21 May 2008
More of the Red Sea
It's May and we are still sitting at Dolphin Reef waiting for the winds to subside. But life is good. Rene has baked cookies and we still have a case of Coca Colas left. The winds are such that we cannot or should not get off the boats.
Day six and the winds are still 30 knots out of the northwest and the weather forecast predicts no change for at least two more days. Even then there are only short windows of opportunity when the winds come from a direction that we can sail or light enough for us to motor. But there are many anchorages if we need to pull in between here and Port Ghalib where we will check into Egypt.
Day seven and we move the boat from the eastern anchorage of Dolphin Reef to the western and an hour after we set the hook, Alim from My Chance calls and alerts us to a pod of sixty or so dolphin in the anchorage. Within minutes we are having an experience of a life time. As the pod moves through the area they swim around us inquisitively and then if you dive down three, four or five will follow and swirl around you as you ascend. They are close enough to touch but you don't want to do anything that will jeopardise the experience. They come eye to eye with you and you think they must see you as silly with all brightly colored fins, mask, wet suits and snorkels. The experience lasted for about 30 minutes then they appeared to get bored with us and moved on. I know that people swim with dolphins all the time but this was not three or so dolphins that were fed into compliance but a wild pod in an uninhabited area of the Red Sea. The dolphins seem to come near from a sense of curiosity and without any fear.
After the dolphin depart we explore a nearby coral head and even with clouds above the visibility is 60 feet plus and there is a wide variety of reef fish. It is some of the best snorkeling we have done since the South Pacific.
The "check in" procedure is accomplished without getting off the boat but it takes two days before the final proper paper work is ready so we must spend a night or two at the marina resort. The facility is under construction still but today can accommodate a number of yachts and dive boats. The first night we dined at the hotel and then attended the belly dancing show at the bar. It was more than belly dancing, a whole troupe of dancers entertained the crowd. A swirling male dancer in hooped skirts twirled for an interminable time using his costume to create patterns in color and shapes. This dance has a religious background centuries old and the Sufis claim that the swirling state brings about a trance that brings one closer to God. When we departed there were two people in horse customs waiting to go on stage which no doubt had no religious significance.
We now know why the pharaohs were always shown with someone fanning them. It's not the heat. It's the blasted flies. Here we are at a new resort in the middle of the desert and these slow flying insects contaminate the day. They are annoying and we can't keep them out or find a repellant to drive them away. We did however find a spot without flies. While wandering through the complex we entered the Palace Hotel a new five-star resort. We were given a full tour (no doubt because they didn't want us wandering around). Security was very high and hey no flies inside or outside. Now that's security. Each night at twilight a fogger sprays the area around the resorts but not the marina.
We departed the next day with our share of flies. You wonder how a resort can succeed in such a desolate place but then you think about Las Vegas and it doesn't seem impossible. Some of the best dive spots in the world are nearby and western Europe is a short flight away. We were told that 900 Russian tourists were to arrive later that day.
Not so fast. We headed out and before we could make the 120 miles to Abu Tig Marina we were forced to anchor at Ras Abu Soma having to sail back eight or so miles. So here we are again waiting for the prevailing northwesterly winds to die down from 25 knots to something a little more reasonable so we can make our way to Abu Tig. Strong northwesterly winds are common in this part of the Red Sea, so you go as far as you can and then wait for the next opportunity to continue north. You may think that Egypt is all pyramids and desert and camels but along this shore it is all about luxury destination resorts being built one after another. As we wait we are surrounded by wind surfers and kite boarders enjoying the winds while luxury dive boats spend the day here to avoid the high seas. Think tourism not terrorism. The sea is beautiful and you should visit before it is wall to wall resorts.
Instead of going for Abu Tig, we make the 40 mile run to Hurghada where we catch up with our companion boats that departed the day before. At the Hurghada Marina we plan our next move while enjoying wi-fi internet, fuel, water, power and a very nice facility. Outside the gates of the marina is a large city much like any resort town packed with tour operators and stores selling souvenirs. The streets are filled with Russian tourists and at the risk of offending someone they are easy to spot in their garish attire. We wonder why anyone would wear clothes that are designed to draw attention and demonstrate such bad taste. If I offend anyone you can e-mail me at email@example.com. In a few days we have organized a trip to the Nile and since it is a last minute reservation during the off season we believe we have made a good deal.
We depart Hurghada in a small mini van which is in the company of twenty or thirty other tourists buses and vans. In this leg of the trip you must travel in a convoy with military protection. In 1997 terrorists attacked tourists making their way to Luxor killing 58. Since such an incident ruins a four billion dollar industry for a long time the Egyptian Army now accompanies any travel into and out of Luxor. The protection consist of a small truck with a couple of lightly armed soldiers in a leading and trailing position. There seems to be no enforced speed limit in this convoy and by the time the five hours is up we are really going fast, everyone in a hurry to get there. There was one stop from Hurghada to Luxor were travelers rush off the buses headed for the bathrooms and the ice cream vendor. The Lonely Planet thinks the police escort is a pain and that protection is just setting the buses us up like sitting ducks. But hey it's the law so just sit back and enjoy. Also remember that you may be crossing the Sahara desert so there is a safety factor with regards to mechanical failures.
In Luxor we are now committed to the tourist package we have organized and at each stop we are greeted by a guide to lead us to our next step. We arrive in Luxor at 9:30 in the evening and the Hotel Morris has a dinner buffet. The dinner was light but appreciated. After dinner we retire to our room to find that the a/c is not working. There is a fan blowing but no cold air coming out. So for the rest of the night we try not to think of the heat, looking forward to the next morning when we meet downstairs at 7:30 to start our adventure. From Luxor we go by train to Aswan where we are greeted by another agent who then takes us to our cruise ship. This will be our home for the next three days and we are about as happy as can be. You see we have air conditioning, big beds, we can take hot showers at will and there are three buffet meals served daily and the food is wonderful. Oh yeah the top deck has a swimming pool. The river is stacked with such boats and even though this is just the start of the high season we can see it is going to be crowded. The boat takes us along the Nile and stops at different archeological sites. The six of us have an assigned guide (you see while making the reservations our friend Alim used his credentials as an international journalist and everyone wanted to make a good impression on his entourage so he would write a favorable article). Our first stop is to the Aswan Dam and the High Dam. President Abdul Nassar built the dam to help control the Nile and generate electricity. Since the water reached levels high enough to overflow the Aswan dam it became necessary to build another dam at a higher elevation hence the High Dam. This second dam would flood areas that contained many important archeological sites so eighteen were moved. In fact one was moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The largest site relocated was in Abu Simbel and we included an extra day to visit this site. It is a 2:30 AM wakeup call to make the side trip but we are back on the cruise ship in time for lunch. Buried in sand for centuries, the site was discovered in 1813 by a Swiss explorer. The temple was built to honour Ramses II and the four statues are of him, all four large and meant to be intimidating to his enemies. In the 1960's Lake Nasser threatened to cover the temples so UNESCO cut them from the mountain and moved them 688 feet back and 213 feet above their original position. Notice that the second one does not have a head. It was broken in an earthquake in 27 BC so when they moved the site they left the head lying next to his feet, as they had found it. The inside of the temple is also quite impressive. There is a smaller temple at Abu Simbel and it was dedicated to the goddess Hathor, built by Ramses II to honour his favorite wife. We can't begin to tell you enough about each site we visited but in summary it is a spectacular adventure and if given the opportunity you should take it. That afternoon while we were having lunch the cruise ship pulled out of the port of Aswan and headed north to Luxor. We stopped 25 miles north of Aswan to visit the Temple of Kom Ombo. Construction on The Temple of Kom Ombo began in the 2nd century BC. It was dedicated to two gods - the left side to the falcon god Haroeris and the right side to Sobek, the local crocodile god.
We traveled through the night so that the next morning at 6:30 we were ready to be picked up by horse drawn carriage and taken to see the Temple of Horus in Edfu. The interesting thing about this Temple is that it was buried under sand and silt for over 2,000 years before being discovered. Probably because of this it is the best preserved temple in Egypt. The guide that was assigned to us in Aswan is still with us and will stay with us until the end of the trip. He is very informed about each and every temple and can express this to us in an understandable story.
Later that evening we are in Luxor. The next morning we visit the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak Temple. The Valley of the Kings was chosen as a burial ground because of its secluded location in hopes of stopping the robbers from stealing the priceless pocessions buried with the Kings. Today there have been 83 tombs discovered with the 84th possibly in process now. Even though they were buried deep inside the limestone hills all but three of the tombs had been raided. It was quite a treat to be able to go into three of the burial chambers to see their highly decorated corridors - symbols of the afterlife and ritual paintings to assist the pharaohs in the afterlife.
Each site we found more amazing than the previous. Our brief descriptions do not even begin to explain the temples and the history to go with them.
We make our way back to the boat by convoy but this time we share the minibus and every seat is taken, a small inconvenience for such a wonderful trip. When we arrive back at the marina every boat is covered with a fine layer of sand but if you would have seen how dirty the boat was when we first pulled in to the marina, we have no complaints.
If you're headed our way:
- Slow down, the Red Sea has some of the best dive and snorkeling sites in the world and too many times we think only of banging our way to the next destination. The Red Sea is much more than a passage it's a......... semester in college. Yea that's it. There's is so much to learn and experience that you won't have enough time.
- Visit the Nile during the off season but remember that no matter how wonderful it is it is still a tourists joint. A few people will try and take advantage of you. Start with a fixed price and don't waiver. When the street tout shows you something and tells you five pounds the only thing you can be sure of is that it is much more than five pounds which would be less than one US dollar.
- Perta, Jordan is a wonderful place to visit. We didn't consider it during our passage but if you take your boat to Aqaba you will find Petra nearby. See our log of February 2009.