Underwater odyssey in the Red Sea
Published 03/02/2014 | 02:30
WITH a backward roll into the Red Sea, we made our way down through the crystal-clear water in what seemed like a giant aquarium. As we descended, we were met by a huge array of coral colours, from deep blues, greens to reds and yellows, throbbing and pulsating in the prismed light.
My colleagues, called buddies in diving speak, seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the name of every underwater creature. For me, it was easier to remember their names according to who they looked like ... and so nudibranch, puffer fish and sharks became Peter Crouch, John Prescott, and an unnamed parking attendant who ticketed me last week.
The experience of diving the Red Sea is true bucket-list material. It was David Attenborough who described it as being among the most beautiful places in the world. It's like a transition from dull sepia to true-life colour, from black-and-white to cartoons. The group that set out from Dublin was indeed diverse. Apart from my friend Drew, a jewellery expert and salesman, the group included an internationally renowned musician, a foreign affairs diplomat, a venture capitalist, a laboratory scientist, an early retired banker and me, a doctor . The age ranged from the late 20s to the early 70s.
A connecting flight from Gatwick took us on the seven-hour journey to Marsa Alam. From here, we were driven in a minibus on the three-hour drive to the eco village of Wadi Lahami on the edge of the Southern Red Sea.
The journey was fascinating rather than tiring. It reminded me of an old desert war film. The Red Sea lies to the left of the road and the desert and mountains to the right. People are dressed as they would have been in biblical times. You can see shepherds with small herds of goats, sporadic tiny villages of shacks or huts dot the landscape, which sadly also revealed huge numbers of plastic bags blowing like tumbleweed across the desert sands.
Ross McGrath, a rugged, likeable Australian was inspired to open the resort over 22 years ago and started from scratch in this outpost, which lies closer to the Sudanese and Eritrean border than to Cairo in the far north. In those days, the place attracted hardcore frontiersmen, uninterested in creature comforts, but devotees of unspoilt diving. Think of the nautical equivalent of Wilfred Thesiger.
Today, the standard required is that of an intermediate or experienced diver, although I was told novice divers are welcome. One could enjoy snorkelling just as much given that the reefs and their sea life are only three feet below the surface. The diving is off the St John's reef system, a world-class diving site, normally only reachable by boat. This is beside the remote but tranquil Wadi Lahami, a very chilled and relaxing diving commune with room for a maximum of 50 guests
Sunset was the perfect time to arrive at this tranquil resort, with the sea and sand turning a deep red and azure hue in the dying light. The campsite resembled scenes from The English Patient. Accommodation is either in a very comfortable tent with a spotlessly clean, fresh linen-made bed, electrical light and power source, or else in a small chalet with ensuite bathroom. Having sampled both in the past, I would recommend the tent for sheer comfort. The warm nights are atmospheric, with no light or noise pollution, allowing you to leave the tent flaps open. No mosquitoes here, as the tents are pitched within 20 yards of the sea. The sound of the sea lapping under the glittering African sky sent me into a deep sleep within minutes. Just 100 yards from the campsite, there was a communal shower and rest room facility kept as clean as a new pin.
Each day starts at 6am with breakfast served in the palm-roofed dining area. Your first morning dive starts with a briefing at 6.45am and subsequent departure in a RIB 10 minutes later. The trip out takes about 30 or 40 minutes, allowing your first dive at eight-ish. The local dive guides were laid-back, courteous, and knew where to show us the most beautiful and interesting underwater landscapes.
Reef sites such as Sharbour, Abu Galawa, Claudia, Angel and Al Malahi brought to mind the underwater films of Jacques Cousteau. We enjoyed multiple reef dives, night dives, tunnel dives, and, my favourite, wreck dives. A Chinese tug boat sunk during the Second World War rests with stoic dignity 70 feet below in a large reef called Father of the Pools. Today, the wreck is home to quite literally thousands of varieties of fish. On this dive, I spotted a gentle lugubrious turtle whose face reminded me of Mr Magoo, a huge manta ray and a menacing but harmless moray eel.
The dive guides were very relaxed regarding the duration of the dive. Most of us lasted 60 to 70 minutes at a pleasant pace. It helps to be fit, but this was not a Navy Seal or SAS unit – we had enough stents and by-pass grafts amongst us to build an Airfix model. After the first dive, you spend an hour decompressing on the surface in the mid-morning sun. The boatmen served us delicious Egyptian tea and cake ... all very colonial.
Later that day, we came upon a pod of perhaps 60 dolphins. Snorkelling beside these playful creatures was the highlight of the trip for me. You would have to have a very mean streak to kill such a wonderful animal. The very idea seems barbaric but then again so do a lot of other human ideas. I found, as the week passed, the diving got easier with each successive dive better than the last.
Arriving back for lunch at 1pm, you are greeted with a welcoming display of freshly cooked meat, fish, and different vegetables. The two chefs work hard and clearly love any recognition of their culinary and presentation skills. I gave them 10 out of 10 for both. You are free until 3pm before the afternoon shore dive. A further optional night dive takes place after 5pm.
I found the afternoon break perfect to catnap on one of the numerous hammocks under a shaded communal area by the seashore. As the week progressed, more and more of us took the relaxed, easy option. We became expert in lolling about. I could feel my blood pressure and pulse lowering during the stay as the ambience became more and more chilled.
Dinner was served from 7pm onwards in the tastefully lit al fresco dining area. All fish is freshly caught and prepared on the day. Meat and vegetable dishes were equally fresh, disabusing the more timid diners of the notion that hot climates cause poor food hygiene. I especially enjoy Middle Eastern food because the emphasis is on freshness on account of the hotter climate. The terms were all-inclusive apart from beer and a surprisingly drinkable wine. The staff are patient and kind, with the default facial expression of a happy smile. The majority of the divers hailed from Europe. Each evening, I heard German, French, Italian, English and Nordic accents.
By 10pm, all but the die-hards collapsed into a soft bed with fresh white sheets. When you spend the day out at sea and eat outdoors, a wonderful tiredness and relaxation overcome you as the daylight fades. Sleeping in a tent adjusts your sleep pattern to daylight. You fall asleep early and you wake early, always refreshed.
Whether you are believer or not, there is a distinctly spiritual feel to this place of desert and sea. This is a place to forget about the asylum of Ireland. No HSE, no CRC, no ESB ... just a simple beach beside some of the world's finest diving sites with a motley crew of mellow fellow adventurers.
Nowadays the ultimate holiday destination is not so much determined by a la carte service, bathroom robes and silly slippers, but rather the reassurance that it's not polluted by other tourists. To go to such a beautiful place without seeing a cocktail bar, restaurants with photographed food on stands outside, and beaches thronged with people bedecked in logos is something for which one can never be grateful enough.
Diving with dolphins
Diving or snorkelling in the warm sea in the company of 50-plus bottle-nosed dolphins was akin to the famous scene of Attenborough with the silver-backed gorillas. Don't make the mistake of trying to photograph everything because, like a Japanese tourist, you'll capture everything on film and see nothing! Don't buy an expensive camera. There will be many other divers with professional standard underwater cameras. They are usually delighted to share their photos by email and reveal their similarity to a young Peter Beard or Jacques Cousteau.
Ninety per cent of your time is spent in shorts and T-shirt both under and over the water. Bring one set of warm clothes for the cold weather on arrival and departure. The best time to go is mid-spring or mid-autumn. Temperatures are in the high 70s\low 80s and the heat is pleasant rather than oppressive. Bring a good head torch – it proved very useful when returning to the tent at night. Try to have a reasonable standard of fitness. To be able to walk for one hour on the flat at a reasonable pace should suffice.
Getting started in diving
It's easy to get started on deep sea diving in Ireland. Since the 1960s, the popularity of sports diving has mushroomed, with clubs in every maritime county.They operate under the auspices of the Irish Underwater Council (CFT) an affiliate member of CMAS, the international umbrella organisation for recreational diver-training organisations. The other major training group is the PADI diving system which also has a worldwide distribution. Most courses cost between €500 and €600 and are spaced out over six weeks. You need to have good health, be reasonably fit, and most importantly, be comfortable in the water. Basic equipment will set you back at least €1000. Don't stint on the the quality of your gear.It's a bit like looking for a yellow pack parachute. Buy a good regulator, the tubing you breathe from, as your life depends on it.
The sport is constantly evolving, with new devices popping up every month to advace comfort and safety. I could'nt recommend it more highly. Diving off the West Coast of Ireland offers some of the best cold-water seascapes in the world.
Flights to Gatwick cost approximately €120. Return flights to Marsa Alam in spring and autumn cost between £379 and £409, approximately.
Accommodation, including meals and soft drinks, are approximatelyy €250.
Diving equipment rental and dive guide €250, approx.
The trip all-in costs approximately €1,300.
For more information on seasonal costs and equipment, Google 'Wadi Lahami dive resort'.