20 Years Away
Twenty years ago to the month I was here in Hurghada working as a PADI instructor for a run of the mill slightly dodgy Egyptian dive school. Now I'm back once more and much has changed. Hurghada is a dump; please don't misunderstand me it'll be great when it's finished... The city itself reminds me a lot of Naples, innumerable abandoned building projects and general refuse in abundance.
I'm staying at the 3 star Sand Beach hotel; it may have been worthy of three stars when it was built but now, by European standards I could barely award it one - perhaps a half. The negative points would take a long time to list so let's save time and consider its good ones:
1) The breakfast offered by the hotel is absolutely superb. It's buffet based but you can also have freshly cooked Spanish omelettes - they're small but indescribably delicious.
2) Actually there isn't a second good point that comes to mind apart perhaps from the diving centre on the hotel's beach front.
Octopus Diving is run by two PADI certified instructors Rafat and Shant - I coughed up for four days diving at 320£ (€40) per day to include hotel transfers to the marina, two dives per day, full kit and lunch on the boat.
I had only brought my snorkelling gear with me not necessarily intending to dive, however, at that price I couldn't resist. I didn’t have any Egyptian money with me opting instead to draw some cash out from a local autobank machine. Directly outside the hotel there is just such an ATM and so I drew out 2000£ The exchange rate subsequently turned out to be 8.9349 Egyptian pounds to 1 pound Sterling which is a much better exchange rate than was being offered in the Uk. The bank charged me £4.47 for making the withdrawal which when factored in gives an overall exchange rate of 8.76 - still excellent value in comparison to anywhere else outside Egypt.
It would be wonderful to be able to say that the next morning I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, all ready for a new Red Sea diving adventure. Unfortunately the grotty Sand Beach hotel also comes with its own grotty disco - sleep was eventually permitted at some unearthly hour and at 7am I went down bleary eyed to another fabulous breakfast.
So then time to go diving. I had been partnered with an English girl called Rachel. We met at the dive centre at 8:15 packed our kit into crates and set off at a brisk walk up through the hotel to the main road where Gamez our Dive Master hailed a taxi. Within a few minutes we had arrived at a public access quay.
First surprise; speaking to Rafat the previous day he had said that the boat was his but this was evidently not the case. The Princessa Manal was a good 25m in length and currently swarming with about 6 million Russian scubies all of them smoking their heads off. Oh well in for a penny...
With the Russian contingent looking on we crossed the gap from the quay to the boat via a somewhat precarious wooden plank and we were aboard! Gamez then proceeded to explain to us the layout of the boat, the wet areas, dining area, toilets and so on - all very clear - and with our gear safely stowed we commenced with preparing our tanks. Second problem; "Excuse me Gamez but this pillar valve is leaking something rotten."
"Oh yes, very nice yes. Try one next."
The next one was exactly the same. At this point I tried to convince Gamez that the regulator's 1st stage was struggling and definitely in need of therapy. "Oh yes. Try one next please." And so on to the next one... "Excuse me Gamez but someone appears to have nicked the insert from this tank's pillar valve." How was I to know that in some parts of the world there is a completely different type of 1st stage in use that screws directly onto the pillar valve? Gamez found another set of regs with the appropriate attachment. Third problem; "Gamez, you're probably not going to believe this but I think that air is leaking from this pillar valve, listen." It transpired that with some of these pillar valves there is a little hole which, unless the long reach (seven thread 300bar) version of DIN 1st stage attachment is used, leaks air. Groan...
With everything eventually sorted it was time to enter the water - we let the 6 million Russians jump in first!
This dive site is called El Fanus - don't go there if you can at all help it. Being one of the closest sites to Hurghada, if the wind is up (which it was with a vengeance) all the dive boats go there. We saw comparatively little marine life but sadly vast tracts of dead coral - a heart breaking sight. The water was very warn at 27° but with the occasional very noticeable thermocline.
Rachel my dive buddy turned out to be an excellent scuby, totally at ease in the water and displaying excellent buoyancy control. Gamez our DM proved to be a very good guide very thorough, calm and helpful. The dive followed exactly the route described to us in the dive briefing. All of his signals were clear and he was extremely attentive - no complaints there.
After forty-five minutes or so we had returned to the boat and lunch was soon served. This was a definite high point, twenty years ago when I was last here lunch consisted of a couple of very strange burgers on pita bread. This time around there was a fabulous spread of various buffet dishes including a rice dish, tuna and onion, pasta, beans, potatoes in a spicy sauce, and fried chicken wings. Reasonably enough there was no beer to be had but bottles of fresh water and 7Up were readily available.
The second dive took place on the opposite side of the same reef - more swaths of dead coral. From that point of view together with a general lack of marine life it was an altogether somewhat disappointing first day. A Blue Spotted Ray and a very, very large stone fish were the high points. The maximum depth on this dive was 13m and the surface was clearly defined but what was the overall horizontal visibility? In Ullswater it's easy to gauge the viz because you know how long your arm is! Here in the Red Sea though I always find it a bit more tricky. Returning to the boat I noted that holding onto the ascent rope of the dive boat immediately in front of ours I could clearly make out the shape of our boat's twin sea ladders. Now the dive boats are twenty five metres long and I was hanging on to the ascent rope of the boat in front with a gap of about ten metres between them. I was then at a depth of eight metres below the surface so I suppose Pythagoras tells me that at a pinch I could make out recognisable detail at about thirty six metres - not bad at all.
After another night of grotty music from the grotty disco day two was just as windy as day one. This time we headed south to the Gota Abu Ramada reef with a boat load of Poles and three German divers. This was an altogether better diving experience with abundant marine life in evidence including a beautiful Eagle Ray and a lone Barracuda.
I had with me my Vivitar 6200W digital camera which, whilst only rated to 10m, I can confirm is perfectly usable down to 15m. I tend to do everything on a budget and bought this camera in Italy for €84 - I live in central Italy and saw this camera as being ideal for snorkelling on the Amalfi coast, it is by the way. In fact, considering its obvious limitations, it's a superb little camera. It is simplicity itself to use with its fixed focus and large shutter release button. The camera can accommodate up to 2 gigs of SD card memory which at its highest resolution of 2816 by 2112 (6Mpx) means that it can store 617 images. All of the underwater photos appearing within this article were taken using the Vivitar and corrected for colour using Paint Shop Pro Version X
Another spectacular lunch and the second dive was a drift down the opposite side of the reef; the two days of constant wind had given rise to a strong current. The high point of this dive was a two metre Moray eel living in a hole in the coral wall directly underneath the point where the boats were moored to the reef. Anchors are no longer permitted which is good; it was actually in 2006 that HEPCA managed to push through a complete ban on the use of anchors on reefs in the Red Sea.
Returning to shore I called home - the previous evening I'd bought an Egyptian SIM card for 1£ (£0.12) together with a telephone scratch card to the tune of 10£ (£1.25) The Vodafone network coverage even out to sea is excellent and the credit I had on my phone lasted precisely two minutes and four seconds - £0.50p a minute has to be excellent value especially when compared to the 70£ (£8.75) that the grotty hotel charged me to call home on my first day here and that for just over a minute!
On the Third Day I had a break from diving and went snorkelling instead. The inclusive cost for this excursion was €20 and followed the same format as the dive trips. Up at seven (thankfully no grotty disco the previous night) and the sea was flat. After another fabulous breakfast there was a taxi waiting for me outside the hotel. The taxi took me to a Nissan mico-bus (the cheapest form of public transport in Hurghada) which already contained a young eager looking couple from Estonian. We proceeded to pick up what seemed like an impossible number of holiday-makers for one small vehicle and eventually arrived at the quay. To be more accurate we were dropped off at a hotel to the south of Hurghada and proceeded through the hotel complex to one of the seven snorkelling boats tied up at the hotel's private pier. On route those without their own mask and fins were furnished with some very tired looking kit. Our vessel for today was to be the good ship Lady Rania and the trip out to the reef took around an hour heading north then east on a flat sea bound for Giftun Island (Giftun El Kebir).
The first stop was a mooring a short distance from the beach to which we were transferred by water taxi. The snorkelling here is abysmal - just acres of dead coral. Further out at around 80m from the shore the bottom begins to drop away and at this point I began to see a reasonable amount of marine life. Unfortunately however there are also lots of boats zipping up and down making it impossible to remain that far out from the shore.
The time allocated to us for the pre-lunch snorkelling session was one hour. Giftun Island is a barren, arid and windy place - I was glad to return to the boat. The lunch provided whilst not as expansive as the dive boat version was nonetheless perfectly acceptable. The second snorkelling site was a reef just off the North West coast of the island in around five to ten metres of water. Lots of coral and lots of marine life - this was more like it.
We stayed here for nearly an hour and whilst the main group followed the excursion leader I was given permission to wander off on my own. As it turned out there was a small coral stack just a few metres away from where the boat had been moored (no anchors allowed) with so much life buzzing around it that I remained where I was - enraptured.
After half an hour's duck diving down to this microcosm I was rewarded with the discovery of a beautiful Lion Fish which I was reasonably successful in photographing. To remain still enough to take the shot I had to hold on to a ledge with my left hand while manipulating the camera controls with my right. Even upside down in 5m of water it was relatively easy to set the camera's self-timer to two seconds and then position it more or less in front of the Lion fish. I could see from the camera's 2" LCD display that my aim had been fairly accurate.
The resulting colour compensated image has suffered (reasonably enough) from a little camera shake but I’m nonetheless pleased with it.
We subsequently moved on to a third reef nearby and on route had a delightful encounter with a school of common dolphins. Again I found abundant marine life to occupy my attention here including a pair of sea-horses. I desperately wanted to photograph them but found that my camera batteries were too depleted.
This is a significant problem with the 6400W - don't necessarily believe the battery level indicator. After 30 shots even with Duracel alkalines the camera will start to struggle. This is because writing to SD memory requires a short but relatively hefty pulse of current and if that pulse is not forthcoming the camera simply turns itself off - so then always have some fresh batteries in your kit bag. Remember though not to discard the used ones - they will still be perfectly good for other applications. Rechargeables would fair better due to their intrinsic lower internal resistance characteristics but then again you have to remember to charge them!
Day four and we've changed boat again this time we're on board the Boshra belonging to the Gulf Divers diving centre. The day is perfect - a calm sea and light breeze. We headed north to the Umm Gammar reef notable for its lighthouse and HEPCA diving ban - only on the west side though. Not long after starting down I realised that my pillar valve wasn't fully open. I signaled Gemez showing him the breathing associated deflection of my pressure gauge. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the valve refused to open any further; we decided to continue on but no deeper than 12m therefore abandoning the cave at 28m - our original destination. Apart from having to heave a bit on the regulator the dive went perfectly well - we found a humongous Moray eel living in a particularly beautiful coral stack. It had its mouth wide open for a cleaner fish to do its invaluable work - a truly trust orientated relationship. At 100 bar we turned back for the boat.
During another fabulous lunch I chatted with a Swedish couple Anna and Petter who were having the time of their lives - it was their first time in a country outside Northern Europe and a tremendous eye opener for them. This was also Petter's third ever open water dive after obtaining his open water certificate in Sweden - I wish the Red Sea had been my third open water dive instead of Ullswater in January!
What was I thinking of?
After lunch we headed south for the afternoon's dive site - the Shab Ruhr Umm Gamaar reef which has a small Egyptian army supply-boat wreck at 30m. A fragment of the wreck lies very close to the mooring point at 7m. Upon seeing it I recognised it immediately and realised that this was the location of my very first Red Sea dive twenty years earlier.
This really is a superb dive site; from the mooring at the southern tip of the reef head up the east side in the morning and the west in the afternoon otherwise your dive may be somewhat gloomy. This site is renowned for sightings of Grey Reef sharks but today unfortunately not. Maximum depth attained on this dive was 15m and once again the 6200W performed exactly as advertised with no signs of water ingress. Returning to Hurghada everyone was quiet, lost in his or her own thoughts and simply enjoying the afternoon sun. Another end to another perfect day's diving in the Red Sea.
At around 6:30pm I took a taxi into the town centre (a ten minute journey) to meet up with my Swedish friends for dinner - the taxi fare was 10£ (£1.25). Funnily enough we ate in a Swedish owned restaurant called Café Del Mar; a fabulous chicken pizza and 66cl beer cost me 65£ (£8.13). To save money on food the thing to do is to eat locally. Pita bread sandwiches are readily available – they are called Ta’Meya in Hurghadan Arabic. There are three main varieties available; the classic Egyptian Falafel made from the fava bean, the potato and the egg varieties. The pita is served stuffed with diced vegetables and usually eaten along with peppers that are very, very hot indeed. They cost 1£ each which is £0.12 and are absolutely delicious. A litre of Guava fruit juice from a local supermarket costs £4 (£0.62) and a five litre container of water costs £5 (0.70).
Earlier I said that Hurghada would be great when finished. After the meal at Café Del Mar it was just two minute's walk to Hurghada’s main marina a completely finished and stunningly beautiful complex enjoying many shops and restaurants. The immaculate paved boulevard runs right along the water's edge affording unobstructed views of the multi-million pound yachts tied up to the marina's five piers. A greater contrast between luxury and standard Hurghada living separated by a two metre high perimeter of railings could not be imagined.
Turning left at the end of the marina complex takes you back to the main shopping area in Sheraton Street which heaves both with shops and shoppers. If you have a mind to haggle then many a bargain is to be had here; every conceivable good is for sale from a gold trinket to a 500hp diesel marine engine. There are numerous dive shops offering excellent equipment prices and a diving centre on every corner. One of the dive shops on Sheraton Street was selling the Suunto D6 on offer for only €320 which is an absolute bargain. Over the counter prices for boat diving vary from €25 to €50 per day ostensibly for exactly the same service and remember of course that the more days you book the less you pay.
Day Six. No grotty disco last night so I'm awake fresh and ready for my final day's diving. The wind has come up a little during the night and I can see a few white horses out to sea. We are on the same boat as yesterday but today we will be diving Carless Reef - more or less one hour directly east from Hurghada.
This reef enjoys visibility easily in excess of 30 metres; the water is crystal clear with very low levels of particulate. Its combination of exorbitant marine life and wonderful topography places this amongst the top five dive sites in the Hurghada area. Large Moray eels, blue spotted rays and white tip reef sharks are to look out for here. Occasional strong currents are the only issue at this site.
After lunch the boat turned south for Turtle Bay. This is a large reef with the sea bed at 12 metres and with the reef top at around 3 metres below the surface. We entered the water and initially headed west over the sandy bottom with the reef over to our right. The visibility was terrible but Gamez had a plan. After twenty minutes we turned right towards the reef and rose up to 3 metres in order to pass over to the opposite side of it. Good buoyancy control is needed here so as not to end up bobbing on the surface - that would be most embarrassing!
Passing over the top we first encountered a beautiful mature blue spotted ray quickly followed by a large male sea turtle - absolutely stunning. Here the visibility was once more twenty metres plus and the reef teeming with life. We watched the turtle for around three minutes before proceeding south along the reef and encountering a very large Moray eel and numerous Lion fish. I returned to the boat a little tired but smiling, it was a fabulous dive to end my holiday with.
Twenty years on and Red Sea diving in Hurghada still delivers.