BY THE TIME I’M OUT OF HURGHADA AIRPORT and on my way to Orca’s Coral Garden dive centre at Gassous Bay, the daylight is fading. By the time we get there, it’s dark. No matter the time of year, they just don’t get long evenings in Egypt.
The night dive has already started.
Off the beach, turquoise beams cut through the darkness beneath an otherwise inky black sea.
I had been asked if I wanted to join the night dive. Perhaps they would have waited for me. But to be honest I’m not a great fan of night dives, and especially not straight off the flight. It would have required the kind of rushed preparation that leads to mistakes and leaking camera housings.
Which brings me to my reason for coming to this tiny, off-the-main-road location – an easily accessible bit of Egypt that seems to have been forgotten in the rush by divers to get further and further south.
With unlimited diving in the bay, there isn’t the pressure to make every dive count, as there would be on a more ambitious trip. Here I can get to know the house dives in the knowledge that
I can always come back with a different lens, or explore a bit further along the reef when I’ve seen enough, all with the immediate reef pretty much to myself.
I drop my bags in the room, rinse the dust from travelling off my face and head back to the beach just in time to see the night divers return.
What I really need to do is check with one of the staff what time diving starts in the morning. Orca is German-run, and I wouldn’t want to be late.
“What time would you like to start” is the response I get from Sabrina, who is filling in while manager Lutz is away in Germany. We settle on any time between 8 and 9, because Sabrina arrives at 8 and then has some breakfast while waiting for divers to arrive.
I have a bottle of Stella at the quiet beach bar before turning in – a personal ritual that finally says: “I’ve arrived.”
“How many dives would you like to do today” says instructor and guide Babs when I’m introduced to her in the morning.
Babs is on her day off from Orca’s Safaga centre, and has come to be my buddy, model and guide, while building up some easy hours on her new APD Evolution Plus rebreather.
She has been told that I’ll be a safe buddy with whom to practise.

WE SETTLE ON A COMFORTABLE PLAN for three dives, working from macro to wide-angle through the day.
I almost change my mind when Sabrina tells us that dugong had been in the bay last week. Perhaps I should start with a wider lens But no, I stick with the plan.
Babs suggests a figure-8 route, starting in the middle, looping south across the sand and seagrass beds past some isolated clumps of coral, briefly touching on the southern reef, then finishing along the northern reef.
It’s a route designed to give me an orientation and overview without getting too deep or far from home.
The sand and seagrass provide a chance of muck-life, the isolated corals concentrate small clusters of fish and shrimps at cleaning stations, and the reef is what you would expect of a Red Sea reef. All perfectly good diving, but without the wow of the offshore sites.
Our plan of an hour-long dive is broken towards the end, on the northern reef, where we spot a pufferfish enjoying a good clean-up.
Blue cleaner wrasse are wriggling enthusiastically in and out of its circular gill openings, mouth and anus. Another 15 minutes and I finish with just about 50bar left from 15 litres of nitrox.
The only other divers we encounter are a pair going the other way just before we exit.
Back in the dive centre, there are signs of other divers. A few kit crates are out, clothes and towels are hung on pegs and the line of full cylinders has halved.
While I rinse off and change, some divers exit at the beach. Others are off with the pick-up and minibus for shore dives along the coast, and won’t be back for a few hours.
So I don’t get to meet them yet, because in a couple of hours’ time Babs and I are back in the bay, this time heading out further and deeper along the southern reef.
I take the chance to play with an 18-50 medium zoom lens I have not had in the housing before. Back in the days of film I had an equivalent lens that was ideal for fish-hunting, so I’m looking mainly for the fishy subjects to be found anywhere on a Red Sea reef.

AT THE SAME TIME
, I use the longer range of the dive as a reconnaissance of wide-angle locations for later in the day.
There are sections of wall but it isn’t that simple, because cuts into the reef form canyons, dead ends, caves and grottoes, and I will want to return to the best candidates.
I meet some cool fish, but am not 100% happy with the lens and port combination. At some levels of zoom the pictures are not as crisp as I would have liked, and when it focuses very close the rim of the port casts a shadow from the strobes.
I wouldn’t write it off yet; I have other combinations of ports and dioptres to try, and the convenience of the shore-diving is ideal for experimenting.
The only disadvantage is the fine coralline sand suspended in the water at the shoreline. It gets into nooks and crannies, and I have to be careful to thoroughly clean grooves and O-rings when I return to my room to change lenses. Perhaps I should settle down to
a lens per day rather than per dive, to cut down on the number of camera-openings
We finish another 15 minutes over our planned hour-long dive. Good job I’m on nitrox.
Babs gets her O2 cylinder topped up, and I get another 15-litre tank of nitrox. The compressor is set up for continuous blending from a bank of J-cylinders of oxygen.
The planned wide-angle dive later in the day goes exactly to plan. We head out to the previously reconnoitred caves, canyons and overhanging bits of wall. Babs poses, and I take pictures.

A SINGLE STELLA TO WASH my dinner down stretches into two and then three as I get talking to some of the other divers. All are repeat visitors, or here on recommendation from friends. All are attracted by the quiet and uncrowded location; no noisy disco bars, no one but divers. Away from it all, but only just over an hour from the airport.
My next day begins lazily, the pickup leaving for a beach dive along the coast at 10am. A bigger hotel with more stars lies on the other side of the bay, and a few divers walk along the beach from there. The Orca dive centre serves both hotels, and the best shore-diving entry point is right in front of that one.
Six divers including Sabrina is an awkward number. It’s too few to make a second truck worthwhile, so we all squash into the passenger and back seat of the double-cab. Kit is piled in the back and secured with a cargo-net to prevent bits of wetsuit flying away.
The Lighthouse dive is about halfway back to Safaga. We pass it on the road, then double back along the desert track to the shore.
The back reef is shallow and wide and runs out to a lighthouse at the point. The entry point is a split in the back reef that runs in just north of the lighthouse, easily visible from the shore as a green slash through the turquoise shallows.
It’s a fully kitted walk across a couple of hundred metres of shallows to get there. Our driver leads the way, picking out a route that avoids potentially ankle-breaking ruts, and matching our path to that trodden by others before us.
By the time we’re halfway there, I’m wishing I had selected a 12-litre cylinder. By the time we’re all the way there, I have decided that a 10-litre would be a better option.
I can see spots nearby where the reef-line is closer to the shore, but the white foam of breaking surf means that we can enter where there are natural cuts in the reef.
A rope laid in the cut gives us something to hold onto while pulling out through the surge, into a tunnel and then, suddenly, we’re out in the blue.
While the house reef by the dive centre is suitable for beginners, this dive is certainly not. The dive is easy enough, but there is no room for error. The only way out is back through the same tunnel. Even something as simple as surfacing low on air would put you in deep trouble.
The other divers head off in pairs to do their own thing, leaving me with Sabrina to drop down the reef and out across the sloping sand to some isolated blocks and tables of coral.
The blue-spotted rays are remarkably co-operative, snoozing in the shade or enthusiastically rooting out their elevenses with barely a bat of an eyelid, as they don’t have any.
We head back shallower along the front of the reef, partly as a good dive profile, but also to make sure we don’t miss the exit hole. Small pipefish, nudibranchs and shrimps suggest that perhaps I should do some more macro photography.
I had considered a wide-angle shot of the tunnel, but sand washed off the back reef has made the visibility yuck once inside.

AFTER A RETURN TO THE DIVE CENTRE for lunch, I’m glad that our afternoon excursion to the aptly named Green Hole is second. It’s a few miles south of the Lighthouse and a very similar entry, except that the reef crest is only half as far from the shore, and the entry point is more of a big round hole in the back reef than a split.
Both are excellent dives, though this one is less effort. The highlights are conveniently a pair of pillars just outside the entrance, though our dive ranges further just to let us have a look around.
It sets a pattern that I think will be good for a week, alternating days on the house reef with some excursions up and down the coast.
Ranging further out along the north and south sides of the bay, there is plenty more of the house reef to see.
If the more advanced beach diving by pickup truck doesn’t suit, it’s only a short ride to Safaga to catch a boat out to Panorama Reef or the Salem Express wreck. But that would belie the main reason for being here – simply to relax, dive and get away from it all.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew from London Gatwick to Hurghada with EasyJet, www.easyjet.com. Ground transfers to Gassous Bay take about 80 minutes.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Orca Dive Club Coral Garden, www.orca-diveclub-coralgarden.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round
MONEY: Egyptian pound.
PRICES: A five-day unlimited house-reef diving package costs 225 euros booked online. Basic bungalow rooms cost 21 euros pp per night. Flights cost from £140-360 according to month. Return airport transfers cost 25 euros.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.experienceegypt.com