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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Ma Salaama to Aswan, Salaam to Marsa Alam

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 3 December 2005.

Egypt, Country 12, Diary entry 8th-12th Oct 2005, Total distance in Egypt: ~5000km

The next morning came very quickly and after a very hasty breakfast we boarded the tiny minibus that was to be our transport, leaving my Land Cruiser outside the hotel in Aswan. The trip to Abu Simbel was uneventful, the convoy again a joke with the luxury coaches zooming off at 130kmh or more and leaving us in their dust, and I managed only an hour of sleep because the minibus was cramped and full to capacity so was quite uncomfortable. Elena slept most of the way though. Never met anyone who can sleep so much!

Abu SimbelWe were both amazed by Abu Simbel. Alex has written a lot about it already (and added sneaky pictures that I didn't manage to get for myself) so read about it there, but for us this was the most visually impressive temple of the many we'd seen, both inside and outside. We spent a good couple of hours wandering around and then just sitting, and then it was time to make our way back to the rendezvous for the minibus back to Aswan.

Unfortunately our experience of Abu Simbel was soured slightly by the greed and rudeness of the local traders who would try to block our way to get us to buy something, very frustrating when there are 20 or 30 stalls in a row and you have to walk past them all to get to the car park. The toilet attendant demanded the outrageous sum of 2 euro on my way out, you can imagine how much he got from me (the words used cannot be reproduced here as there are children reading) but I wonder how much he makes in a day. After dealing with all that, the buses were not in the car park when we returned but ambled up about 20 minutes after the prearranged time after leaving us all waiting in the now rather hot sun, and then the bus driver casually started attaching curtains to the windows on what would be the sunny side on the way back. A very nice touch, but as one woman rightly complained, he'd had two and a half hours to do that while we were in looking at the temples, why was he doing it now and keeping everyone waiting in the sun even longer? This started quite an exciting argument between her and another passenger, the driver somehow escaping it all, and then after that all died down we got back on the bus, we set off back towards Aswan, Elena promptly fell asleep again and I didn't.

Abu Simbel An interminable three hours later we arrived back in the Aswan area and had a quick trip to the High Dam to see the views (nothing special) and finally back to Aswan itself, a quick look over the Nile with the feluccas sailing about, and then back to my car.

The Nile at AswanWe decided to check out one last attraction in Aswan before heading off to the coast - the Unfinished Obelisk. The great ancient Egyptian obelisks were cut from the quarry in Aswan because of the purity and flawlessness of the granite there, and most of these have made their way long distances to places such as Istanbul, the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the Embankment in London and Central Park in New York. In fact there are only 27 obelisks known to remain in the world and of these, twice as many are in Rome than in the whole of Egypt! The Unfinished Obelisk was in its final stages of being cut from the rock when a flaw was discovered so work was abandoned, but if it had been extracted it would have been one of the largest in the world at 41m high and weighing 1200 tonnes! It is strange to see such a large obelisk lying on its back and still partly attached to the parent rock, but even more incredible are the deep recesses all over the place where other obelisks had been successfully extracted. It is a wonder how they were lifted out, because the holes in the rock do not have sloping sides, the obelisk would have had to have been lifted vertically somehow before it could be carried away. It seemed to us that even with horses or camels, they would need hundreds to be able to lift such large weights, and yet somehow these obelisks were carried hundreds or thousands of miles!

The Unfinished ObeliskAgain we decided to try to catch up with Alex and Maz again but we hadn't heard whether they'd been successful in getting past the police road blocks to use the road from the Nile at Edfu to the coast at Marsa Alam so we thought we would try it and see for ourselves. The road to Edfu was quite slow with many villages each with several speed bumps, though it was much easier than it had been in the dark on the way down, and many mobile obstacles including a truck full of camels who like all the other locals we meet were very bemused to see us.

We were stopped at a road block as we were leaving Edfu and because we REALLY didn't want them to stop us going further, we REALLY wanted to get to the coast without losing another day, so the conversation went something like this:

Policeman: "What country?" Martin: "England" Policeman: "Where going?" Martin: "Marsa Alam" Policeman: "OK........." (Martin zooms off with policeman waving frantically after him - "but he said OK!")

The road across the desert was again beautiful, much more so than the desert stretches of the roads near the Nile or from Cairo to Suez mainly because nobody ever goes there so there wasn't litter all over the place, just wide open expanses of desert with mountains in the distance, or occasionally we would have to go through the mountains with tight bends with fallen rocks all over the road - have to be very careful. So we managed to get most of the way to the coast before the sun set but the last hour or so was in the dark but with no other cars to worry about that was quite easy too.

The Unfinished ObeliskUnfortunately we couldn't get hold of Alex and Maz who were off somewhere with no reception so we drove round the small village looking for their car and ended up finding NOTHING at all! There is NOTHING in Marsa Alam village, don't go there! Well, we found a place selling Egyptian-style pizzas, quite an odd thing if you ever get the chance to try it, and finding someone there who spoke English he said that the resorts were all 30km up the coast. So we headed up there looking for somewhere to camp for the night and after a wild goose chase round several resorts that might have camping, we finally found one that would let us camp for 30 euros per person. It had been a really long day and I wasn't in the best of moods by this point and the guy there soon found this out. I think I mentioned something about putting his 30 euros somewhere but I can't remember where it was. We drove into the desert across the road, hid behind a mound of earth and got a very good night's sleep for free :)

The next day we trawled around some of the resorts looking for somewhere that would take us to the Elphinstone Reef, which is supposed to be the best place to see the Oceanic White Tip sharks that are supposed to be around at this time of year. After many false leads (boats in for repair, dive centres insisting on us doing a check dive etc.) we eventually, by accident, stumbled upon a small Bedouin style camp site called Beach Safari just on the edge of the sea and advertising diving. We drove up and chatted to a German guy called Leo who is a dive guide there and he thought they might be able to help us... sure enough we were soon sorted out. They gave us an inclusive package of camping (using our own tent), three meals a day and all the shore diving we wanted for a very reasonable price, and the promise of a boat trip to Elphinstone the next day. Most importantly we were just in time for lunch which was an informal affair, two large tables and everyone eats together so quite sociable. There were about 20 other people staying at the camp, of which half German and half Dutch, and the main topic of conversation was of course our expedition, because everyone had seen the Land Cruiser already. After lunch we sorted out our equipment and went for a little shore dive just a five minute ride in a truck along the coast. Leo was keeping a close eye on us because he had to satisfy himself that we are competent divers but he soon decided that we were because he let us go to do our own thing while he dealt with some other people. The first couple of minutes of the dive were not great as we contended with poor visibility but soon we escaped that and were into crystal clear waters and a beautiful reef sloping down to only around 20-something metres so we could have a nice long time down there exploring around and seeing what we could find. We were down for over an hour, after which we returned to the camp, washed down our stuff, set up our tent then went to the communal tent overlooking the sea for the important business of relaxing for a couple of hours until the next food was ready. This was our first chance to relax since our forced day of relaxation in Hurghada several days before, and we'd done a lot since then so our big plans of reading books came to nothing and we were soon fast asleep for the rest of the afternoon!

It was important that we caught up on some sleep because the next morning was another early start - 5:30am, because the best time to see the sharks is early in the morning and the boat ride takes about an hour. So by 6:30am we were setting off from the shore having loaded the small "speedboat" (they call it) with our equipment. By 7:30am we were just arriving at the reef having been thoroughly woken up by the constant splashes of water in our faces as we crashed through the choppy seas, and the shelter of the reef itself was welcome as we put on our kit.

Off to MarketElphinstone Reef is actually nearly a coral atoll, with the top being very close to the surface of the water and maybe on some tidal conditions it might break the surface, but the sides slope down almost vertically with a couple of plateaus, and continue down to VERY serious depths. The top of the reef is about 200m long and 50m wide with the long axis arranged more or less north-south. We were dropped onto the north end and descended to a plateau at 45m and peered over the edge because some hammerhead sharks had been reportedly seen there in the previous few days, but nothing. Wanting to save air and reduce nitrogen exposure we didn't hang around at that depth and came up to about 20m for the swim along the reef to the southern end where the oceanic sharks were supposed to hang out. It was a long way to swim but the reef is absolutely beautiful there. Being the only shelter for miles around there was a huge number of shoals of brightly coloured fish on it, and being exposed to the currents the minutely delicate fan corals and fire corals had grown to several metres across.

We finally arrived at the southern end of the reef and (unfortunately) could see the bottoms of lots of large boats there. When we had arrived at the reef there were only a few boats there, many more had arrived while we were underwater, and of course we could see lots of other divers now too. What we couldn't see, however, were any oceanic sharks!! We stayed around the area and kept looking for another 10 minutes but running low on air we had to surface. Very disappointed.

Back on the boat, everyone else was very surprised, not least Leo who felt bad for us so kept getting the boat driver to drop him in the water with just a snorkel so he could keep looking, but even that came to nothing and we started our return to the shore. It had been a beautiful dive, but I'd really wanted to see the sharks. Unfortunately the sea had picked up a bit more and so I was feeling a little seasick by the time we got to shore. Standing up at the front of the boat and staring at the horizon helped, and it also meant that I was out of reach of most of the waves crashing over the bow. Feeling a little better I turned round to find Elena stretched out on the bench, fast asleep despite waves hitting her full in the face. Unbelievable!

Back at the camp, again nobody else could believe we hadn't seen the sharks and expressed sympathy, which didn't help, so we had a little discussion and we decided we wanted to try again the next day. Boat booked, time for a quick snooze before lunch (we were back at the camp by about 10:30am!) and then for a shore dive.

The shore dive was called Channel Three. There is a reef hugging the coast past the camp and at high tide it is submerged and at low tide the top of it is exposed. As the tide recedes there is a lot of water that is trying to flow off the top of the reef and there are some natural channels through which the water gushes. Channel Three is the third one counting from the left - obvious!

What an unusual dive. Procedure: enter the water to waist-deep. Put on fins. Try not to fall over doing this or you'll get sucked out to sea. When ready, go underwater, let go of everything and get sucked out to sea! The current flowing through the channel was stronger than anything I've been in before and it was quite a challenge to not get smashed into the coral on the way past. A rope had been threaded through the channel for the return journey but it was no use on the way out, if you tried to grab it you'd be turned the wrong way round and that would make things much worse! So the idea is just to "go with the flow", literally, and hope the flow swept you past the coral. Most of the time it did, I only got bumped off the rocks a couple of times.

Another pleasant reef dive, it is evident that the reefs here have been much less exposed to bad divers than those in Sharm. We kept it quite shallow because the morning's dive had been deep and long, and we all ensured we had lots of air for the return through the channel and back to the shore. The return trip was quite interesting - now I know how a flag feels, put it that way. The only way out was to crawl along the rope, hand over hand, with your body fluttering in the breeze so to speak. It was hard work and I got through a lot of air, but eventually we all got to the end of the rope, from which it's not very far to get out but a few good strong fin strokes away. I had to stop one lady from being swept away! Not one for the novices.

The obligatory afternoon laze, snooze and dinner followed, during which we were each repeatedly questioned on Anglo-Russian relations (e.g. to Elena - "what's it like living in England?" - confusion all round when she said she'd never been there!) and then another early night because we decided to try a little earlier the next morning - 5am.

We'd learned the previous day that the starboard side of the boat got less splashed so we made a bee-line for that, and arriving at the reef we were warmer than we'd been the day before. With us on the boat were Leo and a group of three Dutch people, and with Leo having seen us dive on the last three dives he was happy to let us go it alone. So we were dropped off first, at the same point as the day before, to do the same dive again, while he and the Dutch missed the north end and got in around half way along.

Once again, no hammerheads despite going RATHER deep looking for them (ahem!) so we did the same route as before towards the southern end of the reef. Along the way there were again plenty of beautiful fish and corals to look at, and many other divers too, some more complete than others. All my best charades practice has come to nothing it seems because I thought I was rather good at miming "look, that diver's only got one leg so there MUST be big sharks around" but since Elena hadn't spotted that said diver was deficient in the leg department she just gave me a funny look and carried on. After that I tried finning with only one leg and it was very hard work indeed, so all credit to the guy.

We got to the southern end and I was starting to run a little low on air so stole some of Elena's while we looked for sharks. Once again none to be seen but then Leo popped up from nowhere, he'd delivered his group to the boat and beckoned us to follow to where he'd found some and...

OH MY GOD THERE'S A HUGE SHARK COMING RIGHT FOR ME!!!

Fantastic! The thing zoomed past us only a couple of metres away. I love the beady cruel look that sharks have in their eyes, which is why I was so keen to see them here. But I was low on air! Any novice divers reading this, please look away now because this is not what you're supposed to do. Keeping barely enough in my tank for the ascent, I breathed from Elena's or Leo's tank just so I could stay down longer to keep watching - another shark, another shark, there were 5 or 6 of them all cruising around, and what was that? Dolphins - we saw two dolphins rising from the deep and breaking the surface in a jump! Absolutely amazing. We managed to stay down another 10 minutes or so just watching the sharks as they came right past us, between us, Leo snapping away with his camera and eventually the sharks got bored of us so we came up. What a feeling! Finally we'd seen the big sharks that this area is supposed to be famous for, the sun was now properly up and heating the air so the return boat journey flew past us and we were soon back at the camp tucking into breakfast. It was only on the way home that Leo realised that his camera had no film in it!! But since he's there for another couple of months I guess he'll get another chance.

We decided to pass on the afternoon shore dive since the morning's dive had been so deep and so long (72 minutes!) and over lunch we decided that since we had a long way to go to Beni Suef for our visit to the CARE International project there in a couple of days' time, we should set off up the coast to Hurghada to get a couple of hundred miles under our belts.

Beach Safari camp at Marsa AlamHurghada was the same as last time - nothing special, tourist hell, whatever you want to call it, but we went back to the same friendly hotel. The next morning we met with one of Elena's diving contacts, a chap called Sergei who is based in Hurghada, to chat over the idea of working in Egypt for a bit but she didn't seem too disappointed when he told her it is now very difficult for Russians to work in Egypt (legally, at least). I told her that Sharm and Dahab are nicer than Hurghada but she decided at that point that maybe Egypt wasn't for her anyway and that she would leave at the same time as we were planning to leave Egypt to return to Jordan, and she'd head home to Moscow to look for a "real job". We went to the airport to see if it would be possible to change her flight so she would fly home from Sharm El Sheikh, but apparently one cannot buy tickets for a flight from Sharm anywhere but Sharm! The Siberian Airlines representative assured us that a flight was going on the day she wanted and that there were seats available, but couldn't book for us. Getting absolutely nowhere we decided that we would see what we could arrange in Sharm and if nothing was possible there, that she would take the Sharm-Hurghada ferry to use her existing ticket to return from Hurghada, but that would be a last resort as the ferry only runs three times a week, inshallah.

Once again we fed our faces in the Ramadan-free zones of the town, stocked up on pomegranates and bananas for the journey (this was before realising that pomegranates are a bad idea while driving) and set off further up the coast. We found the road across from the coast back inland towards the Nile was guarded rather half-heartedly and snuck through without being stopped and soon found an ideal spot to camp for the night just off the road into the desert.

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Comment from Scooter
Hi Guys & Maz, enthralled with your Eygpt adventures, can't wait to hear about Iran. Have a safe journey through the winter & mountains in Pakistan - what a difference! Scooter
10 Dec 2005 @ 19:02:06