Winter sun package tour

Trip Start Dec 26, 2005
Trip End Jan 02, 2006

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Flag of Egypt  , Red Sea and Sinai,
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

This was my first foray into running a package holiday company. It started out innocently enough, by trying to organise a week of summer sun in Sharm El-Sheik for a group of friends. I learnt first hand, long before the credit crunch arrived, of the credit risk involved in ordinary business ventures (though this was of course a not for profit enterprise). Once I had my list of "definites" I booked through a high street tour operator - sub-contracting the logistics of course.

I had three of six pull out at a very late stage, who obviously didn't live by my travel standards of jumping on a plane at a whim no matter the cost. No worries, I thought, I will just sell the spots online – the backpacker culture is strong in London and it shouldn’t be hard to find people willing to jump aboard a ship in port. Especially a pre-organised trip over New Year from the Big Smoke to a coral paradise, after all there is no shortage of tour companies who focus on doing just that sort of thing. It would become a little social experiment to see if humans will make friends and bond if you throw enough booze at them.

One thing I didn’t count on was just how tight fisted your average backpacker is and the last spot went half price to a Kiwi girl as we were running out of time. Fair enough though, she might not have thought Egypt was worth it otherwise (though it was actually a really good deal as it was off season and using a charter airline).

The plan was nearly derailed when the kiwi girl did not arrive at the airport at the agreed time. Opinions were divided on whether we should wait. Sure enough with 5 minutes to go before she would lose her ticket, she came panting up to the check in counter, reeking of booze and badly in need of a shower. Guess who got to sit next to her for 5 hours on the plane. It subsequently turned out that she had hooked up with someone at a Christmas Day house party and had to make her way across town before leaving for the airport.

Once at the international airport of Sharm El-Sheik a short coach tour around the island (it seemed) and we were in our sprawling resort. The place was so big it even had its own time zone. Clocks ominously showed London, Moscow, Rome, Egypt and Domina time in the reception. What was scarier than how they came up with the name Domina was why they would have chosen Moscow. We soon found out that the resort was dominated by Russian and Italian tourists. The clash in fashion was amusing to say the least.

This we found out at the resort’s full scale subsidised night club (situated in between the authentic craft market full of Chinese crafts with 100% Egyptian cotton labels and the breakfast buffet.) What we also discovered was it was €10 drink as much as you can after 11pm. My mate Skeg cannot sit still for a minute, so when an open bar is placed before his beady little eyes, he keeps his hands busy by repeatedly lifting his glass to his beak. The dance moves invariably come out providing hours of entertainment for young and old alike, though when the women get trapped by his deceptive side stepping, it probably isn’t so pleasant.

The resorts in Sharm are probably no different to those anywhere else in the world, but I haven’t tried any of them – so apologies if I am stating the obvious when I say that the resort’s business plan seemed to be to make sure its guests never left until the day they flew home. We did eat there a few times, and drinks were very cheap. We also used their dive shop. It is nice in some ways to have everything all organised for you, but you do wonder if there isn’t more to your destination. We did leave though, which you had to do by walking half a kilometre to the main gate to get a local taxi (they are all blue and white 8 seater peugot station wagons with raised suspensions for the dirt roads) because it cost a quarter of the price of one booked from the hotel lobby.

We were also joined by two girls we met on the dive boats – so by the time New Years Eve came along we had a party of eight. I was rooming with a guy we had resold a ticket to, an IT technician of some sort and avid networker. He was doing open water I and found himself a holiday romance in a woman having a week off travelling alone. She had quite a bossy personality, perhaps because she was a senior banking executive used to having her way. Bringing her along to dinner each night was a strain on some of the tour party, as she always needed to have the final say, and didn’t get the immature chirps of those much younger than she.

New Year’s Eve got kicked off when the other girl we met on the dive boat (a single traveller but completely the opposite in personality) knocked on our door in the afternoon with a bottle of champagne. Many Egyptian pounds on the room tab later, we had a very drunk team wearing cowboy hats rolling into the biggest club in town, Pasha: Sharm el Sheik. We somehow made friends with the owner’s daughter and were fed free champagne in the VIP section all night, right next to numerous tables of Russian mobsters and 007 women.

One afternoon we managed to convince one taxi driver to drive into the desert in search of some camels to ride and came across a tin shack with 4 parked outside. The flies fortunately all left once we were riding, which wasn't that comfortable so we kept the trip down to an hour, and spent some of that climbing a local pile of rocks to escape the camels and their squabbling keepers, one of which stormed off just before the ride home.

On this trip we saw what the tourists do, as several hundred quad bikes drove past for the sun downer ride. I don't think any of the brochures say anything about being in a dusty traffic jam so we saved ourselves an unpleasant trip there.

The diving in the red sea is meant to be amongst the best in the world. The trouble with the diving is that once other people have also heard that its good they flock to the dive spot and there is only so much reef for everyone. In the morning, there is a rush of dive boats racing to be the first in the water. After about an hour cruise up or down the coast, past all the condo's and resorts perched on the cliffs, you get to the two best spots in the area. The first one we weren't apparently allowed to dive so had to jump in quickly to avoid being seen by the coast guard. On paper the red sea reefs are heavily protected, you aren't even allowed fishing in the sea. That didn't stop our skipper from fishing over the side with a hand line while we were in the water. It did mean that my two friends who tried to arrange a fishing charter one afternoon came back empty handed because its illegal to take fishing rods on your boat and they were given hand lines and told to fish for tuna.

I did some good people watching under the water - many divers didn't seem to know what they were doing. Dive charters hthere aren't very strict about the standard of their clients' diving abilities. I was a bit surprised when soon after reaching the bottom on our first dive, my dive buddy (a stranger) shot straight back up to the surface; I guess he forgot to empty his jacket. The water is fairly tame where you get dropped off although there are some strong currents nearby. So imagine our guide's horror when he noticed he was missing two bodies when we surfaced after the first dive. It turned out ok in the end as they had gotten confused about who they were following, joined a different group and were safely aboard the wrong boat.

Other than having dives cut short by people running out of air and having people swimming into me all the time, the reefs were very beautiful with the best coral I have seen. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right time of the year for the hammerhead migration, but that would be spectacular. You can dive down quite deep and follow the walls of the drop off from the shore and you drift through enormous schools of fish, past big sea fans and pinnacles covered in life. I only saw two decent schools of game fish, but one was a group of king fish just sitting watching us like buffalo on a plain.

I think if I went back to Red Sea I would definitely choose a less populated section of the reef, Sharm is possibly the most overcrowded. Also, if you use a liveaboard, you get to dive reefs which aren’t close enough to any resorts to be busy.

As for becoming a tour operator, well I haven’t opened up a shop just yet, but at least I have become better at getting paid before I book for a group. And I will never send anyone to a resort unless they really deserve it!
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