The Ballards - Syndicate


Having enjoyed the diving in Sharm el Sheikh we decided some winter sun and more Red Sea Diving was in order over Christmas and New year 2007/8.

Kharamana Hotel jetty late afternoon

Looking North

Marsa Alam is far down the Eastern coast of Egypt on the Red Sea, almost as far as the Hala'ib triangle security zone on the Egyptian-Sudanese border.
A private company has built the first privately-owned and operated airport in Egypt to bring in tourists to develop this desolate area.

New Year Bedouin marquee roof

Coffee on the terrace

The Egyptian Government's security sensitivities don't stretch as far as allowing private planes to operate from the airport, however so, as in Sharm el Sheikh, borrowing a Cessna 172 was, sadly, out of the question, and I'd be forced to lie in the sun and dive for 2 weeks instead. Tragic.

Turtle and Remora fish

Like swimming in a fish tank

And the diving is, indeed, excellent: the fish are plentiful and tame, and the water is generally very clear. It was like swimming in someone's fish tank, the fish were so plentiful.
I've been diving on and off for 17 years and I've never seen such good marine wildlife, even in Sharm el Sheikh.
At one point in Abu Dabbab we walked (backwards, as you must when wearing flippers) in to waist deep water off the beach and realised we were standing in the midst of an enormous school of extremely large fish, swimming around our legs quite happily.

Big Eye Emperor Fish

Forskalls Goatfish - the antennae churn up the sandy bottom in search of food

We stayed at the Kahramana Hotel which is nominally "in" Marsa Alam, but Marsa Alam is an address of convenience for the entire coastline South of Hurghada; it was actually 35 miles from the airport in the middle of nowhere.

Built in a pseudo-Bedouin style about 10 years ago mainly for Italian tourists, it's recently had a refit and looks good: each room is subtly different and you do feel as though you are in your "own house".
They've worked hard to make the whole place look interesting and there are winding paths, green spaces and lookout posts dotted about the chalets.

A quiet corner

Cornet Fish

We were most amused by the "Underwater video" shop right in the centre of the complex that had a commanding view of all that went on but no underwater video equipment whatsoever, a few dusty bits of unsellable tat and no interest in serving customers. Fairly obviously a front for the real Egyptian security apparatus, as opposed to the Tourist variety.

The entire coastline is dotted with hotel complexes a few miles apart, often centred around a particularly interesting dive site. Some are Green-themed (although quote how Green jetting in to Marsa Alam airport from say, Italy is, could be debated. Surely the Greenest thing to do is simply to stay at home?), many are dive-themed, offering spartan accommodation for groups of all-male, muscled, focused, shaven-headed German and Italian divers. Presumably their wives are at health spas.

Ali Baba

Reception and winter sunlight

The Russians were there, with trophy blonde wives, drinking too much vodka with dinner and appalling the conservative Moslem waiters. This appears to be a universal phenomenon now, either a sad by-product of the new free-market Russian economy whereby the least desirable, most brutal members of the populace get the money, the women and the foreign holidays, or the emergence of a monied middle-class able to exercise the travel freedoms of the recently-emerged pseudo-democracy that is the New Russia, depending on your point of view.

Forskalls Goatfish

Yellowfin Goatfish

The food was filling if somewhat samey and unappetising. We all had tummy issues at one point or other during our 2 week stay, but that's Egypt for you....

Sea Eagle with lunch, near Wadi Gamal

Rusty Parrot Fish

Driving up and down the coast road in assorted vehicles in search of dive sites and touristy destinations I was struck by how many traffic checkpoints there are.
The locals endure them stoically, but you can't help thinking how much manpower they use up, how(in)effective they are at stopping anything terrorist-like (it would not be hard to bypass them with a 4x4, the terrain is not hugely difficult) and how much easier life would be without them.
We take freedom of movement for granted in the Western world; these people have never had it, so I suspect they don't miss it.

Steephead Parrotfish

Striped Butterfly Fish

Hotel electricity came from a heavily-muffled Caterpillar generator that ran constantly.
All the hotels scattered along the coastline had their own generators and little parasitic clusters of shops, laundries and banks that had sprung up alongside them sharing in the electrical largesse.
Outside these oases of modernity the desert was empty, unpopulated but for desert foxes and the occasional free-range camel, and dark.

A lonely desert tree

We went quad-biking, which was huge fun, if a little frustrating having to wait for the slowest members of the group to catch up; and horse-riding, which felt more in tune with the rhythms of the landscape, nodding along on a patient if rather thin, old horse. The Arabs don't appear to look after their animals like Northern Europeans do, so they always look emaciated, unkempt and unhappy. Maybe they just have a more practical, less sentimental view of animals.

Nessa and Alice learned to dive with Pioneer Divers who were obliging, friendly, helpful and competent. We finally sorted out the status of my somewhat aged BSAC membership and all went diving together once they had completed the theory part of the course. Useful as a refresher for me as well.

Power Attitude Trim

Brain coral, Hamata

I learned all about underwater photography with my Olympus SP-550UZ and underwater housing.
The trick is to get really close, use flash and shoot in RAW mode, so in post-processing you can fix the colour balance without losing any image data. JPEG mode throws away precisely the information you need to get a decent picture, hence the blue cast on some of these pictures.

Coral Grouper

Dive... Dive... Dive....

The flights were that combination of wonder at the efficiency that gets 150 people, a Boeing 757, the luggage and all the fuel in to the air and across international boundaries, and despair at the state of our airports with mismanaged and ineffectual security, serpentine queues and over-long wait times at assorted lounges. Modern commercial airports need a serious kicking. "Customer-focused" needs to be the watchword here; so what does the customer want? Short queues, short delays, efficient systems.
Perhaps it's because I know how convenient non-commercial aviation can be: in a C172 you can turn up, decide to go somewhere, and go. If you need a wee first, you have one, then you book out, start up and take off, point the nose at the nearest VOR and fly to your destination.

Dune and rocks

Yellow Saddle Goatfish

The locals were friendly, and seemed unfazed by the ludicrous security that seems more directed at quelling internal discontent than preventing terrorist atrocities. But then one lesson I've learned from travelling is that normal, average people just want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Take note, world governments: you may think you know what's best for your people, but they know far better than you do.

Don't take my picture!

Bye Bye. Come again!

It would have been fascinating to have just kept on going in to the desert, away from the tourist veneer on the coast, and spent some days just tooling around the interior, but unfortunately this is not possible.

Bue Spotted Stingray

Dune sunset

This visit confirmed my belief that Egypt is a fun country full of nice people who just need a less intrusive Government and lots of investment in their tourist infrastructure.