1991 - No Baksheesh
Having been on and off buses since 7 am, travelling from Ismailiya to Port Suez, under the Canal, and through desert sands and past distant mountains, I finally glimpsed the pinky-red headland of the Sinai coast and beyond it the deep blue of the Red Sea at 4 pm. My relief at arriving in Sharm El Sheikh resort was soon dashed when we pulled into a light industrial landscape. Had a quick look at my map and decided to stay on the bus for nearby Na'ama Bay.
Chatted with Ibrahim who had boarded at Sharm El Sheikh. He worked at Crazy House campground in Dahab, 80 km further north, and said I would like the resort, it wasn't "touristy". One look at the tacky and expensive scene at Na'ama Bay and I decided to take Ibrahim's advice and push on to Dahab.
We arrived in darkness and caught a taxi for the short journey from the main village to the campground area. Crazy House felt like an army camp: two rows of spartan but clean rooms straddling a hard-packed dirt quadrangle, with a shower block (and a single shower!) at one end and reception at the other.
Checked-in and wandered to the beach. The sea and sky merged into one vast inky blackness, except overhead, where it was full of bright stars. In stark contrast, the streets were empty - it was like a small ghost town, but where all the shops and restaurants were open.
Chose a small one-room restaurant for dinner - more like an open veranda than a room, with no walls to the side or facing the sea - and sat on cushions scattered on a rug on the floor. The owner, Mohamed, told me last year, before the "trouble with Iraq", you could hardly move for all the tourists visiting Dahab. And his restaurant had been twice as big, taking up the room next door as well.
Ordered falafel, beans and rice. It was tasty, though I thought the rice had a slightly odd "tang" to it. Drank çay (black tea) and chatted with Mohamed. He happily discussed economics (he had a degree in accountancy, but couldn't find a job as an accountant) and religion. I was given a lengthy discourse on the benefits of Islam. I queried the role of women. "Simple", Mohamed explained, "have four wives if you want, but you must be fair to all of them. As that's impossible, you should only take one wife."
Back in my room, I wrote up my diary until it was lights out at the "army camp". With the generator off, the campground was dark and quiet - the only sound was wind whistling around the buildings and through the corrugated roofing. Very relaxing after the long day on the bus.
Woke early with stomach cramps. Made a quick dash in the pre-dawn gloom to the toilet. Feeling much relieved, I stopped to look out to sea and watch the sun rise over a distant mountain range - later checked my map and realised the mountains were Saudi Arabia. It was a beautiful sight and worth the cramps ... sort of!
Spent mid-morning to midday trying to call home to England on the only free line at the manual exchange and haggling with taxi drivers over fares to and from the main village. Gave up on both in the end and decided to walk back to the campground village. Given directions by a well-tanned English guy who explained there were actually three Bedouin villages around which campgrounds had sprouted.
Walked across an expanse of gritty red sand past occasional collections of newish buildings towards what looked like a garbage tip. Turned out to be a village surrounded by a high fence. Two dark brown camels rummage through the litter. One made a snack of newspapers - later learnt camels are fed papers for roughage! It was amazing to see the lump of newspaper slide down the camel's throat.
Took almost an hour to return to the campground village. Passed many squalid campgrounds on the outskirts that made Crazy House look like a five-star hotel! Recalled a German backpacker's comment on the bus, repeated by several others, "Dahab is a cheap place to stay." With my stomach still feeling queasy, I wondered at the real cost!
That said, the beachfront had a good, relaxed vibe, with mats and cushions arranged around tree trunks for sunbaking tourists, and loads of small restaurants, "supermarkets" and dive shops for all our needs. Hired goggles and snorkel from the aptly named Why Not?, and returned to Crazy House to drop off my shopping and hide my valuables.
Back at the beach, I selected a spot next to a couple of fellow tourists for mutual security and entered the water. Bit chilly at first, but had been assured by the couple, "You get used to it." Initially, the view underwater was disappointing, with only "Twisties fish" (plastic packaging litter) on a featureless, sandy bottom. But further out towards the headland came across schools of interesting shaped and coloured fish. And then I hit the reef, a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours.
There were long silver coloured fish, like six-inch rulers with a tail and a nose, and plain fish with bright yellow dots on their tails. There were schools of goldfish, small purple-velvet fish no bigger than a finger, and technicolour angelfish. A large dark grey fish lumbered over the reef and a long snake-like thing, that I hoped was an eel and not a sea snake, slithered across it. The coral was also colourful, but not as spectacular as the fish.
Made two further dives to the reef - I found them tiring. The chilly water gave me the shivering-shakes and a thumping headache. I lay on the beach to warm up under the sun, closed my eyes and tried not to think.
Later chatted with the English guy who had given me directions earlier in the day. He had first come to the area twenty years ago as a young soldier in the British Army doing survival training. A Bedouin family had taken him in and given him food and drink and helped him "survive" (which he kept from his sergeant!). He returned to the Sinai coast when he left the army and built a house near the Bedouin village, where he now spent the English winters. He reckoned tourism had changed Dahab over the past five years. He also had some potentially bad news for me: there were reports flights to and from Cairo would be cancelled from the 12th January. My flight home was booked for the 20th!
Woke from a doze on the beach to find the sun low in the sky. Thought about another dive but the chilly wind and a dull headache put me off. Returned goggles and snorkel and looked for somewhere to eat my first meal of the day ... at 4 o'clock! Decided against the vegetarian Fighting Kangaroo when I saw they had monkeys in a cage.
Chose another restaurant which offered vegetarian pasta. Ate cross-legged on mats from a low table. Pasta was delicious, but the çay tasted strange. It took me a second cup to realise the water was salty. Watched cats plunder a display of fish at the front of the restaurant - hoped they had not been let near the pasta!
Much better start to the day, stomach-wise. And I finally worked out the village names: the main one is Dahab; the campground is the Bedouin village.
Walked back to the Dahab telephone exchange to call England. Passed the barbed wire encircled MFO (Multinational Force & Observers) camp. Heard an American soldier call to a group of kids outside the fence and saw him throw them candy. There was a mad "Lord of the Flies" scramble and fight by the kids to collect all the candy from the ground.
Had a 45-minute walk to the telephone exchange and a 10-minute wait for a free line, for a 3-minute conversation. Still, the call lifted my spirits and with my stomach feeling better, too, and with the day warming up nicely, I celebrated with a brunch of boiled eggs in a shaded cafe back at Bedouin (campground) village.
Returned to Why Not? to hire goggles and snorkel. Manager, Terry, offered me a Bedouin sweet, Halawa, like Halva, wrapped in soft bread, and we talked about Egypt. Terry said it was hard to get work. He has a Geology degree but struggles to get an interview, let alone a job. He said there were too many university graduates for too few vacancies. You needed "power and money" to get jobs, and his family had neither. The bureaucrats were corrupt. President Mubarak was okay on foreign affairs, but couldn't fix domestic problems. Egypt needed a top-down clean-out.
Having enjoyed our politics talk, I decided to dive from the headland around to the bay, the opposite route of yesterday's dive and further out. The reef was much more colourful, with a greater variety of coral, sponges and sea urchins. But again, for me, the fish were more spectacular, especially the bizarre shaped ones. Wished I had an identification card because calling them "unicorn fish", "palm frond fish" and "seaweed fish" seemed silly!
Made two more dives during the day and each time I saw and named new fish for my "silly" catalogue. Enjoyed the dives and felt more relaxed than yesterday. And thankfully wasn't hit with another headache afterwards, though I did get the shivers and my hands were shaking so much I had trouble cradling cups of warming çay.
Between dives, I read my book in the sun on the beach and wrestled with the decision whether or not to stay in Dahab for the extra days before my flight home and forget about the planned trip to Western Oases.
Chatted with Danish and German guys about ... the Gulf. Dane had recently worked in an Israeli kibbutz. He said all the volunteers had left Israel. Both had been in Eilat which was deserted. Dane was spooked by lack of people. He was convinced, as were his Israeli friends, there would be war and soon. Watching stunning sunset behind the Sinai mountains across the bay, I hoped they were wrong.
Back at Crazy House had çay with Ibrahim. He showed me his box of electrical gear and tools of the trade. I had told him I used to be an electrician (half a dozen years ago!) and he was keen for the approval of a "fellow tradesman".
Returned to last night's restaurant and chatted with an English guy, Joth ("It's short for Jonathan") about ... the looming war. He planned to spend only a few days in Dahab before trying for a flight home from Tel Aviv. However, he didn't fancy his chances, as most airlines have suspended services. Joth also reckoned the local Bedouins had taken to the hills, in case Saddam Hussein launched a chemical attack on nearby Israel.
Enjoyed another tasty dinner, but skipped the "salty" çay and had a cola instead. Afterwards, talked to a French-Austrian couple who had visited the Western Oases and gave me some tips. Of course, we also talked about the looming Gulf War. They had been told the Sinai was a possible first strike by Iraq.
Walked back to the campground and looked up at the dark starlit sky. So easy to understand how the Ancient Greeks managed to find shapes in the constellations. And yet this modern day Aussie could only make out the "Saucepan" (Orion's belt).
Hired googles and snorkel from Why Not? for the last dive - I have decided to leave Dahab and head to the Western Oases (the Gulf War rumours had got to me).
Beachfront was deserted of tourists. The sun and sea were warm, but the wind was chilly. Swam around the headland and back, more aware of the coral, its profusion of colour and shapes, than on previous days' dives. Reds, greens, yellows, purples and all shades of brown. There were shoals of "gravity-defying curtains", "soundproofing foam", and "fireworks starbursts" (more of my silly descriptions). The coral truly resembled an underwater garden - one section I named the "broccoli patch".
And all around and in and out of the coral swam a countless variety of fish, some of which I recognised, some new. I even saw an octopus and the soft lips of a clam open and close. And whenever I surfaced to clear my goggles, there was the panorama of the palm-lined beach with the red mountain backdrop. Beautiful!
Had two long dives, suffering shivers and shakes after both. Basking in the sun to warm up, I was once again in two minds about leaving. But, I said goodbye to Akmed, whose cafe I had lazed outside and who had given me good advice on the best reefs, and headed back to Crazy House to collect my backpack and checkout.
Paid Ibrahim and thanked him for recommending Dahab and his campground. And then I reluctantly left the beach and Bedouin Village and walked to Dahab Village to catch the bus to Sharm El Sheikh. I hope I return to Dahab one day. But most of all, I hope Saddam doesn't bomb or gas it!