PEOPLE HAVE BEEN DIVING IN THE SUDAN since scuba was invented. Ive been several times. The journey is never easy, which is probably why it is not as popular a destination as it deserves to be.
This time I went with Tony Blair.
Not many people know hes a keen scuba-diver. There were 13 passengers on the liveaboard, Royal Emperor, including the two escorting him. There was also the big policeman who could have been mistaken for Matthew Kelly if you half-closed your eyes.
Royal Emperor is quite a quick boat. It enabled us to depart Port Sudan and sprint north to Angarosh, after a couple of check-out dives with the grey reef sharks at Sanganeb. The winter weather made it a rather eventful ride.
It didnt take long for the crew to bail the 10cm of water that found its way into the cabins below decks. It was said to come from an air-conditioning unit in the wheelhouse that decided to make a run for it during the journey, fracturing pipe-work as it went. Jimmy JCS Smith was our dive manager, and he explained away the big wet with the usual relaxed matter-of-factness for which big Aussies are renowned.
Angarosh is the sort of small island with steep walls for which Sudan is famed. Its name means mother of sharks. A submerged tongue of reef at one end steps down in two stages with coral-covered plateaus at around 35m and 45m, before plunging into the abyss.
A swift current is caused by the water squeezing over the tongue, like air over the wing of a plane, drawing scalloped hammerhead sharks up from the depths. Grey reef sharks skulk in
Its the same at nearby Merlo Reef, where another submerged tongue drops to 40m before plunging into unfathomable depths, and at Abington Reef, topped with its relatively modern light, though unco-operative weather denied us a visit.
The submarine topography is similar at each end of the reefs of Shaab Rumi (Roman Reef) and Sanganeb, too, both famed for shark encounters.
Sometimes, for the reasons of conservation, it is necessary to use dynamite! I quote Jacques Cousteau from his Silent World television series.
Though very out-of-step with modern thinking, Cousteaus readiness to blow up the reef to make an access channel gave us easy entry into the inner lagoon of the Shaab Rumi reef.
Here Royal Emperor was able to stay anchored out of the rough water generated by a winter wind, and it proved convenient for visiting by RIB the remnants of Cousteaus Conshelf 2 (Precontinent 2) experiment, which saw men living for several weeks 10m under water.
Yes I know, it looked a lot deeper in his movie, but Cousteau was primarily a movie-maker and he was backed by a production company rather than a serious scientific organisation.
The stuff still sitting on the seabed represents those items Cousteau didnt feel worth recovering after the project was finished. Its the sort of dive that its worth doing once to be able to say youve done it, but while interesting, it wont grip you for that long.
Watching Cousteaus movie about it back on board was something of a shock, as you realise just how much was shot in studio conditions. Some things are best left as distant memories.
No, the high point of Shaab Rumi, like Angarosh, is the submerged reef that projects from it at both the north and south ends.
A fierce current usually pushes up over the edge of the reef. The result is a vibrant growth of soft corals and schooling fish - a golden glow of sweetlips, glittering hordes of horse-eye jacks, and toothy barracudas. Scalloped hammerheads are attracted, and the remains of one of Cousteaus abandoned shark-cages lies on its side with its resident, a large brown moray eel.
One needs to give such skittish creatures as sharks a reason to hang around. I tried my old trick of a lump of fish in a screw-top jar, taking the lid off only once I had positioned it in a niche in the reef. The idea is to draw the sharks by the smell of a free meal they are incapable of grabbing. This keeps them interested until smaller fish have consumed the bait, a lead weight on top of which renders futile any attempts by moray eels to steal it.
Ive never successfully drawn in hammerheads like this, but it usually works with grey reef sharks. This time it didnt work. I began to suspect that what I had been given by the chef was chicken that had gone off and smelled like fish only to me. To be fair, he did ask me how effective the meat was!
It was probably the divers, sitting round expectantly, who gave the sharks an inkling that a shark-feed was on the agenda. Some seven of them jostled for position for a while before they became disenchanted by the absence of a free meal, and disappeared.
The same thing had happened at Sanganeb during our second dive of the week. Seeing lots of divers, the sharks had buzzed around. Tony had enjoyed a heart-stopping moment when one grey reef shark, realising it was surrounded by air-bubbling monsters, had broken out by accelerating closely past his face.
Sanganeb has a traditional lighthouse, albeit now automatic, built by the British and matching that at Daedelus Reef in Egypt. Youre welcome to climb the 260 winding steps up to the light and take in a view that underscores that you are in the middle of nowhere.
I had been diving with a 15 litre steel cylinder, but these being in short supply, I let Tony use mine and switched to twin 12s. These proved useful for visiting the deeper part of the Blue Belt wreck (often called the Blue Bell in dive guides).
The name might seem incongruous for a modern freighter, but translate it into French (Cordon Bleu) or German (Blau Gurt) - or think Blue Riband.
This 2400 tonne freighter was built in Germany in 1950, and left Jeddah in December 1977 loaded with Toyota cars and a few trucks, destined for Port Sudan. Why she struck the reef at Shaab Suedi is a mystery. Some say she was making for a remote part of the Sudan coastline to unload some illegal cargo, but the charts show that such a deep-draughted vessel could not navigate through the reefs there. A gross navigation error is more likely.
Left high and dry, some of the deck-cargo was jettisoned in a futile attempt to lighten the load, as two tugs from Port Sudan attempted to tow Blue Belt off.
Evidence of those jettisoned vehicles can still be seen on the reef top and in the shallows. Dont believe those who say they ended up there after breaking loose during the collision with the reef!
There was no loss of life, but the stricken vessel turned over during the operation to save her and sank. The wreck now lies inverted and at a steep angle down the reef wall, the bows in 25m and the stern below 80m.
If you want to see any of the wreck below the upturned bow, it means diving deep. It reminded me of the wreck of the Levanso, which lies on Elba Reef, near the border with Egypt.
We descended to 65m, where a number of saloon cars lay. It was possible to swim inside the upturned hull and see many vehicles still hanging precariously chained where they had been stowed.
This is not a place to hang around. JCS, with a suitable diluent mix in his rebreather, was able to go deeper and look at the propellers. I was mindful of the 60m depth-limit warning on my cameras dome port once past that mark.
Back up at 30m lie the remains of several Toyota pick-ups, their reputation for indestructibility severely damaged. It would take more than Jeremy Clarkson and his TV crew to get one of these started now!
A massive juggernaut tractor sat on the reef above the bows. It was hard to recognise from some angles but a second deep stop here allowed me to get a picture that revealed it as a truck rather than a mere mass of tangled metal.
Switching to a rich nitrox mix cut short the deco stop but it was still around 20 minutes at 3m, which allowed for a long and gentle swim back in the direction of the Royal Emperor, hanging on reef lines in the lee of the weather.
It also gave us a chance to pick up those items of kit dropped by divers from Royal Emperor during a fraught RIB pick-up the previous week.
If scrap metal interests you, visit Port Sudan. The shallow Wingate Reef, which punctuates the busy anchorage outside the port, is an obstacle that awaits the unwary skipper. In 2003 alone, three vessels foundered here.
A small freighter, the Hassanein, sank almost before my eyes during a previous visit. The Madad lay high and dry atop the reef, and the cargo ferry Jassim came to grief too.
The most famous of all Wingate Reef wrecks must be the Umbria, formerly the Bahia Blanca. Hans Hass claimed this as the most exciting shipwreck of them all, probably when he first dived it, when it had been submerged for only nine years. The years since have taken their toll.
In 1940 Italy had yet to enter the war, but there were indications that Mussolini would do so. In late May, intelligence sources told the British that the Umbria was carrying vast quantities of ammunition and other war supplies to the Italian colony of Eritrea, and attempts were made to hold her up during her passage through the British- and French-controlled Suez Canal.
She finally made it out into the Red Sea, however, shadowed by HMS Grimsby. Learning that she carried, among other items, 360,000 bombs, it was decided to stop her at all costs.
The battle-cruiser Leander intercepted and escorted her into the outer environs of Port Sudan, where Grimsby crew-members boarded her.
What followed was a game of bluff and counter-bluff. The Royal Navy had control of the ships radio room but the Umbrias Italian skipper heard on a personal radio that Italy was due to declare war on Britain within two hours. He asked permission to practise lifeboat drills and got most of his men clear, as officers were beginning the irreversible process of scuttling the vessel from under the feet of the boarders.
The wreck settled on its side, intact, on Wingate Reef. RN bomb disposal experts declared it a hazard and said that if any bomb was detonated, the resulting tidal wave could destroy Port Sudan.
The Umbria is such a big wreck that although its deepest part is at little more than 30m, the starboard-side lifeboat davits used to break the surface.
Recently it has settled a few feet deeper - I compared the depth of the propellers with my logbook entry of 11 years before, and the massive starboard prop can now be visited at around 24m.
When I first dived the wreck in 1992, it seemed intact, yet encapsulated in coral. Today a lot of the metalwork such as the rails has deteriorated and collapsed, so one has to be more careful about swimming in the superstructure.
The holds are still stacked with masses of bombs and boxes of small-calibre ammunition. There are wine bottles and building materials for fortifications, such as bags of cement.
The remains of three Fiat Lunga cars are strapped in position far back in a between-deck hold. Lost in the dark, they are easy to miss.
Short penetrations of the living quarters are relatively easy if there are no other divers to stir up sediment and obscure your exit route. Smaller items such as the pots and pans in the galley are in various stages of decay, but the three pizza ovens and a pizza-dough mixing machine are still looking relatively good.
Finning back along the open decks, youre struck by the vast amount of equipment, including endless massive steam-winches, consigned to the deep. The funnel has fallen, as have numerous huge deck-ventilators.
Little marine life is in evidence other than a few yellow-painted Arabian angelfish, surgeonfish, sergeant-majors and the ubiquitous large grouper.
I watched the grouper following Tony Blair and his two escort divers as he carefully inflated his DSMB from among the clutter of rigging on the aft deck.
We were unlucky with the weather on our January visit. The wind was unusually from the south, bringing masses of plankton and poor viz. The sky was always gloomy and overcast.
However, we were even less lucky with Sudan Airways. We were delayed for several hours on our outward leg from Cairo, but worse was to come on the way back.
The Sudanese Information Minister had decided to fly in from Khartoum on our incoming aircraft but had kept it waiting. Meanwhile we waited at Port Sudan airport, informed hourly that our flight would arrive in 55 minutes.
We sat out 16 hours on the filthy floor of the near derelict building, without adequate toilet facilities or any form of comfort. If you go, pack a Li-Lo.
Couldnt they have done something better for Tony Blair Oh no, he wasnt that Tony Blair. Our Tony Blair has a car-respraying business based at Towcester.
The Royal Emperor.
A moray eel with anthias at Sanganeb
Grey reef sharks at Shaab Rumi.
Schooling jacks at Angarosh.
Passengers ashore at the light house on Sanganeb reef
One of several Toyotas spilt from the wreck of the Blue Belt.
A Toyota truck in less-than-good condition near the Blue Belt.
Marguerita with anchovies Pizza ovens long gone cold on the Umbria
Ammunition litters the wreck of the Umbria.
One of the many deck winches.
Holds are full of bombs and artillery shells
GETTING THERE: London Heathrow via Cairo with Sudan Airways.
DIVING: Royal Emperor can be booked through Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel (0800 0728221, www.scuba.co.uk). Liveaboards tend to operate out of Port Sudan in the short term before moving elsewhere.
WHEN TO GO: February -May or October/November.
MONEY: US$ and credit cards are accepted on the boat.
COSTS: An eight-day trip with two overnights in Cairo costs1295.