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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Egypt Part 6 - Diving in Dahab, Shark Attacks in Sharm, The Blue Hole, The Canyon, El Bells & Nitrox!

(...Continued from Egypt Part 5)

Awesome photo courtesy of Allison Harvey and/or Jen & Jules
The drive from Mount Sinai to Dahab was only a couple of hours so we were at our destination (Seven Heaven Hotel – home of Divers Down Under) before mid-day – just in time for lunch.

As we tucked into some food there (calamari sandwich – awesome) we were briefed in by ‘Mustapha’ from Divers Down Under about what are options were for the week. They must love us overlanders as they would have raked the money in that week: Gab and Marjane were both very experienced divers (Gab being a Dive Master with over 800 dives to his name); Berbs and I had recently got our PADI Advanced Open Water in Zanzibar; Ish and Son did their Open Water in Lake Malawi and we were all eager to get some more bottom time. Kenji, Pat, Rob D, Tanja and Elisa were keen to pop their diving cherries too.  

After the brief and after giving our grub some time to go down, Son, Berbs, Marjane, Gab and I were right next door in the dive centre getting kitted up and ready for a shore dive to acquaint ourselves with the area. A short walk along the promenade and just over the footbridge and we were in the water with our regs in and giving the thumbs down.

The footbridge on Dahab's promenade.

The dive was ok – there was plenty of coral in all shapes, colours and sizes but little in the way of fish. I might have got to see more but Berbs and I still need to work on our air consumption as we only had about 25 minutes bottom time! (At this point, we’d barely done more than 20 dives between us.)

The following day was spent chilling out and/or exploring the town and reading the news that was unfolding about multiple shark attacks on tourists only 80km further south at Sharm-El-Sheikh. Undeterred, we (Berbs, Marjane, Gab and I) were taken out by Matilda (French Dive Master at Divers Down Under) for a night dive at the spot they call ‘The Lighthouse’. I got a little scare when my o-ring blew out as I bent over (no jokes, please) to pick up my fins but Matilda sorted it out pretty quickly.

Once we were underneath, the coral was again beautiful but other than a large school of small(-ish) silver fish, there wasn’t much to see. I didn’t care though, this was my second ever night dive and I was almost tripping out in a trance from the combination of the underwater tranquillity and the multiple torchlights beaming in all directions (down on to some lionfish, to the left on to some coral and straight ahead and beyond into the blue). Well either that or I was narced.

My air consumption was a little bit better this time around. Back on the surface and floating around in our BCDs I was talking to Matilda about my air consumption for a good few minutes before Berbs told me about a big line of snot that was hanging from my beard. A common occupational hazard for a diver, I believe. Pretty disgusting but thanks for the heads up, Berbs...

It was Sunday 5th December and back in the room (which I was sharing with Gab and Berbs) we got on to the wi-fi to check BBC news for the latest on the spate of attacks down at Shark-El-Sheikh. We were all pretty shocked to read that a fifth attack had happened – only this time fatal. The consequences of this sad news were that diving and swimming in the area had pretty much been shut down until further notice. This meant that the day trip we’d booked to go down there that Wednesday (8th Dec) and dive the famed SS Thistlegorm was to be cancelled.
We consoled ourselves the next day by spending the money we would have spent on the Thistlegorm trip on a PADI ‘Enriched Air’ (Nitrox) course which comprised of two dives at two very special and world-famous dive sites: ’The Canyon’ and ‘The Blue Hole’

We set off for the dive site early in the morning and stopped off at some weird Dutch or German guy’s place...he had the hippy/heroin addict/Rolling Stone roady thing going on and looked like he could do with a sandwich or two. Safe in the knowledge that this dodgy-looking guy had filled our tanks, we tested them for their nitrogen percentage...and in most cases the digital reader showed the incorrect mix. I’m not sure what happened next – whether we took different cylinders, re-calibrated the reader or got a new one – but eventually our Dive Masters and instructors were happy and we took off with our enriched air cylinders. (Thinking about it, I probably should have been more concerned.) After a further 10 minutes in the back of the Divers Down Under jeep, we were at the dive site.

The view of the Blue Hole/Canyon dive site from a restaurant balcony. (Photo courtesy of Big Ron.)
For The Canyon, we swam out against the current over a ‘saddle’ through the reef. We turned left (heading north) and soon came up to the top of the canyon and took it in turns descending 28 metres to the bottom. After a quick underwater briefing, we started swimming along it a short way and coming back out and over on the opposite wall to the one we came in over. At the very top, there was a massive moray eel peering out of a hole in the coral with its head bobbing up and down and its mouth agape. Like many other African residents we’d seen along the way, maybe this was the first time it had encountered a muzungu?

Back on dry land, we had a bite to eat, smoked the obligatory shisha and walked over to the start of our ‘Blue Hole’ dive at ‘El Bells’.  By the entry to El Bells we were given a morbid reminder of just how dangerous a place this can be to dive: the small cliff face behind us was peppered with plaques with epitaphs dedicated to (mainly young) divers who had died here.

Regardless of the dangers, we descended the chimney-like El Bells (named after the sound divers’ air cylinders make as they hit the sides of the narrow hole on the way down) one by one before coming out under a small arch at about 30 metres. We then swam our way back south along the reef wall before going over the saddle of The Blue Hole, gliding right past a large, solitary barracuda and across the abyss where many have lost their lives. (The sinkhole is said to be 130 metres deep and a lot of divers have been caught out trying to reach ‘The Arch’ that leads out to the open water at a depth of 56 metres. It’s regarded as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Dive Site’. For those of a curious nature and strong disposition, there’s a video on YouTube of a young Israeli-Russian diver called Yuri Lipski - taken on his own camera - who got caught out by the Blue Hole’s depth and died at 92 metres. BE WARNED: THE CLIP  IS NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.)

I’m fortunate enough to have dived or snorkelled in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cuba, Mexico, Madagascar, The Maldives, various sites in the Caribbean, Sharm-El-Sheikh and now Zanzibar too. Honestly? Although there were loads of them, I didn’t think that much of the variety of fish here in Dahab compared to a lot of the aforementioned sites. This didn’t put off the scores of other divers that invade the place daily (which is the only real drawback to this place) but then again, perhaps this week there were more than usual as they’d all fled the sharks down in Sharm. Regardless, the landscape (underwater landscape? seascape?) here was breathtaking and I could dive El Bells and The Blue Hole again and again before ever getting bored. 


The usual post-dive buzz followed and that night Gab, Berbs, Homeless, Marjane and I went out with the intention of painting the town red (with a diagonal white strip through it...joke for all you PADI guys out there). We had a few bevoirs and then returned to SevenHeaven with the intention of rallying up the troops for a night on the tiles.  The guys back at the hostel were in no hurry to move so we joined them to celebrate Finland’s Independence Day with Elisa – our recently joined Finnish co-passenger. Elisa had gone out of her way to write and organise a quiz/drinking game based on Finnish trivia. It was a good laugh, but it wasn’t long before I showed my age - the day’s diving caught up with me, my beer buzz faded and my bed started calling.

It may not have just been tiredness or old age as the next day (Tuesday 7th Dec) I was bed-ridden all day with some kind of lurgy. This didn’t last long and I was feeling better and back in the water again by Wednesday. This was to be our last SCUBA dive in Dahab (and indeed, of the whole trip) and through some good wheeling and dealing (no doubt because we’d spent so much money there that week!) the guys at Divers Down Under gave Berbs and I a free dive at the site called ‘The Islands’

It was a fun dive with large, free-standing coral formations (hence the name ‘The Islands’) jutting out in a maze-like arrangement. Again though, the fish were plentiful but nothing to sing and dance about – maybe I’m just too spoilt or full of testosterone, but I wanted to see sharks, rays, turtles, whales, barracuda, groupers etc. No such luck. The one consolation was that the dive was about 50 minutes long and Berbs and I finished on about 110 Bar each (we only surfaced as we were part of a bigger group with less experienced divers). Finally we were getting our air consumption under control.

That night, the majority of the gang took a fifteen minute stroll along the promenade to go to a trance party in a cave-like club. We’d been hearing a lot of hype about this party thanks to the student-like expats that were sprinkled here and there around the town handing out flyers. When we got there, the place probably had more bar staff than punters but a few us didn’t let that stop us having a good time. I can’t remember how I got home, but I’m told that the prizes for most drunk go to me (3rd place), Homeless (2nd) and Kimbo way out the lead in 1st place – she could barely walk by the end of the night!

The next day I woke up to have my suspicions confirmed:

I was not built for trance parties. 

I felt rough, but it was self-inflicted so I expected no sympathy. I got out of bed at about mid-day just in time to join Homeless and Berbs for some Chinese food across the road from SevenHeaven. Then I went back to bed for a few more hours and was only lured out by the opportunity to go for a snorkel (first of the week!) at the Lighthouse site (where we’d done our night dive earlier that week). Kenj, Berbs, Homeless and I made good use of some underwater cameras (which we’d been unable to use at the depths we went to during our SCUBA dives) and spent an hour or so in amongst the coral, the occasional puffer fish and a good few lionfish before calling it a day.

Homeless plunges to the depths.

If Jesus could snorkel...

Kenji - happy? Or suggesting we surface?


There'd been a misunderstanding about diving Dahab's famous 'Canyon'.
One of the many lionfsh we saw. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

Berbs. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

Puffer-fish. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

Kenj  - The Bottom Dweller.

Puffer fish. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

(Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)
Puffer-fish (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

Me, venturing off into The Big Blue.

Lionfish - jus' chillin'.
Red Sea 'anemone fish' (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

A pair of lionfish, just floating around in Dahab, minding their own business. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

This puffer didn't like the paparazzi. (Photo courtesy of Kenji Ashman)

I rounded up the stay in Dahab with a gourmet burger at Chillax with Ronaldo, Ish, Son and a few others. We’d been there a few times that week, quite pricey, but highly recommended unless you’re a which case your choices are slim. After that, we moseyed over to a restaurant called “Same Same But Different” where we made the most of the free wi-fi as we puffed on a shisha.

Dahab was also the place where we said goodbye to Jen, Jules, Rob D and Kenj. It was sad to see them go as they were all good characters – Jen and Jules made an awesome couple (and I wish them well for their wedding) plus Jen was Scottish which gets her bonus points from me; Rob D’s “Dark” (no pun intended) sense of humour and paparazzi talents were sorely missed after he left as were Kenji’s calming influence, laidback take on life and impressive culinary skills (the rest of the passengers dreaded the thought of me being left to my own devices to cook for them!).

Whilst saying goodbye to these guys, we got to say hello to the very last passenger to join our trip – Dan (from Oz). Dan joined us in a cloud of confusion: I think it was our penultimate night in Dahab when Marjane said “there might be a new passenger joining us tonight...but I haven’t heard much more about it so I’m not sure”. With that, Gab was packing his stuff up to move into the spare bed in Marjane’s room and leaving his bed (unmade!!) for this ‘new passenger’ to move into. (I’m still not sure why Dan couldn’t just move into the spare bed in Marjane’s room...)

Dan arrived from Cairo in the middle of the night and I pretended to be asleep to avoid an awkward introduction (nothing personal Dan – you know how it is!). The next morning, we got to know of Dan and his travelling exploits and it was easy to see that he’d fit right in with his easy-going demeanour. You can read about his adventures here: - his blog with a difference focuses on making the most of organic food as he encounters it on his travels.

Thanks to the staff at SevenHeaven / Divers Down Under (Mohammed, Mustapha, Alain, Matilda, Lara and damn...can’t remember the Canadian girl’s name) and their relationship with Marjane and African Trails, we’d had a great time in Dahab. If you’re into diving, or keen to learn, this is a great place to go, but it has to be said that if you’re not into diving (like poor old Ronaldo) there’s not a lot else to do in town other than chill out and take in some sun. Sounds pretty bad, hey?

The next day we were off early to the small Egyptian port of Nuweiba. I’d been really excited about this part of the trip: I was soon to be joining the elite likes of Alex Reid, Gareth Gates, Dane Bowers, "Ace" from Gladiators (I don't know who that is either), Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and probably countless other Premier League footballers and minor guessed it folks, I was about to enter Jordan

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