Funky Town
Diver
Diver decompressing on a bag, inside the Blue Hole

As Sharm and Hurghada more and more attract the general tourist market, Dahab remains a divers town, offering enjoyable reef experiences as well as deeper challenges for those qualified to dive on mixed gas. And there are few places better for chilling out between dives, says Louise Trewavas
Where are we going - Holiday Guide 2004    Red Rock, Purple Rock    Gozo a-Go-Go    Splashing out in a big way    Cancun revelations    Pots & Holes    Wartime on ice    Need a little TCI


Swimming off the coral at 20m, we pause at a long upward slope of white sand. Bent reeds, evenly spaced, protrude upwards. The only reason this draws my attention is because these reeds look far too evenly spaced to be natural.

I gaze up the slope, and realise that Im looking at a garden of eels - thousands of them - their bodies inclining slightly, their tiny heads ever watchful.

I exchange a raised eyebrow of appreciation with the guide. I could so easily have swum right past this awe-inspiring little gem without glancing up the slope.

Capturing the sight on camera is another matter entirely. As I edge closer, the eels gracefully and unhurriedly disappear into the sand. They have perfect comedy timing, vanishing from the viewfinder as soon as the camera is raised, leaving you with a great shot of an empty slope. Perhaps this is one of those weird phenomena that can be experienced only by being there.

After several minutes of the eel v photographer game, we leave the slope and head back towards the coral reef. The fish here are happily going about their business and cant be arsed with diver-dodging.

We swim back through a coral gully, back to standing depth where the sand from the beach merges with the rocky beginnings of the reef. One of the delights of Dahab is that all the dives are a stroll in from the beach. In the case of the Eel Garden, its a short stroll out of the Dive Urge dive centre and into the sea. You couldnt ask for a better house reef.

Dahab must be one of the most relaxed places on Earth. Nobody here is in a rush. There is no boat to catch, no tide to miss, and wherever you turn there are shoreside cafŽs ready to serve you up a cold drink and a plate of hummus and chips.

The scruffy and eclectic little town is just an hours minibus drive up the desert road, heading north from Sharm el Sheikh. But at heart it couldnt be further from the programmed entertainments, hotdog stands and designer boutiques that dominate Naama Bay.

The closest we get to a designer boutique at our next dive site is a Bedouin sitting on a blanket, selling scarves, friendship bracelets and homemade jewellery. Colourful 4x4s from a variety of dive centres line the shore and groups of divers are kitting up in relaxed fashion, before wading in and disappearing from view.

We swim out beyond the wall of coral and drop straight down into the blue. It may be 20m-plus deep, but the viz is so good that the bottom is in view immediately.
I can see Ed orienting himself as we drop, scanning the coral for a large crack that will lead us down into the canyon.
Its a good job Im paying attention, because the boys suddenly swoop out of view, like hawks descending on prey. Only a thin trail of Eds bubbles betrays the fact that he is now deep beneath the coral.

I drop into darkness, edging my way between the close, uneven surfaces of the rock. The narrow tunnel twists and opens up before me.

It may have looked dark from the relative brightness of the outside, but theres no need for a torch. A dramatic crack runs the length of the canyon, throwing a visually stunning shaft of sunlight into the cavern.

The crack wriggles all the way down to the canyons end at 55m, often opening up wide enough to let a diver squeeze through.

Most divers come in here to experience the cathedral-like beauty of the interior, and turn back at 35 or 40m. The more responsible dive centres will insist that you use a twinset if you want to venture much beyond the entrance, because despite the friendly nature of the cavern and the opportunities to escape, it is an overhead environment.

We are lucky enough to be diving on mixed gas, available at Poseidon Divers - Dahabs technical-diving Mecca - so we can safely follow the canyon down to where it spits us out onto the reef. The rock down here has a volcanic appearance, and is pitted with large gullies. The vast stillness of the depths is a striking contrast to the enclosed tunnel behind, so we pause to enjoy it.

There are no other divers down here, and few fish. Im not remotely aware of the surface above me, because Im totally wrapped up in being here.

We swim back up and squeeze in through the crack. The gentle ascent of the canyon provides an ideal profile for our decompression stops, and when I pop out onto the coral at 18m, I find myself hanging out in an area known as the Fishbowl. If youre going to spend some time in the shallows, you couldnt choose better entertainment than the swarming anthias and feisty Nemo-like anemonefish that live here in abundance.

The Canyon is an epic dive, overshadowed in reputation only by Dahabs Blue Hole - a tortuous, hour-long Jeep journey along the desert coastline on roads that disintegrate into bare rock. The lure of the Blue Hole is legendary and it has been bringing truckloads of divers to Dahab for decades.

Unfortunately, a fair number of them did not survive the experience. Only relatively recently have dive centres recognised that taking divers to 55m-plus on a single cylinder of air and making them swim through 30m of bottomless tunnel, at depth, is a highly risky business.

Im sure that most of the divers who died were expecting a jolly adventure, and had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.

These days the Blue Hole is dived in an equally thrilling but far less risky fashion. The dive starts at Bells, a gorge-like, bell-shaped cavern that opens into the sea at 30m. You follow the sweeping wall of coral and enter the Blue Hole at the Saddleàa dipping, eroded break in the edge of the lagoon.

The Saddle is teeming with life and colour, and provides the drama of passing from one sheer coral drop-off into a seemingly bottomless lagoon.

The arch can be dived, but only using twinsets and mixed gas. Responsible Dahab dive centres will want to see your qualifications before agreeing to let you have either. It is worth visiting www.blueholeproject.com to see the survey carried out here so that you can appreciate the layout of the site and the depths involved.

The arch is a huge structure, dwarfing and humbling the divers who venture through it, but it isnt necessary to dive the arch to enjoy the Blue Hole. Many visitors come to snorkel, and the Bedouin cafŽs that line the shore here provide a fabulously relaxed day out for non-divers, with camel rides on offer for the adventurous and masochistic.

I have passed many happy hours here, reclining on the cushions, talking diving with divers, sipping on bright red hibiscus tea and feasting on the excellent falafel. The Blue Hole, like Dahab itself, is one big chill-out zone for divers. At heart, it is an attraction created by diving and it remains true to that spirit.

Many people will drive by this small, funky town on route from Sharm to St Catherines, Taba and Nuweiba. Without taking the time to pause, they will have passed up a gem.

Dahabs sweeping bay comes alive at night, with the lights of the bars and restaurants reflected prettily in the water. Everybody is out; divers, dive guides and locals mingle freely.

Some fear that Dahab will be eaten up, like Sharm, and become sacrificed to the interests of global capital. There is now a ÃÂÂposhÓ end, where the Hilton has opened up, and smarter hotels are clustering around it. These developments do not pose a threat, but simply add some extra quality to the wide range of what is on offer. The posh end is a short drive from the main action of downtown Dahab, and life here carries on inexpensively, regardless.

A couple of years ago, McDonalds decided to open up in Dahab. The locals simply raised an eyebrow and watched as the foundations were dug on a prime shoreside location, and construction began on the epitome of cultural imperialism.

And then, a sudden flash flood swept out of the desert and washed McDonalds completely away, leaving nothing but a hollow sandy ditch. The buildings either side were left untouched. It was an event ripe with Biblical resonance, and everybody laughed their socks off. Very Dahab.

Divernet
Now
Now you see them, now you dont - the Eel Garden
Epic
Epic diving at the Canyon
Coral
Coral reef at the Eel Garden
Walk-in
Walk-in entrance to the Blue Hole


FACTFILE


GETTING THERE: Catch a charter flight to Sharm from either London Gatwick or Manchester. Your hotel will arrange a minibus for the hour-long drive to Dahab.
DIVING : Check out www.poseidondivers.com and www.dive-urge.com for details of dives and dive packages. There are around 40 dive centres in Dahab, with a dozen of the bigger and better-organised providing most of diving.
ACCOMMODATION : Everything from small hotels to the Hilton, but all are relatively inexpensive.
WHEN TO GO : Year-round. Air temperatures range from 21-35°C, water from 19-27°C.
COST : Packages to Dahab are available through Crusader Travel (020 8744 0474), and a number of other operators. Visit www.divernet.com for the latest offers - as Diver went to press seven-night trips to Dahab were available from £335, with five-day dive-packages from £135. Two dives with a centre such as Desert Divers (www.desert-divers.com) cost around £35.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7493 5283, www.touregypt.net



Where are we going - Holiday Guide 2004    Red Rock, Purple Rock    Gozo a-Go-Go    Splashing out in a big way    Cancun revelations    Pots & Holes    Wartime on ice    Need a little TCI



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