Is it Safe?
This is the number one question I encounter every time I speak about
my travels to Egypt and the Red Sea. I reassured my inquisitor that
I had made six trips to the Land of the Pharaohs since 1993.
Most recently, October 2000, I escorted a group of 13 divers (16
is maximum, due to the number of berths on our Red Sea live-aboard)
on a 17-day trip. Our adventure began with ancient Egypt, and a three-hour
tour (which proceeds very quickly) of the Cairo Egyptian Museum. Lead
by our private Egyptologist, Manar Amin, the museums antiquity-filled
chambers (including the bounty of King Tutankhamen) come alive.
Exiting through the high-security metal detectors from which we
entered, we climb aboard our private motor coach and dash to the next
site. The only anxiety or fear I ever experience in Egypt is on the
roads of Cairo. Racing from one tour to another, our driver navigates
his bus like a runaway locomotive. Every second, our fate seems in question
as we come within inches of erratic taxis, mule-drawn wooden vegetable
carts, and pedestrians who delight in playing chicken with a Greyhound.
Even veteran Winston Cup drivers would succumb to the constant apocalyptic
state of screeching tires, blaring horns and animated Arabic cursing.
The question, Is it safe? echoes in my head.
One cannot say they have experienced Egypt without physically standing
at the base of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Built of solid granite, these
mountainous structures leave no question as to their place among the
Seven Wonders of the World. My favorite time to view this 2500 B.C.
Necropolis is during the nightly sound and light shows. Narrated by
a voice resonating from the mystical Great Sphinx, the story of ancient
Egypt is illustrated against the Pyramids with lasers and floodlights.
The second of our two overflowing days in Cairo is spent inside the
walls of the historical Citadel fortress. Here, we learn about Muslim
beliefs while lying shoeless under the heavenly kaleidoscopic ceiling
of the Mohamed Ali Mosque. A side excursion takes us to Memphis, to
view the colossal statue of Ramses II and to Sakkara, site of the step-pyramid
Zoser (the oldest pyramid in Egypt). Later, we tested our bartering
skills among the narrow, shop-burgeoning streets of the Khan El Khalili
From Cairo, we fly two hours south to the temple of Abu Simbel. Not
only is it the most imposing monument of Ramses II (Egypts greatest
pharaoh), it is also one of modern mans greatest engineering feats.
The completion of the Aswan High Dam and subsequent rise of Lake Nassar
threatened to completely submerge the Abu Simbel. In 1966, construction
teams cut the massive stone temple apart, using diamond saws, and reconstructed
it piece by piece on a man-made mountain over 200 feet above the new
Flying on to Aswan (with tours of Egypts granite quarries and
the island temple of Philae), we transfer to the M/S Salacia (a four-star
luxury cruise ship), and set sail up the Nile River to Luxor. During
the three day cruise, we stop to explore the temples of: Kom Ombo (two
flanking temples dedicated to Sobek, with the head of a crocodile, and
Haroeris, with the head of a hawk), Edfu (Egypts best preserved
temple, honoring the falcon-headed god Horus), and Khnum, in the city
of Esna (built for the ram-headed god who fashioned humans on his potters
wheel). Each provides a unique clue to life in ancient Egypt.
A must-see is the tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens.
Opened in the mid-90s after 45 years of restoration by the Getty Conservation
Institute, the hieroglyphs inside are as vibrant today as when they
were first painted 3,000 years ago. The 15-minute tour is well worth
the $40 U.S. entrance fee, especially since only 100 tourists are allowed
in each day. As divers we took special note of the fish hieroglyphs
carved on the walls of Temple Deir el-Bahri for Queen Hatshepsut (pronounced
Hot-chicken-soup for the tourists).
Our journey through 5,000 years of Egyptology concludes with Karnak
(temple of Amon, with its famous hypostyle hall of 134 columns, each
72 feet tall, is the largest columned temple in the world) and Luxor
(the city of Thebes and the capital of Egypt for almost a 1,000 years).
Walking inside these grand palaces, built so long ago with such simple
tools, makes me ponder the destiny of man. Where might the human race
be today, if without all the dark periods our world has endured, we
had maintained the Egyptian pace?
It is seven hours by motor coach from Luxor to El Quesir, where our
Red Sea live-aboard awaits. Journeys across the desert from Luxor to
the Red Sea are always conducted as a convoy of motor coaches and mini-vans
escorted by military jeeps. The concern is not so much a fear of attack
by hostile forces, rather that one of the tourist carriers may break
down under the searing heat. Safety in numbers prevents anyone from
being stranded miles from nowhere without adequate provisions.
On this trip, however, our live-aboard is docked two hours south of
Hurghada, at El Quesir. The minimal drive greatly reduces our actual
sea time in accessing the southern Red Sea.
Why south? Thats simple. I am not into crowds! The Red Sea, like
Truk and Palau, is no longer a remote dive destination requiring a long,
arduous trek by only the most seasoned scuba adventurers. Day boats
and live-aboards constantly jockey for a handful of mooring buoys up
and down the northern Red Sea. Sailing overnight, 12 hours south, we
dive three entire days and nights without seeing another boat.
The southern Red Sea is characterized by ergs (an Egyptian fishing
term for pinnacle coral reefs like bommie in Australia),
rising vertically up from the bottom, to within a few feet of the surface.
The ergs we dive feature densely populated hard coral thickets and current
enriched soft coral gardens. For the most part they are lush, healthy
and nearly virgin due to low human impact. In addition to chorus lines
of golden anthias, we encounter schools of sweetlips and goatfish, Bluespotted
Stingrays, Yellowmouth and green Giant Morays, Blackbar Soldierfish,
long slender Coronetfish, flatheaded crocodilefish and camouflaged stonefish,
nocturnal hunting Lionfish, clownfish frolicking in sea anemones, inquisitive
Napoleon Wrasse, Yellow-striped Angelfish, Red Sea Bannerfish and Masked
Butterflyfish; the latter three being endemic to the Red Sea.
The first two sites, Abu Galawa and Erg Spice, are large single ergs
that we swim completely around. At night, we explored Sataya and Wadi
Gimal Island, shallow patch reefs rich in exotic invertebrate life (Spanish
Dancers and cuttlefish).
Not until our fourth day, at Shaab Sharm, do we have to share the Red
Sea with other divers. Tying the Voyager up to the stern of another
live-aboard (one of six tied together in a crisscrossed, spiderweb of
lines), the divemaster warns us to avoid speeding inflatables by surfacing
next to the reef and following the mooring lines back to the proper
boat. This complex nautical exercise was a precursor for diving the
southern Red Seas most famous reef, Elphinstone.
With steep walls beginning well beyond 300 feet deep rising to a plateau
just below the surface, Elphinstone is a mythic dive site. A barrier
reef 1,000 feet long, it boasts a plethora of soft coral gardens interlaced
with hard coral outcrops. The prevailing southern current bathes this
elongated reef in nutrient rich waters, drawing in all sorts of big
Elphinstone has its own moods, which change depending on the day, season
and weather. Accessible by day boats (as well as live-aboards), this
magical reef is worth sharing with other divers. And we do. We are daisy-chained
six boats deep. But there is plenty of room on the reef below.
Days Five and Six take us to Samadaii, Abu Dabab#3 and Ras Torombi.
Consisting of both large reefs and numerous ergs, gentle currents allow
us to enjoy the classic Red Sea marine life. Ras Torombi also makes
a spectacular night dive.
Our last day of diving culminates with two dives on Mangrove Bay reef.
This patch reef, just outside the harbor, is surprisingly healthy, considering
the amount of dive traffic it receives. Covered with plate corals, it
shelters schools of bannerfish and Masked Butterflyfish. Looking closely,
we found ornate crocodilefish, suspiciously similar to the hieroglyphs
we had viewed on many ancient temples in the world above. A crowded,
car-filled world we returned to far too soon.
But is it Egypt safe?
YES. As long as you leave the driving to the locals.
Special thanks to the M/Y Ghazala Voyager for accommodations and