A Journey

Basil & Tracy's Travels Abroad

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dunes and Jacuzzis – Sunset at the Oasis

El Iksandriya is a place unlike any other in Egypt. Home to the Pharos lighthouse and the ancient Biblioteca Alexandrina, it has had its ups and downs since being founded by the great Alexander in 332BC! Between the 1800’s and the expulsion by Nasser of French and British citizens it became Egypt’s main seaport for trade with Europe. As a result, the seafront and port area are home to rows of beautiful, crumbling and decaying French, Italian and Greek consuls and merchant’s mansions.

There is a real feeling of being in an old Mediterranean city, Palermo perhaps, and on the first morning we awoke to find RAIN! The marble balcony of the faded and gently melancholic Hotel Triomphe was definitely wet! Feeling righteously vindicated in our decision to carry waterproofs around with us for the past two months of desiccated weather, we donned them and wandered for breakfast of hot chocolate and croissants in the Delice patisserie in the square. Looking out over the wet street at the rickety trams and damp horse drawn carriages gave us a definite pang of euro-homesickness! By the end of breakfast the rain had stopped and we were left with our white-elephant macs.

From Alexandria, a four-hour bus journey took us west along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast to Mersa Matrouh, near the Libyan border, where we turned south for the five-hour journey across the desert to the Qatarri depression and Siwa oasis. This is an amazing place! Only connected to the outside world by road twenty years ago, the Berbers, descended from seven founding families who arrived here in about 1200 and who make up its population, differentiate between themselves –Siwis – and people from the rest of Egypt – Egyptians! A strong clan feeling pervades. Eighteen metres below sea level, Siwa produces the most amazing olive oil, dates and bottled water but has recently started suffering from excess salination, which makes the whole place sparkle, and a rising water table – too much water in the desert! But the amazing crown of this place is the Shali – rising above the centre of the town, this fantasy Gormenghast-like fortified town built of a mixture of mud, salt (crystal and rock) and date palm trunks that sets hard when dry but melts like ice cream in the rain.

For centuries the gates of the Shalee were closed at night for protection from raiding parties of Bedouin and a strict curfew on humans and animals was observed; no building was allowed outside the walls so the town grew organically up and up, house upon house, to the height of 60m. Eventually, after a few years of unnaturally heavy rainfall and conquest by Mohammed Ali, the Shali was declared unsafe and building was allowed outside its walls – still of the same material – and many of these buildings are still inhabited.

Modern concrete buildings are now taking over but many people think they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater – the mud and salt having excellent insulating properties is much better suited to the extreme temperatures here. Wandering through both the old and new Shali is a fairytale experience, around every corner another fantastic Tolkeinesque and impossible vista awaits, twinkling in the harsh sunlight – wow!

Siwa has relatively few cars, the locals preferring ‘natural cars’ – donkey carts and richly decorated bicycles.

As a result, instead of the usually omnipresent sound of car horns, you hear the tap tapping of unshod hooves, so peaceful (apart from the braying, of course, what a tortured sound!). We use donkey taxis a couple of times, they are mostly for tourists but Basil feels too sorry for the wretched donkey (Ali-Baba!) to really enjoy it.

Farmers grow clover as a major crop, which is cut off just above the ground as donkey and camel fodder, leaving the nitrogen-rich roots to enrich the soil.

Another wonderful thing about Siwa is the hot springs. Bubbling, sulphurous and of various temperatures, they are blue jewels in the desert, the ultimate jacuzzi in an incredible setting! We splash out on a half-day desert safari, bombing over the dunes in a four-wheel-drive Toyota

and enjoying complimentary chocolate cake and mango juice at a hot spring!

The local people, like most Egyptians, are incredibly friendly and enjoy nothing more than a cup of dynamite Siwan tea (very strong, in tiny glasses, like Turkish coffee) and a chat –‘What about Tony Blair?’, ‘Bush and Blair, no good’ – they also, like most other Egyptians, are very politically aware and do not like what is happening in Iraq or in the Middle East in general. We met a lovely Egyptian/Dutch couple on the bus who have spent many, many years visiting Siwa, building strong relationships with locals and bringing their daughters here when they were young, one of whom, has named her son Siwa and now has a place here. We also met some English people – ‘Where are you from?’ we were asked, ‘Hampshire,’ we replied, ‘Nowhere near Liphook, I suppose?’, ‘The very place!’, ‘Well, that’s where my wife is from!’ They are super-enterprising and, having survived the tsunami with their three kids, left their ‘somewhere different’ holidays project there and set up somewhere different in Siwa, winning the trust of Siwans with their respectful approach.

Alas, our Egyptian odyssey is nearly at an end, leaving us just a couple of weeks to make our way back, via Cairo, to Dahab for a last week of diving. Dahab is up the coast from Sharm el Sheikh and used, in the halcyon days, to be a hippy hangout. Nowadays many bemoan the changes that have taken place as Dahab successfully positions itself in the modern gap-year market. There are not many back-packers in Egypt but they nearly all, at some point, end up here. There are a few big-ish resort hotels outside the main town but most of the visitors here want relatively low-key tourism and Dahab provides it.

We end up in a friendly place called Seven Heaven, with immaculately clean rooms for less than a fiver a night. It has a small restaurant where you are welcome to cook for yourself and a PADI dive centre with a friendly, flexible service and an eye to safety so we’re as happy as Larry, a day’s diving every other day and snorkelling in between – a lifestyle you could get used to!

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Red Sea Coast - On the Road

The Eastern Desert coast of the Red Sea is a different story altogether from the tourist-centred hustle of Aswan and Luxor and the Nile valley. Our first point of call is Safaga, a port town from where pilgrims leave for Haj at Mecca. There are one or two resorts up the coast, completely cut-off from the town, which is almost untouched by tourism.

An ‘Egyptian’ hotel, at £4 a night, lunch of fantastic falafel (tamiya) with sweet tea for 20p each and dinner from between 40p and £1.20 each sets us up for investigating the diving. We find a small set-up United Divers, run by a Frenchman and a Belgian with their own boat and compressor. They take us to pretty-well pristine, sheltered reefs just a little way out and, as we are the only divers, wait on board whilst we explore – heaven, to go at our own pace and only ourselves to worry about (this is definitely one to remember for future reference as it is less than half the cost of the diving in Sharm el Sheikh, the famous Red Sea diving centre). How happy were Basil and Tracy when a dolphin swam down and around us on one of these dives!

Intrepidly on to el Qasir. Further south on the coast, this was the old port for Haj pilgrims until the mid-nineteenth century, since when it has dwindled to a sleepy seaside town. We stay in the Sea Princess, a hotel with a very misleading name – well, you couldn’t get a Queen-size bed into the tiny room, anyway!

There are the remains of the fort, which British warships bombed the French out of in 1799, and a charming promenade, all faded and crumbling (like the rest of el Qasir!) and not much else – except a fantastic coral reef!

Even more intrepidly on to Marsa Alam by Peugeot taxi (three rows of seats and a big roof rack), almost starting a war between rival taxi drivers when negotiating the price. This, the southernmost diving resort of the Red Sea is famous for its really pristine corals. Unfortunately, except for a few major 5-star resorts, Marsa Alam and the coast leading to it is just a massive building site! Getting over-excited at the prospect of getting-rich(er)-quick, millions of pounds of Egyptian, Saudi and European money are being poured into the area – rampant development, very much like Sharm el Sheikh. It is impossible to imagine how all of these huge resorts can ever be filled, they are like a bubble waiting to pop. We are planning to stay at the only ‘Egyptian’ (not resort) hotel in town and are at once both dismayed and massively relieved when we find that it is full. Dismayed as there are no cheap alternatives here and we have nowhere to stay, and relieved as it is a real dive and we are now obliged to look for an upmarket alternative! In our guidebook we find the phone number of a Swiss/German owned villa specialising in diving holidays. They come to our rescue, immediately sending out a car (the smartest we’ve been in in Egypt!) to whisk us away to the safety of European style home comforts! It is a lovely set-up; fantastic home cooked meals overlooking the ubiquitous reef.

They organise to put us on a dive-boat the next day. Nicole, our Austrian lake-diving guide leads us on fairytale dives amongst the best corals we’ve seen so far – brilliant diving.

Alas, our budget will not stretch to another minute of this type of luxury so, taking advantage of the offer of a ride back to el Qasir, we bid farewell to civilisation and hit the road again.

Many of the people around these parts are Bedouin who have relinquished their camels for pick-up trucks. In days of old, a Bedou’s wealth and honour would be reflected in the rich decoration of beautiful fringed carpets and tassels adorning his camel. Now you find these in his truck, lovingly be-decked with the same.

In el Qasir again we decide to investigate Rocky Valley Camp and are taken up the coast to a compound of palm huts overlooking a reef! It is a charming, very Egyptian, place and we feel at home here.

That night there is a sandstorm and we are amazed to find, when we emerge the next morning, that the huts are still standing, although full of sand! The sea is too bumpy for snorkelling so we busy ourselves; Basil exploring the rocky valley, which is the backdrop to this place, and Tracy huddled up in the dive centre, head wrapped Bedouin style, copyediting. We meet up with Tony and Benjamin, fellow travellers with whom we spend many happy hours exchanging stories – good for the soul! The next few days are beautiful so we explore the reef, between batches of copyediting until another, really wild, sandstorm one night. Morning sees the comical picture of us all outside our huts shaking and beating our clothes and sleeping bags and everything else – the sand has crept into every nook and cranny and we will be shaking it out for days to come! Palm huts may be picturesque but they certainly aren’t sand proof! Time to move on…

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