The remains of one of the Toyota trucks scattered on the reef top near the Blue Belt.


ONE WRONG TURN WAS ALL IT NEEDED. My heart started to race as I suddenly realised the implications; that my lifeless body might only be recovered long after I ran out of anything to breathe.
What an awful feeling it is, when you realise you are trapped inside a wreck at night. You can get disorientated and lost so easily. Everywhere I looked was very familiar, except that it seemed that no matter which direction I swam in, I was confronted by an impenetrable bulkhead.
After three or four attempts at different routes, and seeing even our careful finning beginning to stir up the sediment and reduce the visibility, my anger at not finding what I was looking for began to turn to fear; the fear that we might never find our way out.
It was then that my heart began to climb out of my chest. My buddy, JT, seemed oblivious to our predicament.
I was responsible.
Weve all made mistakes, but in diving some mistakes can be fatal. I had dived the wreck of the ss Umbria many times before, so when JT asked me to show him where the three Fiat cars were stowed, I didnt hesitate.
Alas, the difference was that we were diving after dark, and there were no tell-tale patches of blue daylight to indicate the route back out. It was just a question of whether the rich blackness of the night was going to eventually reveal itself as another dead end, or if wed hit the open space of the ocean.

IT WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE DIVE, we were shallow and we had masses of gas to breathe. Nevertheless I was relieved eventually to find the strobe I had placed at the exit for safety.
Obviously one such light was not enough, and an important lesson had been learned, with the only cost an interesting peak in the logbook heart-rate read-out of my Galileo computer.
The wreck may have been familiar, but we should have used a reel and line.
Once we came across a familiar pile of bottles, we knew we were in the wrong hold. Gaining my bearings, I was able to get directly to the cars. This time, however, I took the precaution of not only repositioning the strobe but leaving my back-up light tied off at the turning point where we lost sight of the strobe.
The Umbria is the must-see dive site within the environs of Port Sudan. Formerly the ss Bahia Blanca, this passenger/cargo vessel had a long pre-war career, transporting goods between Italy and Argentina before she was sold and renamed.
Visibility is never very good on Wingate Reef, where the vessel lies.
Her crew scuttled her after she was arrested and impounded by the Royal Navy in the Red Sea, the day before Italy entered WW2.

UMBRIA STILL MAKES AN AMAZING DIVE; Hans Hass called it the best divers wreck in the world. The holds are piled high with the aerial bombs and munitions that were being smuggled into Italian-occupied Eritrea.
Lying at 45 with the remains of the davits on the starboard side just breaking the surface, Umbria makes a great playground for divers armed with good lamps, and has lots of staterooms and open areas to explore. Its difficult to get deeper than 28m.
The three 1940s Fiat cars are not to be missed, though they are no longer in pristine condition, and theres the galley with its big pizza ovens and enormous dough-mixer too.
Its fun to drop into the engine-room through its lights, and wend your way down past stairways and galleries towards the triple-expansion steam engine with its massive con-rods. Its not a difficult penetration - in daylight!
There are two ways to reach Port Sudan, and if you want to dive in Sudanese waters you need the necessary visa and permissions first.
You can fly from Cairo on Sudan Airways. This flight provides plenty of anecdotes for later, even if your friends wont believe you. If you expect long delays waiting for bumpy low-level flights in an old, unpressurised aircraft with a broken windshield, you wont be disappointed. A long wait with extended formalities and endless paperwork also awaits you before you are admitted to the country.
Woe betide anyone with a bottle of liquor or a mens magazine in their luggage, or carelessly named teddy bears, for that matter! This is a country run with Sharia law.
The other way to go is by sea from Egypt. It was a very long way when
I did this in 1992 on an elderly vessel. The sea was rough and I spent my time on the aft deck, fielding those passengers who had chosen to ride at the bow as they came washing down the companionways on freak waves.
Other passengers found themselves flying involuntarily across the saloon table, such was the degree of roll.
This is why I didnt leap at the initial invitation to visit the Sudan from Egypt on mv Royal Evolution. But after a year or so of operation, and with all the formalities ironed out, I guessed its owner had a handle on how to do it smoothly. I was off. Early December might not be the best time to dive off Sudan, but I was willing to give it a shot.
Royal Evolution has a 40m steel hull with a broad 8.6m beam. Shes heavy and plods at a stately pace. Her width and relatively low profile above the waterline means that she rolls very little.
At times it felt like a journey on a cross-Channel ferry (though not as fast) and I was tempted to ask where Duty Free was! The saloon is as wide as some liveaboard saloons are long.
The cabins were equally spacious.
I rolled around in one of the few double-bedded ones, and avoided the temptation to watch satellite TV.
There were plenty of drawers and cupboards for my possessions, and none flew open in heavy swells. I have stayed in hotel rooms on land with fewer amenities. It was a treat to stroll around the well-appointed bathroom too, rather than bouncing off the walls.

AS WITH MOST MODERN LIVEABOARDS, copious freshwater supplies are taken
for granted. The diving equipment is stored ready for action on the spacious dive deck, and nitrox is supplied on tap. Three pick-up RIBs, taken on board while travelling by hydraulic hoist, cater for up to 22 divers.
Many Egyptian-built boats are beautifully finished inside, with lots of marquetry work and plush brass fittings giving an air of oriental opulence. Royal Evolution is fitted out in a very modern way and looks more like a Swedish furniture store.
You soon come to appreciate its functionality. It was one of the few vessels I have been on where I found it appealing to get on with writing in the privacy of my cabin, rather than taking up space in the saloon.

WE MANAGED A COUPLE OF WARM-UP DIVES at Egyptian sites in Fury Shoals before entering the no-dive zone 30 miles each side of the disputed Sudanese border. Once through immigration, both in and out of the country, we were free to go diving, and the Umbria was our first stop.
Then we headed back north, with early stops at Sanganeb and Shaab Rumi, reefs famous for the exploits of Jacques Cousteau and his black-mask divers, who lived in the Conshelf 2 underwater habitat back in 1963.
We were able to moor in the safety of the Shaab Rumi lagoon, thanks to
Cousteaus foresight in dynamiting a gap through the reef for his vessel Calypso.
Some remnants of equipment, too difficult to recover when they left, recall their sojourn here. A tool-shed and the underwater garage or onion for their deep-exploration saucer sit ready to be explored. The area resembles an underwater childrens playground.
A couple of shark cages, both now tumbled down from the reef wall where they originally sat, have been taken over by soft corals and, in one case, by a rather grumpy old grouper. He hangs around the remains of the cage on the plateau at the southern tip of the reef, like some ancient retainer.
While others chased about in the blue looking for scalloped hammerheads, doing impressions of Oscar Wildes unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable, I contented myself with close-ups of this spotty monster, an underwater pit-bull with as many teeth, and tried to ignore the attentions of a larger super-male Napoleon wrasse.
It was as if this grouper had inherited the spirit of Albert Falco, one of Cousteaus leading divers, and was guarding the real estate abandoned so many years ago. The marine equivalent of the hopelessly faithful dog Greyfriars Bobby, we nicknamed it Albert.
Above me, a huge herd of bison-like bumpheaded parrotfish congregated. These ugly creatures use their massive front teeth, invariably showing evidence of poor dental hygiene, to gnaw off great chunks of living coral. Diver reef damage seems insignificant once youve seen a bunch of these big boys do their worst.
I joined them in a thick soup of plankton to take a few unflattering portraits. I had to get really close to get any clarity.
I was disappointed by the shark action on this trip. We saw a handful of hammerheads in the blue, and a few grey reef sharks visited the reef plateaus from time to time, but encounters were always fleeting, and never produced good photographs. Even discreetly placing dead fish on the reef as bait had no effect. Have the sharks all gone to China Or were we just unlucky not to encounter any strong currents
At Angarosh (Mother of Sharks), I watched a couple of whitetip reef sharks disturbed from their daytime slumber in a little coral cavern.
A single immature scalloped hammerhead hurtled past and we glimpsed others out in the blue, but the most amazing sight was a school of chevron barracuda, so large and densely packed that as it rounded the underwater headland it looked like one massive animal. It passed and disappeared around the next headland, wraithlike, all in a matter of a minute.
I saw large schools of barracuda at Sanganeb and Shaab Rumi, too.
The wreck of the Blue Belt, loaded with Toyota cars and trucks, is something of a novelty dive. It lies inverted against the reef with its bow in the shallows and its stern at 80m. Rusty vehicles are scattered everywhere, badly deteriorated compared to, say, vehicles in the Thistlegorms holds.
You can scout about inside the upturned holds or have a laugh pretending to drive a truck, but one dive here is enough!

HEADING NORTH, our luck with currents changed at Merlo Reef, in a flow strong enough to blow every diver off the reef plateau. Again, there were a few hammerheads in the blue, and lots of bumpheaded parrotfish atop the reef.
At Abington Reef I saw two lucky fellow-passengers enjoy a momentary close encounter with a giant manta ray.
I was not close but could clearly see the huge white remoras it carried.
A little hawksbill turtle, a regular resident, provided me with some diversion as a consolation as it browsed for tasty sponges.
Heading into a prevailing wind can be a sobering experience, and some passengers looked a little the worse for wear after each night of rock & roll on our way back north.
But I am pleased to report that Royal Evolution reached Egypt virtually undisturbed; my toothbrush never once rolled off the bathroom worktop.

Massive
Massive bumphead parrotfish at Shaab Rumi.
One
One of Jacques Cousteaus toolsheds at the site of his Conshelf 2 experiment.
The
The Royal Evolution.
At
At Angarosh.
Three
Three Fiat saloon cars in less than showroom condition lie deep in the Umbrias holds.
The
The galley, complete with pizza-dough mixer.
Connecting
Connecting rods of the steam engine.
A
A grouper occupies Cousteaus shark cage.
Divernet
FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly to Marsa Alam in Egypt for liveaboard sailings. At least three empty pages are required in passports for visas, and any Israeli stamps preclude entry.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Royal Evolution has double and twin cabins with en-suite, safe, TV/DVD and minibar. Red Sea Paradise for Cruises, www.royalevolution.com
WHEN TO GO: Sudan is very hot in summer but this is when the sea is at its calmest.
health Royal Evolution carries O2 therapy equipment, but there is no hyperbaric facility in Sudan.
MONEY: Egyptian Pounds, US $, Visa and Mastercard.
PRICES: Prices for 13 nights full-board (twin-share) on Royal Evolution through Regaldive start from £2269, including flights from Gatwick, transfers, a night half-board at the Marsa Alam Coral Beach, beverages, Sudan visa and Egyptian re-entry visa, and port and marine fees for Egypt and Sudan. www.regaldive.co.uk