|There are billions of stars overhead, shining with laser-like brilliance in the Sinai night sky. Behind the Bedouin goat-hair tent, our camels shuffle more comfortable furrows as they sit with characteristic camel awkwardness on the rapidly cooling sands of Gebr el Bint.
In the shallow waters of the coral reef in front of our camp, small shoals of flashlight fish create soft blue circles of neon-like light. One of our Bedouin guides approaches, his hands dripping and glowing as if holding some radioactive fuel rod. He has picked up one of these fascinating fish to give us a closer look, before returning it to its easily located shoal.
The desert is teeming with life - its not at all the desolate wasteland it may initially appear. Of course its not all cuddly fascination and wonder - we have to be careful to check under our blankets before going to sleep, and shake
any folded-up clothes in the morning before getting dressed. Scorpions and snakes are equally at home here.
Dahab is a small Egyptian Bedouin town on the edge of the Sinai desert, on the Gulf Aqaba. For those divers seeking a more tranquil alternative to the hustle and bustle of the two heaving diving metropolises on the Red Sea, this friendly little community comes as a refreshing alternative.
Dahab is still dominated by the desert people it was built for. It is relatively undiscovered, but with all the comforts of a few modern hotels such as the Nesima thrown in. It also has the advantage of offering only shore diving, which leaves much more time to do things other than waiting on board a boat all day.
The Nesima hotel, on the southern side of Dahab, is only about 60 minutes drive from Sharm el Sheikh airport. Palm trees grow in its grounds, and all of its 33 rooms are square. Their domed rooves are of traditional Islamic design, not simply for aesthetic reasons - they throw the heat of the sun away from the room, while the internal dome and arches aid the circulation of air. But of course most people just use their remote controls to adjust the air-conditioning.
A grand canyon
One of our first dives is to a site known as the Canyon.
Its a 15-minute drive away in the dive schools pick-up truck, through the dusty goat-filled streets of Assilah - the predominantly Bedouin part of Dahab - then out along the coast some 5km north of the town.
Finning north from our lagoon entrance, we pass rocky outcrops and coral heads,
with their attendant clouds of iridescent fish. Contouring a 25 slope of such features, we arrive at one of the Canyon entrance holes. It opens up in the seabed beneath us as if the earths crust had split apart.
Hovering in free-fall stance at 15m for a moment, I savour the abyssal-like chasm beneath me, then button-dump the contents of my BC and start a 10mph drop. The rocky canyon walls slide up past me, and my eyes become accustomed to
the dimming gloom. Above me, in silhouette, my fellow divers cascade down the wall like some surreal slow-motion human waterfall.
We reach the Canyon floor at about 30m, but it stretches invitingly down to even deeper, darker waters. Moving up inside the Canyon is exciting, as the gully narrows to an S-bend that is soon wide enough for only one diver at a time. Once through, I find myself in an upturned bowl of thick fish soup. Its a rocky cavern with several fairly large holes around its perimeter.
What makes it astounding is the fact that were all inside a vast billowing fog of glassfish, sweeping majestically in a liquid poetic motion around us, over us and under us. All Red Sea divers know the thrill of glassfish, but Ive never seen them in such vast numbers as here in the Fish Bowl above the Canyon.
Shore diving is fun around Dahab, but I had heard of one site in particular that I really had to visit. Its an area of desert shore known as Gebr el Bint, which means The Tomb of the Little Girl. Legend has it that a Bedouin girl eloped with her lover, but was caught and killed here by her family.
If the name suggests violence and morbidity, the corals here provide evidence of beauty and gay abandon. They are reported to be some of the finest anyone could hope to see in the Red Sea. The trouble is that the only way to reach this site is by helicopter - or camel. We opt for the latter.
Nesima is (at the time of writing) the only dive operator to offer a two-day safari to Gebr el Bint, and I jump at the chance of joining one of the trips.
Our day starts early, with all our dive kit, food, a compressor and two cylinders per person being loaded into a 4x4 and trailer. We drive south out of Dahab and are soon on a dusty trail flanked on one side by cerulean blue, and on the other by steep, imposing cliffs.
Eventually, the road ends in front of an impassable jagged rock wall. The Bedouin tribesmen hired for our onward journey trekked out here the previous day and are waiting for us when we arrive.
All of our kit is soon divided up into loads and strapped or slung over half a dozen quiet camels. These arent the same spitting, snarling, drooling, irritable monsters I have previously encountered on day trips around the pyramids. They are calm, placid animals. When I mention this to our dive guide, he replies that the secret lies in the fact that their handlers, the Bedouin tribesmen, are half camels themselves!
Once the camels are loaded, we pick one each and perch ourselves on top of everything else it is carrying. The ride along the desert shore is a soporific, lolloping one. With the camels soft feet padding silently in the sand, the only noise is the surf on my left, and a pair of fins creaking in time with the movement of my camel.
We enjoy two dives on the reef at Gebr el Bint on our first day, while our Bedouin team members occupy themselves with setting up camp and cooking the meals. Some other dive groups on their day-trip camels come and go, but its the evening and early morning that I find really special, possibly because we have the whole area to ourselves.
The trip lasts just two days, but we still feel like returning adventurers when we get back, dusty clothed and desperate for the hotel swimming pool.
On my last day - a day of no diving due to the flight home - I could have visited Mount Sinai, site of the burning bush and where God handed Moses ten fairly important tablets of stone. I chose instead to go snorkelling with a dolphin that for the past two years has befriended a deaf-mute local fisherman from a neighbouring town. For a mere 10 Egyptian pounds (about£2), this was an equally religious experience.
Dahab is a growing town, and the Red Sea diving it offers is certainly world class. It is all shore diving, but this has plenty of advantages. Theres no doubt that the diving at Gebr el Bint is worth the extra effort, but my short time with the Bedouin tribesmen was equally important.
The Bedouins are a genuinely friendly people, full of interest in the outside world and consummately wise in the ways of the desert. Bedouin tents are comfortable, and spending time in a camp is a fascinating experience - made all the more pleasurable when you know you will be returning to an attractive air-conditioned hotel room afterwards!
GETTING THERE: Direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh cost from£199 return..
DIVING DETAILS: Dive packages can be booked through UK travel agencies..
ACCOMMODATION: Hotels include the Nesima, Novotel, Golden Beach and newly opened Hilton - contact Divers World 0181 275 0101 and Destination Red Sea 0181 440 9900..
English widely spoken..
FOR NON-DIVERS: Visiting Mount Sinai, plus windsurfing, waterskiing, snorkelling, camel safaris, mountain biking..
The usual Red Sea flora and fauna. The nearest recompression chamber is an hour away. Full insurance is always advised..
BEST TIME TO GO: All year round, but it is coldest and windiest from January to March..
WATER TEMPERATURE: 21-26C. The sea is deeper than around Sharm, so its a little colder. A full 3mm wetsuit is recommended..
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: all levels, but emphasis on adventurous..
COST: The Nesima hotel offers two dive packages -
a six-day package for experienced divers from£468 including flights, transfers, B&B and two dives a day with guide; and a training package from£524..
A new area for divers with spectacular coral and dive sites. Smaller and friendlier than Hurghada and Sharm, with less hustle. Shore diving gives more time to enjoy other activities..
CONS: Surf can make entry and exit over rocks difficult, especially with a camera. Wind-generated surface currents can be strong. Dahab may lack glitz, but dont let that put you off!
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