for such an arduous journey. “The hardest part is really just having the stamina to keep going because you spend almost eight hours kayaking non-stop – if you stop for even five minutes, the current will drag you backwards and you lose ground,” explains Shalaby, “And of course the wind can be crazy; I flipped over like 20 times the last trip!”

This year, the team is also joined by Omar Hegazy, a young Egyptian man who lost his left leg in an accident and made headlines last year for successfully swimming from Aqaba to Taba with an amputated limb. Other newcomers have not let their own setbacks prevent them from making the trip as well, such as Noha Abbas, who is set to kayak the journey with a broken leg. "Something like challenges the very edges of your limits but it's very exciting to be one of the few people - and one of the first - to be making this crossing with a tool that hasn't been used much before on this route - the kayak," she shares.

You spend almost eight hours kayaking non-stop – if you stop for even five minutes, the current will drag you backwards and you lose ground

The obstacles to completing such an arduous journey and making it across are just as much psychological as they are physical. "Long endurance sports are very mental,” adds Nayer, “If you really believe in it you can do it but it takes a lot of serious preparation. There reaches a point where you feel you’re rowing your arms off but you’re barely moving because of the winds – it can be brutal. Which is why you really need to be determined and physically prepared.”

“But when you reach the other side – that feeling is indescribable,” concludes Yara with a smile.

And this year, we’ll be joining the kayakers and documenting their entire inspirational trip. Stay tuned to our Instagram account @cairoscene starting on November 30th to follow the full journey!

You can check out Yara Shalaby on Facebook here or follow her Instagram @yara_shalaby.
Check out Nile Kayakers on Facebook here or follow them on Instagram @nilekayakclub.