The sun was just greeting the day as I hurried to the top deck of our cruise boat with a steaming hot cup of coffee in one hand and a camera in the other. I was alone, enjoying the splender of another Egyptian morning. Wispy veils of fog danced across the Nile’s glassy surface, slowly dissipating as the sun’s rays enveloped the distant mountains and countryside. As I sipped my cup of java, I wondered how many of Egypt’s nobility had once come this way.
I gazed upon the beauty of an early morning colorful terrain. Was the Nile used to trade with other communities? Did they travel with their gold and jewels and attendants? Two hot-air balloons in the distance broke my concentration as their pilots stoked their fires to gain altitude. Several local fishing boats pushed off from shore and it seemed within minutes the morning had come to life once again on the Nile.
After hearing about the unrest and turmoil in the Middle East I almost canceled my trip to Egypt, a place I have always wanted to visit and dive in the Red Sea. My friends and associates were afraid that I would become a Caucasian target and my dive and photography gear was sure to get stolen! I am happy to say, their worries did not detour me in the least. By investing some time on the Internet, my research proved
Egypt to be a wealth of cultural and historic knowledge, well worth a visit indeed. Actually there was little to no risk involving security, because I would be traveling with a group of other journalists, all desiring to experience Egypt’s wonders as I did. There was even another diver along, who I later talked into joining me for some Red Sea diving!
Egypt is located in the northeastern corner of Africa, between Libya and Saudi Arabia. The Sinai is to its northeast, Sudan is just below, with the Mediterranean Sea along its northern shore and the Red sea bordering its eastern shore. Egypt’s history was first recorded around 4000 BC when nomadic hunters settled in the Nile Valley. In 3100 BC Egypt crowned its first Pharaoh – Menes, who unified Egypt’s two regions. The development of society, law and religion soon followed.
Today, historians are still debating whether Egypt’s history doesn’t date back even further, perhaps 8 or 10 thousand years BC. With the help of missions and archeologists from around the world, Egypt’s history is slowly being uncovered. To date, over 62 tombs have been discovered and archeologists have compiled a treasure of over 120,000 objects for the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo (established in 1902).
Among the objects displayed in 107 halls are actual mummies, statues of past royalty and the most prized – a collection of King Tutankhamen’s burial items, including his golden sarcophagus.
Over the years Egypt has built modern skyscrapers and leaped head first into the computer age, but occasionally one can still see small stone huts and women washing clothes in the Nile. Donkey pulled carts surrounded by cars and trucks in the cities, still hint of an old and new era trying to coexist. The countries government is called the Arab Republic of Egypt, with a democratic society and an elected president.
It was December when I visited, during the mildest time of the year (60-80 degrees Fahrenheit) with little to no wind and not too many tourists. From New York I flew to Amsterdam, then to Egypt’s capitol city of Cairo. During the day the city is packed with automobiles and constant honking because there are very few traffic lights and only a few stop signs! Needless to say, we took a taxi or hired a car and driver for transportation while in Cairo.
After a visit to the Museum in Cairo, we were able to tour the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar, boasted to be the largest bazaar in the Middle East, where we found a selection of fine fabrics, clothing, souvenirs, jewelry and excellent local cuisine. I was able to find a reputable jeweler recommended by our guide, to custom make a cartouche (pendant) made of fine silver for each of my three daughters back home. I had their name printed on one side and the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols for their name on the other. It was very stylish and well received.
The 4500 year-old Pyramids on the Giza Plateau (9 miles West of Cairo) were next on our tour, built as burial chambers for the Pharaohs. I’ll have to admit I felt a bit like Indiana Jones climbing up and down makeshift ladders, through narrow passageways and crawling at times to reach the various pyramid chambers. We were told each of the huge structural blocks used to build the pyramids, weighed an impressive 2.5 tons each!
To the east was the legendary Sphinx, guardian to the Pharaohs, representing power and wisdom. I noticed at most of the Pyramids, temples and other antiquities, armed guards stood watch from camels and at all attraction entrances.
The sight of camels intrigued several of us to opt for a camel trail ride. I guess this is one of those things we like to do – just once in our lives. We soon discovered these creatures had very individual personalities, and can be extremely moody. Fortunately, I had an apple to share with mine, which gained me the lead of the heard, at least for a while! I found out quickly it’s no fun being behind other camels.
Sharm El Sheikh
The day finally came when the group was flown to Sharm El Sheikh, located at the southern tip of Sinai. I was amazed to see very modern seaside luxury hotels and resorts, all with big swimming pools and beautiful landscaped decor. Even our hotel, the Four Seasons Resort, came with a property directional map for navigation. The town was equally as nice, filled with restaurants, novelty shops, fresh food stands and great coffee shops. We were mainly surrounded by other tourists, mostly European, but friendly nevertheless. If I didn’t know better, I would swear I was in Bonaire or another Caribbean dive hot spot!
Although all but two of us were to spend the day touring temples and monuments, I was looking forward to getting wet! We booked a day of diving with one of the many day-boat dive charter operators servicing the Sharm area. On the way to the departure dock our driver explained that the Red Sea runs from the Gulf of the Suez down to the Gulf of Aden. He also said it was the mineral-rich red mountain range that gave the ancient mariners the idea to call it Mare Rostrum or the commonly known today as - The Red Sea.
“But our beaches are almost white,” he explains. “At different times of the year you can see migrating birds along the shore; bird watchers really love it. We even have National Parks and protected areas. There is an area of the Elba Mountain and Abrak and the coastal islands with mangroves. Shayeb Al-Banat is another protected area southwest of Hurghada city. There are many more too, where you can find wildlife.”
We thanked our knowledgeable driver and bid him farewell as we went to board the dive boat. Most boats leave around 8-8:30am, and return at 4-5pm, serving lunch and snacks between two dives. Tanks and weight belts are supplied, although rentals and Nitrox were available for an additional fee. A night dive tempted us, but we were expected back at the resort for a Bedouin style dinner with the group.
Our boat was wide and roomy, with over 20 divers and room for more. After the briefing I grabbed the divemaster to inquire about what the Red Sea has to offer visiting divers.
He seemed pleased to elaborate, “Most of the operators who take divers out, don’t allow the taking of any marine life or shells, or touching or spear fishing. In Ras Mohammed National Park you can not even wear gloves! There are over six good sites in the park alone, but we must leave even earlier than today to get there.”
When asked what kind of marine life lives in the Red Sea, he replied; “Just about everything you see in other parts of the world lives here. We have giant mantas, whale sharks, dolphins, big sharks and other pelagics, turtles and beautiful soft corals, the Dendronephyta species. You can see lionfish, polyclad colorful flatworms, clownfish, triggerfish, butterfly fish and the graceful blue-spotted stingray. And if you are lucky, maybe even a cuttlefish – of the Sepia species.”
All of this info was wonderful and helped prepare us for our first dive, only 45 minutes from where we departed. Our divemaster also noted that most of the day boats all find great sites within an hour run from Sharm.
Water temperature was warm as we entered off the back of the boat, maybe 27 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit). All I wore was a shorty wetsuit. To keep things simple for my underwater photography, I used a wide angle lens so whole scenes could easily be captured. The water was no deeper than 18 meters (60 feet) and the visibility must have been over 30 meters (100 feet)! I did notice the water was quite a bit saltier and I needed more weight on my belt, compared to a Caribbean destination. Perhaps with all of this heat, evaporation over the years has caused the Red Sea to have a higher saline content.
With camera in hand I began to photograph one tall coral head after another, each covered with a dressing of soft coral and tiny reef fish. With over twenty divers in the water, I was surprised to rarely see anyone except my buddy. A few snorkelers glided overhead, often following the divers. On a sandy patch between fingering small reefs, I spotted a crocodile fish! It looked prehistoric and oddly cute with its long snout and sharp little teeth. It was only about a 30-5 cm (12 inches) long, but I kept my distance, in case it had a nasty disposition.
The underwater sounds were like any other tropical reef and the water a bit cooler at depth. Life was everywhere I looked including critters hiding in the sand.
During lunch the divemaster continued with his talk to us about the various places within the Red Sea to dive; “We have many shipwrecks too. The Thistlegorm is a merchant vessel 126 meters long (413 feet) in 30 meters (98 feet) of water near the Suez Canal, sinking in 1941. You can see trucks, motorbikes, parts of WWII plane parts and more. The Dunraven is a British steamer, 80 meters (252 feet) long, found on the Southern side of Beacon Rock in 30 meters (98 feet) of water. It went down in 1876 and is now upside down! There are four more wrecks at Saab Abu Nuhas and more to the south.”
Several other divers also onboard had joined us by now, listening intently as he continued; “There are four nice dive sites in the Straits of Tiran to the north and six popular sites within Ras Mohammed, one of my favourites.”
When asked about the dives accessible from shore, he replied; “I can think of fourteen good dives between Ras Nasrani in the north, to Ras Katy in the south.”
It wsn’t until the second dive that I noticed all of the lionfish (also called turkeyfish) hiding under the coral head ledges. Unlike the brave frilly looking ones we are used to seeing in aquariums, these were quite reserved and shy. The few morays of a formidable size, with cool gray eyes, were also spotted. I really enjoyed just going into deeper water and looking back on the beautiful reef, brightened by a ballet of rays from the sun. It was like watching a virtual underwater scene playing on a computer screen!
Our diving time in Sharm turned out to be loads of fun. Most of the reefs ranged from 10-800 meters, with the latter being a drop-off wall full of color and life fading into the abyss. When venturing into deeper water, there is always a possibility of strong currents, also felt at some shallower sites. Quite a few critters choose mid August to begin mating, so care should be taken. I counted over 81 dive sites in the Red Sea, so the exploration opportunities are endless. For a wider range of diving and area coverage, try a liveaboard dive boat. After talking with the local divers, most believe fall through spring is exceptional for diving in the Red Sea, but a few prefer July and August, if the heat can be tolerated!
If you decide to do a little trekking on your own in the Sinai, it is advisable to stick to well-known trails or tracks, and only explore beaches recommended ‘safe’ by the locals. Unfortunately Sinai may still hide live land mines, left over from previous wars, so caution would be advised.
During my journey through Egypt I found the Egyptian people to be extremely friendly and very helpful in every way. Most of the local people active in tourism, speak English, Spanish, French, German and Italian, besides their native tongue. On many occasions, residents in Luxor, Cairo, Aswan and Sharm el-Sheikh (South Sinai) would come up to me and just start chatting. Our whole group was invited to smoke a Sheesha water pipe sweetened with apple juice in Aswan during our Nile Rive cruise. We were also treated to a sailboat ride in a felucca (boat) on our Nile journey. Egypt doesn’t tolerate terrorism, which was very evident from the additional security measures at the airports, hotels and to protect the antiquities.
For a city of over twelve million, Cairo’s crime rate was almost non-existent. I did gather, with the conservative nature of Middle Easterners, concerning women and sex, females can avoid verbal harassment by simply covering more skin. I didn’t notice this attitude at the resorts in Sharm, as most visitors are European. I would recommend women to bring or buy a lightweight scarf to use when needed. The scarf also will come in handy when touring some of the more popular mosques.
As with traveling to any international country, a little knowledge will go a long way in making any trip as smooth and incident-free as possible. The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has an excellent website for visitors from America, accessible at; http://travel.state.gov/ to learn more about Egypt’s local health conditions, entry requirements, political stability, as well as any current travel warnings. If you are concerned with the safety aspect of a country, travelers can also register a detailed itinerary with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in that country before you go. Leaving the same detailed itinerary with a friend or relative at home provides even more peace of mind.
The National currency is the Egyptian Pound (LE), but US cash, Travelers Checks and major credit cards are accepted. Many businesses and banks are usually closed on Fridays. Gratuity or Bakshish should be awarded based upon service, but generally around ten percent will work. Be sure to get receipts for all purchases, and if the items are antiques, be sure to get an official museum export tag. Hint: the marble statues make great gifts—you can tell if they are authentic by scratching the bottom with your fingernail. Real marble won’t scratch!
Bring plenty of sunscreen, shades, a valid passport, a windbreaker to wear after boat dives, your certification card, an electrical adapter or converter (220V AC, 50 Hz) and plenty of film or memory cards and batteries. By making a list of the serial numbers of the computers, dive and photography gear you are traveling with, you may avoid problems concerning ownership with Customs upon entering and exiting the country. Drink only bottled water, and take along a supply of Imodium in case the Pharaohs Curse catches up with you. Remember, a little research goes along way… ■