Sacred Realms, Egypt and the Red Sea

By Franklin J. Viola

“Is it Safe?”
This is the number one question I encounter every time I speak about my travels to Egypt and the Red Sea. I reassured my inquisitor that I had made six trips to the Land of the Pharaohs since 1993.

Most recently, October 2000, I escorted a group of 13 divers (16 is maximum, due to the number of berths on our Red Sea live-aboard) on a 17-day trip. Our adventure began with ancient Egypt, and a three-hour tour (which proceeds very quickly) of the Cairo Egyptian Museum. Lead by our private Egyptologist, Manar Amin, the museum’s antiquity-filled chambers (including the bounty of King Tutankhamen) come alive.

Exiting through the high-security metal detectors from which we entered, we climb aboard our private motor coach and dash to the next site. The only anxiety or fear I ever experience in Egypt is on the roads of Cairo. Racing from one tour to another, our driver navigates his bus like a runaway locomotive. Every second, our fate seems in question as we come within inches of erratic taxis, mule-drawn wooden vegetable carts, and pedestrians who delight in playing chicken with a Greyhound. Even veteran Winston Cup drivers would succumb to the constant apocalyptic state of screeching tires, blaring horns and animated Arabic cursing. The question, “Is it safe?” echoes in my head.

One cannot say they have experienced Egypt without physically standing at the base of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Built of solid granite, these mountainous structures leave no question as to their place among the Seven Wonders of the World. My favorite time to view this 2500 B.C. Necropolis is during the nightly sound and light shows. Narrated by a voice resonating from the mystical Great Sphinx, the story of ancient Egypt is illustrated against the Pyramids with lasers and floodlights.

The second of our two overflowing days in Cairo is spent inside the walls of the historical Citadel fortress. Here, we learn about Muslim beliefs while lying shoeless under the heavenly kaleidoscopic ceiling of the Mohamed Ali Mosque. A side excursion takes us to Memphis, to view the colossal statue of Ramses II and to Sakkara, site of the step-pyramid Zoser (the oldest pyramid in Egypt). Later, we tested our bartering skills among the narrow, shop-burgeoning streets of the Khan El Khalili Bazaar.

From Cairo, we fly two hours south to the temple of Abu Simbel. Not only is it the most imposing monument of Ramses II (Egypt’s greatest pharaoh), it is also one of modern man’s greatest engineering feats. The completion of the Aswan High Dam and subsequent rise of Lake Nassar threatened to completely submerge the Abu Simbel. In 1966, construction teams cut the massive stone temple apart, using diamond saws, and reconstructed it piece by piece on a man-made mountain over 200 feet above the new shoreline.

Flying on to Aswan (with tours of Egypt’s granite quarries and the island temple of Philae), we transfer to the M/S Salacia (a four-star luxury cruise ship), and set sail up the Nile River to Luxor. During the three day cruise, we stop to explore the temples of: Kom Ombo (two flanking temples dedicated to Sobek, with the head of a crocodile, and Haroeris, with the head of a hawk), Edfu (Egypt’s best preserved temple, honoring the falcon-headed god Horus), and Khnum, in the city of Esna (built for the ram-headed god who fashioned humans on his potter’s wheel). Each provides a unique clue to life in ancient Egypt.

A must-see is the tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens. Opened in the mid-90s after 45 years of restoration by the Getty Conservation Institute, the hieroglyphs inside are as vibrant today as when they were first painted 3,000 years ago. The 15-minute tour is well worth the $40 U.S. entrance fee, especially since only 100 tourists are allowed in each day. As divers we took special note of the fish hieroglyphs carved on the walls of Temple Deir el-Bahri for Queen Hatshepsut (pronounced “Hot-chicken-soup” for the tourists).

Our journey through 5,000 years of Egyptology concludes with Karnak (temple of Amon, with its famous hypostyle hall of 134 columns, each 72 feet tall, is the largest columned temple in the world) and Luxor (the city of Thebes and the capital of Egypt for almost a 1,000 years). Walking inside these grand palaces, built so long ago with such simple tools, makes me ponder the destiny of man. Where might the human race be today, if without all the dark periods our world has endured, we had maintained the Egyptian pace?

It is seven hours by motor coach from Luxor to El Quesir, where our Red Sea live-aboard awaits. Journeys across the desert from Luxor to the Red Sea are always conducted as a convoy of motor coaches and mini-vans escorted by military jeeps. The concern is not so much a fear of attack by hostile forces, rather that one of the tourist carriers may break down under the searing heat. Safety in numbers prevents anyone from being stranded miles from nowhere without adequate provisions.
On this trip, however, our live-aboard is docked two hours south of Hurghada, at El Quesir. The minimal drive greatly reduces our actual sea time in accessing the southern Red Sea.

Why south? That’s simple. I am not into crowds! The Red Sea, like Truk and Palau, is no longer a remote dive destination requiring a long, arduous trek by only the most seasoned scuba adventurers. Day boats and live-aboards constantly jockey for a handful of mooring buoys up and down the northern Red Sea. Sailing overnight, 12 hours south, we dive three entire days and nights without seeing another boat.

The southern Red Sea is characterized by ergs (an Egyptian fishing term for pinnacle coral reefs like “bommie” in Australia), rising vertically up from the bottom, to within a few feet of the surface. The ergs we dive feature densely populated hard coral thickets and current enriched soft coral gardens. For the most part they are lush, healthy and nearly virgin due to low human impact. In addition to chorus lines of golden anthias, we encounter schools of sweetlips and goatfish, Bluespotted Stingrays, Yellowmouth and green Giant Morays, Blackbar Soldierfish, long slender Coronetfish, flatheaded crocodilefish and camouflaged stonefish, nocturnal hunting Lionfish, clownfish frolicking in sea anemones, inquisitive Napoleon Wrasse, Yellow-striped Angelfish, Red Sea Bannerfish and Masked Butterflyfish; the latter three being endemic to the Red Sea.

The first two sites, Abu Galawa and Erg Spice, are large single ergs that we swim completely around. At night, we explored Sataya and Wadi Gimal Island, shallow patch reefs rich in exotic invertebrate life (Spanish Dancers and cuttlefish).

Not until our fourth day, at Shaab Sharm, do we have to share the Red Sea with other divers. Tying the Voyager up to the stern of another live-aboard (one of six tied together in a crisscrossed, spiderweb of lines), the divemaster warns us to avoid speeding inflatables by surfacing next to the reef and following the mooring lines back to the proper boat. This complex nautical exercise was a precursor for diving the southern Red Sea’s most famous reef, Elphinstone.

With steep walls beginning well beyond 300 feet deep rising to a plateau just below the surface, Elphinstone is a mythic dive site. A barrier reef 1,000 feet long, it boasts a plethora of soft coral gardens interlaced with hard coral outcrops. The prevailing southern current bathes this elongated reef in nutrient rich waters, drawing in all sorts of big pelagics.

Elphinstone has its own moods, which change depending on the day, season and weather. Accessible by day boats (as well as live-aboards), this magical reef is worth sharing with other divers. And we do. We are daisy-chained six boats deep. But there is plenty of room on the reef below.

Days Five and Six take us to Samadaii, Abu Dabab#3 and Ras Torombi. Consisting of both large reefs and numerous ergs, gentle currents allow us to enjoy the classic Red Sea marine life. Ras Torombi also makes a spectacular night dive.

Our last day of diving culminates with two dives on Mangrove Bay reef. This patch reef, just outside the harbor, is surprisingly healthy, considering the amount of dive traffic it receives. Covered with plate corals, it shelters schools of bannerfish and Masked Butterflyfish. Looking closely, we found ornate crocodilefish, suspiciously similar to the hieroglyphs we had viewed on many ancient temples in the world above. A crowded, car-filled world we returned to far too soon.
But is it Egypt safe?

YES. As long as you leave the driving to the locals.

Special thanks to the M/Y Ghazala Voyager for accommodations and diving.