top of page

The Middle East (Part 7/8) - Egypt - Sinai & Cairo

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Clownfish in the Red Sea, Dahab, EFinding Nemo: Clownfish in the Red Sea, Dahab, Sinai, Egypt
Finding Nemo: Clownfish in the Red Sea, Dahab

Into Sinai

I took the bus from Jerusalem back down to Eilat and stayed one more night in Israel before making my way over the border and into the Sinai region of Israel. The process of exiting Israel is much simpler than that of getting in, and I was through within about half an hour. The first smiling face I'd seen from a stranger I'd seen since Jordan appeared immediately after leaving the border controls. Okay, it was from a taxi driver hoping to get a ride to the nearest town, but hey. I took the bus to Dahab - the first 'resort' you get to of any size in Sinai, although the coast is dotted with deserted and semi-deserted 'ghost resorts' which seem to have been abandoned since Israelis have stopped coming here on holiday. Sinai is a triangular peninsular in the north east of Egypt about three times the size of Wales (why is Wales always used to compare the sizes of things?), and become part of Israel after the Six Day War in 1967, for fifteen years. Its Red Sea coast was a cheap student shangri-la between then and 1982, but since it became part of Egypt again, and especially in the past few years, after bombings in the late 90's and in 2005, fewer and fewer Israelis come and most of these places have just died - Egyptians don't arrive in large enough numbers and other foreign tourists don't make it much beyond Sharm el Sheik, two hours to the south. I'd been to Sharm previously, and didn't enjoy it. The nouveau-riche of Russia seem to like it there though - many of the signs and menus are in Cyrillic, and they seem to have bought up large tracts of land, built huge hotels and attracted plane-loads of package tourists. It's a brash, loud, tasteless resort, and I had no intention of going back. No one seems to have a good word to say about the Ruskis here, probably because their hard-drinking ways grates with the Egyptian tee-total culture. That and they are by and large the equivalent of Brits abroad in Spain here - boorish, arrogant and affluent, with little interest in the culture or people. Maybe a generalization, but a lot of truth in it.

Windsurfers off the Dahab coast, Sinai, Egypt
Life's a beach: windsurfers off the Dahab coast

The life aquatic

A kind of backpacker shangri-la, Dahab contains most of the facets of what for me makes an ideal destination;

(1) It's cheap (plenty of camps and huts available for $5-15 per person).

(2) It's right next to the sea in a gorgeous location under the mountains.

(3) There are loads of restaurants and bars within stumbling distance of your room.

(4) There were no package holiday tourists.

(5) You can buy lots of lovely fresh seafood at bargain prices.

(6) Most importantly, it has some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world.

I loved it as soon as I arrived. I found a room with balcony fronting onto the sea at the top end of the market - $12 for the room per night. It was quite a good price. I could have stayed there for the next two weeks; but ended up staying there for four nights in the end. The unquestioned highlight: snorkeling. Diving requires you to do a two to three day course and is a bit pricey - $150 and upwards- so I decided (of course) on the budget option, a bus trip with snorkeling gear provided cost $5 to a place called The Blue Hole. I remember snorkeling on family holidays as a kid in Wales - all that sea water in the nose, spitting on the mask so it doesn't fog up, getting cuts on your hands and feet, pointless ping-pong balls and for what? to see some uninspiring pebbles if you're lucky, and more often some used condoms or turds floating past. Great. But snorkeling in Sinai is not like Wales. Without exaggerating, it's mind-blowing. I was expecting some interesting coral reef out there, obviously. I wasn't expecting a massive array of sea life floating around me from the moment I put my mask underneath the water or a huge canyon about 50m offshore which made me feel like I was floating in space when I looked down. The sheer variety of fish and sea life was astounding; fish that I never knew existed floated and swam right beneath my eyes - Napolean fish, Clown fish, green and blue Parrot fish, the deadly Stone fish which hides menacingly in the coral, (they can kill a child with one sting) Lion fish which are eerily still as you swim past and look like exotic birds (they can administer an electric shock which can hospitalize you), Arabian Angel fish, White belly Damsel fish, Butterfly fish, Red Snapper, Cornet fish, Surgeon fish, Pipe fish, wretched Urchins threatening the unwary (I trod on one accidentally and was limping for two days), something which was huge and ugly and menacing and may have been a Sea Cow, Potato Cod or Turkey fish - and various annoying jelly fish. And they were only the ones I later identified.

Lion fish, Coral reef, Red sea, Sinai, Egypt
Lion fish: you can't touch this

I swam along the reef for over an hour and surfaced later around the edge of the headland, out of sight of the crowds of people I'd started with. I gashed myself quite deeply a bit on the sharp coral coming back to shore but hardly noticed it in my elated state. I did plenty more snorkeling in my time in Dahab, but that day was the undoubted highlight as it was my first sight of coral reef. I'd recommend it very highly to anyone - I've done plenty of snorkeling in various places around the world since, but the Red Sea is by the far the best I've seen for variety of fish and quality of the coral. It's one of the best budget activities available in a place like Egypt, costing next to nothing, and arguably a snorkeler in the Red Sea sees and experiences as much as a diver does: all the important aquatic life swims in and around the reef, which is just off the coastline around Dahab - you don't even need a boat to get to it. Sure, divers get to explore ship wrecks, and can get down to the sea bed - they may even see some schools of sharks or bales of turtles. But in general, you're not missing much, believe me. This is one place where your budgeting is a bonus.

View from Mount Sinai, Egypt
Biblical view: looking out from Mount Sinai

Exploring Sinai's interior

Sinai is famous for St. Catherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai. I set off early one morning on an organised trip to the interior of Sinai, which took an hour from Dahab. The landscape is stark and lifeless, in contrast to what is below the waves, but also beautiful and awe-inspiring. The rocks are of a reddish hue, and look particularly impressive at sunset. The trip we were on was supposed to take until sunset so we could see Mount Sinai in all its glory at that time, but I had already decided to come down before then - mainly because up there at over a thousand metres it wasn't particularly warm in late September - it was sunny though. The significance of Mount Sinai is known to most people - it's where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God in the Bible - and St Catherine's monastery, at its base, was built up around the patch of land where the Burning Bush incident happened. There still is a bush there which they say is the same one, so it's doing well after two and a half thousand years or so, especially in view of the fact that it burnt down. The monastery itself is interesting and fortified, which makes it look more imposing - more like a castle - but it's also very touristy, and after an hour or so I headed away from the crowds and up the mountain. Amazingly, after ten minutes' walking, I was on my own, and could only see the occasional camel with its Bedouin owner - all of which offered to ride me up the mountain.

 St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
Fortified: St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

The camel is the least comfortable mode of transport known to mankind, so I refused all such offers, preferring instead to hike it. The hike was great and not overly taxing, but the camel owners got a bit annoying, and it wasn't until I was over half way up that they started to peter out. They looked bewildered that we didn't want to take a camel; why walk if you don't have to? They've probably got used to Russians. The last part of the hike did get taxing as I ascended 365 steps to the top - one for every day of the year for the poor monk who did penance to build them several hundred years back. The view from the top was amazing; how could it not be, gazing down from Mount Sinai onto the surrounding rocky peaks, nothing but ochre-coloured mountains in every direction and utter silence, broken only by a random chant from a Jewish guy who was also at the top. The peak is only 2200 metres but it felt quite chilly at the top so I set off down before darkness (quite a few people waited for sunset which was madness in my opinion). The way down was steep and difficult - steps all the way - and I got down just as sun was setting. My calves ached for days after that two hour descent, but the views were magnificent and I got some great pictures.

 The Coloured Canyon, Nuwaiba, Sinai, Egypt
Gorge-ous: The Coloured Canyon, Sinai

The Coloured Canyon

I moved to a smaller backpacker camp area to the north called Nuweiba. It was strange in that it was utterly deserted. This was in the area of Sinai which had been abandoned by Israelis, and it looked utterly bereft and sad, yet beautiful and atmospheric - definitely a place with a bright past. Which is a great shame. I was pretty much the only tourist there, as far as I could discern, and had the very comfortable guesthouse I was staying in to myself ($7 for an en suite room with breakfast and a very agreeable sea view). The whole place had a tangible air of melancholia and faded - well, if not grandeur, then something between decency and respectability. I felt genuinely sorry for the people living in this part of the world and working in the tourist sector. The area truly was stunning, and had a huge amount to offer; if it had been almost anywhere else, it'd be swamped with tourists. It's a sad fact of life that 99% of all tourists in Egypt end up in either Sharm or Hurgadha, and very few leave the comfortable and safe confines of their hotels or carefully-orchestrated package tours. If you crave peace and solitude however, this is the place for you; there is barely another soul around. When it came to dinner time, that was a bit of a problem, there being precisely one eatery in town still open for business; and the nightlife...well, let's move on.