IT’S JUST OVER 20 YEARS since I first visited Egypt. My early diving days in the Sinai involved 4x4 transport for what was then mainly shore-diving. Many of the sites we enjoyed so much in the 1990s are now covered with exotic resorts, leaving it almost impossible to access them from the shore.
I hadn’t done a shore-based trip for many years, so I started to look into Red Sea locations that could offer “back to basics” diving as I remembered it.
The result was a visit to Roots Camp, a dive resort in Abu Sauatir near El Quseir, just 90 minutes’ drive south of Hurghada.
I met Steve Rattle, resort owner and chief instructor of Pharaoh Dive Club, the in-house dive facility. Steve took over the small and at the time run-down resort a few years ago. He has invested to make it a simple but fun location for budget diving.
Roots Camp is just a few hundred metres from the sea and the pretty local house reefs. My first impressions on arrival were that it resembled an army encampment.
Huts line the perimeter, surrounding a large flat central area. I could easily imagine it as a parade ground lined up with Foreign Legionnaires in a black-and-white movie.
Steve left the rat-race of Sharm el Sheikh six years ago to get away from the tourist holiday trail. While exploring the local reefs, he discovered a huge labyrinth of sea caverns, most of them accessible from the shore. Some of them went 40m back into the reef system.
I had been through a cavern and cave course in Florida 15 years ago, and was fascinated to see what Egypt had to offer in this area. So I sat in on one of Steve’s cavern courses, and followed the training of two students, Bruce and Jonathan.
The first morning covered theory and an introduction to equipment needed.
In the afternoon the team practised laying lines around the camp, tying off to whatever random objects they could find in the desert. It was amusing to watch them doing the drill blindfolded, bumping into the prickly cacti growing wild in the camp!
After a briefing we headed to the house reef, Abu Sauatir. A sheltered changing area perfect for kitting up and relaxing has been set up there, with ample space for resting between dives.
We entered the shallow lagoon, and were led down the gentle sandy slope to the opening of the cavern. The students made their primary line tie, following up with the second tie-off.
Team leader Bruce led the way, with Steve demonstrating how to lay the line as the team passed through the passages.
The training cavern had plenty of openings above it accessing the reef, so it was an ideal location for training divers unversed in overhead environments.
After a few more drills, we collected the line and made a dive on the house reef heading south.

THE REEF CONSISTS MOSTLY of hard coral, with little soft coral to be seen, so I found it fairly bland compared to typical northern Red Sea reefs. However, as we glided along and the reef dropped gently to 25m, Steve pointed out many cavern entrances, all of which would require a visit during the week.
The sandy slope continued dropping down to 50m. Interesting large coral heads rose up 10m from the slope, including a large red anemone attended by a group of resident anemonefish.
The following day we repeated the dive and practised out-of-air and no-light drills. John then led the dive, while I followed at the rear. The cavern tunnels were fairly open and easy to swim through, with a glimmer of light always visible somewhere.
John continued to make tie-offs, and swam deeper and deeper into the reefs. As we finned along, we could see small tunnels going off in all directions into the darkness. It could be tempting to stray off to see where they went.
Unlike freshwater caves in which I have dived, the rocks here are covered in a fine abrasive coral which would be unpleasant if it grazed you, so gloves and a full suit are worth considering if you take the course.
Students wearing only shorties did get caught out by the rocks, and came out with some scratches and scrapes.
We had run the 100m reel back into the reef and were out of line, so we tied off. The team did a gas check – one student had hit his rule of thirds. Bruce untied and ran the reel back to the opening. After a few more drills in the cavern entrance, we retreated to the beach for a debriefing.
Steve reckons the area affords some of the best cavern-diving he has done. “That was just the beginning – you haven’t seen anything yet!” he promised me.

THE NIGHTLIFE IS QUIET compared to other dive resorts, and there is little to do at night but sip a cold beer and count the stars in the desert sky.
But if you enjoy a good seafood meal, El Quseir itself has a great restaurant called Federous. Many divers who have visited the Sinai Star in Sharm recall with pleasure its good-value food. Well, Federous offers the same early-’90s value, so you can eat out and well for about £8. We enjoyed several meals there.
The following day, we drove down the coast for half an hour to the Serib Kebir reef. This site was more popular with other dive centres, though still relatively quiet.
Entering through an opening in the reef, we found a much larger cavern system, with many more tunnels to explore. Bruce led the dive, so Steve decided to throw other spanners in the works. This time, the guys were separated from the line. They had to search around blindfolded to find it.
To make things more exciting, I lay on the bottom as an unconscious diver and deliberately blocked their way.
While I disrupted the exercise, Steve swam off and hid from the students.
So once they had finished their first drill. they had to search for a lost diver, who was in fact curled up in a cubbyhole in the roof of the cave.
Steve threw in many different scenarios that were amusing to watch through the week. It was always interesting for me to see how the students would cope.
We left the system and dropped through an arch in the reef to enter a spectacular coral garden cut back into it. The reef was horseshoe-shaped, with huge rock pillars rising sub-surface. The site was well-sheltered, so the visibility was clear.
It was late afternoon, and rays of sunlight were dancing on the coral heads. Masked pufferfish perched on these like soldiers – this was clearly a cleaning station.
As we made our way back up into the shallows, we scoured the sands and shingle for macro subjects. I was lying flat on the sand to photograph a small flounder when I felt a commotion beneath me.
From out of the sand a grumpy stargazer appeared. The strange fish shuffled along the seabed, its downturned mouth making it look intensely miserable.
We watched as it melted itself back into the seabed. All that was left was a pair of eyes and that gaping mouth.
The site was also a good one for spotting another strange-looking species, the seamoth. These fish are hard to find, but we saw two pairs on different occasions.
On the last day of the course we headed to El Quseir to visit some of the other sites. Roots Camp does have a day-boat, though it appeared to be permanently on the dock, acting as a floating kitting-up station. We duly kitted up there before taking the RIB to nearby Fanadir Reef.
We made for a shallow wall in just 8m. The water was green and silty, perhaps because the site is quite close to the harbour, but it includes one of the best cavern systems in the area, called, perhaps inevitably, the Cathedral.

STEVE LED US TO A HIDDEN opening in the reef that he discovered a few years ago. The team tied off and entered the tunnel.
There was quite a flow of water coming out of the system, so we had to work hard. Using the pulling and gliding technique we crawled through a huge alley of boulders, taking refuge from the flow every now and then behind crevices and rocky outcrops.
As the passage got narrower the current got stronger, but finally we reached the main room. We took a break at one end of it, where there was no current, and checked our air. Little shafts of light danced on the cave floor. Various entrances led to other passages, but we had hit our thirds rule, so it was time to head back.
The exit was fast and furious, as the team were forced through the restrictions. The smaller the restriction, the faster we went.
We were finally spat out of the system back onto the reef and made our way along it, looking out for the resident pod of dolphins that patrol there. Some divers get lucky, and can spend up to an hour with them – but no such luck for us.
If you enjoy scenic diving, the Rock is a short RIB-ride north from the harbour and consists of a raised area that rises from 25m to 18m. It is found by transits.
We made a rapid negative descent to avoid missing the site. On this occasion the current was strong, so we had to drop quickly and keep a visual reference as we did so, or we could easily have landed on a sandy bottom.
The whole reef was covered in hundreds of anemones and thousands of anenomefish. It’s well worth touring this colony, and it is the place to get that perfect clownfish shot.
After 30 minutes we drifted off and connected with the main reef to enjoy a gentle drift dive.
If you’ve been thinking about learning to cave-dive, Steve’s course will give you an idea of the skills involved before you undertake full cave certification.
The Red Sea provides a great warm-water location for this, and the course is fairly inexpensive compared to the one I did all those years ago in Florida. You won’t get the clear passages you find in Mexico, but you will get that Red Sea magic!
The PSA (Professional Scuba Association) Cavern Diver course accommodates divers with as few as 50 dives.
Steve has added other skills from different training agencies’ syllabuses to make it, as he sees it, more interesting.

THE COURSE TAKES FOUR DAYS and includes eight open-water dives. A PSA cavern manual is included. When you complete the course PSA certification is awarded, and for an additional £30 divers can get their PADI Cavern cert.
All the skills you learn should apply to all of your diving, and will prove especially useful if you enjoy wreck diving.
The resort offers an affordable dive package for most budgets, whether you just want to dive the house reefs, or explore further afield and do boat trips. The house reefs are perfect for students, and many dive clubs use the location for their own training dives.
Roots Camp reckons it can offer 11 boat-dive locations, plus 22 shore dives and excursions to dive the Salem Express and Elphinstone, so there is plenty to choose from if you’re part of a group and not all of you are interested in caverns.
For my part I thoroughly enjoyed the cavern-diving, and would like to go back at some point to spend more time in the unexplored system.
The other attraction was the peace and quiet. I realised that it was the first time in quite a while that I had sat outdoors without being subject to light pollution or pounding music. Therapeutic!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Hurghada and transfer by road.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Roots Camp, www.rootscampredsea.com. Pharaoh Dive Club, www.pharaohdiveclub.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, though it can be very hot and windy in July and August
MONEY: Egyptian pounds, euros and US dollars
PRICES: The Scuba Place can offer flights, transfers, seven nights on a (soft-drinks) all-inclusive basis and unlimited house-reef diving from £639pp. For the PSA cavern course (minimum of two students) add £300pp. To include all local shore and RIB-diving, add £150. An Elphinstone day trip costs £50, Salem Express £40. www.thescubadivingplace.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.egypt.travel