Poll Star's Wonderings

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Under Dahab's Waters

Day 49 Aqaba
I’ve enjoyed Aqaba, but mostly from under the water. On dry land, it turns out there’s not so much to it. The weather was lovely today, so I had a potter round and spent a few hours reading at the café on the beach (plastic table and chairs on 20m strip of sand). I had a look at Aqaba museum and castle; these may provide some diversion if you’ve come on a beach holiday. However, I’ve seen some pretty special stuff and have been reading about Egypt, so they didn’t quite cut it. Egypt is looking very busy, so I hope I don’t end up regretting a bit of a nothing last day in Aqaba. Even the quietest day has its highlights and I found excellent pizza and ice cream, so I looked after body, if not soul.

Day 50 Aqaba to Nuweiba (Egypyt) to Dahab…..I hope
I am raising my bat today for the fiftieth day of the trip-it’s only my 34th birthday.

This was officially the dullest day of the trip: a title I do not expect to be challenged, hopefully. I probably tempted fate in an earlier fate by flippantly saying I was just going to travel on my birthday. I got to the port a little more than the recommended hour and a half before the 12 o’clock sailing and eventually managed to understand the system:
1. Wander round aimlessly trying to work out what’s going on
2. Go upstairs with bags
3. Ask for a ticket
4. Walk across the ticket office to pay for the ticket
5. Walk back to the ticket counter and collect the ticket
6. Walk downstairs with bags
7. Buy departure tax stamp
8. Walk upstairs with bags
9. Get departure tax stamp stuck in passport and stamped.
I resisted the temptation to offer them some free consultancy on improving their process.

And at step two I was informed that the boat was going at 3, because of the ‘weather’: looking out the window at the millpond, this made not a lot of sense. At this point I deluded myself that if we could go a little early, then they might hold the bus a little so we could still catch the 4 o’clock last bus to Dahab. The stupidity of this thought was apparent when we got on the boat at 5; the boat didn’t move till gone 6. We got our passports processed: it seems that the stamp doesn’t work when the boat is moving or in the holding area that everyone had been sat in for 6 hours. When we arrived we sat for about an hour until 3 police came on board and looked around for 5 minutes. Even then we surprised the guys operating the baggage x-ray when we exited.

Hey ho. I’d written the day off anyway, I just wanted to get to Dahab so I didn’t waste even more time.

At 8.30 we got into a service taxi, where it emerged that the Germans I was now travelling with were staying in the same place as me and that it was my birthday-when the taxi asked my age I said ’34 today’. So at about 10, I sat down for the day’s first meal and had a birthday beer-nicest of all, they refused to let me pay for either. I may just start telling people it’s my birthday when I meet them.

Day 51 Dahab Dive Shop tour
I had hoped to arrive in Dahab at 5 yesterday and then have the chance to talk to a load of dive shops, hopefully arrange to do my Advanced Open Water and spend today at St Katherine’s: as going to St Katherine’s involves getting to over 2,000m up Mt Sinai, you can’t do that within 18 hours of multiple dives. It presents a risk of the bends.

That may have been too optimistic a plan, but having established the hostel had a trip to the monastery tomorrow, I headed out on a dive reccie. My suntan must be coming on, as one local seller of goods greeted me with ‘what’s up nigger?’ A slightly surprising opening gambit.

After the first dive shop I bumped into Carolyn and Norbert, who I’d not seen since Syria. They determined a night out to celebrate my birthday was in order. Norbert thought my name was Nigel, which I guess came to him from my nationality; I told him not to worry as I was rubbish with names and remembered his because of the dragon connection.

I am really liking Dahab. It has an Oxford restaurant, a Nirvana Indian, a bar that’s made out of a boat and I’m staying at the Penguin Village.

I finally chose Desert Divers, who were recommended by both Talal in Aqaba and the Lonely Planet. It’s a very difficult choice: there are over 60 dive shops, so you chat to a few, have a look at their equipment and pick one where you like the people. I spent a long time chatting to folk on 6 or 7 different places. Let’s hope it’s a good decision.

Day 52 St Katherine’s Monastery
I had the option of going on a sunset or sunrise trip to St Katherine’s: as one involved leaving at midnight and climbing in the dark, I went with the 8 a.m. kickoff, figuring I’ve seen a lot of dawns in the last 18 months. So we visit the monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai before having a bit of a climb.

We had a nice group of folks on the trip-my German pals, a Canadian couple, American Dad and daughter and a Swiss brother and sister. The Canadians had also met Beardy, who now appears to be developing the status of Middle East muppet that everyone meets and remembers.

The monastery, or at least the part that was open to visitors, was a lot smaller than I had anticipated and there were a huge number of people trying to get in: the doorway was a an arch one and a half persons wide, which caused a bit of a blockage. Inside the chapel, the main sight, I felt a real sense of pilgrimage in many of the visitors as they crossed themselves, lit candles and kissed the feet of some statue. It was very quiet in reverent way, a vibrant contrast to the circus that is the Cistene Chapel. On my way in I passed a German tour group. The only words I heard were ‘Im Britische Museum’. We’d clearly been here then.

The sunlight streaming in through the windows was beautiful as it broke on the chandeliers, which were suspended throughout the chapel. I felt a little awkward at times as I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, when it clearly was very vital to many of those present. Like the baptism site in Jordan, there seemed to be a lot of Russians.

As we climbed Mt Sinai, it became clear that my focus on diving yesterday had left me completely unprepared for today. The only questions I had asked were when and how much. Everyone else had a packed lunch and I had no torch for the way back. It was a pretty shambolic effort, but at least I had enough clothes to lend my Lions’ shirt to a shivering Swiss.

Overall I was a little underwhelmed; the climb and views were interesting enough, but not earth shattering. The Church at the summit reminded me that this is a place of significance first, natural beauty second. As we stumbled down in the starlight, I was bemused by the 30 or so people on their way up on camels: they weren’t staying the night, so I’m not sure what they thought they would see.

Not sure about the head gear, but it does a job.

For those who have been worried about my alcohol consumption, we had a few beers when we got back, which makes 3 consecutive days of drinking for the first time in a long, long time. German Peter then became the first person to accuse me of talking too much because I am travelling alone and have some sort of conversation debt bursting to get out: I assured him that many long suffering folk could testify that this was quite normal.

Day 53 Advanced Open Water. Desert Divers. Navigation, Underwater Naturalist and Night Dives
Vanessa, my instructor, can be a little difficult to follow: this is not because she is French, but because she’s so gorgeous that it’s often tricky to concentrate on what she’s saying. She’s very chilled out and we had a good laugh: after a couple of months in France, I’m her first student of the year. We started with the navigation dive, which, after the Open Water, was probably the one I was most concerned about. The exercises weren’t too difficult-count kick cycles for 10m, then with the compass swim 6 kick cycles and then come back on the reciprocal heading and then swim a square of 4 kick cycles per side.

We then went off to the Lighthouse reef, Vanessa led and then I had to get us back using natural navigation-so I had to remember the way and the buoys, sunken pottery and so on that were the markers. It might have been sensible to take a look at the compass to get a bearing to start back on as I headed off for deeper waters (apparently everyone does). Vanessa corrected me a few times, but apparently I was good enough to pass.

We sat and had a drink and looked at some pictures of fish in preparation for underwater naturalist. We also went through a load of signals so I could communicate what I thought I was seeing-so I rub my nose for a clown fish, fan my fingers for a lion and take my regulator out and grind my teeth for a grouper (this was the trickiest and made Vanessa laugh, but sadly I called the fish wrong). The one thing I didn’t pay attention was the size of the fish-the pictures have an indication of size next to them, so this made my attempts even more hit and miss.

We did the dive at the Islands, which was a lovely site: it was a little like rooms of coral, you went up and over a bit and reef and back down into the next coral room. It was a good buoyancy test too and my confidence was aided when we came across some other divers, who were flailing, going up and down. My fish spotting was fairly comical: on land I would sooner be eviscerated than do cheesey Saturday Night Fever, but I had little choice when I saw a parrot fish (they’re very colourful, hence disco fish). I was very pleased to get that right, as to do that and be wrong would have been shaming. When it came to spotting and identifying clams I was world class; I reckon it was this that tipped the balance and led to Vanessa passing me.

I was getting a bit tired and blonde by the time we were getting ready for the night dive. Vanessa and Kate were less than impressed when I used my hair colour as an excuse. Kate is learning to be a divemaster, so she joined us for the rest of the course. The Padi book makes quite a lot of the fact that you shouldn’t be concerned at being nervous and a bit freaked out before your first night dive. Maybe it was the tiredness, built I was totally relaxed about it: or it may have been Vanessa’s good briefing. We dived the same area as for the navigation, but this time with (waterproof torches). Buoyancy wise this was my worst dive-apparently that’s quite common as you have fewer reference points when trying to control your depth. I spent the first ten minutes earworming Fear of the Dark. Night time allows you to see nocturnal fish and different behaviours. It was the first time I had seen a lionfish swimming, which was very cool and we saw a massive scorpion fish too. Some coral only comes out at night and will retract if you shine your torch on it-a little like the Christmas tree, which retracted into its tube at the Islands when Vanessa waved at it-we then hovered and watched it come back out. Pretty magical. As well as a lot of general fish, we also saw a Spanish Dancer, a massive cuttlefish and a very ambitious hermit crab, who’d got a shell big enough for two or three. When we met the dive group who had video cameras I got a bit disorientated: I think it would be quite easier to latch onto the wrong group at night.

Perhaps the best bit was when we all sat down on the bottom and turned our torches off. We then threw some shapes and generally waved our arms about and the disturbance of the plankton created speaks of phosphorescence in the water. It was very cool and reminded me of getting a similar effect moonwalking on the beach of Fraser Island. Although, maybe the Octopus was the highlight.

Afterwards we were invited up into the mountains for dinner: one of the owners is Bedouin so we had dinner with a whole group of folk looking down the hill over the town and out to see it was a lovely spot. The only downside was that I was unprepared. I’d been expecting to just walk back to the Penguin Village with wet shorts. To stay warm and help the shorts dry, I wrapped my towel round my waist and as it’s one of those compact travel towels, it looked scarily like a sarong. I made it very clear to anyone who would listen that I was not doing a David Beckham.

Day 54 AOW. Desert Divers. Deep and Drift Dives
All the dives in Dahab are shore dives again. The Lighthouse reef is close enough to walk to, but the other sites have to be reached by transport so we’re either in a jeep while the pickup takes the dive gear or when it was just Vanessa and me, we sat in the back of the pickup while it thumped round the roads and down to the beach. It makes looking like a beach bum very easy.

Today we headed to the Canyon, Bells and Blue Hole. These are very famous sites and are visited by people from Sharm as well as Dahab. A lot of them finished their journey by camel. Vanessa said she goes diving to see fish not divers so we made an early start to beat the crowds. When we came out from the canyon I could see she wasn’t joking. It felt a little like the wave of divers were coming to get us and then I saw the beach was filled with people getting kitted up. We had the place to ourselves-this was for the deep dive.

Up front I hadn’t thought too much about the Deep. Technically it’s not very different, in fact for equalising and such the move from 20m to 30m is significantly easier than the move from 0 to 10-you need to add a third more air to the air spaces rather than doubling the amount of air. I’m not sure how deep I’d been before, but I think in excess of 20m (technically I shouldn’t have). The two other big considerations are that 30m gives you less time underwater to make a no decompression dive (in other words to avoid the risk of the bends) and because you’re under 4 atmospheres of pressure at that depth you consume air 4 times faster than at the surface. Our longest dive yesterday was 50 minutes; this was 36.

Maybe it was tiredness but I got a bit freaked on this one. The odd thing was it wasn’t in the deep that I lost control of my breathing but in about 2m of water as we swam out to start the dive proper: had I been diving alone (not allowed), I think I would have surfaced to regain my composure. I got through a lot of air before we reached the canyon. Then at about 18m down, Vanessa turned so she was vertical and pointed down. I had know this was coming-to enter the canyon we were to pass through a hole. It was a little narrow, but the disconcerting part was that you couldn’t see the bottom. The visibility wasn’t great, but I think it mainly the dark that caused this. The spectrum is slowly absorbed as you get deeper so the sea does get darker and of course when you’re going into a canyon there’s even more obstruction to the passage of light. Sometimes an inability to speak is a good thing. Had we been able to have a discussion at this point, I think I’d have been opening along the lines ‘you want me to go down into that small, black hole. Are you mental?’. There’s a fair chance I might have talked myself out of. As it was Vanessa and I exchanged Okays and she went in and I followed. I controlled my descent nicely and about 8m up I could see the bottom and was perfectly happy. I seemed to miss out on the nitrogen narcosis-perhaps I just behave foolishly so I didn’t go any weirder, but at this depth it is common. My breathing was good too and afterwards Vanessa said my air consumption had been good-though I always noticed how much heavier her tank was when I moved the used tanks.

We saw more on the general part of the dive as opposed to the deep bit. Floating on my back looking up was very cool: the canyon walls went up and then there was a river like blue where the canyon opened up and the sun shining made it very movie especially when some big fish swam over. The number of Jellyfish was significantly up on yesterday and they are quite photogenic floating around as you dive, but today I saw several fish nibbling at them. They have a bit and move on, not killing the Jellyfish-it’s a little like taking an apple from a tree or nibbling on candyfloss.

We did Bells to the Blue Hole as a drift: the idea of a drift dive is you enter at one spot and the current takes you to the exit. There’s not a lot of current here, so we replicated the effect by swimming. The way to the entrance is sobering as you passed a fair number of memorial plaques. Quite a lot of divers have died here: by now Vanessa had decided I didn’t need kid gloves handling, so she told me about the girl whose life she saved here when she couldn’t get buoyant and was just sinking-it goes down to 80m, so hitting the bottom isn’t going to save you. Someone told me there’s a video on YouTube by a guy who died-they recovered his camera with the body. Bit gruesome.

Kate and I did a thorough buddy check and although all 3 of us were feeling a bit blonde by now, we were definitely focussed for that.

Bells is named for the sound made by tanks banging on rock as the divers enter through a hole in the rock and descend feet first. About 20m down you emerge into the open water and swim along the rock/coral wall-keeping a good eye on your depth. It can be quite easy to drift down when you’re looking at the wildlife. The whole thing presents opportunities of a Big Blue Jean Marc Barr moment and just floating off to join the fishes. I was not even momentarily tempted, but I wonder if some of the deaths have come in that sort of way, perhaps with the assistance of some nitrogen narcosis.

We saw some small tuna and a couple of times saw a kind of fish waterfall. A shoal was going deeper and they poured round us, another reminder that you’re only a visitor down here.

On the way back the big bar that is a boat was showing the rugby, so I got a taste of what I wasn’t missing as I watched most of the dire Scotland England match. I sat next to a retired couple from Yorkshire who are staying out of town in an all inclusive. He was convinced that the whole world hated England; it has to be said with much of what he shouting, he was doing very little for diplomatic relations.

Day 55 Desert Divers. Fun Dives.
I had expected to be sleeping on a boat last night. I want to go and dive Thistlegorm (a British wreck from WW2) and then do a drift in Ras Mohammed, which is supposed to be marvellous. Truips go twice a week and I thought one left last night, but they were actually diving the wreck yesterday, so I’ll need to wait till Tuesday to do it. I decided to do a couple of fun dives today and chill tomorrow.

There were even more Jellyfish today and I took a few stings. We went to the Moray gardens, where we saw no eels, and then had a very long at the 3 holes as our divemaster got a bit lost on the way back. After our safety stop we must have been at 2m for about 10mins while he looked for the gap in the coral to get us back to the beach 20m away. We saw some very cool cabbage like coral, but in general the visibility was a bit poor and on the hour long second dive it was quite cold.

A typical prelude then for the evening turning into a night out. Bit of a watering hole Dahab.

Day 56 Dahab
I had wanted to do a wreck dive as part of the advanced course, but there isn’t one in Dahab-the lighthouse must have done its job. As a result Thistlegorm will be my first time in/around a wreck. So I’ve been a touch keen and read the section on wrecks in the advanced diver menu. Today seemed to drift away without me actually stopping. I bought a t-shirt, posted a load of books home (including the ones I need to thank Tim and John for) and confirmed myself for the Thistlegorm trip. I spent a lot of time working out the logistics for my next stop in Luxor. I’ve concluded that I’ll not return to Dahab, but will get the bus from Sharm to Luxor. It sounds a bit of a horror show-16 hours, not a very nice bus, but to fly I’d have to wait 18 hours after diving, which means a night in Sharm and then the flight and taxis. Kind of spent that money on diving; anyway the bus should be greener. After Aqaba I decided I couldn’t face the ferry/night stop/bus option.

I should have said by now that this is a very cool hostel, even though their dive shop was unimpressive. The rooms are behind the pedestrian walkway and then the restaurant/bar is right on the beach. So much so that if you sit in the wrong spot and a big wave comes in, you may get a refreshing shower.

Day 57 Dahab
Ouch. Big night out last night with Norbert and Carolyn along with a couple of American girls and an English Billy Bragg worshipping girl I’ve met. Lisa has tickets to see his Braggness on her return. We spent some of the evening exchanging favourite moments from when we’ve seen the Bard of Barking. She can’t even listen to Tank Park Salute as it makes her cry.

Anyway, the ouch was because I had a 9 a.m. orientation dive with Divers Down Under: I’m having to do Thistlegorm with a different company, so they said I needed to come in to dive, get my kit and so they could see me in the water. Sadly this needed to be at 9 a.m. (presumably so my kit’s dry by the time we leave tonight). I’m not entirely sure why I had to do the dive as when my buddy told Mohamed ‘he’s good in the water’, Mohammed replied ‘I know, I saw him in the Islands’. I guess it gave me a chance to try a different set of kit and pick up some litter. We didn’t take long as the sea is really rough today (it’s very windy) and there was just no visibility so, apart from watching me swimming, there wasn’t much for either of us to see. When we got to the reef, vis was maybe 1m.

So tonight we get a bus to Sharm el Sheikh, where we get on a boat to sleep tonight and then it navigates to the wreck (it has to be found by GPS as there’s no land in sight). We do two dives to the wreck tomorrow morning-one deep and one touring the wreck looking at the motorbikes and such. Then we do a drift in the protected area of Ras Mohammed. One of the world’s great dive sites I understand. My mind is already turning to getting back to Blighty and looking to do peak performance buoyancy and wreck diving specialty courses. Maybe dry suits and navigation too and perhaps diving something like Scarpa flow, which I’m sure I’ll learn to spell before doing.


  • O.K I'll let you off for spelling my name wrong for an appearance in your blog! Hope your onward trip went well! Take care, Lyse

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:26 PM  

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