Snorkelling Ras Mohammed (Egypt) aboard Almira III

Picture it, day 10 of a tough two weeks in Egypt: tanning, swimming, eating far too much at the buffet, another beer, more sun, more tanning, more swimming… how much of this can you take??!! Time for a snorkel off the coast… The day starts of with the usual routine – hurry-up and wait… Wait for the taxi to the marina. Wait at each resort to pick up some sleepy guests. Wait for the forms to sign. Wait for a wetsuit. Wait for permits from the port authority. Wait for the boat (nowhere to be seen). Wait for… the usual bureaucratic ‘importance’. Nevertheless it is a glorious day… does it ever rain here? The boat comes into view and it IS a pretty picture among the dozens of white diveboats. The good ship Almira III.

A two-masted vessel with thirty sunmats on her deck. Not a bad way to spend a day in the sun! We all get onboard and find a spot to spread our towels while the crew casts off and heads into the Gulf… Music is inserted into the environment… never thought that Enrique Iglesias would be suitable for anything, yet it fits the mood…

We motor into a calm sea and the perpetual sunshine is glorious… In the background are the mountains – stark and beckoning. The backdrop is amazing – sunshine, blue sky, dusty-tan desert, light blue shallows and the deep dark blue of the depths… We settle down on the roof of the cabin and relax for the next hour and a half. Our destination is Ras Mohammed. Most famous and also most beautiful of reefs in the area. It is a national park (thank goodness some sense has prevailed) and therefore protected from development. Although it is still very ‘touristy’ with a lot of diveboats in the area – can you imagine if they started putting developments down like hotels and resorts…. We DO pass a lot of boats and divers in (under) the water and continue to what seems like the furthest point.

The boat slows and launches the rubber dinghy in search of a mooring point. We don our masks and fins and jump into the water, heading for a small reef. A world opens beneath us through our ‘goggles’. Hundreds of fish and bright coral. It’s a small reef flanked by sandy bottom and the ‘dive guide’ is over-enthusiastically keeping everyone together. So much so that getting flippers in your face becomes rather annoying, but we persevere. Seems to be a quick lesson in snorkelling… But nevertheless we enjoy the warm(ish) water and the smallest of reef fish. Returning to the boat we emerge into a chill breeze that reminds us that it IS winter here… We dry off, take a drink and settle down for a short sail to an ‘island’. More of a glorified sandbank really. Needs a palm tree and some coconuts… However, the brave climb into the overloaded dinghy and are deposited onto a small stretch of sand in the middle of the water. About 80 meters long and maybe two metres wide when the waves recede. Does feel strange to stand there in the middle of the water… Especially when the dinghy disappears towards the motoryacht to collect a couple more ‘Robinson’s Crusoe’. All around there is nothing but water and in the far distance the desolate mountains offer little comfort…

Back on board for lunch. Always impressed by what a cook can do onboard with a small burner… Tasty and delicious and enjoyed ‘al fresco’ in the lovely sunshine. The boat is now retracing its steps back to port, although now somewhat slower and closer to shore. It seems unreal how the desert stops and becomes water. The shoreline being devoid of life. Sandy, dusty and bleak. Yet right on the edge, under the water, there are long lines of reefs. Teeming with fish and colourful and bright. The contrast is immense and fascinating. A bright blue water set against a dusty tan backdrop. Abundance of life meets no life at all… The breeze is now becoming rather chilly as we follow the coastline. Most onboard are donning jerseys and warmer clothing or wrapping themselves with their towels. An announcement is made: a last stop to snorkel. This time we are allowed out on our own.

Considering the chill wind, we are not surprised that only a handful grab the opportunity. The water may be pleasant but the wind is picking up… Once again we are taken by the dinghy. This time a small group of us. To a reef clinging to the side of the desert. This seems to carry on all along the shore. We jump in and are confronted with an amazing wall of coral – stretching from the surface to what seems like about thirty meters! An amazing sight and an even better feeling to swim along this beautiful underwater garden with an enormous amount of sealife. Fish in all shapes and sizes – Victoria even manages to photograph a lionfish! Well spotted. Far more relaxing to drift along on the current with head down admiring the underwater scenery and wildlife. Really enjoyable and reminded us of our diving experiences. Next time we will definitely have to book a few hours underwater.

On a comical note: as I backrolled off the dinghy (as taught and practiced during our diving in South Africa – see here:, I made a full 360, due to the lack of a ‘tank’ (or cylinder to my more pedantic friends out there) and ended up banging my head on the boat. Now… this is pretty hard (underwater) and dislodged the sunglasses that I had forgotten were still perched on my head! These floated down into the murky depths probably never to be seen again. But for an eagle-eyed (older) guy who surfaced clutching them triumphantly and made me feel rather small…. Ah well, this joins other incidences involving: the lost sandals pushing a raft, camera (a waterproof one in a muddy canal, so useful for distant generations), a cap blown into the Red Sea (on a previous visit) and now probably off the coast of Moçambique, an SLR onto a tile floor from two meters (terminal) just yesterday, and so on…

Nonetheless, a great day, even though it was getting chilly in the late afternoon. The relaxed atmosphere and laid back charm of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba seducing us once more with its charms. It’s tough! Believe me, I know… But someone has to do it…! Just when we thought that we had ‘done’ Egypt and the next destination was somewhere further afield… we got pulled right back and will have to return again….

Laguna Vista Beach Resort, Sharm el Sheikh

We’re making idle chatter with our hostess when a rather grumpy couple climb aboard the shuttle bus. An onslaught of arbitrary complaints follow in Dutch. We roll our eyes. Great … it´s going to be a long ride! Especially considering that Laguna Vista is nestled further up in Nabq, the new suburb of Sharm el Sheikh. Perhaps sensing the rest of their travel companion’s desire to “let the holiday begin”, they eventually settle down and keep quiet. We make it to Laguna Vista’s reception around 9pm. Cigarette smoke infiltrates my nose. Wow. That´s been a while. Smoking in public places? The receptionist is friendly and suggests we take some dinner before the restaurant closes for the evening. The foyer is gorgeous! However, in the restaurant we find ourselves queueing for shrivelled potatoes and dried out veggies. Hmm, not great. But we’ll reserve our judgement for now … We’re guided to our rooms. The resort is beautifully lit at night. Our luggage is waiting for us. Room is nice and big, just been sprayed against the miggies.

We wake later than planned, shove on our costumes, shorts and tees and head for breakfast; a little hungrier than the night before. Again we’re greeted with dehydrated nosh. Okay, we didn’t pick this resort because it’s renowned for its food. We’ll eat what we can and enjoy the rest of the experience. We head outside for a quick recon. What looked like African huts in the photos, the cottage roofs look more like little pyramids. Nice suprise. The gardens are beautiful. Outdoor pools are well maintained and inviting, yet no one is swimming. The sun is warm but not too hot. Another plane flies overhead, smell of kerosine drenching their air. We organise some towels to soak up some sun. Getting a little hot, we slip into the water. Huh, huh, ooooh … our breath snatching the words from our belly. It’s freezing!! Okay, maybe 16-18 deg C but much colder than we thought. The warm sun concealing winter. We don’t swim long. Opt for a walk on the beach instead, which consists of teeny pebbles that blister tender feet. Aqua shoes are agreeable.

Coral reefs hug the coast of Sharm so most resorts have a pier that takes you past the owie-bits so you can snorkel and swim with stripey fish. Sunsets are gorgeous. Soft rosey-purple skies and luminous turquoise water as the sun tucks behind the Sinai mountains. Camels on the beach are led away by their Bedouins. Night lights flicker gently. Party music picks up. Tents with water-pipes get fuller. Remembering a guest comment that we’d read on the net, we head back to catch an early dinner. Yummy! What a difference. After dinner we take a nightcap in the lounge bar, where a pianist is accompanied by a violinist. Lovely relaxed vibe. Happy with our choice of resort, we enjoy a good night’s rest.

We meet up with our hostess to book some excursions, trying to find the right balance between immersing ourselves in this exotic location and our much-needed destressing at the pool. “Aqua-jogging!” we watch a sporty Italian trying to entice guests to relinquish their loungers. The idea is to hop up and down in bikini’s to music that’s way too loud. Surprisingly, there are some takers! The water being too cold, they go in up to their ankles. We’re surprised by the amount of Italian and Russian guests. We later hear rumours that an Italian company has purchased Laguna Vista. More rumours suggest a thriving buzz of Eastern European women seeking romance who are taking full advantage of the lack of Egyptian women working in Sharm.

During some of the excursions, we come across the same Dutch couple from the shuttle. It doesn’t look as if their holiday is turning out as planned. They’re complaining about the food, the people, the pushing, the culture, and … possibly wondering why they left their comforts at home. Isn’t it funny how we want to discover exotic worlds but through the standards and expectations of our familiar surroundings? “The tourist sees what he has come to see. The traveller sees things as they are.”

A metre high promise greets you at each roundabout in Nabq, “Charming Sharm”. Created to pander to the needs of its visitors. Tourists can choose between row upon row of sun temples and souvenir shops. However, the beauty of Sharm is not this fake world, but in it’s people and natural heritage. On one side of the city, you have the alluring Red Sea, and the other side, the Sinai desert. You can’t help but be drawn into it’s magic. Marcel learns some Arabic/Egyptian words and grows a beard to match his Sheik turban. The locals respond favourably and share a part of their world with us. We are charmed by the tour guides and staff at Laguna Vista. Our room attendant, Saber, is thoughtful and evens greets us by name. At the pool, Mohammed is jovial and eager to share encounters of our different worlds.

A few nights before we leave, we discover you can dine outside on the balcony. Groan. We’ve been rushing through dinner in the ambience of a loud canteen only to discover peace and quiet, candle light and romantic garden lighting. We take our time. Especially with the bottle of red wine we ordered – EUR 25,00 a bottle! Have you got a special occassion? Be prepared to fork out EUR 250,00 for a bottle of Moët!! Do we mind? Nope. Not really. All things considered, we’re grateful to have a bottle of wine in a Muslim country.

In those first couple of days, we feel that we’ve “done Egypt” and don’t really want to return. By the end of it, we’re even more captivated by its culture, history and natural wonders. With so much of the world we’d like to see, it’s unlikely that we’ll return to Sharm, but we’re certainly planning our next Egyptian destination.

From Sharm to Cairo for a camel ride…

The highlight of this year’s trip to Egypt was Cairo! What an incredibly long and tiring day! But worth every minute of the tortuous journey. We were picked up at the hotel in Sharm el Sheikh at 1:00 am by a small bus (twenty seater) with 15 others. The only problem was that the little truck had no suspension! Combine this glaring oversight from Toyota with roads that are worse than in South Africa and our day was starting off not too well …

Every couple of hours en route we stopped at police checkpoints. A quick twenty minutes toilet break at dawn and attempting the sad little lunch packet from the hotel. Left and right only desert – not a tree or a blade of grass in sight! Piles of rubble and sand all along the route – like construction sand that had been dumped there, for later use maybe? Battling for roadspace against the ancient trucks (not roadworthy in Europe but given a second lease on life in Africa working even harder than before…). Transporting what looked like sand from one place to who knows…?? Fascinating… We DID pass under the Suez canal though – how often does THAT happen in your life?!! A journey of 7 hours (seven hours!). So we arrived in Cairo, at 8:30 – 9:00 in the morning (at least the mornings are nice – always sunshine), battered and slightly the worse for wear…

Luckily it was friday (part of the weekend in Egypt), so the traffic was relatively lighter than usual. ‘Relatively lighter traffic’ means still chaos though! No lines, no lanes, donkey cars, battered old peugeots and lada’s, scooters, taxi’s smoking away, busses barreling along…. All ignoring the traffic lights and each other and just making their own roads through the congestion! Felt like a meat grinder – until everything ground to a halt! And took ten minutes to get moving again – after a tiny car had extricated itself from a bottleneck at a junction. Navigation by hooter and flashing headlights. Brilliant!

The best part (bonus): splitting into two groups and into another little taxi for the day. The german tourists (a party of ten) went one way, and us, dutch, the other way… Which meant our group was five man strong plus a guide and the driver… Excellent! Small group and some nice laidback young individuals: me and Vix, a young couple from Belgium and a dutch girl from Eindhoven… Felt like the famous five on safari or something…

First stop was the mosque in the old citadel. This was on a hill overlooking part of Cairo – masses of buildings, mostly apartments about four storeys high, dusty, sand-coloured with satellite dishes everywhere. A smog hung over everything, but the sunny weather was great. The mosque was named after the builder: Mohammed Aliy. And no, there’s no relation – but it is the only mosque in Egypt that you can enter as a tourist… Very ornate inside and definite influences from church cathedrals. There was a clock tower outside – donated by the french (in exchange for the obelisk from Egypt that now stands in Paris (you know the one?) …

Back in to the van and merged into the traffic being thankful that the driver was a local. We headed for the museum of antiquities in central Cairo. This building is smaller than it looks in the movies. Older style – also built by the french during their short occupation, maybe somewhere during the twenties? (The french did a lot…). At the entrance we were made to part with our camera’s and cellphones (this to protect the exhibits from flash camera’s apparently). A pity, because inside there are masses of historical artifacts, from enormous carvings and statues to small models of old reed boats and ancient jewellery. A photo or two would have been great. All ancient and genuine, like an archeological dig that had had been put on display (which it was). We kept being reminded that it was all real – no replica’s and all of it about three thousand years old! Incredible! The colours were even genuine and still retained some of their brilliance, most objects not having been restored or enhanced. Naturally the main exhibit was the contents of Tutankhamon’s tomb (the boy-king).

This young man’s tomb is (still) the only one that was not looted by robbers over the centuries. It gives an accurate indication of just how much effort was expended to get themselves into the afterlife. And the boy had style, man! His mask is one of the most beautiful of the pharoahs (personal opinion) and he took THE LOT with him: His entrails and organs sealed in urns, jewellery, beds, walking staffs, chariots, urns of essences, thrones and so on… Everything a king would need to continue his lifestyle, even boomerangs for hunting and his other interests. Naturally his personal servants went with him (one for every day of the year) in the form of small statues. All of it sealed, like a russian doll, in boxes and containers that fitted into each other. His mummified body in three coffins that encapsulated each other. Each more ornate than the next. Texts of hieroglyphics everywhere. And most of it all gold-plated as well… Apparently his was the smallest of the tombs (because he died so young) – but he got a lot done in his short life and it shows the amount of capital and power he had as pharoah. All of it meticulously photographed and documented by the man who found his tomb back in the early twentieth century. Incredible to see and amazing (for want of a better word) how it has all remained so well preserved (after three thousand years!). A lot of it still looked like new….

Time for lunch. On the Nile – as you do…. A floating hotel-cum-restaurant that was singularly uninspiring but for the fact that it was on the Nile river in central Cairo. Lunch was okay… but very brief – because our little band was itching to see the main event – Pyramids. So once more a short journey to the outskirts of the City where the built-up area suddenly dissolved into desert sand. Through the buildings on the way we could make out pyramids on the horizon, slowly getting bigger and bigger. Having been to Luxor and Karnak, we had mental images of the huge structures being surrounded by housing and buildings. As we drove up the small hill we could see, with some relief, that behind the three pyramids was only sand and desert. Surreal experience though. Suddenly you’re there! Half expecting that you would need to enter some sort of parallel dimension or step through a portal… I mean these are the PYRAMIDS!

Naturally, as everywhere in Egypt, the only portal you step through is the metal detector and the pay booth…. And there we were… In the shade of Cheop’s monument! Felt a bit strange, trying to let it all sink in… would take a day or two, or even a couple of weeks. So photo opportunities all round – some how failing to capture the scale of these huge achievements. Even today it would seem to be a herculean effort to build something like this! Can you imagine the man’s vision?! His imagination?! Picturing this grand structure and presenting his idea to his court… How do you come up with something so mind-bogglingly tremendous?!

The camels around the back were the best fun though. We couldn’t refuse a saunter (as camels do…) a short way into the desert in order to capture the three pyramids on film… Nice animals. Always look as is they have not a care in the world or that they are merely tolerating your presence and humans are ‘beneath’ them – which they are… unless your’e sitting on its back. Life looks a little less of a ‘rat-race’ from up there and the slow rocking motion is somehow relaxing. After pausing for a couple of pictures (never manage to do it justice – this country), an old guy rode up on a donkey and offered us an ice cold Coca Cola from one of those little old glass bottles – it even had COKE written in arabic on it. How he managed to get it THAT cold out in the sand at midday, on his donkey, is still a mystery. We happily parted with 5 pounds egyptian, and sat there on our steeds overlooking the pyramids and the city of Cairo beyond… A nice moment… Our ‘driver’ then gave us the reins for a little ‘race’ back to the Pyramid… Good fun! Ever raced a camel? Pleased to say that ‘Casanova’ (beautiful camel – perfect name) and I beat Victoria back to the shade (if only because her camel’s reins were tied to my saddle, but let us not get too pedantic…) Had a good laugh! We’re adopting one – if the council will permit us having one in the backyard here in Holland. Imagine the neighbours when you take it for a walk? A bit bigger than a dog…

The sphinx was also one of those surreal moments. You sort of need to stand there for a while and just stare… Built to protect the pyramids from intruders. Our guide made the comment that it wasn’t very good at its job (looking at the masses of tourists surrounding them). Also apparently the nose was shot off by Napoleon – just for fun… Another of those unsubstantiated claims that permeate Egypt… Although I must commend Táriq for his knowledge, subtle charm and passion for his country… Made the day all the more enjoyable, what with a strangely compelling english accent (learnt in Egypt and sculpted by many a british tourist – sort of Cockney-Geordie (if anything like that exists). The elevation sort of makes you look down on the Sphinx from behind and up to it from the front. The scale and proportions change as you view it from different angles – from the front it looks almost right but from above and behind the head looks too small… strange. Also that it is looking onto the KFC and McDonalds a quarter of a mile away just somehow seems wrong…

Just around the corner, with half an hour to kill, we visited an essence shop. These are apparently the base for all perfumes in its purest form. Interesting how the extracts don’t evaporate (like the urns found in the tombs still had their contents after thousands of years). Naturally we were encouraged to buy something, as everywhere – mobbed by vendors – but we respectfully declined, after a cup of tea, and headed for the museum again for our rendezvous with our little desert bus and the germans. We waited in the gardens in the falling light for about half an hour for them to arrive (the comment was made that germans are renowned for their efficiency, but today were soundly beaten by the dutch) then bid Táriq and his driver ‘má-salaáma’ and headed for the desert ‘highway’ knowing that it was to be another seven hours of torture before we would see our beds again. ‘Highway’ is also a bit of a misnomer – a narrow dual carriageway of patchwork tarmac, sporadic potholes and jarring transitions in the tarmac that seemed to be spaced just far enough apart to jolt you awake just as you got comfortable enough in the cramped seat to close your eyes and nod off…. Extremely irritating and incredibly draining…

Around 11:00/11:30 pm we finally reached the lights of Sharm el Sheikh and were dropped in front of the hotel, feeling slightly nauseous with exhaustion. We made our way to the restaurant which they opened for us after a bitter shouting match between clerk and chef and we had our ‘dinner’ in the gloom of a deserted room, trying to reflect on what had just happened… A midnight ‘rodeo’ drive through the desert, old Cairo, crazy traffic, king Tut’s mask, ancient artifacts in an old museum, the Nile river, Pyramids, the Sphinx and a camel race!

What did you do on your 40th birthday? I rode a camel in the shade of the pyramids in Cairo! As you do….

Our Breakaway To Hurghada, Egypt

Our RYA sailing course was cancelled at the last minute, so we booked a last minute trip to Hurghada on the Red Sea in Egypt. We snorkelled, scuba dived, quad biked and visited Luxor including Valley of the Kings and Karnak Temple. This was the first “last-minute” all-in booking that we’ve made. And we can see what the fuss is about. We’d booked a week from 28/08 until 05/09 in 2006 through a Dutch online travel agency at the Hilton Hurghada Long Beach in Egypt.

The Hilton has a five-star rating, but the rating system in Egypt isn’t the same as in other places. A five-star hotel in Egypt is more like a 3-star hotel in Europe. Our room was clean though and what we expected from a hotel room, but the bathroom was ready for botox.

Sky International has got Dutch-speaking Egyptian guides who give all newcomers a briefing about Egypt and the various day tours that can be enjoyed. We’d agreed beforehand to enjoy a typical sun holiday, lying by the pool, soaking up the sun, and just relaxing. Well, after our briefing, it was impossible. We’re in Egypt right? Why not make the most of it?

So we booked a day’s snorkelling, a refresher course in scuba diving (it had been five years since our last dive), quad biking in the desert and a bus trip to Luxor, to see the Valley of the Kings. And we’re very happy with our choices. The scuba diving was fab, with the second dive being better than the first (once the nerves had settled down). The visibility was amazing, but the water is much saltier than in South Africa (where we earned our stripes). My dry mouth missed the apple lollipops that our SA divemasters used to give us at the end of the dive. We did learn however that sucking a lime is excellent for curing sea-sickness!

For a more relaxing time in the water, nothing beats snorkelling. You don’t have to worry about the bends or running out of time (or air) and you can swim at your own pace. Putting suntan lotion on regularly is essential. With the water trickling over your back, you don’t feel yourself burning.

Oh yes, a tip … we’re avid fans of SPF 30 waterproof suntan lotion. But, on our second last day, we decided to try the suntan oil option. We’d figured that the lily-white skins that had taken on a golden hue were ready for a deeper tan. The bottle said it was 30 SPF, so we thought, “Cool!”. Not a good idea, we came home looking and feeling like boiled lobsters.

Through our various day-trips, we visited different hotels and were quite shocked with the hygiene in some of them, especially their outdoor non-public ablution areas.

I was really happy to see a camel up close and even ticked off my number 15 on the list of things I’d like to do before I die … Ride a camel in the desert. But if you get too close to the camels they can be like a bear with a sore head. It was less fun watching European ladies attempting to pull off ridiculously teeny bathing suits that the (Muslim) locals were scoffing at.