Amidst another cold winter snap in London, I realised that I was in dire need of a blast of sun and heat. I got on the phone to my brother and persuaded him to come and join me for a week in Egypt. The Red Sea is one of the global hot spots of scuba diving, and an ideal place to learn. I decided to take full advantage and enrolled on the PADI beginner diving course. In the week before flying out, I managed to squeeze in passing my theory test and a couple of pool-based practice dives, so that by the time we arrive, I would be ready to hit the open water.
Our flight landed into the darkness of the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh. Although we hadn’t booked ahead, we were keen to stay in the laid-back coastal village of Dahab– a favourite stop-off for independent travelers further up the coast. After picking up our rucksacks, we flagged down an incoming cab from the highway, hurriedly threw our bags in the boot, and jumped in the back. Arabic music was pumping out of the speakers, and up front, a whole array of colourful trinkets dangled from the wing mirror. We asked our driver to suggest a B&B in Dahab – he nodded almost nonchalantly, turned away and then drove on. We made ourselves comfortable in the back, and were rocked into an almost hypnotic state by the ambient music and the warmth breeze that blew in from the open windows. It was a mesmerising drive along the highway, which weaved through the barren moon-illuminated landscape. We were far from the English midwinter now.
An evening in Arabia
It was pitch black by the time we arrived in Dahab, but we were happy with our driver’s recommendation. One of the local dive schools was nearby as well, and this was exactly what we were looking for. We carried our bags to our room, and as it was still relatively early – just got 10pm- we decided to explore the handful of bars and restaurants dotted along the shore.
Independent travellers are well catered for in Dahab. Tasty barbecued seafood is widely available, and at good prices as well. There’s a very laid-back vibe, with a number of atmospheric shisha bars with warming outdoor fires. As we wandered along, deciding where to stop, we saw locals and tourists alike, laid out on carpeted floors and cushioned couches smoking away on tobacco pipes. The sound of the bubbling waters from the shisha flasks came from ever direction, and in the background was the soothing sound of waves lapping up on the beach. We were dressed just in shirts, but it was the perfect temperature – probably in the low 20s – with the sea breeze providing an ambient cool.
We slipped off our shoes at the entrance at what looked like the most popular open-air bar, and walked across the red carpets to a couch in front of a large bucket with a pile of burning wood inside. The fire cracked, and the flames and smoke swirled around in the sea breeze. We sat down, ordered two mint teas, and an apple-flavoured shisha. Within seconds, our waiter shuffled back towards us, carrying an ornately decorated smoking pipe. He picked out a few small pieces of red-hot coals and laid them carefully on top of the foil at the top of the pipe. We then sat back as he poured us tea from an Aladdin-style golden tea pot, into two small glass cups filled with mint leaves. This was really beginning to feel likeArabia. I began to see why Dahab had drawn in many a traveller over the years.
Getting ready for scuba
The next morning, we awoke early, eager to get started with our diving. My brother, who already had completed his PADI in the Maldives, would join me for a couple of refresher dives, allowing me to complete a few test exercises at the same time, before I too would complete the course and be allowed to dive to depths of up to 20m. One of the hotel staff drove us down the road to the local dive school, and we got kitted out with all the necessary gear, making sure we had correctly fitting wetsuits, flippers and goggles.
We were then introduced to our dive guide Mohamed – an amiable twenty something from Cairo. He was a charming guy – and immediately put us at ease with his unbridled enthusiasm. He told us how at the start he struggled to pass his PADI, but that as he started to relax it became second nature. If he could do it, then anyone could. He now lived the dream in Dahab, taking tourists on exciting diving excursions, whilst getting paid for doing something he loved.
That first morning, we chatted under the shade of a beachside bar overlooking a bright azure sea. We sipped on fresh fruit juice, and got to know each other, with Mohamed taking us through what he had planned for the next few days.
A strangely relaxing sensation
For those new to diving, it is a difficult sensation to describe. Floating around underwater, in an almost weightless state is a liberating experience. Watching the stream of air bubbles float to the surface is almost hypnotic. At the same time, the only real sound is your deep breathing emanating from the oxygen tank. You move around underwater with calm and fluid movements, and you learn to use your breathing to control your buoyancy and depth.
I often found the start of the dive – the initial underwater descent – the most difficult part. With the air in your lungs and your wetsuits providing a natural buoyancy, sinking below the surface involves a slow exhalation of air. As you descend, you can control the rate you sink or ascend using your breathing to reach an equilibrium. At lower depths, you learn to breathe more shallowly to maintain your depth.
Back at the beach hut, and once we were happy with what Mohamed had planned for us, we walked to our box of diving gear and started methodically checking our equipment, before pulling on our wetsuits, oxygen tanks and buoyancy weights (which are worn around your waist to counteract your natural buoyancy). We shuffled clumsily across the beach, and entered the water with our flippers in one hand, and the other arm providing a fairly ineffectual counterbalance.
As soon as we were waist deep, then chest deep in the water, we moved around more easily as the water took the weight of the oxygen tank and the buoyancy weights around our waists. Mohamed checked that we were all clear about the next exercises, and he sent a wide beamed smile at us, before he pulled down his scuba mask and sank effortlessly under the water’s surface. It was still shallow at this point, so we paddled out just a few metres further off shore, where the sea floor began to fall away from the shoreline.
As I mentioned, that first descent was more challenging than I had expected. In what was still a relatively alien situation, sinking below the surface into an oxygen depraved world was still a very unnatural sensation. Relaxation is key, and after a few attempts, I exhaled gradually, and finally started sinking below the surface. My brother followed, and before long the three of us were all floating horizontally a few inches off the sea floor, using our buoyancy to maintain our depth. With only the relaxing sounds of our deep breathing and the bubbles around us, I started to relax and adjust to my new underwater environment.
As it was just offshore, there weren’t any fish or coral to speak of, but the aim of this dive was to complete some exercises, including mask removal and oxygen sharing. Mohamed signaled at us to copy his actions, and we duly followed. It must be said that mask removal and oxygen sharing are not the most pleasant experiences for beginners, but the aim is to make these actions second-nature in case there is ever the need to call upon them. After repeating the exercises a few times, we learnt to relax in our new surroundings and to take our time.
After around 20-minutes, our oxygen supplies had depleted, and so Mohamed signaled for us to follow him gradually to the surface, exhaling in the process, to avoid getting the “bends”. We swam back towards the beach, and were soon back on land. It was shock going from a weightless world back to one where you suddenly felt very heavy under your equipment, and where the bright light and loud sounds seemed almost invasive.
We kicked off our flippers and unzipped our wetsuits, before returning to the same beach side bar for a debrief. The dive had been surprisingly tiring, and by now as it was late morning, we all decided to order some well-deserved grilled fish and rice for lunch. Mohamed had been happy with what we had both done, and he was happy to pass my final stage of my PADI qualification. Later that afternoon, we would be ready for a proper dive of exploration, and we hungrily ate our way through our tasty meal in anticipation of what lay ahead.
We spent a few hours relaxing by the shore, under the welcoming shade of our beach hut. After the burst of activity earlier in the morning, this was the first time I had managed to genuinely take in our surroundings. The waters were surprisingly turquoise, with deep dark blues mixed with tones of emerald green. The sea contrasted starkly with the lunar landscape of the desert. It was a dry, chalky and rocky environment, but clean of urban sprawl and sparsely populated. Dahab was a small village but it was easy to see far beyond it into the desert and beyond.
In anticipation of my first open-water dive
After allowing sufficient time for our lunch to go down, and for the strength of the midday sun to pass, we were ready for our second dive of the day. We walked back out to our equipment boxes, which were stacked outside the bar and pulled back on our wetsuits which we had laid out on the stone pavement drying in the baking sun. Again, there was no need to jump on a boat to a reef. We walked further up the beach to a coral reef around a spit, strapped on our gear and again shuffled into the water. That time, free of the need to copy any exercises, all that we were required to do was to follow Mohamed underwater. Again he effortlessly sunk under the surface, and this time we followed suit almost as easily. Kneeling on the seafloor, he turned to us and signaled. We returned the “OK” gesture, and then he swiveled around, and kicked out with his flippers in a slow and controlled manner. We followed, trying to imitate his fluid motion, and tracked the sea floor, sinking deeper still, breathing out through pinched noses to equalise the pressure build-up in our ears. We kicked on towards the coral reef, which as we descended, began to tower above us, like a huge cliffside. Brightly coloured fish darted in and out of their hiding places within the rocks, and larger fish floated by barely acknowledging our presence. We spied some lion fish laid on the seafloor – motionless with their poisonous spines swaying in the sea current. We continued on, weaving in and out of the reef, using our buoyancy to carefully float our way horizontally through some of the tighter waterways. I relished this new form of exploration. It was effortless floating along in this perfectly relaxed state.
Again seemingly no sooner had we started, then our oxygen tank had emptied and it was time once again to resurface. We paddled back to shore and carefully washed down our equipment with fresh water, before storing it away in our designated diving boxes. All that was left to do was to head back to another of the beach bars, and enjoy the late afternoon rays. We reclined on the cushioned couches, ordered 2 ice-cold Cokes and kicked back, looking out to sea. It had been a tiring day, but immensely satisfying. We lay back in the same spot for at least a couple of hours, until the sun eventually dipped below the horizon, and gave way to a multi-coloured canvas of oranges and violets.
We returned to our hotel – a 5-minute walk away – and after a quick shower, emerged refreshed yet still fairly exhausted. In our favourite shisha bar, we got chatting to a couple of young local guys, who entertained us with their jokes and amusing sense of humour. They were actually local Bedouin guys, who lived in the desert, making a living from their herd of cattle and goats. It was a great way to spend the end of the day, and very interesting getting a better insight into their very different lives. After a highly satisfying day, we turned in relatively early that night, wanting to be fresh for what we hoped would be another equally day of fun tomorrow.
Diving through a labyrinth of a pristine coral reef
Early the next morning, we met Mohamed once again at the dive shop, and after the usual exchange of banter, we collected our gear and loaded it in the back of a pick-up. With only space for a couple of people in the front, we all decided to jump in the open-sided rear of the vehicle, and sat down, with our gear stacked around us, and hung onto the sides. We bounced along the sandy road out of town, with the wind blowing on our faces, smiling contentedly as we looked around at the untouched desert landscape around us. The sun was shining, and it was another blue-sky morning, and we were excited at the prospect of another fun morning’s diving ahead of us.
We were out of town, and there was nothing around us, aside from a collection of small gazebos that cast small patches of shade on the beach. In the distance, we saw a small group of kite surfers enjoying the offshore breeze, and back from where we came, Dahab was now just a small dot on the horizon. There was another small group of divers who had just got into the water, but otherwise we were completely alone in our deserted paradise.
As we got used to the routine, we relatively quickly assembled our gear, and shuffled to the water shore. We were getting used to lugging around the heavy gear, and on our first attempt, we slipped underneath the surface and descended to the sea floor. We were diving in an offshore reef – very different to the open dive the previous afternoon. This time, we swam through a labyrinth of multi-coloured coral and schools of different sized fish, whose silver scales glinted in the sun. We inched through tight gulleys, testing our buoyancy abilities as we weaved in and out of the narrow channels. In an opening in the reef, I stopped, and repositioned myself vertically in the water. I floated motionless for a few seconds – admiring the shards of sunlight emerging from the water’s surface, and the chain of bubbles floating in the opposite direction. The water was deliciously warm, and all that I could hear were the muted sounds from my breathing apparatus.
It had been another hugely enjoyable dive, and I could feel myself slowly falling for life in the underwater world. I could see why people slowly get addicted to diving, and how it tends to ignite a life long love affair with the sport. For me, it wasn’t just about the marine life, but more about the freedom and the sensation. I imagine it’s probably the closest most of us will feel to experiencing the sensation of floating in space. Dahab had also been the ideal place to learn, and even without the diving, it had been a very relaxing and a surprisingly authentic Arabic experience. As for me, with my PADI qualification now under my belt, I have already planned my next diving trip – an adventurous “live-aboard” back to theRed Sea next winter. I’m already counting down the days.
Independent travellers are well-catered for in Dahab. We did come across a very well-priced but authentically decorated apartment option (€55 per person) that we would use next time. I did a 3-day PADI Open Water Course (€260) with a local dive operator which had the best reputation in town. Feel free to contact me if your would like any advice or the contact details of the apartment owner and/or the dive operator we used.