Egypt is famous for its ancient buildings, complex history, meandering Nile and bounteous Red Sea. Although I had previously visited the Sinai in Egypt, I hadn’t actually been to the African continent! So this was to be my first African adventure, two weeks to take in temples, tombs and some of the best diving in the Red Sea.
We hit Cairo in the middle of the night, several days after some tourists had been killed on a bus in the city, so we bypassed the big smoke heading to Luxor on a "First class" train – first class in Egypt is not quite what you’d imagine! It was a long, semi-comfortable and uneventful journey along the luscious green Nile. Once in Luxor, we stayed in a charming French colonial guesthouse built of mud. It was something out of an Indiana Jones adventure. The beauty, size and overwhelming history of the temples and tombs staggered us, but after a few roasting-hot, culture-filled days we needed sun, sand and salt water. We jumped on the colourful local bus to Marsa Alam, a trip not to be done alone because women in Egypt can get a lot of unwanted attention. It crossed a seeminly uninhabitable desert, where people would step off and wander towards distant desert mountains, heading who knows where.
Marsa Alam is a small uneventful town in southern Egypt, which is popular with divers due to its close proximity to some of the finest dive sites in the Red Sea; Elphinstone, Abu Dabab and Dolphin House to name but a few. Very few people actually stay in Marsa Alam, instead heading for one of the many resorts nearby. We immediately hopped into a taxi to Marsa Shagra Ecolodge, which sits on the shore of a natural bay, surrounded by desert mountains, 20 km north of Marsa Alam and 250 km South of Hurghada.
Marsa Shagra is described as "diving away from mass-tourism. In symbiosis with nature with a touch of comfort". Marsa means bay and Shagra means blonde – and blondes do have more fun! We arrived unannounced, having not booked a thing and were graciously offered lunch, before being shown to the Hut which was to be our sparse but wonderfully comfy home for the next few days. The resort is totally unique, generously spread out, with a communal restaurant in the middle, and a hidden gem of a Bedouin cafe at the far end of the beach, it’s not far from Paradise!
One of the most wonderful things about Marsa Shagra, is that you don’t have to wait for an organised trip to go diving. There are unlimited dives on the house reef, and you can jump in with any-buddy you find loitering in the shed, no divemaster required! You can dive straight from the shore or be dropped off and picked up by the zodiac, which runs backwards and forwards all day for just this purpose.
The house reef runs north to south with a small bay inlet, and goes from 1m to deeper then any diver requires. It’s an inviting reef that houses hundreds of fascinating fish and many thriving corals. I spotted a Napoleon wrasse that must have been well over 2m long, other noteworthy finds were; numerous sensitive Pipefish skittishly hiding from divers, badly camouflaged Crocodile and Scorpion fish, one cleverly disguised Frog fish, lots of dangerous yet picturesque Lion fish and a few big fat Moray eels.
Elphinstone is often reported to be one of the best dives in Egypt and is only a short RIB ride from Marsa Shagra. After a rough and very uncomfortable boat trip, we arrived to the 300m long pinnacle which is visible just under the surface, only to find about 11 liveaboard boats, with over a hundred divers in the water it didn’t feel so special from the surface!
Due to the rough sea, we made a negative entry and swam towards the rock-face, which plummets down to the depths. The divemaster lead us through the Jacuzzi of divers bubbles, towards the northern plateau where he excitedly pointed out a couple of Whitetip sharks slicing through the water 10metres below us, nearby a huge Napoleon Wrasse swam nonchalantly by, oblivious to the activity around him. As we hovered above the plateau at 35m, a grey reef shark, keeping a very beady eye on us, swam in for closer inspection and we watched in awe as it glided by. Before heading back along the coral covered wall, a magnificent hammerhead, muscles bulging like a bull’s, swam slowly towards us, with only metres to spare it changed its mind and in moments had powered down and out of sight. I hear that this is only a small section of the shark community at Elphinstone, and regardless of the crowds, I will endeavour to return.
Dugong Hunting at Abu Dabab is a short road trip from Marsa Shagra, and once at the beach it is a simple shore dive. Abu Dabab is a large shallow bay with reefs along the north and south edges full of colourful corals and plenty of reef fish, with a sea grass bed in the middle, which is the preferred eatery of the Dugong (Sea Cow), so we headed directly into the middle and started Cow hunting! Unfortunately, the Dugong was out that day, but in his place were two huge Green Turtles, leisurely munching the grassy fare with their bottoms swinging and suckers clinging. A shiver of guitar sharks lay around sunbathing on the grass, and a stunning Spotted Eagle Ray tried to bury her head in the sand. Abu Dabab is definitely worth a few dives and when I return I hope to meet the Dugong.
Dolphin House is a spectacular site, which is the home to a large school of bottlenose dolphins. Now listed as a national park with an entrance charge, it is subject to a number of restrictions that limit the amount of human traffic and is policed diligently by the Red Sea Rangers. The site itself is a round coral ridge with a shallow (6m) hollow in the middle. It is about 60m across at the widest part and can reach good depths along the outside. Dolphin House is a full day trip.
For our first dive we dropped off on the south side and swam westwards, with a mild current. The reef is swarming with Blue Trigger fish and an occasional Titan Trigger snapping at our toes. Expanding corals branch out over rocks with Angelfish lazily meandering through the chaos, Wrasse of all sizes darting around, eyes wide and curious to see if we are edible, and a Hawksbill turtle scooting along the reef in search of tasty morsels.
After a delicious lunch prepared by the crew, we headed to our second dive on the north west of the atoll, through a maze puzzle of large boulders and swim thru’s, past a garden of anemones rich with ‘Nemos’ all dancing around protecting their patch. We came to a long exciting swim thru where occasional shafts of light dazzle sporadically into the caves and revealed a grouper conspicuously hidden under a rock. Along the sandy bottom, you also catch sight of Gobi’s acting as security guards for shrimps building homes in the sand and Scorpion fish concealing themselves against the rocks. We surfaced after a breathtaking dive to hear the snorkellers all squealing with delight at having swum with dozens of playful Dolphins.
After an extended stay in Marsa Shagra, we had run out of time, with the Pyramids still on our "must see" list. So with promises to return, we hit Cairo for an incredible day of sight seeing. To describe the Pyramids would take days – they are amazing! In Egypt, we had seen the best that man has made and the most beautiful of what nature has conceived and returned home invigorated after an awe-inspiring holiday.
- UK/Ireland to Marsa Alam is difficult to find, try www.xl.com
- Alternatively fly to Hurghada or Luxor and taxi/bus to Marsa Alam www.thomson.co.uk or www.redseaflights.com
- Trains are cheap, reliable and comfortable for times see www.seat61.com/Egypt
- Buses are very, very cheap, but you have to talk to the locals to get times.
Marsa Shagra Ecolodge:
Website – www.redsea-divingsafari.com. In Marsa Shagra there were three choices ranging in price from;
- Tent – 35 euro, on the beach, electricity, shared bathroom facilities.
- Hut – 45 euro, on the beach, electricity, shared bathroom facilities.
- Chalet – 55 euro, above the beach, with aircon, and private bathroom.
This price includes 3 meals a day as well as no end of soft drinks and water. Breakfast and dinner are served buffet style with lunch as a set meal.