After five hours of playing sardines at 30,000 feet, the last thing you need
is a dose of Sharm arrivals hall multilevel queuing. Get through that bureaucratic
nightmare, grab your dive bag before it is completely destroyed by the carousel,
and step outside into the warm night air.
A quick, good-natured haggle with the Bedouin taxi driver, a moment of anxiety as you watch your luggage being lashed on with a length of old electrical wire and you are en route to Dahab, with a smug backward glance as the traditional diver-herding starts in earnest outside the airport doors. An hour later and you are on the beach. While many dive holiday destinations get that amorphous look, Dahab retains an atmosphere all of its own. Be it the influence of the Bedouin, who have always come here to fish and pick dates, or the hippies who first colonized this lovely spot in the Seventies, there really is nowhere quite like it.
Perched on the side of the Gulf of Aqaba, the reefs shelve steeply down straight from the shore, and in places you can step right from the beach into water hundreds of metres deep. At the beginning of the Nineties there was still only one dive centre here, though that number has now grown enormously. It does, though, mean that the reefs have not had to withstand the sustained long-term diver pressure common to many other places in the Red Sea.
Spread around a long curving bay, Dahab consists of a string of cafés, Bedouin-style camps, small hotels, dive centres and restaurants. The resort has
an enormous selection of accommodation and it is still possible to get a basic double room in a Bedouin camp for ten Egyptian pounds a night, which is less than £2. Tempted as I was by the huts at £2.50, I decided to go ‘upmarket’ and settled on a double room opening on to the beach at the quiet, southern end of town for a modest £5 a night.
Next morning, and it’s time to find a dive operator. In fewer than ten years Dahab has gone from having one dive centre (Inmo Divers) to more than 30, and with this much competition its not hard to strike a good deal. When the place is full (which is rare) you pay the standard price but, more usually, negotiation is the key, particularly if you are going to be doing lots of diving or there is a group of you.
All of the diving in Dahab is shore-based, so it is a case of piling the gear into the back of a pick-up truck or Jeep and jumping in after it. For those sites which are harder to get to, you simply swap the pick-up for a camel.
If you want to be in control of your dive programme, choose a dive centre which isn’t too busy so that you’ll be diving with a small group. Without boat schedules to fit in with, the dive centres are generally very happy to work around your wants. To enjoy all that the area has to offer, some days it’s worth doing just one dive and then relaxing Dahabi-style, sprawled out on Bedouin rugs with a bubble pipe in one hand, playing backgammon, eating chocolate pancakes and being cajoled by the Bedouin girls into letting them make you cotton bracelets.
There is a huge choice of dive sites around Dahab and they vary enormously in both marine life and architecture.
The Lighthouse is a good place to start your diving. This attractive reef offers easy entry and lots to see, but it can get crowded, particularly when the wind blows, as it is nice and sheltered. Put aside a bit of time for a long safety stop on the gravel bed at the end of the dive, as it is there you find Pegasusfish, devil scorpionfish and many other odd creatures you never see on the reef itself.
The Eel Garden involves a few minutes’ swim out, but is a peaceful dive with good, healthy corals and gets a lovely light in the afternoon with the sun coming from behind the reef.
The Canyon is always an exciting dive – drop through a crack in the reef floor at 18m into a huge cavern, swim along its length, up through a chimney and into a room full of glassfish, then out of back into the sunlight, emerging through a cloud of anthias at 15m. Alternatively, if you’re looking for more excitement, drop down to 46m at the far end and enter the canyon through a little tunnel.
The Blue Hole is located further up the coast. It can be entered directly from the shore, but a great way to dive it is to walk up a little further with your kit on, then step straight into an oval hole in the reef flat, drop down the tube for 20m and emerge on the sheer vertical wall of another dive site The Bells. Time it right and you can finish on the gorgeous reefs outside the Blue Hole, swim in over the saddle and exit from the Blue Hole itself.
The dive under the arch at The Blue Hole has developed quite a reputation. The Blue Hole itself is a 90m wide shaft and at around 60m down there is an arch over a huge opening through which one can swim out to open sea.
While it is very deep, it is not a difficult dive, just a dive that kills people. There have been more than 100 fatalities and the list gets added to regularly. While I was there on my last visit a diver had a stroke at 60m, though astonishingly, after a spell in a chamber at Sharm and in intensive care, he survived. Diving under the arch is best left well alone. There is neither the technical support, rescue back-up, nor a chamber close enough to make the high risk worth while.
Night diving is usually done at Lighthouse Reef. The Bells, however, is a superb night dive with wonderful colours, lots of lobsters and sleeping fish, and no groups of divers with flashing strobe lights fixed to their tanks, lighting the place up like an airport – though in the evening divemasters are not overly keen to go there because it is 45 minutes away from most dive centres. The reef-flat south of the bay is always alive at night and you are likely to encounter octopus, pufferfish, morays and squid before you even reach the drop-off. Eagle rays can also be seen feeding at the reef edge.
The Island is a huge coral mound dotted with sandy gullies and offers some wonderful natural architecture in the shape of its coral formations. It’s a good, shallow afternoon dive, with its circling shoal of barracuda and a fair chance of encountering a turtle.
Southern sites such as the Caves, the Three Pools and the Southern Oasis are less dived than most, and further south still is the wonderfully intact Gabr El Bint – this virgin reef is only accessible by camel or with a boat.
Ras Abu Gallom, which lies to the north of the Blue Hole, offers some colourful reefs. To get there involves loading your gear and tanks on to a camel followed by a couple of hours’ trekking from the Blue Hole. You can stay here overnight in very basic accommodation.
The Lagoon is just the place for those who like long, shallow dives. It’s great for macro life and is another place to see strange creatures that you don’t find on the main reefs. There are seahorses in the eel-grass beds, flounders in the sand and cuttlefish hunting between the coral outcrops.
Unfortunately, the idea that one should never dive without a local divemaster has arrived in Dahab. Self-serving nonsense in my book. There is no good reason why experienced divers who have already dived a site shouldn’t return on their own.
Dahab is not necessarily the best destination for the quick in-out, pack-in-as-much-diving-as-you-can type of trip. You would get lots of good diving, but you would also miss out on much of what makes Dahab special. The Egyptians excel at hospitality, and it is nice to settle back and enjoy it. The very fact that you are not being shuttled around to fit in with boat schedules is relaxing in itself. The laid-back hippy heyday may be long gone, but Dahab is still a great place to ‘chill out’, enjoy some great diving and still have enough change left over to return for another trip.
Small, comfortable, beachfront accommodation such as the Star of Dahab, the Jasmine Guest House and Penguin Camp are available at the quiet, southern end of town. Further into town are the Mohammed Ali and the Crazy Camel Camp (which has its own excellent dive centre). Here you will also find that some larger hotels are being introduced.
These days you have everything from basic £1.50-a-night rooms to air-conditioned luxury. There are plenty of restaurants and you can still get a good meal for £2.
Fly to Sharm El Sheikh (booking through one of the leading tour operators), then take a one-hour taxi ride (taxis take up to six people), which costs about EL100 (£20) in total. Visas are available on arrival at Sharm El Sheikh airport.
Alternatively, fly to Cairo and take an eight-hour bus ride to Dahab (long and tedious).
The cheapest option (and a chance to see a bit of Egypt) is to take a last-minute flight to Luxor (at quiet times they can be had for less than £100), then a bus to Hurghada, a boat up to Sharm and a taxi to Dahab. Haggle a good diving deal if the dive centre isn’t busy, move into your £2 room and the whole thing will be cheaper than if you’d stayed at home.
What to bring
In summer a 3mm wetsuit is plenty, in winter take a 5 or 6mm suit (it is the most northerly coral reef in the world). Bring your own gear, and a package of guided diving with tanks and weights can cost you as little as a tenner a dive.
Technical diving equipment and instruction is now available in Dahab.