A Journey

Basil & Tracy's Travels Abroad

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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