|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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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....
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.
Hotel electricity came from a heavily-muffled Caterpillar
generator that ran constantly.
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.
I learned all about underwater photography with my Olympus
SP-550UZ and underwater housing.
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
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.
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.
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.