Appeared in DIVER November 2006

The cave that swallowed a road
Near
Near the entrance to Mas Ramlach.

Kicking off our comprehensive guide to diving northern Egypts dedicated diver town, Louise Trewavas heads first for the hottest dive site out of Dahab - then takes us through its other great technical attractions. Pictures by Mark Brill

RAS MAMLACH
The cold water in the mouth of the cave envelopes me as I swim out of the sunlight, over a boulder choking the entrance, and into the blackness of the near-vertical shaft. It feels like swimming into trouble.
The cave at Ras Mamlach is definitely trouble, but its currently the hottest, most talked-about technical dive in the area. Permission to access the site has only recently been granted; diving was banned in the 1980s after a number of diver fatalities.
Back then it was known as the Black Canyon; but this is no canyon. Once inside and below 30m, the exit is completely invisible. Not that I bother to look back, I just fall into the black.
This cave has probably been here, undiscovered and inaccessible, for centuries, until an earthquake in the 1970s. According to the Bedouin, the sea opened up and swallowed a piece of the desert track skirting the side of the mountain between Nuweiba and Ras Abu Gulum.
A brooding black crack appeared like a stain in the shallow, turquoise reef. It took a large quantity of boulders, rocks and sand, and some considerable time, to fill enough of the crack to reinstate the road.
Its a short walk into the water, and I flop into the short groove in the reef that leads to the entrance. The visibility here is not good; rotting seagrass gets stirred with sand in this trench as the waves wash over the reef plateau.
The lionfish here are famous for their feistiness - Im going to become very familiar with them during my 6m stop.
Once past the boulder, I drop down, down, down. The gold-coloured guideline criss-crosses the shaft below me. The pitch-blackness sucks up the beam of light from my torch, and the sheer walls are dusted with a layer of ashy-coloured silt.
I fin with caution, thankful that my rebreather makes no bubbles to dislodge debris and disturb the visibility.

AT 50M THE SHAFT OPENS UP into a massive chamber with a competing choice of ways to go. Ghostly remains of previous dives litter the chamber - an encrusted, abandoned reel hangs from the ceiling and below, wedged into the rock, is what looks like thick, electrical cabling strung from some kind of pulley.
Fortunately for todays divers, Russian tech expert Andrey Chistyakov - based at Planet Divers - has thoroughly explored and efficiently lined the cave to 122m. From this
50m junction, the white line leads horizontally through the narrowing walls, under a hanging boulder at 57m, through the twisting vertical shaft, and over to the area known as the Windows. Its a good 20-minute swim.
Theres also a red line that angles downwards, to the floor of the cave.
I have to look closely to spot the colour, as the line is drenched in silt.
How do I know which line goes where Well, no cave diver should take any information on trust. You must conduct your own dive as if its an exploration, until you know the cave by experience.
But to prepare for the trip, I have sought out Rifat Guerboy, a freelance instructor at Sinai Divers and Reef 2000. He is the man who discovered the end of the passage at Ras Mamlach at 133m. Rifat is both charming and knowledgeable. He has dived the cave many times, and generously has given me an accurate description and a diagram of what I would find.
Where do I go Readers, I head down.
The cave passage flattens out beneath a wedge-shaped boulder below 80m, and its a longish swim down a narrowing passage to the sandy seabed at 108m. I didnt get there myself: those who follow my column will know why!
What I can tell you is that the Windows, a series of small openings onto the reef, at 60m are stunning. To turn a corner from the black insides of the cave and be greeted by bright shafts of blue light stabbing through the darkness is a glorious sight.
The largest opening is just about squeezable, and main man Andrey has helpfully attached a downline onto the reef wall. This is not visible from the surface; the buoy is at 10m to prevent it being nicked.
Its possible to exit the biggest window - with an acceptable amount of crunching - and return back up the reef to avoid another long, return swim inside the cave at depth.
Ras Mamlach is in the middle of the desert - off-road. From Dahab, you head north up to Nuweiba and then turn back south, onto desert track, for another hour or so. This is a deep dive and you are far from a chamber!
Recreational divers also come here on a day trip from Emperor Divers at Nuweiba to dive the coral wall, and its a bizarre contrast to see people in Speedos and single cylinders pitched
up alongside cave-divers in drysuits and full regalia.

THIS IS A SERIOUS, full-on cave dive. Anyone attempting it must be well equipped, have cave training and, ideally, be accompanied by a team-member who has dived the cave before.
The best possible dive organisers to get are Andrey or Rifat, if available. At
a minimum, there should be a qualified support diver on hand, one familiar with mixed-gas diving who knows how to administer oxygen.
For cave-divers its worth setting off early from Dahab; do a first dive and stay overnight in the desert, then get in a second dive before heading back - as long as you have the gas and battery life in your torches to manage two long dives at depth.
Divers should leave a decent (couple of hours) interval before setting off back, because the road passes through mountains. Its a long way to come, and two dives well barely scratch the surface of this cave.
The Bedouin will make fires, cook your meals and make tea, so all thats needed is to bring plenty of water and something to sleep in - preferably something cockroach-proof. Camp is inside a makeshift wooden shelter built by the fishermen: it aint the Hilton, but they say its fabulous to spend a night beneath the stars, so close to nature. Im from London, so I kip down in the Landcruiser.

* Email Andrey Chistyakov at tchistiakov@list.ru or contact Planet Divers. Rifat Guerboy can be reached at rguerboy@hotmail.com, or contact Reef 2000 or Sinai Divers. The two-day trip from Dahab costs around £140 for the 4x4, all meals and overnight stay. Louises group hired an extra vehicle to carry kit at £50. She went as part of a team of three plus support diver, which she says is ideal.

THE CANYON AND NEPTUNES CAVE
As I position myself to enter the giant crack in the seabed, it strikes me that the fringed, scallop-shaped lips resemble those of a clam. Perhaps I have it in my head that it may slam shut on me if I waft my fins too recklessly, because every time I dive here I find myself holding perfectly still while I drop inside.
The main chamber is large enough for entire groups of PADI divers to practise their deep dive and narcosis tests on the 30m sandy bottom, so on a busy day technical divers may have to pick their moment.
But Im heading down the passage into the gloom. The sheer rock sides narrow and twist below 40m. Theres a restriction to manoeuvre through just before I reach the final chamber at 50m.
It isnt scary - I have the friendly bright blue crack in the ceiling above, and I can see the glow through the diver-sized window that leads out onto the reef wall from 40m.
The exit at 50m onto the reef is dramatic. Popping out of the end of the canyon, the reef wall tumbles away beneath me, down to gullies and ridges and boulders.
I spot the flattened boulder that marks the entrance to Neptunes Cave, and swoop down the reef. Theres a chilly thermocline at 70m, just above the dark mouth of the cave entrance.
The cave derives its name from the boulder at the entrance, which narked divers thought resembled a giant armchair, and nicknamed Neptunes Chair. The entrance faces his chair.
Im at 75m, inside the cave. The bottom is sandy, but its easy to stir up, and with no current to waft it away, disturbed sand just hangs in the water.
The entrance chamber is a large, round room. The passage at the back is short - less than 20m. It twists around a corner before closing down to a tiny triangle. The rock formation is bizarrely geometric, and reminds me of a Toblerone.
Divers seeking more challenge can drop further down the reef. I havent been beyond 100m here, but there is rumoured to be another, deeper cave at 130m - along with the bodies of divers who didnt make it back.
But Im on my way back up, slipping into the end of the Canyon and using the passage as a sheltered place to hang out during decompression stops.
There is time to watch the circus of guided groups, and float quietly among the swirling shoal of glassfish that live in the corners of the cavern.
There is a narrow passage up to an area known as the Fishbowl at 18m, but divers are discouraged from using this area because its becoming increasingly unstable. Best to move up and back out of the crack, and explore the colourful ergs at 6m during your shallow decompression stop.

LITTLE CANYONS
Just like the Stingray Alley where you never see a sting ray, there is nothing little about the Little Canyons.
You could dive this site for an entire week and still not explore every twist and feature; it covers more than a kilometre in length.
Entry is tricky. I have to wait for calm conditions and a tide high enough to make the trip over the shallow reef achievable.
Its no fun to stagger about in loads of gear, but a long swim at 50-60m is going to require deco, and that means having the kit to complete the dive.
Its always a relief to drop off the edge of the reef into deeper water. Now theres the choice of a surface swim, or a bottom swim, because the Little Canyons are slightly offshore, running north for about 1km, angling towards the shore.
Following the reef down to 45m, I look around for the tell-tale crack or for one of the marker buoys I put in on previous dives.
By 50m there has to be canyon, or some indication of a wall, or Im in totally the wrong place!
Its an overhead environment, but a friendly one. Great ear-shaped pieces of coral stretch across the tunnel-shaped canyon to cover it, but most of time you can get out of the passage easily, and in most sections there is plenty of light.
There is a small cave on a deep (60m) section of the Little Canyons - worth a visit if you find that section.
The three main entry points are Abu Helal, for the furthest piece of Little Canyons; Abu Telha (or the Huts) for the closer stretch of canyon; andjust to the side of the Tropitel for the C19 section.

C19
Before the Dahab Tropitel was a twinkle in an architects eye, divers were coming here, just south of what is now its house reef, to dive a site known as C19. This is named, rather unromantically, after a
block of concrete that used to live in front of the radio mast. The legend C19 was painted on the concrete.
By using the block as a transit and swimming straight out, divers could drop down onto the finger of rock extending out from the reef at 50m, and explore the canyon running through it.
Along the southern side of C19 runs an overhang, and as it hits the end of the rock outcrop, the drop-off becomes a corridor, then a canyon. The canyon dissects the blunt end of the reef, the crack at the top narrowing down, until
a bigger-than-diver-shaped window leads out onto the reef wall, which drops away in a satisfying fashion. Its time to head up the reef wall for deco stops.
The 6m stop is spent swimming along the relatively pristine shoreside coral wall to re-find the entry point.

THE BLUE HOLE
Most visitors to the Blue Hole come to snorkel. Some come for the classic Bells-to-Blue-Hole recreational dive, and a few come for the feature that made the Blue Hole infamous: the arch.
The arch is reason enough to take up technical diving, and reason enough to visit Dahab.
I have to fight through Italians in unfashionably tight swimsuits to enter the Blue Hole lagoon, but below 30m, peace returns. The bowl-shaped hole in the reef is lined with corals and drops steeply below 40m. I face east, towards the arch, and below a bulging overhang.
Im rewarded by the brightening blue glow of the arch. Its visible from 45m and can lure divers to carry on when they should really turn back - especially divers on air.
The best time to dive is very early, as the arch faces east and the rising sun shines brightly through it. What looks like a bright window of blue is actually a 25m-long tunnel.
The sides of the arch sweep up from 120m on the outside reef wall and curve overhead into a spiky ceiling at 52m.
A giant tooth-like feature hangs at 70m. Grouper lurk in the shadows and tuna come to chase the clouds of silver fish that swirl in the gloom below.
I like to dawdle through the arch and come up the outside wall, re-entering the lagoon at 6m via the Saddle - a dipped section of the lagoon rim visible as a bluer patch from the surface.
The lagoon provides a perfect, sheltered place to hang out and explore during decompression.
There are a number of ways to dive the arch, because I can pick my depth here, anything from 55m at the top of it to 90m at the bottom on the inside, sloping down to 120m (and beyond) on the outside.
Entering the arch at depth feels like standing inside St Pauls Cathedral, and looking up its dizzyingly impressive, a quasi-religious experience. Its all the more poignant because Im always aware that this is the grave of more than 150 divers.
The Blue Hole is the worlds most dangerous dive site; but only because divers have insisted on going too deep on air, or ill-equipped and untrained for the conditions.
The Blue Hole mapping project established the dimensions and position of the sites features; but how it is dived is up to individuals and the centres with which they are diving.
You really dont have to go through the arch to have a great dive at this site, and while its great, its certainly not worth dying for. Take care.

* For more information and a map of the Blue Hole and also the Little Canyons site, visit www.blueholeproject.com

Guys, the cave Ras Mamlach is a really dangerous place, and diving here, especially in the deep water, is very risky. Be extremely careful, investigate the cave gradually, step by step. By no means can you go without a guideline and good lighting. Diving with one tank and without special training in this place - it is suicide.
Andrey Chistyakov describing the dive on his website www.diveclub.ru


The
The Canyon plays host to divers at a range of experience levels.
Divers
Divers explore Little Canyons - a site that is anything but little.
Divernet Divernet
The
The entrance to C19
A
A classic recreational dive is the Bells to the Blue Hole. The arch itself is a bigger challenge.
Louise
Louise Trewavas