|THERE ARE FEW THINGS WORSE THAN FINDING A MISSED CALL from your travel agent on your mobile phone on the evening before you are due to fly on holiday.
One thing worse is arriving at the airport after a 3am start to find that the ground staff will grudgingly admit to having heard of your airline, but not of your flight or destination airport.
It turned out to be nothing serious, just a combination of the inaugural flight to Marsa Alam and a three-hour delay. Astraeus, the airline, gave us a meal voucher worth six whole, bright, shiny pounds to compensate.
And the cabin staff did free drinks on the flight, which otherwise was the usual squash-em-in and strap-em-down package-tour special, though gloriously half-empty.
I was travelling for a week on a liveaboard in the south of the Egyptian Red Sea. In 2000 I did the same trip on the same boat, Coral Queen, at the same time of year, flying into Hurghada and making a six-hour coach transfer south to meet the boat at Wadi Lahami. That week we saw only one other boat on one day, and never shared a dive-site. It was idyllic.
Today, the tour operators offer almost as many liveaboards from the Elphinstone south as there are on the classic northern itineraries, and resort hotels are opening up along the coast and running dayboats to the sites we had to ourselves only three years ago. With the opening of the new airport, things can only get more crowded.
So, mlud, can the deep south possibly be as special now as it was three years ago
Marsa Alam International Airport turned out to be a trim enough little building, enlivened by staff wearing surgical masks to protect against SARS.
My passport was examined by an immigration official who acted as though he had never seen a multi-entry visa issued by the Egyptian embassy in London. He probably hadnt, as this was, after all, the very first flight in, but he was ever so courteous as he wished me a pleasant stay.
Then the baggage came, and within an hour of landing we were aboard the coach and heading south, for just 90 minutes this time. Halfway through the journey my mobile lost any signal. That was that for telecoms for the week.
Note that we omitted the obligatory duty-free beer run. This is because Marsa Alam doesnt have a duty-free shop or, if it has, it was closed.
Or perhaps the crew of the boat just wanted to flog us beer they had already bought to augment their wages.
Three years ago, Coral Queen was moored all alone in the middle of a bay and we had had to wade out to a little inflatable to be transferred aboard.
Now she shares her bay with three dayboats and a couple of other safari boats, and a rough jetty stretches almost to her mooring. The last 20m is still covered by inflatable, however, and a hot meal was waiting for us once we had made the transfer and found a cabin.
The following morning we had to wait for dive permits to be issued and brought to the boat, and then we were away. Our first site lay in the huge patch of offshore reefs that make up Fury Shoal.
Buddy pairs were simply sorted. You dived with your bunkie, and we did our check dive among the rocks of a reef called Malahi, which means playground in Arabic.
The reef is a jumble of rock-heads and hard coral patches crowding together for company, and forming swim-throughs, overhangs and caves where they meet.
A pair of small whitetip reef sharks were happily dreaming their day away in the darkness of a deep undercut until they were woken up by noisy tourists and decamped for quieter parts, and on the very top of the reef were the tamest unicornfish I have ever come across.
Visibility was reasonable, though the water was a little clouded with floating sediment, and the temperature was 26C. Thermoclines could be seen shimmering in the water, and the temperature wouldtumble to 22C in some places and rise to 29C in others.
Our dive guide, Ahmed Fadel, decreed that we would dive the same site again before moving on. Looking around from the deck I could see a number of boats moored on reefs within Fury Shoal, and moving on would have meant sharing a site - so no arguments from me.
Liveaboard dive boats operating both north and south are becoming bigger and more luxurious. I have no problem with luxury - the south without air-conditioning doesnt bear thinking about - but 20 or more divers all going plongee at the same time from the same boat is too many.
Not that many boats were full when I was out there. The levels of discount that have been available from tour operators recently shows just how desperate for business they have been.
We headed south for a night dive at Mikauwa Island, went to bed, heard the engines fire up at 4am, and finally woke up at St Johns Reef at about 8.
Habili Wasta is a pinnacle rising from deep water to within a couple of metres of the surface.
Habili is the Arabic word for an unborn foetus, and is used to describe reefs such as this, which dont quite break the surface.
The boat moored off the eastern tip of the reef, and her RIB took us in two groups to the western tip. Mohammed, the RIB driver, counted us down from three and we rolled backwards next to the wall, which fell sheer behind us.
Four hammerhead sharks greeted us at 35m, and they shouted for another three of their mates to come and have a look at us before all seven lost interest and swam off. No matter, a pair of big grey reef sharks was ready to take over the keeping-an-eye-on-the-divers duty.
This site turned out to be three in one. Deep off the western tip were big-fish encounters, both walls from about 15m to the reef top were covered in pristine hard corals, and the reef top was an aquarium no deeper than 4m and stocked with all the usual reef fish, plus Napoleons, a turtle and a very distinctive bumped-head parrotfish.
It was such a good dive that we unanimously requested to do it again.
The afternoon dive and night dive were at a different site, a reef pitted with deep caves and overhangs just begging to be explored. One entry point, in a mere 4m of water, led into an arched cave flooded with sunlight from cracks in the reef-top.
It was like swimming into a small church while the congregation was absent. A chapel opening off the back wall held what looked for all the world like a Canaanite sacred pillar. Some Gregorian chant would have gone down a treat.
A second entry-point further along the reef led into a much more extensive system of caves. Here again the reef top was cracked and fissured, allowing fingers of natural light to play through the deep blue water, and giving a clear surface if the worst came to the worst.
At night the bumphead parrotfish use these caves to sleep in, and they can be approached very closely. These extra-ordinary fish grow to well over a metre long and use their bump heads as a battering ram to smash up the coral, which they then proceed to eat.
These facts are very important when deciding how close is close enough.
After they have eaten the coral, they digest the organic parts and excrete the rest as sand, and when a fish this big eats this much coral, that means a lot of sand. The locals noticed this, so the Arabic name for these fish, abu kharian, translates as father of shit. Ahh, bless!
The deep southern parts of the Egyptian Red Sea are still relatively undived, but Ahmed was with Coral Queen at the start and can probably claim more experience in this area than anybody. The bumphead night dive neatly illustrated the advantage this gave us when another liveaboard dropped her divers on the same site. Unaware of the caves and sleeping fish, they bumbled away on a standard along-the-reef-and-back-again Red Sea night dive and missed the really exciting bit. Shame.
Most days started with a pair of big wall dives around a patch reef in the morning, followed by a shallower site for the afternoon dive. The night dive would be on the same or a similar shallow site.
The entries in my logbook mention more sharks, shoals of barracuda, snappers, tuna, reef fish in profusion and, below 30m, huge gardens of pristine fan corals. And for once, pristine really does mean pristine - huge umbrellas of coral without any breaks.
Habili St Johns Reef is noted for schools of fish, not sharks, but there were six grey reef sharks there nonetheless. The habili was a small and almost perfectly circular cone shape, so the plan was a simple plunge into the deep, followed by a long, long spiral around the walls.
A brisk run from the north meant some heart-pumping swims followed by a great whoosh of drift to get our breath back before repeating the whole process again. Sorted the fit from the faint, dontcha know The wusses just hid in the lee and admired the fishies.
And then we had just two days to go.
We were briefed the night before our next dive. We would enter the water from the RIB, assemble on the surface as one party, and follow the dive guide to 35m on the northern tip of the reef. Then we would swim into the blue and wait.
If we were lucky, we would see four big hammerheads approach to check us out. Then, if we were even more lucky, they would pop off and collect the wives and kids and we would be in a school of 20 sharks. Ahmed described the encounter as though it were a religious experience. For him, perhaps it is.
Our chances of the encounter being successful were around 60%. Alas, we fell into the 40% and missed the big school, but we still had two big hammerheads cruise past as we made our slow way back to the surface.
That afternoon we dived Fury Shoal Garden. One of the first rules of diving abroad is that any site with the word garden in the name has been trashed.
This is so universally true that it has been incorporated into the basic courses offered by PADI and BSAC.
Not so Fury Shoal Garden, where Ahmed again showed us the benefit of experience by leading us through a small swim-through into a pair of natural hard-coral amphitheatres which were stunning in their size and health. For the second time we saw another boat unload her divers for a very nice reef dive but miss the best part of the site.
Then the final day came around and we ended the week on a reef named Claudia in honour of a lady.
Big reef observed one of our party. Big bird he asked, and for the first time Ahmeds English wasnt up to it.
The whole reef was rent through with atmospheric caves, and seemingly carpeted with blue-spotted rays. It even had a big grey reef shark, until I frightened it off. Outside the caves at one end of the reef was a small coral pinnacle less than 3m in diameter, but boasting such abundant and representative reef life that it would be worth a dive in itself.
Is Egypts deep south still special Well, there are a lot more boats, so it doesnt feel remote and pioneering, but in one week I made 23 dives, spent 25 hours submerged, saw sharks on at least two dives every day and was in the water with the divers from another boat on only one occasion.
There are even wrecks. Go now.
|a lined butterflyfish |
|the Coral Queen |
|reef in the shadow of the boat |
|These southern Red Sea reefs are still in an impressive condition |
GETTING THERE: Mike Ward flew from Gatwick North to the new international airport at Marsa Alam with Astraeus. Direct flights operate every Wednesday, but only in summer - there are none from November to May and you would have to travel via Hurghada.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION :Liveaboards such as Coral Queen are the best way to dive the area, with standards varying from good to excellent. Hotel holidays are available, from three-star upwards, all offering diving. Oonasdivers, which organised Mike Wards trip, also offers dive camps near Marsa Alam and further south at Wadi Lahami, opposite Fury Shoal (01323 648924, www.oonasdivers.com).
MONEY : Egyptian pound, but sterling and US dollars are widely accepted. Hotels usually accept major credit cards, liveaboards expect extras to be settled in cash.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. Water varies from 24°C in January to 31°C in August, so an 8mm suit will do for winter and a 3/5mm in summer. A full-length suit is recommended.
COST: Coral Queen costs£915 per week including flights and taxes. Some trips include marine park islands and charge a fee of $100, payable on-site in cash. The only extras on a liveaboard trip will be tips for crew and dive guide, beer and, on some boats, soft drinks. Hotel packages cost from£600 a week, including diving, Oonas camps from£595. Adding a second week to a land-based trip costs from£150 including diving.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Egyptian State Tourist Office, 020 7493 5283, www.touregypt.com.
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