Appeared in DIVER November 2006

At the Lighthouse site

Some think of Dahab mainly in terms of hairy plunges through the Blue Hole arch, but its not all like that. Zac Macaulay samples Dahabs softer side - and suffers the odd hard knock

THE 4X4 THAT HAD BROUGHT US FROM SHARM EL SHEIKH left the comfy flat roads just south of Dahab and bounced over rocks and dirt tracks, past military checkpoints guarded by young boys with Kalashnikovs, and carried on to reach an implausible collection of buildings. We had arrived at the oasis that is Happy Life Village.
Happy Life is made up of 172 self-contained apartments nestling between the sea and the Sinai mountains. The mountains shield the resort from the winds that drive over the desert, and because of the geography the humidity
is very low. The resort offers good family and single accommodation set in well-maintained gardens, complete with pools, gym, three bars and live entertainment.
Entry to the sea from the wide beach is barred to bathers, because of the coral reefs that lie directly off the shore, but divers who wish to walk straight into the water from their apartments can have a field day.
No kitting up in little dive-boats for me this week. This is a spot to suit the beginner, the intermediate diver or the keen experienced diver and his or her long-suffering partner who just wants some sun.
I dived with what was then Laguna and is now called Orca Divers, the dive centre attached to Happy Life Village.
My check-out dive was at Golden Blocks, which acts as the house reef. This is a relaxing mooch around two coral heads at 7m, but for the more adventurous there is a very large (2m wide and 2m tall) gorgonian fan coral at 25m. Afterwards you can be back in your apartment in minutes.
Um Cid was a similar dive but required a five-minute overland dash in the truck. Down at 20m you can find some very cool lionfish. They dont move at all, so photographers can go in for close-ups without getting the famous lionfish cold shoulder.
There are free shuttle trips from the complex into Dahab in the afternoon and evenings. Reassuringly, you pass the hyperbaric chamber as you fly down the road. In the seafront area you will be confronted by a wall of eloquent salesmen, pushy though pleasant. One told me he had studied at Oxford.
Coloured lights span the narrow beach, where hundreds of restaurants compete for your Egyptian pounds. Hubbly-bubbly smokers sit cross-legged in the bars smiling happily (I understand that cannabis is banned), as local music wafts around you.

THE NEXT DAY WE WERE BACK in Dahab for a dive at the Lighthouse. We changed in the street, leaving our possessions in boxes on the pavement.
A short stroll down to the sea - with several nervous glances behind us - and the contrast could not have been greater between the grubby streets and the reefs awaiting at about 9m.
Scorpion and stonefish sat on coral outcrops and the reefs looked to be excellent condition, considering the number of divers in the water.
Touch anything here at your peril.
I placed a cautious two fingers on a piece of hard, dead rock to fend myself off as the current brought me towards the reef (yes, weve all done it) and was assailed by a fist-waving local dive guide.
Seventy-five bar later and all calm again, we continued our dive. He was of course waiting for me and my buddy on surfacing, with a few dive-guide friends, and the whole eye-bulging, fist-waving episode commenced again in front of 50 or so bemused tourists. Oh joy.
Still, far better that than a dont-care attitude, and there had been some fabulous table corals between 20-30m and huge shoals of jewel fairy basslets inhabiting the hard corals slightly higher up.
After lunching on kebabs while reclining on mountains of cushions, my guide and I embarked on a dive at the fabulous Eel Gardens. You walk up to your waist in water for 40m or so, then slither into a depth of about 10m of water bottomed by bright white sand to find hundreds of garden eels swaying gently in the current.
Garden eels always spot you coming, however much you try to creep. Large wrasse circled above, and there were some spectacular soft corals inhabited by thousands of anthias on the way to the exit point.

AT THE MORE WESTERLY END of the diving from the resort was my favourite dive, the Caves. At the horseshoe entrance you sit on the rocks and wait for a wave to wash you into the water, then descend to about 7m to find two shallow caves to explore.
Caves always offer photographic opportunities, and these didnt disappoint, with shimmering sunlight illuminating the white sand outside the entrance as you explore inside.
You can move from one cave to the other with ease, as both are above 10m. There is a chimney to explore, and unusual anenomes with bright orange tentacles inhabited by some extremely large anemonefish.
For a change from the resorts meal choice we visited one of the many Bedouin beachside restaurants to lunch on selections of meat kebabs, fish and salads.
With camels wandering back and forth, the ambience was sublime. Three courses with two drinks cost about £4.
On our final dive day we took a 4x4 and headed about nine miles east to the Blue Hole. The heat at mid-day was astounding, and we kitted up in our 7mm wetsuits in the car park, in what felt like 40°C. With the water at about 22°C, I felt I would need those 7mm.
You enter the water at a spot called the Bells - well-named, because you clang the rear of your air cylinder on the edge of the rock as you enter the very narrow archway.
Only one person can enter the water at a time, so you have to wait your turn. Normally OK, apart from the heat, the suit (with hood), the 300m walk in full gear from the car park, and the 12 or so fashion-conscious Italian divers ahead of us, checking each others hair and colour-co-ordinated equipment - something they would do all over again once in the water.
But having left the Bells and Italians behind, we entered the Archway, a spectacular vertical canyon of rock descending from the surface. Exhaust bubbles from the dozens of divers below formed a dazzling wall of air.
We turned right and made our way along the reef wall at 20m, ascending slowly to about 7m. The wall was a treat, alive with soft corals, sea-fans, anthias and scorpionfish. But you dont hang about here, because you have to fin 250m to reach the entrance to the Blue Hole.
This advanced dive consists of a cylinder of rock going down to 100m. At 60m you take an underwater tunnel for 30m and exit at 50m. Not for the faint-hearted, and a row of plaques at the Bells entrance recognise some of the many divers who tried and died in the attempt.
For us less-ambitious visitors to the Blue Hole there was a small shoal of blackfin barracuda to watch on the exit from the dive, and an insane number of snorkellers eyeing us from above.
My final dive was in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the desert. We kitted up under the curious eyes of a herd of camels sensibly sitting in the shade. The Canyon comprises a 3m lagoon descending to 15m, where you will find a coral tower with caves and millions of glassfish.
Dive to 30m and look up through the ascending rock formations. The caves and rocks make interesting patterns, and there are swim-throughs everywhere.
On our ascent my dive guide Silvie demonstrated her marine dental-hygiene technique by opening her mouth to let little cleaner wrasse swim in to clean her teeth.
Dahab is a simple place, though there are plans to develop it heavily in the near future. It is perhaps at the stage Sharm was at 15 years ago, so go before the developers move in.
I flew home the day before the infamous bombs exploded in the town. One of the young dive guides with whom I had worked lost his life that day. It is perhaps all the more important that we stand up to the men of violence, if only in some small way, by continuing to visit such beautiful and interesting places.

  • Zac Macaulay flew with Thompson Fly to Sharm el Sheikh and transferred to Dahab by road. He dived with Orca Divers and stayed at the Happy Life Village, A seven-night stay starts from £459 for flights, transfers and half-board. A 10-dive package including air, weights and transport, costs £120.

  • Divernet
    Reef life at Um Cid
    Exploring the Caves
    lionfish at Um Cid
    free dentistry courtesy of cleaner wrasse at the Canyon
    Diving the Blue Hole site
    scorpionfish at the Lighthouse
    anemonefish at the Caves