Wilderness Therapy:
Self-Improvement THrough
Hiking And Climbing

Considering outdoor activities as purely hedonistic pursuits overlooks their deep transformative potential. Conversely, a clinical perspective on what is referred to as wilderness therapy falls short of giving a human face to this approach. 

Instead, we listened to the inspiring story of Belal Abdussalam, someone who quite literally walked the walk. The journey of the founder of Insights Seekers lead him from a high-flying career to grief and loss, before finding healing and volition through a year-long trek in the desert.

The Flip Side Of Success

Like so many who elected to live in the small town of Dahab on the Eastern Sinai coast, Belal’s enthusiastic smiles hide a long and complex journey. We first met him rock climbing in the nearby mountains. On a mild winter evening at one of the busy local restaurants, he accepted to share his story.

wilderness therapy insights seekers belal abdussalam
Belal Abdussalam in his beloved mountains of the Sinai desert

Originally from Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city on the shores of the Mediterranean, Belal’s professional life began with a long string of accomplishments. Graduating from the local university in business and commerce landed him a first job in the oil and gas industry. But rather than settling for a cushy position, Belal changed careers several times. He moved to Cairo to study at the American University while working in parallel in human resources management and software programming.

By the time he reached his mid-twenties, Belal was a highly successful young man by all common measures. He was married, had handsomely paid consultancy work and was teaching at a prestigious university. But all was not well under the surface. His fast-paced life was starting to take its toll.

Coping With Loss And Grief

“At age 26 I felt a bit uncomfortable with what I’m doing.” Belal faced an increasing urge to take a break from the hectic work life. “To look back at what I’m doing”, as he keeps saying. Some time to reflect, to take a break before starting work again. 

For a while, he toyed with the idea to travel to one of the big deserts that border Egypt. The mountains of the Sinai peninsula, the oasis of Siwa on the Lybian border, or the endless sand dunes around Aswan, in the far South towards Sudan. Promises of big open spaces, silence and peace exerted an irresistible attraction on him.

The plan was to do a retreat in the desert by age 30. And to decide whether to go back to corporate life or do something entirely different. But life was about to threw a wrench into his plans. His first son, Younes, was born with a heart defect. From one day to another, everything changed. Younes required urgent surgery. Belal immediately used all his savings for the procedure, but his son didn’t make it. He passed away during the first operation.

“As Muslims we clean the body, dress them in white and I had to wait alone inside. I found myself revealing all my deepest and darkest secrets I never told anybody, not even to myself. ‘I promise you I will be a better father, even if you are not here.’ He became a motivation until now, I want to make him proud, to make him happy.”

Looking for Alternatives

Belal was devastated by his loss, and left without savings. “But I felt it was time to move. I would not be able to handle this without a big break.” Friends and family pushed him to consult a psychiatrist instead. “I was afraid of taking medication. I was working for 3 years in a software programming company, and several engineers suffering from depression were under medication. I saw it in their eyes, they were becoming worse and worse. I felt they needed to release through words, not medication.” 

He went to one of the most famous psychiatrists in Alexandria. “I had 20 minutes to talk about my life.” And 20 minutes later Belal came out with a prescription. “He made a diagnosis according to my words. If I’m sick, maybe I lied, maybe I said something different, maybe it’s not accurate. He didn’t ask about my previous medical history, surgery, trauma, just what I said in 20 minutes. That’s crazy.”

Belal sought a second opinion, luckily from a more open-minded and patient psychologist. She took time to listen and came to the conclusion that medication wasn’t appropriate.  “I felt that I’m in a really toxic environment. I decided that I had to leave now and start my own journey.”

A Year Wandering In The Sinai Desert

Belal headed for the mountains and deserts of the Sinai. “My escape was hiking.” All of a sudden, the endless distractions of modern life were gone. No social media, no calls, no shopping. “Everything was inviting me to go inside. And here started my journey.”

“I found myself coming up everyday with a question about my existence, what i’m doing, the Creator.” Belal wrote down all the questions he had desperately avoided over the years. “I had more space and time to face them and try to find answers.” 

His routine was, for the first time in his life, characterized by the uttermost simplicity: “Sleep, wake up with the sunrise, hike, seek shade around midday, hike some more, watch the sunset, camp, write my journal, and sleep again.”

“I was getting a lot of self-awareness.”

Gradually, the healing process took place. “I was getting a lot of self-awareness, getting in touch with myself.” In a year and a half Belal hiked an impressive 3000 kilometers in the desert. Sometimes alone, sometimes with Bedouins, sometimes following Bedouins. “I found my moment of release.”

“After a while, I found that I need to keep going because I will come up something that needs to be shared with others. I was happy, and I was not afraid.”

From Healing To Helping Through Hiking

Back in Dahab, important choices had to be made. “I am very good now. I could go back to the city life and apply for another job or stay here and do something with my experience.” But Belal didn’t hesitate long. “And then I started Insights Seekers. My mission is to be a good companion for those seeking the best version of themselves. I do this through hiking.”

“Simplicity, authenticity, humbleness, and patience are the four core values.”

The Bedouins, the indigenous people who have been roaming the desert for countless generations, continued to be a main source of inspiration. Belal partnered with a charismatic man from a local tribe. “He was taken as a philosopher, not a guide.

“The Bedouin’s ancestral lifestyle provide important clues on the path to happiness.  “Simplicity, authenticity, humbleness, and patience are the four core values. The purpose is to heal together, hear our stories, share our insights, use hiking as a gateway for our self-exploration.

wilderness outdoor therapy insights seekers belal abdussalam
Living the Bedouin life

“The Bedouin’s ancestral lifestyle provide important clues on the path to happiness.  “Simplicity, authenticity, humbleness, and patience are the four core values. The purpose is to heal together, hear our stories, share our insights, use hiking as a gateway for our self-exploration.

“Initially only aimed at Egyptians through his Facebook page, the 5 day camping and hiking trip nonetheless immediately attracted participants from abroad. Much to his surprise, individuals from Norway, Italy and Germany joined the first outing. And it didn’t stop there. In 2017 alone 6 more hiking trips took place, despite a near standstill in tourism in the aftermath of the 2016 terrorist attacks. In 2018, tourism started to pick up again, and Belal’s Bedouin partner became very busy. “It was time for me to design everything myself.”

The Teachings Of A Simple Life

“The first 2 days people are usually shy, introduce themselves. From the second day I put them in pairs and people tell their stories to each other. Tell them why they joined the trip. Around the bonfire, we talk about our walking partner and hear our own words from another person. Discussions get more emotional and authentic by the fourth day.”

As tears are allowed to flow and conversations get more intimate, participants openly talk about failure. “When we share about our lives, there are downs, not only ups. We skip the downs.” With the tightening grip of social media on the image we project, Belal’s insights are all the more important. “It’s the real thing you can learn from. If I can tell you where I fail and why I fail this is teaching you ten times more than telling you when I succeed.”

“We see who we really are.”

Belal keeps describing hiking in words of profusion. “Time is abundant. We are not in a rush. By our modern world standards, you have to run, you have to achieve, or you are labeled a looser. But not in the desert. Is this mind designed to have so much data in one day? Is this body designed to sit 7 hours in a row? Definitely not. Insights come naturally when we do what your mind and body are designed for.

“Going back to basics like sharing food and shelter fosters deep connections. “We see who we really are. The manager has to go to the toilet behind a rock like everybody else. I see you as a human, beyond how you look, what you are doing, how much money you have. Humans interacting with humans without expecting benefits.”

Rock Climbing As
A Tool For Self-Improvement

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Belal looking for balance on the rock

Hiking on steeper terrain invariably leads to using our hands. The gestures feel natural, probably inherited from our simian ancestors. Putting on a harness and tying into a rope becomes tempting. Belal too eventually had the opportunity to try rock climbing. 

He recalls his first experience. “First I found it easy, until I couldn’t find handholds anymore. I started to blame the guy belaying me. I will never forget this. He said: ‘the mountain is like a book, try to read it’. I was very scared, hiding my fear. My Bedouin friend told me to breathe and take one step at a time. I found something to hold onto. This one step up was when I learned to never give up.”

“Climbing is a good way to confront your trust issues.”

“Trust your foot, the rope. You hear the word ‘trust’ a lot. Climbing is a good way to confront your trust issues. In your normal life you have the same issues.” Belal describes the rock as a mirror from which we can derive new insights about ourselves. A place where our habit to blame everything but oneself becomes hard to ignore. “Climbing is a gateway to self-exploration, not just for adrenaline, not only for fun, for accomplishment.  Approach climbing like this and you will find surprises.”

Towards A better Self:
The Outdoors As Teacher

insights seekrs belal abdussalam
Horses play an important role alongside hiking and climbing in Belal's approach to outdoor therapy

Belal’s tools don’t stop with hiking and climbing. He also builds on the deep relationship with the horses that often accompany him on his trips. “There are not just strong physically, they are strong emotionally too. They see right through us.” Our animal companions can be great teachers too.

Over the years, we’ve come across many inspiring stories, from cyclists, climbers, surfers. Hiking and trekking remain the more accessible forms of wilderness therapy with their wonderfully simple associated lifestyle. But healing and growing through outdoor activities certainly doesn’t stop there.

What matters most is our approach. If instead of looking for fast thrills and instant gratification we seek connection with our peers, nature, and last but not least ourselves, we are bound to learn and grow as human beings.