Red Sea Chronicles

By Eric Hanauer



Riding a camel is like riding a boat, only different. There's a pronounced swaying motion, something like an inflatable boat on a rolling sea. Only you won't get saddle sore on a boat. Camels are sure-footed beasts, their padded paws squishing with each step as they delicately wind their way between sharp rocks and the blistering desert sands.

What's a camel doing in a dive magazine? Well, I'm sitting on its saddle, heading for a site near Dahab, in the Egyptian Red Sea.

Isn't that carrying local color a bit too far? Wouldn't it be easier to take a boat? If you want to dive these remote reefs, the only way to get here is by camel. No dive boats work this area and the narrowest sections of the path are squeezed so precariously between the mountains and the sea that even a Jeep couldn't make it through. And, as every off-roader knows, the worst section of a trail sets the limit of accessibility.

So, I'm swaying back and forth in the saddle to the rhythm of the camel's gait, under the scorching summer sun of Sinai, contemplating how I got into this situation. This is my 11th trip to the Red Sea. People ask why I keep coming back when there are so many other great places to dive. The answers are complex, including world-class diving, 5,000 years of history on display, good friends and a fascinating culture-both ancient and modern.

But as dive tourism continues to expand, places that were once on the fringes of the great unknown have become convenient, efficient and luxurious. Where once there were primitive desert shacks, there are now elegant hotels, sleek live-aboard dive boats, lush grass lawns and tepid swimming pools. In Naama Bay we attended the opening of a Hard Rock Cafe one night and watched a performance of the Moscow City Ballet the next. There's even a McDonald's, decorated with a mural of Ronald McDonald in scuba gear, finning amid Red Sea fishes.

Egypt is Europe's vacationland. Germany and Italy must be empty, with a large percentage of their population apparently having migrated here for the summer.

I appreciate comfort and convenience as much as anybody. But what sometimes gets lost among the bustle, the glitter and the T-shirt shops is adventure. It's still here, you just have to look harder for it. That's what I'm doing on the camel.

For several years I had been talking about doing a camel safari, camping and diving on remote desert beaches. During a gap in a busy schedule that included a live-aboard trip and land-based diving, I was able to set up a two day excursion with Mohammed Kabany at Inmo Dive Center in Dahab. Our guide was Rudiger Klein, a German like many in Sinai, who had become enthralled with the desert and with the culture of the Bedouins. Proud desert dwellers who claim allegiance to no country, for centuries these people have made their living where others couldn't survive, by fishing, goat herding and occasionally smuggling. Three of them, Suleiman, Selmeen and Ahmed, look after the animals and the camping arrangements for me, my wife, Mia, and a German couple, Erik and Herta Steffen. The Germans had wisely bought loose fitting cotton garments and broad brimmed hats to protect them from the summer sun. Mia and I are wearing standard American tourist uniforms: shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps. We fully expect to burn to a crisp.

There are five camels to carry gear and guests. Each animal can haul about 1,300 pounds. A staggering collection of stuff hangs from the saddle, including four tanks and assorted diving and camping gear, as well as a rider sitting on top. All of our camels are males because they are more manageable.

The saddle is nothing more than a wooden platform with posts in front and back, from which the loads are hung. We sit on blankets that are rolled and wrapped around the posts like a big donut. For people with tender behinds there are pillows, padding both the seat and the posts, which can dig into your body as the beast ambles along the path with its rolling gait. The Bedouins handle the camels firmly but with respect. According to Rudiger, they are treated well because of their cost, their value as beasts of burden and because they are an integral part of Bedouin culture. Contrary to expectations, they don't smell bad and rarely make any sound. The animals take turns leading the way along the narrow trail.

It quickly becomes obvious we aren't in car country. A pebbly, boulder strewn path that mountain bikers would call a single track winds through the hard-packed desert sand. The camels occasionally scramble from boulder to boulder with agility I'd never anticipated from such ungainly looking beasts. A constant breeze off the sea keeps us cooler than we have any right to expect. Dahab is a prime windsurfing area and this wind tunnel effect makes summertime camel treks possible.

A base camp is established in the Bedouin-style. Our living quarters consist of a shelter of dark wool blankets hung over wooden frames, similar to the dwellings I had seen in Jordan. (Most Egyptian Bedouins now live in concrete block villages.) Meals consist of local fare, with fish, chicken or lamb accompanied by rice and the ubiquitous fool, Egypt's national dish that resembles refried beans. Suleiman cooks traditional flatbread on a lid from a 50-gallon oil drum, placed directly over hot coals. It's probably the same kind of bread the Israelites ate when Moses led them on their 40 year trek through Sinai.

The dive sites are about an hour's ride each way, with a morning and afternoon dive each day. Is it worth the extra effort compared to boat diving? There are far more spectacular reefs in the Red Sea, but one factor makes these unique. They are pristine; not one single piece of hard coral is broken. They stand in sharp contrast to many reefs of southern Sinai and Hurghada, where the anchors of hundreds of boats and the fins of thousands of careless divers have left their mark. (Mooring buoys now prevent further anchor damage.) In some places it seems as though we are the first people ever to dive there.

At Abu Seelah we enter over cobbles into a pool that looks like a small blue hole. We enter at high tide to avoid damaging delicate table corals. Taking personal responsibility for the health of the reefs, Rudiger constantly reminds us to watch our fin and buoyancy control. Our vista opens into a fantastic hard coral garden, with huge domes in pastel shades of blue and yellow that we haven't seen in other Red Sea areas. It looks much like Micronesia, except when you stick your head above water there are mountains and desert instead of lush, tropical foliage.

Gabral Bint is like the Sinai used to be, leaving the impression that nobody has been there before us. An array of seafans, in depths ranging from 30 to 120 feet, are all perfect, without any broken tips. Anthias and other filter feeding fishes crowd the water column, while Glassfish schools swarm among the fans. A Redmouth Bass, which preys on the Glassfish, is hanging out there. A peaceful dive, slow and easy, we spend most of the time around 60 feet, going deeper just to see the fans. At the 20 foot safety stop we are entertained by a Crocodilefish and a Scorpionfish, lying camouflaged on the sandy bottom.

At nearby El Shahira Gal we enter from a point of land and work our way back to camp. An area of big, columnar corals were damaged by an earthquake years ago. Still alive, the corals began growing again, upward at right angles. Instead of the outrageous reds, blues and yellows of typical Red Sea scenery, photosynthetic colors dominate: pale green, blue, beige and brown. The fish provide the brilliant accents. This is primarily a landscape dive, but we encounter morays being cleaned, Blue Spotted Stingrays, turtles, lots of sand gobies and a Crocodilefish. As the sun's rays filter down in late afternoon, the night cast begins to stir. Anywhere in the world a twilight dive is a circus of activity and this is no exception.

The Bedouins handle our dive equipment with easy familiarity. BCs and regulators are laid on a blanket, never on the sand. They check the tanks for air with pressure gauges and know how to properly blow water off the dust cap. A dive boat crew couldn't be more competent.

These people are in touch with the sea. Ahmed explains that there are several Arabic words for reefs, depending on their size. Aruk is a small pinnacle. An erg is a larger pinnacle, while a gota is a satellite reef within a reef system. Sha'ab is a reef; shabroor a satellite reef located apart from the main system. Habili is a section that is prettier than the other reefs within the system, usually bathed in strong currents with lots of marine life.

We return to camp for lunch, then rest between noon and 3:00 pm, before departing for the afternoon dive. Nobody ventures out in the noonday sun. Suleiman is sacked out in the shade of a kayak; a visiting fisherman sleeps under a trailer. Lying on mattresses under the canopy, we hadn't realized how hot it had become. One of the fishermen opens the end nearest the sea to admit the breeze. Suddenly our tent becomes the coolest place in Sinai without air-conditioning, as the temperature instantly drops ten degrees. We realize how clueless we are about desert survival; we would probably die without these people to take care of us.

The irony isn't lost on me. Back home, people think there's a terrorist with an Uzi behind every rock and sand dune. I'm as afraid of terrorism as anybody, but I have learned that the vast majority of Egyptians like Americans, not just for our money but for our music, movies, clothes and for what our country has done for theirs. Egyptians are among the most hospitable people on earth, and on a person-to-person basis, the only way they could kill you is with kindness. I've always felt safe walking the streets of Cairo because violent crime is antithetical to true Muslim culture. Every nation has its psychos, from the militia of America to the neo-Nazis of Europe to the radical fundamentalists of the Middle East. They represent only the extreme fringes of society. Ordinary citizens of the United States and Egypt are frightened and ashamed of them. Their tactics are essentially the same everywhere: to achieve their goals through fear and intimidation. If we change our plans and stay home, they win.

As the sun goes down, the blue waters begin to take on the hue that gave the Red Sea its name. The mountains of Saudi Arabia are 20 kilometers distant but look close enough to swim to. It's a soft, peaceful time and dinner is a leisurely affair lasting until 10:00 pm. In the clear desert night, a canopy of stars fills the sky from horizon to horizon. More stars than I ever knew existed bathe the darkness with pinpoints of light, accentuated by the occasional streak of a meteor. This light show alone makes the trip worthwhile.

Camel dives aren't for everybody. Before you try one, see Egypt and the Red Sea. Visit the prime underwater sites of the Sinai or Hurghada or hop on one of the live-aboards that ply the waters of the south. Go see the mosques and bazaars of Cairo, the temples and tombs of Luxor or cruise down the Nile to Aswan. After doing that, you'll be ready to go back in time and experience the peace and solitude of the desert, the hospitality of the Bedouins, the rhythmic gait of the camels and the beauty of these unspoiled reefs.