Dives and bombs 2

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Monday, December 11, 2006


BY YOLANA (with occasional editorial interruptions)

Tim asked me to write something about our little sojourn in Dahab, Egypt, so here goes:

Exhausted from the end of my first MA term, and my 3rd ridiculous o'clock flight to visit Tim, it was lovely to arrive in Dahab. Although my old English teacher would probably want to skin me alive, 'lovely' is an apt word to describe Dahab. (no it isn't. ed.) Tacky, fake, (that's better. ed.) and covered in fairy lights, it exudes a certain charm which just seems to trap people. Dahab is the sort of place you could happily get stuck in for days / months / years, as the number of semi-permanent divemasters who just 'stopped in for a drink' attest to.

Dahab originated as a Bedouin village, which, like many other Red Sea resorts, became a target of rapid commercialisation following the return of Sinai to Egypt in the 1980s. Unlike Sharm el Sheikh, however, Dahab has largely escaped being overrun by 5* luxury hotels with private beaches. In the main sea-front strip at least, it remains a budget backpackers enclave, with a distinctly bohemian feel.

We spent most of our time in one of the restaurants on this sea-front, eating the world's largest thick shakes, (ice cream, in a glass, to you or me...  ed.) (no, they are so much more, trust me...  yols ed.)  playing backgammon, drinking surprisingly "good" Egyptian wine, smoking shisha and eating all the food in the world. Dahab is not a busy place, so competition at restaurants is tough. As a result, every tourist is assaulted with promises of discounts, free starters, desserts, tea etc. with every meal. Personally, I was usually full after the starter, comprising pita breads, humous, tahina, moussaka, salads, baba ganoush and any other dip the kitchen happened to have created (usually suspiciously correlated with what we had left over the night before... ed.) This was then followed by mixed grills, fish platters, pizza, or pasta, with sides of roasted vegetables, potatoes, and chips. With all of that, it was good that the restaurants were ideal for just sitting. And sitting is something we did quite a lot of. It was, in fact, the perfect holiday.

On the days that we weren't sitting, we took advantage of the fact that Red Sea has some amazing diving to offer. Tim had arrived in Dahab a few days before me, in order to do his PADI Open Water course (the beginner course which allows you to dive to 18m). To get the most out of many dives, however, you need to have you PADI Advanced Open Water (allows you to 30m), and it was this that Tim started shortly after I arrived. Dahab is an ideal place for learners, with many shallow and sheltered dive sites. There are two dive sites easily accessible from Dahab which beat many of the dives I've done elsewhere, even on the Great Barrier Reef: Canyon and Blue Hole. These two dives form the Deep Dive and Drift Dive sections of the Advanced Open Water and, by negotiation with the dive centre at our hotel, I got to accompany Tim on them.

Seeing Tim surface dive on the reefs along the beach, I believe Tim might be a natural free diver (of course I am. I'm brill. ed). Unfortunately for him, I quite like my air, and it was standard scuba diving that we were going to do that week. After only four days of training, Tim was surprisingly good underwater (course I was. I'm brill. ed.). The hardest part of learning to dive, for most people anyway, is controlling buoyancy, not just through your BCD (literally "Buoyancy Control Device", which you can top up with air to maintain your position underwater), but through your lungs as well. Tim managed this really well, his two biggest crimes being sitting on a reef once (I barely touched it. ed), and performing disappearing acts by swimming directly above me. Tim is, however, possibly the most stubborn person I've ever dived with. Perhaps due to the frustration of knowing what you're doing wrong but having problems getting it right, or perhaps due to me, or maybe both, I received quite a few underwater slaps with every attempt to help him. Abused by my buddy at 30m; my life-line in any kind of emergency. Charming Tim, just charming.

The first dive of the day was Canyon. This involves an underwater swim away from the shore to a depth of about 20m whereupon a wall of bubbles rises up from a crack in the sea floor. From there, divers descend one by one, head first, through a gap to an underwater cavern, virtually closed over at the top. This was Tim's 'Deep Dive', so we rested on the floor of the cavern at 30m, and Tim did his underwater exercises. These included completing some simple sums and writing his name backwards on a slate, before showing the effects of pressure by cracking an egg (this little party trick is really quite cool, with the yolk and egg white remaining intact at 30m, allowing divers to play some underwater tennis) (I was 40/15 up when one of the clownfish ball-boys ran off with the yolk. ed). This all proved surprisingly amusing for both of us. It was, I think, the first time I've ever felt the effects of nitrogen narcosis. This state, which is similar to alcohol intoxication, is caused by the effect of nitrogen on nerves at pressure, and wears off upon ascent. (mores the pity. ed)

The second dive of that day was at Blue Hole. Easily a world class dive site, it is itself a memorial to over 70 divers who have died there. 200m across, it has been explored to a depth of 195m, although it is believed to be more than 300m in parts. Legend has it that Jacques Cousteau blasted a hole in the top in order to get his boat into the lagoon, creating an abundance of fresh soft coral on the outside. According to Neil, our Nazi 'you touch anything, you die' instructor, it is the only time that damaging a reef has resulted in anything positive. Although at shallow depths (30m and under) Blue Hole offers quite straight forward diving conditions, it is a tempting swim-through, at 56m, that has contributed to the high death rate at the site. Beyond the normal limits of recreational diving using a standard 'air' mix (the foolhardy prop up the death statistics. ed), only technical divers using mixed gases can reach this level, or deeper into the Blue Hole. Although many technical dives there are completed successfully, surprise down currents, disorientation, and reduced dive times have resulted in the loss of many lives. If this information wasn't enough, a trip to the memorial site was enough to convince us both not to stray a metre below 30. I've dived at the site eight times now, and the stories still shock and move me. So much so, that for the sake of Tim's possibly worrying relatives I won't repeat the death stories we heard over the week.

The dive starts at 'The Bells', a short walk away from Blue Hole, tactically past the memorial site. This entrance involves a head first descent through a chute, with numerous human corkscrew possibilities, which pops out into the deep blue at 30m. The dive then involves swimming along a coral wall towards Blue Hole, with an impressive drop off beneath and nothing but blue sea to the left and above. Ascending gradually to 15m, divers without a death wish then enter Blue Hole over a 'saddle'. The inside of the hole is not particularly impressive in itself, but swimming across it divers can feel a complete sense of disorientation, with nothing below, to the sides, or above. For those who enjoyed Peter Pan as a child, the dive is full of possibilities for underwater flying.

Things like that really excite me. Tim, on the other hand, annoyingly followed each dive with 'it was satisfactory'. (Slander! Lies! Deceit! at least one was 'very satisfactory'! ed.) Indeed, his dive log merely contains the observations 'coral and fish' for each dive. Nothing about the octopus, lion fish, napoleon fish, tuna fish, barracuda, nudibranch, giant moray eels... (correct me if I'm wrong, but except the octopus- which I did in fact note- they're all 'fish'... ed) There's no pleasing some people. As Tim himself said, all he wanted to do underwater was 'poke it to see what it did'. (apparently this is ecologically unsound practice. luckily for the coral, it's also quite shockingly dangerous, what with all the poisonous, spiky and outright malicious stuff kicking around down there, which by the way no-one thought to mention until about dive 5... ed.)

One dive which did elicit a response verging on actual enthusiasm was the night dive. It was Tim's first and my second. Having done my first a couple of years ago on the Great Barrier Reef surrounded by sharks that I couldn't see and Korean divers who kept kicking me in the face, I had developed an irrational hatred of them. This dive site, however, I knew well, and was free from both sharks and Koreans. Diving in absolute darkness, with only three torches to see our way and locate each other, was incredibly relaxing. Apart from a stunning 'Spanish Dancer' ('slug' to you or me.. ed.), the highlight of the dive was resting on a sandy bottom away from the reef and turning off our torches. Then, with every movement, phosphorescent algae in the water glowed an eerie green. We sat there for a couple of minutes, clapping our hands excitably, enjoying the light show. If one was that way inclined, it would have been a perfect time to repeat 'I believe in fairies, I do, I really do'.

Tim now a qualified Advanced Open Water diver, we had planned to move down to Sharm el Sheikh to do some truly spectacular diving at Ras Mohammed National Park and the Thistlegorm Wreck (complete with a train still on deck). (Now we're talking, says I. Does the ship have gear? ed.) Our plans were thwarted, however, and in the end we opted for a two-day camel dive safari to Gab ur Bint National Park. (the diving camels are a sight to see... ed.) Loading up the scuba equipment, tanks, and overnight kit onto three camels, we set off on an hour and a half trip north of Blue Hole to a secluded Bedouin camp on the sea front. The diving wasn't particularly exciting, but the evening spent lying on our backs on the beach staring at the stars was pretty special.

And so ended the ten days in Dahab. As most people who have visited recall, there's nothing much to do, but I'd gladly stay a little longer.


So, thanks to a few expedient buses, I got to Dahab in time to complete my preliminary SCUBA course before Yols arrived to join in the proper diving. Dahab built it's reputation as a backpacker paradise, when there was little more than bedouin-style camps to stay in, and nothing to do but swim, snorkel, smoke and scuba-dive. The money that the backpackers brought enticed entreupeneurs to set up restaurants, souvenir shops and the like, so now it seems more like any beachside resort. There is still, however, nothing to do but swim, snorkel, smoke and scuba-dive. Despite, or possibly because of this, it is still a 'traveller black-hole'. Most conversations with randoms progress along the lines of
-so whats your story?
-I'm travelling the world by pedalo, I just stopped here to get some water
-How long have you been here?
-2 months
-When you moving on?
-Maybe tomorrow...

Dahab was hit by a terrorist attack on 24th April 2006, in which three simoultaneous nail-bombs killed 23 people and wounded 62 more. Largely rebuilt already, the evidence that remains are some shrapnel scars on the pavement, 3 memorial stones on the sea-front and a sense, stemming from empty restaurants and bare dance-floors, that there ought to be more tourists around. Dahab being such a tiny town, anyone who was there then will almost certainly have seen or heard the blasts, and probably knew at least one of the victims. Body parts were thrown onto parts of the reef, which, as the source of Dahab's economy, had to be cleaned up- Divemasters from every club were handed bin bags. The Egyptian government blamed 'Sinai bedouin with links to al-quaida', but no-one seems to be sure exactly who was responsible.

In general, this atrocity did not come up in conversation. I didn't want to ask anyone about it, for fear of re-awakening their grief or trauma, but it's effects were palpably still being felt, both psychologically and economically. Nonetheless, I have heard more than enough eyewitness accounts of peoples friends being blown apart for one trip. As if this weren't enough, Dahab loses one diver or snorkeller per month, on average, to the sea. Surrounded by so much mortality, the people in Dahab tend to be either stoical fatalists (the locals) or risk-loving 'live fast die young' thrill seekers (the divers), or self-absorbed tourists and backpackers (me) all of whom contribute to the generally laid-back atmosphere of the place.

The red sea is ranked as one of the worlds best sites for scuba diving. This makes it both the best and worst place to learn to dive. The vast variety of fish and coral, as well as occasional exotic characters such as octopus, turtles and the like, mean that you don't have to be skilled or experienced to enjoy the diving. However, this also means you are spoiled. If you've never had to pay your dues, learning to dive in a cold, muddy British estuary, you assume that everything you see is perfectly normal, and fail to understand why the instructor expects you to get excited about it. So it was with me.

There's a world of difference between 'treasure' and 'buried treasure'. I can't understand people who linger for hours over museum 'treasury' exhibits, even really impressive or ancient ones like in Varna. It's all there. You can see it at a glance. I will, however, go out of my way to investigate something sparkly in the sand, even though it even looks like tin-foil from a distance. So maybe I just like to find stuff, and the red sea fish make it too easy. Then again, maybe the downside of my generally sanguine, phlegmatic nature which is so useful under stress, is that I'm the worst person to look to for wild enthusiasm. One of the divemasters saw me coming back from one of my first dives:
-How was the dive?
-It was good, thanks. Saw some fish...  coral.
-(dismayed) just good?
-(thinking I must have been misheard or misunderstood) Yeah, good. You know, not bad. Good.
Telling someone that what they gave up their career, family, home country and security for is 'good' apparantly just doesn't cut it. But there it is. The diving was good. I look forward to doing some more of it in SE Asia, Indonesia and of course the Great Barrier Reef.

Apart from the diving, we spent ten days eating good food, drinking surprisingly potable egyptian wine, smoking shisha and generally relaxing. After Yols left I hung around to get the holidays over with (Christmas was observed in Dahab, for the benefit of the tourists, but wasn't as unavoidable as it is in England, so, not being in the mood, I avoided it. My 'Christmas dinner' was [tasty] liver sandwiches from a street vendor washed down with the last of the whisky that Yols brought out.) and rekindle my 'wanderlust', and finally got cracking again on 2 Jan.  Oh, and I did buy a teatowel...

The 2nd Jan turned out to be a very long day. I got up at dawn, knowing that I had to get over some slightly mountainous terrain before reaching Sharm El Sheik. As it turned out, the going was easier than expected, and the barren surroundings quite different from any previous rides. I rode past my 'emergency stop and camp with the Bedouin' point at mid day, and it was downhill all the way from there to Sharm.

Having made good time, and knowing that rooms in Sharm are seriously pricey, I jumped straight on the ferry to Hurghada on the mainland. Once there, I realised that instead of trying to ride to Luxor, which I'd been told (wrongly) was prohibited, and then leaving the bike and getting a bus to Aswan, I could get a bus direct to Aswan and ride the length of the Nile Valley. This notion appealed to me, so I hung around the bus station for the 10.30 bus (which duly arrived at 11.30), passing the time fixing my second flat tyre of the trip. After lengthy, occassionally quite heated discussion, it was determined that both I and the bicycle would ride in the bus, but neither of us could have a seat, in exchange for which I would only pay twice the usual fare. I'm a very skilled negotiater.

Luckily, if the word can be applied in this situation, I only had to lie in the aisle until 2am, when enough people had got off the bus in intermediate stops that I could have a seat. I appreciated this, because after 2am is when the desert gets really surprisingly cold. 'They' always tell you that the desert is cold at night, and you think, 'sure, cold for desert, maybe'. But no, it's actually brass monkeys out there. I wrapped myself in my teatowel and managed a few hours sleep.
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