Off the Beaten Path In Egypt: Part I

A dive team ventures into the most southern parts of Egypt’s Red Sea

The car jumps as it hits yet another pothole, jerking everyone awake. I look around. We’re on the outskirts of El Gouna, a small village in Egypt’s deep south. That means we’ve driven for several hours already, but still have several more to go. We’d arrived earlier this morning at Hurghada International Airport, already more than 5 hours by car from Cairo, and considered one of the main ports to the Red Sea. There, we hopped into a minibus and headed for the open road, making our way further south. We’ve been on the road since the wee hours of the morning, and it is now late afternoon, the sun hovering over the horizon.

Our destination is a small marina, practically in the middle of the desert, where our ship awaits; a nearly 100-foot, completely dive-specific vessel that will hold our dive team, plus a British dive team that will be joining us tonight. We think of it as our modern-day version of Cousteau’s Calypso. Our goal: the deepest southern part of Egypt’s Red Sea, on, and to some extent across, the border to Sudan. The Borderlands.

The car pulls up to a small café alongside the road, where we have a coffee, Egyptian-style. The coffee grinds are poured straight into a small, ceramic cup, to which boiling water is added. You sip it, sucking the hot coffee through your teeth, leaving the grinds in the bottom of the cup (and stuck in your teeth). It’s an acquired taste — one that I’ve yet to completely acquire. But these coffees, much like the region’s ubiquitous tea, represent a sign of hospitality when offered, and a sign of kindness when accepted. I wash mine down with a bottle of water once we get back to the van, and we head off.

As the sun begins to set, we reach the small port where our ship is moored, and start unpacking our things in our assigned rooms below decks. Afterwards, I head out for a walk in the port. While the Red Sea region of Egypt have seen almost none of the unrest caused by the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there has still been a huge dip in tourism. And even now, when calm has returned to almost the entire country, including the former hotspots of Cairo and Port Said, the tourists have stayed away. That makes traveling in this part of Egypt, already relatively quiet, a somewhat lonely affair — safe, but lonely and difficult. There are few flights here, and few airports to take them. But the people are friendly and hospitable, and at no point during our travels do we feel unsafe. After dinner we head to bed early. Food on board is good; we’ve sailed with this crew before, including the local dive experts, and I’m glad to have them with us.

My roomie and I are up by the crack of dawn for our morning ritual, a cup of coffee as we watch the sun rise over the Red Sea. We’ve both been more times than we can count, but the area never fails to impress us. After breakfast we push off and head towards open sea. We hit the water before most people have left for work back in our regular world, and do our checkout dive at a reef not far from port. We check that the gear still works after hours in a plane cargo hold and on bumpy roads, and test and adjust camera gear. After we complete this and a few other dives, including one at the famous Elphinstone Reef, it’s back onboard, anchors away, and we start heading south. Along the shore, we can see how towns and settlements become fewer and further between, until they disappear completely. Boat traffic is equally rare, which is part of the allure of where we’re going; with no commercial routes, and very little fishing, the reefs in the systems we’re heading for are rumored to be pristine, as close to virgin reefs as you can find nowadays. As the sun sets, I head for the bow where I stand for a while, watching the ever-elusive horizon and the waves as the boat plows its way south.

For a videoclip from the trip, see: http://youtu.be/3OaXEjwyO-o

A longer version is available here: http://youtu.be/yROPX-_-dmQ