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Diving in Sharm El Sheik - December 1999

Needing to escape the merciless winter in London for Christmas week, I finally settled on a diving trip in the Red Sea. When I say finally I mean just that... scanning the teletext pages for deals the day before I wanted to leave, getting a package deal sorted out just 17 hours before leaving the country...

Beach The Red Sea is considered one of the best places in the world to go diving due to it's tremendous coral reefs, warm waters and being a reasonably cheap destination. The advice I received was to go to Sharm El Sheik which is at the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula due to it being less commercially developed. In particular Naama Bay is a popular destination which is where my travel package happened to be headed to.

Having never dived before I was looking forward to the challenge but a little apprehensive about my long standing problem of motion sickness - it doesn't seem to matter whether it is car, boat, plane, train or roller coaster - if there is motion, I will find a way to feel ill! 

Diving is Big Business There are 45 diving centres in Sharm El Sheik, the majority associated with particular hotels but some large independents such as the Red Sea Diving College which is who I booked with. Full training for PADI Open Water Certification takes 5 days and costs £180, allowing you to dive pretty much anywhere in the world to a depth of 18m. In case you are wondering what PADI stands for, as explained by our instructor it is "Put Another Dollar In" (or "Put All Dollars In") as they offer a huge range of courses and specialties all of which are designed to impart vast amounts of cash from the wallet. For instance once you have done the standard Open Water course, you can then do the Advanced Open Water course, followed by Deep Diving, Underwater Photography, Rescue Diving, Drift Diving, Dry Suit Diving, Instructing... you get the idea.

 

Trip Report

Caught the Gatwick Express train and rocked up about on time to go to the Caledonian desk as advised by the travel agent the previous day to collect tickets etc. First problem - the desk was closed and other counters around said there were no flights for that charter that day. What a joyful stressless way to start the trip - not! Wandered around the airport for half an hour until I found someone who could explain from the flight number I had was for a Sabre flight, and to join a horrendous queue and ask for the tour operator (the name of which I also didn't have, second mistake from the travel agent I used). Thankfully I eventually found someone to help me out and got checked in no problem. 

Next delay - the charter flight was leaving from a far terminal which required a bus trip, and the bus must have got lost or something as we were still at the original terminal as the scheduled departure time for the flight ticked by. Eventually got on the plane took a seat, seemingly ready to go half an hour late.

Next delay - the wings needed to be de-iced (there was a massive snow storm the night before). Why they couldn't have worked this out while we were standing waiting for the bus was beyond all on board. The truck to do this ran out of chemicals before it got to us and had to return to base to refuel. Two hours late we finally got off the ground for the five hour flight to Sharm El Sheik. Gotta love charter flights!

Arrived at Sharm El Sheik "International" Airport - lets just say don't be expecting too much. Yet more queues to get a visa as instructed on arrival by the local tour operator (although I found out later that this is only necessary if you plan to visit Egypt, not if you stay in the Sinai - no doubt one of the local backhander scams). You could pay 35LE or £12 - another little gotcha for those of use with no Egyptian currency as that is a horrendous exchange rate of 3LE per £1 instead of the 5.4LE at any bank. Just about had a fight with a local porter who had strategically placed my backpack inside the carousel instead of on it, so that I either had to climb on the moving carousel with everyone else's luggage to retrieve it or ask him to do it (which I did). He then of course demanded a tip for carrying it the necessary 2m which I refused to pay for - scam #2. Walked out of the building, immediately had another porter try to take my bag off me to carry it 20m to our bus, a tug of war ensued as I refused to let go being onto their games now and in no mood after a long day. He was discouraged with barely a punch being thrown...

Hotel Pool Stayed at the Hilton Dreams hotel in Naama Bay which was very nice although absolutely deserted as was everywhere else. Everyone decided going away was not on this year after greedy operators overestimated Millennium demand and overpriced themselves out of business. Most restaurants I went to would have barely 2 or 3 tables of people, there were more security guards than people on the walkway down the waterfront at night and shop owners were literally begging people to come into their store even if just to talk to break the boredom. Quite sad in many ways when you consider just how little money most of these guys earn and this was supposed to be the peak season. 

The diving school started at 8.30am every day through until 5pm or so with a combination of watching videos, classroom instruction, question reviews, exams and of course skill practise sessions in the water. So not exactly a laid back holiday if you are doing the PADI Open Water course as I was but rather necessary - a bit like the parachuting school I went to I guess, you really don't want to ignore what they have to say...

Had a superb instructor (Khaled) who had a very laid back approach to the whole thing and lets just say it would be near impossible to fail the course particularly with him as the instructor, as in comparison to perhaps how the course is run in the USA where it is designed. There were three other 'pupils' starting the same day, although one pulled out after a couple of days deciding it was not their thing.

Most of the first three days are learning and practising skills for when things go wrong (again similar to parachute skills) - diving itself if things go right (which they obviously nearly always should) is as simple as breathing through your mouth and flapping your legs, not exactly rocket science! Mask clearing skills were the biggest concern for me due to my contact lenses, but closing my eyes while flooding/clearing solved that one to stop the lenses from floating away...

So many hotels... I did manage to inhale less water than I swallowed on the first day - we spent the first three days learning in the ocean walking out from the beach rather than in a pool which many centres teach in. I did have to strain the brain to instruct it to only use my mouth for breathing - you can kid yourself that you are doing exactly that right up to the point that you take your mask off underwater and inhale salt water with your next breath... needless to say you learn pretty quickly that way!

Day two saw a 200m swim in the morning (compulsory for the course) and my first experience of feeling queasy in the ocean swells, which then continued for our first dive of the day. Enjoyment plummeted and dreaded the next dive after lunch as still feeling motion sick. While awaiting your turn to do an exercise you are sitting on the ocean bottom (at about 2-3m deep) rising up and down with every breath/swell, feeling greener and greener with nothing to take the mind off as the instructor was having problems with one of the other students... I left the water feeling absolutely rotten and wondering if I would have to pull out of the course, as this was just tiny sheltered ocean currents, not even a boat trip to a deep ocean dive...

Khaled suggested I go see a local hotel doctor which I duly did, who then advised me what my problem was (well, one of them anyway). Apparently I have different pressures between my left and right middle ear which makes it difficult for me to equalise the balance and effectively makes me suffer vertigo. Thankfully the wonderful motion sickness tablets I had found from the UK were compatible with diving so he suggested I give those a go, along with prescribing a nasal spray to help with the ear pressure imbalance.

So, rocked up the next day hopeful I could last it out and get some enjoyment out of my time in the water - and boy what a massive difference the pills made! Suddenly I was able to focus on everything around me and actually enjoy the dive instead of spending the time counting the minutes until we would leave the water - not exactly the point of the experience!!! Had a superb day and was the turning point for me for the week, absolutely loved every dive and did not feel ill on the later boat trips out on the ocean despite some windy days. I got thoroughly addicted to the totally weightless feeling underwater, hearing little else but the sound of your own breathing, floating amongst massive schools of fish or the superb colours and varieties of coral...

Even Santa dives on Christmas day... So diving pretty much dominated the week. The course was five days leaving two days on the weekend (Christmas and Boxing day) to occupy, only Christmas Day being available for diving as you are not allowed to dive within 24 hours of a flight. Funnily enough the three of us remaining on the course managed to pass it and all chose to dive again the next day, doing two of the required five dives from the Advanced PADI course (the naturalist dive requiring you to identify some fish/coral, and the drift dive which just means the current takes you miles away from where you started so you end up floating/swimming around until you get picked up by the boat). Actual time under the water was about 50 mins per dive - it would have been longer but Gabrielle (the 15yo) had a habit of sucking his air dry too fast and once one person hits a limit we all had to surface... 

Gabrielle - my dive buddy Almost cracked up underwater on our last dive (by the way for those of you who haven't figured it out yet laughing underwater is a no-no as it generally means you will end up swallowing it). Gabrielle was my assigned 'buddy' for the week, meaning we checked each others equipment etc and swam together. He was a typical nightmare forgetful teenager so ended up giving him a hard time in my usual sympathetic way. Let me give any non-divers reading this some background here... you have a pressure gauge for your tank which gives you a reading between 0 bar (completely empty) and ~200 bar (full) for your tank which is obviously an indicator of how much oxygen you have left to breathe and hence potentially how much longer you can stay underwater. Generally you either dive for a planned maximum time or until your tank gets to 30 bar, whichever comes first. Under no circumstances do you run your tank dry as this breaks the seal between the regulator and the tank allowing moisture in, requiring expensive tank maintenance. You have this repeatedly drilled into you during the training. For us it meant you just hand signal the instructor after checking your gauge (a finger for every 10 bar plus some extra signals to indicate 50 or 100) when he happened to be looking.

Anyway our plan for the dive was to leave our bottom depth (24m) to go a bit shallower once we got to 100 bar and then shallower still for a safety stop once we got to 50 bar, meaning we should leave the water with 30-40 bar left. About 30 min or so into the dive I could see Gabrielle giving a sequence of concerned looks out his pressure gauge. I hand signaled asking if was he ok and he gave me an ok sign back, but was still looking at his gauge frequently. We continued on, then reached a point after 45 mins where Khaled decided to ask for our tank pressures to determine how much longer to continue. I was down to just over 50 bar and duly signaled, and watched in hilarity as Khaled received a single finger from Gabrielle. Khaled had a completely shocked expression on his face as he tried to work out whether he was being given the bird by his student, and proceeded to ask Gabrielle again, for which his he got the same sign repeated. Immediately he gave his own alternate air source to Gabrielle (allowing them to both breathe off the instructors tank) and signaled to surface. Trying not to burst out laughing I correctly surmised (later confirmed) that Gabrielle had decided that since this was the last dive of the trip he wanted to stay down as long as possible (he like me was enjoying every minute in the water), at the risk of completely running out of air! He was down to 30-40 when I first saw him checking (for which he had given me the ok signal...fool) and was creeping under 10 when Khaled had asked - you have to wonder where his brain was. We then had to swim for a while on the surface, and since he was having trouble snorkelling he then proceeded to continue using his regulator until his tank then was sucked completely dry...

Bill and his family The other student (Bill) had a cold by this day and was unable to dive (as he could not equalise his ear drums below a depth of about 6m) hence joining his wife in pulling out. Apparently this is fairly common for people coming from the UK in winter - they arrive with a niggly little cold which then turns into something nasty forcing them to be unable to dive (which is the point of going for most people), luckily my superb diet and intense physical fitness program meant I was in no danger of catching a cold... hee hee

Outside of the diving I mainly just wandered around Naama Bay, getting hassled by all the locals desperate for customers. The Egyptian people for the most part are extremely friendly, unfortunately this varies between the genuinely friendly/interested to the more predominant "what can we sell you once we know your name" variety. The standard routine is to ask where you are from, ask for your name, welcome you to Sharm El Sheik, ask you to take a seat, offer you a drink and then proceed with the "small shop, small prices" routine. Obviously not the NZ/Aus way of selling but can provide entertainment if you don't take it too seriously. Normally it wouldn't bother me but as the place was so deserted everyone was desperate for attention, even a half glance in a window resulted in the owner rushing out of the shop to go through the same routine to encourage you to enter. I must admit if I had my own house to come home to after the trip there were lots of trinkets I could have bought as the prices were cheap (relatively speaking) and Egyptian history interests me, but on this trip I was in a "no thank you" mood. 

So many hotels... There is a horrendous amount of construction going on all the way up the coast to Sharm El Sheik - hotel after hotel, who knows how they will fill them all once they are completed. I would have to say that unless you like diving it is not where I would suggest as a holiday location as it lacks character (and greenery of course).

You have to pay to go sit on the beach (unless you are staying at the hotel that owns that particular little section) - not cheap too at about 30LE or so (£6). The sea was warm enough at 25 degrees however I wore two wetsuits (long johns and short john vest) to keep warm as staying in for an hour will cool you down. Particularly if it is windy when you get out which it was for the last couple of days, and being winter it was a cool wind particularly out on the boat. Daytime temperatures were around 24-28 degrees but rapidly cooled to 14-18 or so at night once the sun set. It was sunny every day though and apparently only rains about four times a year, it is a desert after all.

I ate mainly at European restaurants, not wanting to risk a dodgy stomach while being trapped inside two wetsuits for obvious reasons!

The hotel provided a few entertaining dramas for a number of reasons, but fortunately nothing major. Had no water for a shower for 24 hours despite three rants and raves, and my repeated calls for a mattress as we know it (i.e. something softer than the floor) to sleep on went unheeded. Also had three Australians staying in the room next door who decided in their usual juvenile shoe-size IQ way that knocking on my door calling out 'housekeeping' or turning my 'Do Not Disturb' sign over constituted better entertainment than their late night drinking parties where they undoubtedly counted each other's nose hairs...

The other thing you will notice about Sharm EL Sheik is the road code which has four basic rules...
1. Lines on the road are purely as decoration for the tourists - lane selection is optional.
2. Be sure to honk your horn and flash your lights at every tourist you see.
3. Should you be driving a vehicle you must operate it as a taxi.
4. Should you leave your vehicle, ask everyone you see if they would like a taxi.

December is the month of Ramadan, which means for 30 days the locals do not eat during the day and instead choose to sleep, usually timed just when you are out and about expecting their shop/bank to be open. For instance the banks were open 9am to 12.30pm and then from 6.30pm until 9pm.

Even the trip home proved eventful. During our transit to the airport our bus paused in the parking lot to find an available spot to unload us, and two of the aforementioned highly capable Egyptian drivers managed to have a car accident beside us. This was caused by one perfecting his Michael Schumacher slipstream overtaking maneuver (in his Mercedes) past another who decided that he would rather they both lose the championship and pulled out into his side nailing the wing mirror and scraping the door. The Mercedes driver immediately stopped his car and jumped out threatening violence, gesticulating wildly and jabbering away excitedly as we all watched from the bus. Our tour operator jumped out to encourage them to take the discussion elsewhere as we needed to get off the bus and the bus could not move. Instead the Mercedes driver jumped back in his car, proceeded to park diagonally blocking everyone from going anywhere and then jumped back out again protesting that a grand of damage had been done to his car and he wanted some satisfaction (and that it was none of our business). Security arrived thankfully to encourage the two to go find a nice quiet place out the back to park and bang each other's heads. 

After queuing yet again to try to get through immigration to be allowed out of the country, I was second in line when the airport workers all decided that it was time for breakfast (6pm), so everyone there stopped working. We were told we had to wait until after they had their break before we would be processed. Needless to say there is no concept of staggered breaks here - everyone goes off at once to sit down for a cigarette etc and the booths are all empty...

On the way back to London there were 300mph headwinds, resulting in a just over 6 hour flight, which was not quite what we were wishing for, but was easily surpassed in pleasure by waiting for over an hour in 2 degrees at 1am for a taxi to show up at Victoria Station... home sweet home... not!

Summary

So... the diving was absolutely superb, although Naama Bay/Sharm El Sheik as a destination for other facilities, activities or character was pretty average (but probably as good as the area gets). I plan to visit Egypt again to do the standard tourist things, but will definitely be including another Red Sea visit for more diving...

 

Trip Costs

Having been through a costing exercise for my NZ trip I figured I may as well provide this info here as well for this trip in case anyone reading this gets inspired and wants to do something similar... £UK 1.00 was worth 5.4LE (Egyptian pounds) or about $US 1.50 when I did this trip.

Accommodation
It is difficult to get cheap accommodation at Sharm El Sheik as it is predominantly hotels aimed at package deals through tour operators. Some of the diving colleges offer cheap hostel type accommodation however you get what you pay for - a couple of people I met there staying at the Red Sea Diving College complained of the noise every night from nearby restaurants etc (not helped by Ramadan I am sure). There is also that little fact that you are in Egypt and finding someone who speaks good enough English to help fix a problem is not necessarily easy as I found out. My bed/breakfast package for 7 nights was £189 including the flight which was exceptionally cheap, staying at the Hilton Sharma Dreams hotel. I believe the normal package price approaches £500 in peak seasons (Christmas and Aug/Sep) for 4/5 star type lodgings. 

Transport
Sharm El Sheik is only reachable direct from London via charter flights which is not convenient if you want to have flexibility in your schedule but adequate for my needs this trip. The alternatives are to fly to Cairo or Luxor and then travel domestically via bus or plane adding to both cost and time taken. Direct flight time is five hours.

Activities
Not a huge amount to do from Sharm El Sheik other than dive, snorkel or sunbathe to be honest. They are trying to develop other activities but the advice from our local diving instructor was to avoid most of them as rip-offs. The trip to St Catherine's monastery up Mt Sinai is a big no-no apparently (he used to guide people up there) due to an exhausting long and rushed trip for 45 mins at the monastery with very little of it actually open to the public. Other options are the Bedouin dinner (jump on a camel and head out to the desert for dinner, supposedly ok), riding quadrunner bikes in the desert (big thumbs up), riding horses/camels or taking a glass-bottomed boat trip. Most activities are around $US 30-50.

Sitting on the beach will cost you 30-40 LE (£6) for the day as you have to pay to get on unless you are staying at that hotel which owns that particular section. 

Diving is pretty cheap there (well, it is not a cheap sport!) - count on $US 80 for a boat trip including two dives and all your equipment. Add to that lunch on the boat (25 LE). If you want to snorkel the boat trip will cost $US 25 for equipment plus the boat lunch. There are also additional charges for if you dive in special areas such as Ras Mohammod ($US 5), participate in a PADI course or do other dives trips such as wreck diving or travel on a liveaboard boat.

The only other thing to do is to shop with heaps of tourist shops (all selling the same things) but a reasonable variety of everything from Egyptian cotton shirts (cheap) to carpets, jewellery, glassware, papyrus scrolls or millions of other trinkets. Be prepared for the sales pitches...

Food/Drink
Reasonably cheap for food, most restaurants (outside the hotels of course) at about 25-50LE for a main course (£5-£10). Alcohol is very expensive of course, expect to pay £5+ for a beer (27LE+). Also watch out for the extra taxes that some places add on, heard some big arguments at a few places I went to, although at the end of the day when you convert the currency back to UK pounds is it really worth arguing about?

Time of year to visit
Water temperature during winter (Nov-Feb) is 25 degrees, ok for diving but a little chilly for snorkelling for long periods without a wetsuit. Water gets up to about 30 degrees in summer, but then expect 45-50 degrees in the shade out of the water - not pleasant! Popular times are Christmas/New Year and Aug/Sep so if you want off-peak deals or less crowds it was suggested Feb or later. If diving make sure you don't go when the plankton turn the ocean into zero visibility for a two week period at start of March.

  Trip Cost Approximate Summary
Over 7 days, 1 person...
Flights, hotel accommodation package (bed/breakfast)
Single supplement
Visa 
PADI Open Water diving course (5 days)
Additional course materials/certification
Diving insurance (12 months)
Food etc.
Activities (extra diving in my case)

Total (One person)
 
 
£189
£70
£12
£180
£60
£20
£100
£60
-------
~£UK 690
 
  Not too bad considering that was 6 dives from the boat (4.5 hours of diving) plus 3 other days of instruction all towards diving qualification. Obviously it was a cheap deal due to the last minute arrangements.
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  Last Updated June 26th, 2002
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