By Sand or By Sea: Sinai Safaris Take It All In
By Anton W.S. Segal
A mecca for pilgrims as well as sun worshippers, Egypt's Sinai desert is a lesson in duality--simultaneously holy and profane, barren and bountiful. Some travelers come as pilgrims; others prefer to sun themselves senseless on the beaches of Basata or Tarabin. But, for an alternative way to tour the region, try a Sinai safari.
Although camels are still abundant (and a fun way to go), the Land Rover is the new ship of the desert. Many local outfitters offer a variety of safaris--by camel or jeep, which can often be tailored according to the wishes of the group or the individual traveler.
A four- or five-day tour often starts with a visit to the Colored Canyon, a colorful, winding sandstone canyon cut and shaped by wind. Sleeping under the stars in the desert is a near-religious experience, and nothing can compare with sitting around a campfire, smoking a narghile (water pipe), making bedouin bread, and swapping stories about scorpions in sleeping bags.
Hike up Mount Sinai a few hours before dawn to see the spot where Moses--or at least Charlton Heston--received the Ten Commandments. Watching the mountains change color from rose to pink to fiery orange is awe-inspiring. Bring a jacket: the summit can be very cold, even in summer. Pass by St. Catherine's Monastery on the way down.
If you feel a bit spent from the exertion, unwind for a couple of days at a desert oasis. What could be better than sitting in an icy spring in the middle of the desert, surrounded by palm trees? Better yet, try a dip in the Red Sea, where you can swim with some of the most unique fish and corals in the world.
Whether by sand or by sea, the Sinai has much to offer. In many places, it is easy to independently combine diving and driving (by camel or jeep) for the ultimate, alternative tour of the Sinai.
If your time or budget is limited, a camel trip from the eastern shore village of Dahab to Ras Abu Galum provides a brief taste of Sinai's splendor. The trip takes about an hour and a half one way, more than long enough for those not used to riding camels. Fifty meters to the left of the path, the craggy mountains of Sinai rise above the red desert sands; to the right is the Gulf of Aqaba, a finger of the Red Sea that extends up to Israel. In some places, the mountains run directly into the water, and the path seems to disappear. If the tide is running high, your sure-footed steed may have to tread over wet reef.
At last the coast gives way to a clear blue bay fringed by a golden crescent of sand with a bedouin tent set back near the foot of the mountains. If arrangements are made in advance, the bedouins will make you lunch, a typical meal consisting of grilled chicken, rice, tehina, and salad.
Other camel safaris can range from a few hours to a few days. Combine the best of both land and sea with dive centers that use camels to transport divers to remote shore dive sites!
The Sinai has as much to offer underwater as it does above sea level. The enormous schools of fish and the spectacular coral reefs of the Red Sea are some of the finest in the world. The best way to get acquainted is on a diving safari, also known as a "liveaboard." A typical trip includes a day of buoyancy checks and easy diving, two days diving the four wrecks of Abu Nuhas, a day at the renowned Thistlegorm, and a few days split between the Straits of Tiran and the famous Ras Mohammed National Park.
Divers who prefer a bed that doesn't rock at night should consider daily diving in Dahab or Sharm El Sheikh. Dahab has some fantastic geological formations (the Canyon, Blue Hole, Bells), whereas Sharm is known for its magnificent coral and fish life.
Dahab is exclusively shore diving. Guided dives cost extra, so many divers choose to plan and conduct their dives independently. In Sharm, all dives are from a boat and a guide is always present. Travelers crossing overland from Israel should note that, regardless of what border officials may say, a full Egyptian visa is required to visit Ras Mohammed, and Sinai visas are very difficult to upgrade.
For new divers, certification courses take four or five days, depending on the size of the group. If you pass, you'll have a license that allows you to dive anywhere in the world. Both Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh are ideal places for beginners to learn the sport. Introductory dives are an option for those who want to try diving but don't want to commit to a full course: listen to a short lecture and you're ready to take the plunge under the direct supervision of an instructor.
Don't want to dive? The entire eastern side of the Sinai peninsula is fronted by reef that begins at the shoreline and extends out 20 to 30 feet before dropping off. This gives easy access from shore for snorkelers. During low tide the reef may be exposed. Snorkelers should avoid the temptation to walk across it; not only do they risk injury to themselves, they are killing the coral as well. Wait until high tide and then swim out. The beautiful reefs of Tiran and Ras Mohammed are only safely accessible by boat. Most dive clubs offer day trips to these sites just for snorkelers.
To get the most out of a Sinai Safari, it is best to base yourself in one of the Red Sea diving resort towns. The proximity of major ocean and desert sites to Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh makes them good choices.
Desert safaris go on all year, but summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees in the shade. From June to September is the best time for diving, while fall and spring are best for the desert. A sleeping bag is useful even in summer. Safari organizers provide everything else. Quality diving and snorkeling equipment can be rented from all dive clubs.
LOCAL SAFARI/DIVING OUTFITTERS
Most hotels and dive centers can arrange desert safaris, in addition to the underwater kind.
Ask around at the camel post for easy camel treks. Most hotels and dive centers can also arrange camel safaris.
Fish and Friends Dive Center
Diving, trekking, jeep tours, safaris, accommodations--an all-purpose tour operator in Dahab with a great web site!
Red Sea Diving College
Elsewhere Umbarak: Shark's Bay Resort and Dive Club
Located away from the tourist areas near the Straits of Tiran, this is the only dive club/resort owned and operated by a Sinai native and the first Bedouin to receive dive certification.
Prices for a camel in Dahab start at $10, depending on how long you want it, lunch options and your bargaining ability. Land Rover safaris start at about $60 a day, all-inclusive. Diving safari prices vary greatly depending on the type and size of boat; reservations in advance are necessary. Open-water courses start at about $250, all- inclusive; classes are usually cheaper and bigger in Dahab. Snorkeling by boat is $30 day. Diving costs range from $45 to $60, depending on dive site. Full diving equipment rental is $20 per day.