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Diving in Dahab

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The Sinai Peninsula offers scuba divers a different view of the Middle East

Thou shalt not step on the coral. That must have been the 11th commandment, lost to the world atop of Mount Sinai. The nib of land that separates Africa from Asia holds a legendary allure, both in biblical lore and regional conflict. It also has some of the best scuba diving in the world. The Gulf of Aquaba, in the Red Sea, offers some of the most dazzling marine life found anywhere, and it’s all right off-shore.

The first thing we noticed about Dahab is the friendliness of the people. Everywhere we turned, people were pouring us tea and imparting us with gifts. Our guesthouse manager, whose "cousin" owned the restaurant across the way, took care of our first round in the hopes we would stay loyal to that particular café. Shopkeepers would insist that we come in for tea and, of course, the sales pitch and display of goods. Even after we convince them that we really are not interested in buying anything, they still won’t let us leave without a "birthday" present.

Cozy beachside lounges entice us with bonfires, fresh fish and free salad buffets. The restaurant touts out front, after being told that we just ate, still offered a hearty "Welcome to Alaska! Pleased to meet me!" and bid us goodnight. Being told by some to expect quite the hustle and hassle in Egypt, we were pleasantly surprised by the local amicability and the low-pressure of the touts and vendors.

Our first day diving was to include a refresher, since it had been over six months since our last dive. After a quick review of basic skills, we were off to explore Lighthouse Reef in the bay. After lunch, our dive-master took us to a site called Islands. The coral outcroppings here are massive, and the sea-life brilliant. Unfortunately, our dive ended in a 10-minute surface swim with 30 bar of air left, because our DM kind of lost his way looking for a new exit through a hole in the reef.

The next day we had a different DM. She had it more together. We swam out across the coral to a crack in the reef, and descended 30 metre into the Canyon. This is not the place to get claustrophobic. The walls of the Canyon are encased in coral and the submarine hallway teems with fish. We ascended into the aptly named Fishbowl. Through a crack in the wall we watched a Lion Fish swim by amidst a sea of smaller fish and backlit by the distant sun. Beautiful. Swimming back along the reef we noticed bubbles from the divers now in the Canyon percolating towards the surface of this very large aquarium.

We drove to our next dive site. The Blue Hole is renowned in the diving community as a test for those who like to dive the deepest. For all intents and purposes, it is bottomless. Plaques adorn a nearby point, commemorating the more than 200 divers who have died there, exploring their limits. The dive itself begins at Bells, where we fell through the reef into nothing. After levelling off at 27 metres, we swam along the endless wall, half expecting something to snatch us into the vast depths. As we swam over a ridge, we suddenly found ourselves in the Blue Hole. It is important to keep a close eye on your depth gauge here, as there is nothing on which to get your bearings. Blue everywhere; what floating in space must be like.

Our third dive of the day took us to the Eel Garden. Here, the reef meets the sandy bottom, where sand eels stand and sway like snakes hypnotized by a charmer. They retreat as you approach, and reappear as you swim off. Garden indeed.

The swim back along the reef is magnificent, but against a strong current in the afternoon, it was quite tiring after three dives.

That night, a two hour mini-bus ride found us in Sharm el-Sheik. The Sinai roads have frequent military checkpoints. These checkpoints are manned by the ragtaggiest bunch of soldiers you can hope to see. They have automatic rifles, but their boots are undone, their shirts unbuttoned, and their belts unbuckled. Their job seems to be to hang out, joke around and smoke cigarettes. It hardly seems surprising that Israel has managed to open a couple of pretty big cans of whoop-ass on its southern neighbour.

In Sharm, we boarded a cruiser, scored a cabin to ourselves, and proceeded to round the tip of the Sinai Peninsula into the Gulf of Suez.

After a 7:30 wake-up call, we had a quick bite, suited up and jumped into our first wreck dive. As crossing the Mediterranean during the Second World War was a risky proposition, the SS Thistlegorm went the long way, around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, laden with supplies for British troops in North Africa, only to be sunk by a German long-range bomber as it entered the last stretch of its voyage. It is in excellent shape (considering) and is full of railway cars, jeeps, and motorcycles. Our first dive took us around the wreck (which sits diagonally on the bottom, perfect for a safe dive profile), while our second one brought us inside some of the ship’s decks and cargo holds.

Our third dive that day drifted between Shark and Yolande Reefs, situated in Egypt’s only national park, Ras Mohamed. Clown Fish pop in and out of the coral, like balloons at a rock concert. Turtles, eels, and rays glide over countless features in the most stunning underwater landscape we have ever seen. A very special place.

A smaller shipwreck than the Thistlegorm had spiled a load of toilets and sinks along a part of the reef, providing humorous photo opportunities (if only we had a camera) as the coral slowly engulfs the ceramic. Unfortunately, our dive was cut short by the apparent lack of experience displayed by one of our companions. Using his regulator at the surface (instead of his snorkel) and inflating/deflating his BCD to maintain buoyancy (instead of using his breathing rhythm) quickly brought his tank pressure down to 50 bar while the rest of us still had 100-120. It was somewhat frustrating watching him flail around like a fish out of water, wreaking havoc on the coral. Sometimes it’s a shame you can’t choose your companions on such excursions.

Due to the danger of suffering from symptoms of decompression-sickness, it is ill-advised to climb Mount Sinai if you have been diving that day. The Greek Orthodox St. Katherine’s Monastery sits at the base of the 2,285 metre Jebel Musa. It is believed that God spoke unto Moses in the form of a burning bush at the site of the monastery, and that the Ten Commandments were given to him by the same god atop Mount Sinai.

The beautiful monastery was swarming with tourists. The spiritual atmosphere one might expect was completely drowned out in the jam-packed church. This is a place where limiting the number of people inside at one time might be worthwhile.

The climb up the mountain and the Steps of Repentance weren’t difficult, but the top proved to be very cold and windy. A friendly Bedouin at the tiny shop serves tea, and provides blankets and a seat beside the heater. A small church watches over the rising and setting sun, and the views are breathtaking. It is obvious why this piece of land has been so desirable through the ages.

Our guide book suggests that Dahab is a wannabe Ko Samui, a popular Thai diving resort. We feel that the opposite is true. However, Dahab exemplifies the lack of originality present in many countries. Neighbouring beach cafes have the same menu, the same cats, the same Bedouin girls selling the same bracelets, and play the same music. Invariably, the latter will be Bob Marley's Legend. Across the road, neighbouring shops sell the same perfume, the same papyrus, and the same T-shirts.

But, the people are extremely welcoming and Dahab is absolutely gorgeous. The setting is perfect, the diving is epic, and the light of the setting sun on the Arabian mountains, across the silvery blue sea, is sublime.