Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dahab, Egypt and Diving the Red Sea

Sunset over the Red Sea.

One of the first things that you hear about Dahab is that people get stuck there. They come for a couple day and stay for months. Instead of two focus days of diving, we ended up there for four long days of lazing and diving.

The Dahab boardwalk at night (photo from Internet).

The woman, who referred us to our dive center at the hostel, thought Betty would be able to use her referral and finish her open certification in two days. She thought I would be able to get set up to and visit all of the dive sites I wanted to see in two days as well. That wasn't the case. It would take three days for me to get set up. Also, the dive center would not accept Betty's referral so she would have to do a full three day course. Then, if we wanted to climb Mt. Sinai we would have to do no diving for a 4th day before going up for the night. We weren't thrilled, but we finally felt like we had the time.

The easy access to great diving and snorkeling in Dahab is amazing. We were eating dinner on the boardwalk when we saw this guy walk in from snorkeling.

Betty got right to work on her certification. I went to entertain myself until they could take me to the Lighthouse dive site for a refresher course and naturalist dive for my advanced open water certification. That night, we wandered around town a little bit. The boardwalk was lots of restaurants aimed at the tourist crowd. It reminded me of a boardwalk anywhere in the western world. However, the first street off the boardwalk was definitely Middle Eastern. It was interesting to see these two style butting up against each other so successfully.

A squat toilet.

Our second day turned out a bit better than the first. Betty spent most of the day at Lighthouse acing the rest of her dive course. She finished in two days instead of three. I got to head out with Ann, a dive master from Australia, to two dive sites, Blue Hole/Bells and Canyon. The Canyon dive site took me down to 28m for the first time. It was pretty neat to drop down there where no one else was. It didn't feel any different that other depths, but I'm sure that is just because I don't know what to notice. My second dive at the Blue Hole/Bells was really cool. We walked into the water, swam out to the reef, dropped down 30m through a 'chimney' that exited along a reef wall that drops down to 800m!! You can't see the bottom. If you look out to sea, you can't see anything but water. It was a little intimidating to have the great wide open in all but two directions (towards the wall and up). I needed the reef wall to keep my bearings. We swam along the reef wall until we got to a saddle where you can easily enter the Blue Hole.

The Blue Hole is the dark blue water right in front of the buildings. The lighter colored water is much shallower.

Dahab's Blue Hole is the dark blue spot in the middle. (photo by B. Cremmins).

The Blue Hole is right off shore. If you don't enter from the open sea side via the saddle, you can walk out to it. It only drops to 130m instead of 800m, but when you are diving, you are encircled by walls. It is supposed to be the most dangerous dive site in the world. This is only half true. If you don't push yourself beyond your limits, the site isn't dangerous at all. However, lots of people use the Blue Hole to try and push their limits because of its easy access from shore and its proximity to a major diving town. Some people want to try to get down to 100m. Others want to find and pass through the tunnel at 60m from the Blue Hole out to open sea even though the recreational diving limit is 40m. In retrospect, the Blue Hole gets all the fame, but the Bells was the best part of the dive. It was teeming with life. The Blue Hole didn't have a lot of coral or fish left. The best part of the Blue Hole was probably coming back to the surface and seeing and dodging the dangling legs of snorkelers in the water.

Dead divers plaques beside the Blue Hole (photo by B. Cremmins).

An incredible free dive of the Arch at the Blue Hole.

I don't remember doing much that night. For some reason, diving is exhausting. You try to move as little as possible to save oxygen, but you still come out tired. Some people say it is from breathing the air in the tanks instead of regular air. Some say it is the extra pressure of the water. I just say it is time for a nap.

Our gear on the dive boat.

Ras Mohammed National Park.

Day three saw me heading to Sharm el-Sheikh at 3am to catch a dive boat to three dives at a shipwreck and national park.. At the shipwreck, we would do two dives. The first would be around the outside of the hull. The second one would be into the ship itself. The wrecked ship, the SS Thistlegorm, was a British vessel being used to transport military supplies. It was bombed while anchored. The way it exploded has made it very easy for divers to get in and out. Unfortunately for me, it isn't quite easy enough.

BSA motorcycles and their inflated tired aboard the shipwrecked SS Thistlegorm (photo from Internet).

A mock up of the SS Thistlegorm shipwreck dive site (photo from Internet).

There was a small hatch that we were using to navigate between two levels of the ship. I was not moving fast enough and received a push from below which forced me to reach out and grab something to keep from going up too fast. The piece of metal that I grabbed was really sharp. I ended up bleeding for the rest of the day. I still have a scar. On a much cooler note, you could still see motorcycles and trucks in the storage part of the vessel. You could see the anti-aircraft gun on deck. There was an air pocket in a cabin that we each took turns poking are heads into, but making sure not to breath in the old air.

Giant moray eel (photo from Internet).

On the way back to Sharm el-Sheikh, we made a final drift dive at Ras Mohammed National Park where we got in at one place, but got out at another. At this dive site, you are hoping for big currents because they bring in the big animals, but we did not get them. We did get to see another wreck that was hauling bathtubs and toilets though. It was strange to see that stuff piled up on the ocean floor. On this dive, I also got to see my first giant moray eel. It was huge! I'm sure my eyes made it to be bigger than it actually was, but it easily looked 1 foot around its head and 10 feet long. We saw 4 of them. They have a bad reputation for attacking people, but a lot of those attacks are from when humans mess with their burrows or in poor visibility when a finger might look like a fish! I kept my distance.

The old market of Sharm el-Sheikh. Eh.

After returning to port, we had a quick look around Sharm el-Sheikh. It was supposed to have all of Dahab's diving mixed it with some ritz. It didn't seem that much different than Dahab. The beachfront was taken up by western style hotels that were far beyond anything Dahab had, but when you got away from the water, it was the same. I didn't like it. However, it was definitely a diving mecca. The number of dive boats in harbor was ridiculous.

The Sharm el-Sheikh dive boat harbor.

That night Betty raved about her visit to the Blue Hole. She was definitely hooked on diving. We celebrated at a burger joint run by a Kiwi woman with a couple other travelers. It was my second Kiwi encounter of the day. On my dive ship, there was also a Kiwi from Ashburton. I was excited to be done with Dahab. I had really enjoyed my diving, but it was time to move on. I definitely wanted to stay in one place, but Dahab was not the place for me. I'm not sure why even though I'd love to go back for more diving or to try windsurfing and kite boarding.

Sinai Peninsula's Red Sea Coast, Egypt

Welcome to Egypt!

Clearing the Israeli border was easy. It was once again staffed by young cute super friendly folks. The Egyptian side wasn't quite as easy. The isobutane fuel that we bought in Eilat for my stove looked like a bomb on the Egyptian x-ray machines. They started to give Betty crap about it until she told them what it was. When we were about to leave, a guy took our passports to an office to do who knows what. When he was done, he didn't return them. He walked them to a table in between us, put them down, and told us to come get them. It wasn't like there was a ton of people around to steal them before we got to them, but I am used to my passport going directly to someone and directly back. I am not comfortable having a guy leave it on a table in a large room.

These wild camels surprised me when we came whipping around the corner.

Just after the border, I managed to miss the turn for Taba. I'm not sure we missed much though. I believe it is just another resort town, but it has a little historical significance. When Israel ceded the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt, they kept Taba. However, in 1988 an international court ruling moved the border 2km north and Israel lost a major chunk of its Red Sea coast line, including Taba.

Morning chai break on the Red Sea.

When it warmed up a bit, Betty and I stopped on the coast for a morning chai and coffee. Soaking up the scenery enjoying yummy drinks was a great way to start a very long 157km day of biking. I was pretty happy that they didn't confiscate our stove fuel.

Betty biking down the Red Sea coast.

Biking along the Sinai coast, there is ocean on your left and mountains and electrical lines on your right. After Taba which is right at the border, there are no towns. There are only resorts. There is no shoulder on the road, but that isn't bad because there isn't too much traffic.

Pharaoh's Island.

The fjord.

The only identifiable sites on the road, other than resorts, were Pharaoh's Island and a fjord. Pharaoh's Island, also called Coral Island, was originally a Phoenician seaport. In the 12th century, the Crusaders built a castle on the site. Then, it was taken over by Sultan Salah El Din who enlarged the castle. Today, it is a great snorkeling spot and it looks like they have added a pool. They are not sure of the origins of the fjord. It might be a geological fault. It might be an old river valley.

Mid level resorts along the Red Sea.

After the fjord, the Sinai Peninsula coast to Nuweiba was not what I expected. There would be nothing for miles, then an upscale resort, then nothing for miles again. There were so many new resorts being built, but I can't imagine the tourism industry sustaining them. The existing resorts we saw did not look busy and November is supposed to be the start of the high season. Next to the some of the resorts being built, it looked like there were temporary villages to house the constructions workers. There were no stores. It was weird to see the high end resorts beside such poverty, though I'm not sure that is the right word. I believe the villages were built poorly because they are only temporary. I've seen that contrast many times this trip, but have never been comfortable with it.

Temporary worker villages near the new resorts.

I liked the contrast of the resort looking building, next to the rocks, next to the temporary home.

As we got farther south, there were less high end resorts and more down to Earth resorts. Instead of giant hotels, there were small buildings and bungalow style huts built from palm trees. I liked these. They seemed more mellow. One of these, Sallyland, was mentioned in a book, Return to the Desert: A Journey from Mount Hermon to Mount Sinai, that I had read in Israel. It was neat to see it in person after reading about it. I'm not sure why the fancier ones were closer to Israel. I know that Israelis can enter the Sinai Peninsula part of Egypt without a visa. Maybe they are trying to attract the Israeli tourists.

Bungalow style resort

The one really strange part about the bungalows coming from palm trees is that there were almost no existing palm trees. The only vegetation was at the high end resorts where they are growing it. There are a few wadis with water, but I don't think they could provide that many palm trees. Perhaps they bring in the palm tree trunks and fronds from somewhere else. There is certainly room on the overloaded trucks and vans that we saw. I can't believe how high they load some of those vehicles. I would guess that some are loaded 1 to 1.5 times as high as the vehicle.

How to properly load your van.

This market near Nuweiba left something to be desired.

I can't remember if we did anything in Nuweiba. We picked up some supplies and looked for a road that did not exist. The map insisted that there was a road along the coast. All we found was a kid who grabbed onto the back of Betty's rear baskets and pulled while she was trying to ride up a hill. She was almost forced to body slam the kid, but he ran off before she got a hold of him. I gave him the stink eye and yelled at him instead which was not nearly as effective.

Mountains along the Red Sea.

Biking up the Nuweiba-Dahab hill

From Nuweiba to Dahab, there was more spectacular riding. The road left the coast and started up a mountain pass with towering peaks on both sides of us. We climbed 800m over 15km against a headwind in the heat of the day. I was tired, loving it, and feeling a little bit guilty for it because Betty was struggling. She never gave up though. For some reason, I love the hills and have adapted to the heat enough to bear it. The one problem was that I ran out of water, which ended up being pretty neat to observe what happened to my body. In thirty minutes, I went from glistening sweaty skin to dry salty skin. I didn't think anything of it because the wind had picked up and I felt cooler. I didn't suspect I was dehydrated. However, after Betty and I met at a false summit, she gave me some water and I started sweating again almost immediately. When I ran out of water a second time, I stopped sweating again too.

A dead camel that might have stopped sweating.

Somewhere in there, my ridiculous amount of sweat got into the space between where my bike computer connects to the bike. The extra salt water was causing the electrons to bounce around a few more times and trigger the computer more than it should. A few times, my computer thought I was going over 100km/hr until I dried out the connection.

The last valley before Dahab.

Contrasting rock coloring in the final valley before Dahab.

More great rock formations in the valley before Dahab.

Even more great rock formations in the valley before Dahab.

Once we got to the real summit, we were excited. We figured the rest would be down hill. However, we just kept riding across terrain that seemed flat. When we were about 20km away, the mountains spread out a little bit and we entered a stunning valley. Unfortunately, it was almost dusk. We were going to be racing against the sun to get to Dahab. We biked at an exhausting 30km/hr to beat sunset and were confident that we would eventually hit the big downhill. When we finally arrived at Dahab, we realized there was no big downhill. We had been going slightly downhill since we crossed the pass.

More great rock formations.

Last great rock formation.

When we rolled into town before sunset, we luckily ran into a windsurf shop manager who showed us the way to the Indian restaurant we were looking for and recommended a hostel to stay at. I don't think we would have ended up in the right area at all without his help.

One of hundreds of restaurants on the boardwalk in Dahab (photo from Internet).

The Indian restaurant was fantastic. When we were deciding if we needed to order more, our waiter said that there was no way we would have any chance of finishing what we already ordered unless we were starving. We told him we were and to trust us. We easily finished off all of our meals and 4 flavored mini-milks to aid our muscles in recovery. After dinner, we rolled into the Bishibishi Garden Village and into our beds to aid the rest of our recovery. We had big days of diving ahead.

I have no idea what I am doing. Probably asking for directions. Looking at this picture, I am starting to understand why three different people offered me shirts on my trip (photo by B. Cremmins) )(edit: Betty tells me that I was being a 'real man' and asking for directions when we were looking for the supposed coast road from Nuweiba to Dahab).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Eilat, Israel

Check out the layers on the rock.

The morning ride from Wadi Rum, Jordan to Eilat, Israel had a little more stress on it that I would have liked. You can't get a visa at the border so I had to go to the Egyptian consulate where you have to drop it off by 11am for same day service. Smartly, Betty had got hers in New York City before leaving for the trip. Since we had over 100km to cover, we wanted to leave early. Unfortunately, we did not able break camp until later than I would have liked. We had 5.5 hours to get to the consulate instead of the 6 I was hoping for. That wasn't the end of the world, but it was going to make everything a little bit tighter. Luckily, Wadi Rum is the highest wadi in Jordan, so we were going to be on a mostly downhill ride to Eilat at sea level. If we didn't stop for breaks, we should be alright.

The ride down to Aqaba took us through more great desert scenery. Instead of being sparse though, the mountains began to crowd in. Soon we were riding in fully lined valleys. Once we cleared the mountains and were approaching Aqaba, a major headwind kicked up. We were struggling against it. It gave two kids a chance to throw rocks at us. That was Betty's first experience with it. She handled about as happily as I handled it my first time. As we were approaching the city of Aladdin, magic carpets, and genies, we took a hard right back toward the Israeli border. The headwind continued.

Welcome to Israel!

We got to the border around 10:15am. I felt like we were easily going to make it. Then, the border security stated asking me about Syria and Lebanon again. I thought that stuff would not be an issue this time because I had already crossed into Israel once since then. Betty cleared the border while I answered questions and waited. Then, I waited just a little bit more and a woman came out to welcome me to Israel. It did not take nearly as long this time. Alos, this border was not staffed with a majority of young people like the last two border crossings.

Eilat, Israel is a major resort town.

Entering Israel, felt like returning to the homeland again. I loved it immediately. Maybe it was the taste of western culture. Maybe it was the kinship with other Jews. I still don't know. I just know I was happy to be there. By this point, it as almost 11am. We had about 10 minutes to bike the 3km to the city and find the consulate. I think the headwind was finally a crosswind, but it was still making our life miserable. After biking up a huge hill, we made it to the consulate at 11am. It didn't look like they actually closed at 11am because they wanted me to wait until my visa was processed. My crappy guidebook might have been wrong again.

A fun advertisement at a roundabout for their Underwater Observatory Marine Park.

How do you define happiness (photo by B. Cremmins)?

Instead of waiting, Betty and I went to find her some coffee and me some ice cream, preferably Ben & Jerry's. It took a little bit, but we were able to find a market that sold B&J Cinnamon Buns ice cream. Yum. Betty made the wise choice to ditch coffee and go for ice cream instead. We headed back to the consulate to enjoy our sweet treats. Before we even finished our ice cream, they had processed my passport. We were clear to enter Egypt.

I loved that these dusty cars probably got that way while they are waiting to clear some customs hurdle.

Egypt would have to wait though. I was happy to be in Israel again. It was really hot and I didn't see the need to bike in the heat. We stopped in an Internet cafe to waste some time. After a couple hours, we hit the road again. Unfortunately, our motivation was gone. We had already biked 100km and just didn't see the need to bike much more. Instead of clearing the border when it wasn't busy at night, we would head over early in the morning. We found some potential campsites on the beach about 1km from the border and then went back to get Thai food. The Thai place was closed, but we ate at the adjacent hotel's restaurant. The food wasn't quite what I was looking for, but it was good enough. Also, the hotel had free Internet that we could poach to look for dive shops in Egypt. Looking for shops on the Internet was the same as it was in Australia, very frustrating. I wasn't getting anywhere and eventually gave up.

Eilat, Israel is a kite surfing center.

We went back to the rocky beach that was going to be our campsite. An hour into sleeping, Betty woke up in a worry about the water. She thought the tide was coming in and we were about to get wet. The tide wasn't coming in. A large boat farther out in the Gulf of Aqaba arm of the Red Sea had gone by and we were just catching its waves. Yes, they were coming within a few feet of the tent, but we were fine. I had trouble falling back to sleep and the two or three times that I made too much noise, Betty shot up and worriedly asked if the water was still getting closer. I kept telling her it was fine and to go to bed. It reminded me of when I was camped in a place I thought I might get bothered. At every sound, I would wake up and worry about getting harassed. After doing that for enough nights, I stopped worrying and slept better. It was interesting to see Betty doing the same things I had done for so many months at the start of my trip.

It wasn't the best day in Israel, but I still enjoyed it. Betty and I were able to get a lot of errands done and were ready to tackle the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wadi Rum, Jordan

The King's Highway from Petra to Wadi Rum

It was time to leave Petra. It was time to bike again. Weaving through town to leave was a mess. There weren't signs and our directions weren't clear. With a couple stops to ask directions, we were soon on our way. Those directions took us up a giant hill to the main road. Some of my worst fears about biking with Betty were realized when she got off her bike to push on the first major hill. I wondered if Betty and I had received a trip saving blessing by not having her bike show up those first few days. We would have had three days of 1000 meter climbs. I'm not sure I would have had the patience. I just kept pedaling and kept my mouth shut. So did she.

These guys might be nomadic, but they are living in style. Check out the satellite dish.

Rock formations along the King's Highway.

We both knew what needed to be done. Just push onward. Once she got up the hill, she got back on her bike to ride. She lagged on the hills for the rest of the trip, but she never got off her bike again. In fact, with the exception of the uphills, her fresh legs and skinny tires had me working double time on the flats and downhills just to keep up. Her freewheeling was usually equal to my pedaling. I was jealous of her light bike, but the number of flat tires that she got made me happy to have my touring tires instead of her road tires.

Wild camels!

The road to Wadi Rum.

Our ride to Wadi Rum was stunning. For half of it, we were on the King's Highway which doesn't see much traffic. We climbed 700m up to the plateau which offered great views to the west. Near the start of the descent to Wadi Rum, the police waved us over. They didn't want anything official. They just wanted to chat and offer us tea. A friend of theirs offered to take us to Wadi Rum. I was interested in accepting to get there a little earlier. However, another guy said it was only 25km. I checked my map. It said 56km. I showed it to the 25km guy. He said the map was wrong. The map turned out to be right. It was a long ride, but it was beautiful. The scenery became more sparse, but was broken up by huge rock formations that dominated the landscape.

Rock formations in Wadi Rum


We arrived at Wadi Rum visitor's center two hours before sunset. While we were there, we discovered there are three ways to see Wadi Rum: by foot, by camel, or by 4x4. We couldn't bike across even though my map showed a road and we also didn't have time for a hike. The camel idea seemed alright but, I wanted to maximize what we saw so we went with a 4x4 tour. There are one hour to multiday tours. It just depends what you sign up for. We took a 3 hour sunset tour with a fifteen year old kid that looked eleven.

Our 15 year old driver (photo by B. Cremmins).

The 7 Pillars of Wisdom named after T.E. Lawrence's book.

Our first stop was a spring that T.E. Lawrence wrote about in his book the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. To the western world, Wadi Rum is most famously associated with the British officer T. E. Lawrence. The movie Lawrence of Arabia was about him and his assistance in the Arab Revolt. While he was involved with the revolt, he based out of Wadi Rum. The spring wasn't anything special to look at except for the fact there were plants growing there and no where else. Our driver offered us a drink directly out of the spring . . . . via a hose. It didn't taste great, but I suspect that had something to do with the hose.

The entrance to Khaz'ali canyon.

Climbing in Khaz'ali Canyon.

Our next stop was Khaz'ali canyon. It didn't seem like a canyon, but I'm not sure what a better name would have been. There are two giant red rocks that have a gap in between them. The elevation doesn't drop at all. I thought the elevation dropped in canyons. You can walk in between the rocks for about 200 meters before hitting a wall that you'd have to climb up and over. A rock climber could do it easily. I am not, so I didn't. On the way out, we saw a tour guide point out some 100AD Nabatean petroglyphs that we missed on the way in. It is amazing how much you can miss in a place if you don't know what to look for.

Petroglyphs in Khaz'ali canyon

Red sand. Green Keen.

Red sand in Wadi Rum.

Our final stop on the tour was a giant red sand dune. We climbed up and watched sunset over the area. It was the best part of the tour. The red sand stuck out in the sandstone valley. The golden hour light was brilliantly illuminating the rock formations. We could see trucks driving and camels walking around which looked miniature compared to the rock formations. Before nightfall, we were another of those miniature trucks heading back to the village.

Dusk in Wadi Rum.

Sunset in Wadi Rum.

The Wadi Rum village lets you pitch a tent for $1 a person. You get access to running water, a bathroom, a shower, and picnic tables to make your dinner on. The local market provided us enough food to get by and we gorged ourselves after a long day's riding. After eating, all I had enough energy to do was look at a few stars and fall asleep. Camping under those desert stars was my favorite night in Jordan.

The desert road to Wadi Rum.