Monday, July 06, 2009

Diving in Dahab, Egypt

A long straight step and plunge......splurge....cutush... into a new world of bubbles and blue. Hard rock on all sides and only one way to go, down. Further and further, past scrabbles of coral and staring fish. Check the depth gauge – 30 metres. Through a small hole and into the expanse.

On one side sheer rock face, a cliff up to the shimmer way above and down into the deep dark depths. Eight hundred metres straight down I am led to believe. All else water. Epic and overbearing. A shrill down the spine.

The current pulls us past an array of fish nustling at the wall and giant fan corals gently filtering. Occasionally a glimpse of something bigger out into the blue – a barracuda or a jack. On and on we glide, then past techies lingering – an eerie feeling.

Up and over the lip and into the infamous Blue Hole. A freakish formation caused by a cylindrical shaped part of the shore rock falling into the deep. Straight down to a giant arch opening the feature into the abyss. A thought for all those who have perished through error, adventure or stupidity. Up and out for a beer.
Bells to Blue Hole – top top dive!

DAHAB

I have had the recent fortune of travelling with my father to this place half way up the Western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Dahab, although being unlike 99% of the world, is much like the innumerable other beach/surf/dive bum places that make up a part of that extra 1%.

A mile or so of cushion laden hookah pipe smoking restaurants and dive shops facing the glimmering red sea. Behind lies the rugged and mountainous Sinai, mirrored across the water by the rising Saudi shore. All of this cooked by the Arabian sun and, thankfully, relieved by a constant warm breeze. A beautiful place.
To think this rift into which the Red Sea has poured is up to 1800 metres deep and the same rip in the earth's crust that I have encountered from Israel to Malawi.

It is easy to be cynical about places that draw people to a country, while acting as a shelter from the rigours and fascinations of the country proper. This is what Dahab is. Another backpacker fairyland, where you can get a banana and nutella pancake at any hour. But I like the place. Here on the cross-roads of the Middle East and North Africa is a place that just about works. People from all over the world (including, essentially, Egyptians) get by noticeably well. There is a trust amongst long term and short term residents that you will very rarely see in such transient places. People leave belongings around, greet each other civilly, generally smile and get on. Somewhere you can shift down a gear or three.There are underlying issues that are out of reach of what I could ascertain on this short trip. There is a very complicated relationship with the local Bedouin population. While much land is owned by these people, Egyptians from Cairo and the Nile delta take the jobs and the government have taken significant control over a valuable foreign currency earner. There is resentment. A bombing that left far too many people dead in 2006 is the cruelest evidence of this.

I do not see how I can draw this together with my own experience with any meaningful conclusion. All I can do is to leave it open as a question and try to learn more.

What is for sure, is that Dahab is a beacon compared to the resort cesspit of Sharm el Sheik, exactly what destinations should not be like. Exploitation from all angles and walled in tourists. A place of clash and snarls. Avoid it!

BACK TO THE DIVING

Apart from some overdue relaxing and a bit of party with lost South Africans, sorted plumbers and post-school gap year students that made me realise I can never go backwards, I was here to dive....and the diving is great. Beautiful coral gardens, underwater ravines, drop-offs, the fattest moray I’ve ever seen (a head as big as mine), a guitar shark and a plethora of other types of fish in all shapes, sizes and colours. I loved it. Add Sea Dancer, a top dive school (http://www.seadancerdivecenter.com/) complete with resident crazy dog, insightful instructors (thanks especially to Paul, pictured a bit below) and one of the best music collections I have come across (cheers Steve) and you’re there. Home of the world-records for both free-diving (straight down with only what you can hold in your lungs) and technical diving (dive freaks pushing the limits with multiple tanks and complicated air mixes) and the thrill-seeking nuts that set them, there is another side to this place. A couple of deaths in the last weeks and hundreds in total make you take a second look at why people push the limits for something with so little apparent gain. In surfing terms, people are searching for that BIG wave.

Perhaps it is the thrill of feeling alive. Something I have sought whenever possible over the past number of years. The problem is the danger inherent in the balance between feeling alive and staying alive. You just have to strike you’re own equilibrium, but this changes as time passes. I won’t deny that much of this tempts me, but for the moment I am happy to keep diving as my "adventure sport on slow” as a dive-buddy once said.

Beyond fun memories and pictures, one thing I want to take home from this trip is Paul’s critique of a group of these limit-pushers. He himself participates to one degree or another, but within limits. His quoted reaction to those who negligently risk the lives of themselves and others was “I’ll rip him a new arse-hole”. Strong words from one who is carefully and intelligently spoken.
To give one example, an instructor who took a group of non-deep divers, no doubt narked off their tits, through the arch of the blue hole (52m) while leaving a 14 year old kid on his own at depth. Disgraceful. It is evident that such behaviour is most prevalent in the heavy Russian diving contingent. Why this is I do not know, but it was confirmed by numerous different instructors and leads to two tiers of dive schools - be careful which ones you choose. Pushing the limits with careful planning and execution is one thing. Such recklessness another.

Hence I will, touch wood, return to Sea Dancer dive centre. July is hammer-head season....
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