Camel Diving Safaris in easyJet magazine
Nic Fleming discovered that, “A trip in the Red Sea near Dahab offers divers the chance to avoid the crowds, by hopping on a camel and riding to deserted beaches with pristine coral reefs.” Read the full article here, or in easyJet Traveler magazine.
Reef Diving and Camel Riding in the Sinai
by Nic Fleming for Easyjet Traveler Magazine, September 2009
A rapid clicking noise means speed up. Sucking, whooshing sounds translate as go forward, and guttural growls instruct the animal to stop and kneel. Unfortunately, my crash course in camel vocabulary does not include a way to tell my ride to stop eating someone’s bamboo-reed roof.
I am in Dahab on the Gulf of Aqaba, which stretches north from the Red Sea in Egypt and I’m about to set off on a diving trip with a difference. Instead of hopping on a boat to get to the dive sites, I will be riding a camel, along the coast to remote beaches that give direct access to the coral reefs that fringe the gulf’s coastline.
Before we leave, our guides label our camels either Bob Marleys (laid-back) or Michael Jacksons (highly strung), depending on their temperaments. But as we start our safari, my mount refuses to be pigeon-holed. Ignoring the way along the rocky coastal path chosen by the others, he plots his own course, on occasion randomly charging off into the lead or stopping to chew on whatever is within reach, including a hut’s bamboo-reed roof.
My form of transport may be unconventional, but it’s a great way to avoid the crowds that flock to the Red Sea’s more accessible dive sites, such as Sharm El Sheik, south of Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula. They come here to enjoy great weather, warm seas and world-class diving – wrecks, walls, canyons and rich coral reefs. The well-known Thistlegorm Wreck has up to 500 divers per day jostling for position in high season, while heavy traffic has started to damage the renowned Canyon site.
THESE SPOTS ARE without doubt worth visiting. However those seeking more pristine underwater environments may need to go the extra mile. Which is why I am now lounging next to a campfire in Ras Abu Galoum, a fishing village of six Bedouin families, who live in wooden shacks on a beach overlooking Saudi Arabia. After a long day’s riding and diving (which started at 6am) I am relishing the rest, along with my fellow divers, a British couple working in Dahab, a couple of German tourists, a Norwegian student and a woman from The Netherlands. With us are Said Khedr, the Bedouin boss of a local tourism company, and Mahmoud, one of his employees.
As twilight glows pink and orange across the mountains inland, we eat a simple meal of flat bread, fried chicken, rice and salad and talk about the day’s adventures. As we sip endless glasses of sweet mint tea, the conversation turns to Bedouin culture. The 80,000 or so Bedouin of the Sinai live mostly in the arid, mountainous interior. While around a third now earn a living in tourism-related jobs, many still live traditional nomadic lives, tending goats and camels, and migrating periodically between vegetable gardens and orchards.
Through the fading light a man chugs towards us on a battered motorbike bearing wood to replenish our fire. Captain Salem, as he is known, settles down for a tea and a yarn. With Said translating, we learn he has 17 daughters and five sons by five wives. He made his fortune piping water down from an oasis and shipping it to Dahab.
SAID’S STORY IS no less intriguing. When he first visited as a boy in 1983, Dahab was a paradise of palm trees, pristine coral reefs and turquoise blue waters. He returned as soon as he had finished school, learning to windsurf, freedive and scuba dive, then getting work in one of the area’s first dive centres. Since 1996, Said has been leading camel diving safaris and discovering new dive sites, such as those at Ras Abu Galoum. He was already thinking of setting up his own operation when he met Canadian Tanis Newman, who went on one of his trips in 2002. She fell for both his vision of a more adventurous diving holiday and for his charms. Tanis left her advertising job in London, married Said and together they set up Desert Divers.
The company specialises in multi-day, Bedouin-style trips to remote spots using jeeps and camels, sleeping in simple wooden shelters or under the stars. Prices range from €180 for two days to €450 for five, including equipment hire. Said and Tanis connect visitors with local people and the local environment, to provide rewarding experiences, encourage respect for the land, and increase beneficial tourism. Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed – the EU-funded South Sinai Regional Development Programme recently awarded the venture a grant to continue developing and promoting sustainable tourism.
Getting to know the local people was a bonus of the trip, but for most of us it was the diving that was the focus. At Ras Abu Galoum, we did four dives off the nearly deserted beach, which meant we didn’t queue to enter the water, or have to make our way around other divers. All our concentration was on the vast gardens of unspoilt coral and breathtaking quantities and varieties of fish.
Vast clouds of orange basslets congregated around pinnacles in all directions while groups of iridescent angelfish, Red Sea bannerfish and slender yellow cigar wrasses flitted past. Pairs of anemonefish bobbed territorially over their anemones, while ghostly silver pipefish darted by. A huge dark Napoleon wrasse, a tuna and several jackfish were spotted in the murky depths.
On our dives we also saw torpedo rays, hovering over luminous purple and blue clams as large, multi-coloured parrotfish dashed past. A family of common lionfish had taken up residence in a giant yellow waver coral. On the seafloor I could see a bizarre giant pufferfish and a grumpy-looking scorpionfish. Hiding in nooks and crannies we spotted a fabulous blue-spotted stingray and a number of moray eels.
At the sight of a small, striped, metallic blue, white and black fish, I removed my regulator and hesitantly bared my teeth in its direction as instructed. It wasted no time in swimming up and nibbling gently at dead skin on my lips. The common cleaner wrasse acts as a form of underwater dentist/barber shop for other species in return for the meal this provides them. Our brief exchange left me feeling like I had truly connected with the underwater world.
My glimpses of the multi-faceted life below the waves complemented the insight I had gained into the life of the Sinai Bedouins. As we left the tranquillity of Ras Abu Galoum, heading for the bright lights of Dahab, I felt I’d gained a better understanding of Said and Tanis’ mission.
Returning with a little more knowledge of the Red Sea environment and inhabitants made me feel protective towards them.
On the way back along the coastal path my anarchic camel again dawdled and took time out from its job of depositing me back in something approaching my natural habitat. I decided that even if I had known the camel command for “Hurry up, I’d like a beer and you’re not supposed to chew that”, maybe I wouldn’t use it, as even if he was eating someone’s roof, who was I to say he didn’t deserve it?