The Sinai Peninsula
Once the reserve of Bedouins and Biblical legend, Egypt has become popular with travellers for its Red Sea beaches, brooding desert landscapes and brilliant diving. Here's a snapshot of my time above and below the water, where stark lunar landscapes are sharply contrasted by colourful sub-aquatic gardens.
Heads shrouded in bright scarves to keep out the dust, we sped across the granulated ground making heavy tracks. Around us the land was stripped bare, with the occasional wiry shrub or spindly tree the only sign of life. Though scarce, shade could be found in the shadows of the crumpled crags, creeping across the desert as the sun moved across the sky. We swerved into a canyon and descended the shelving sands to the glistening Red Sea, the view undulating as heat waves rose from the sand.
We were on a quad-bike safari to the Three Pools, one of the best snorkelling sites along this stretch of Egypt's coastline, and in the Sinai Desert heat it pays to never be too far from the water. But before we immersed ourselves in the subtropical sea, we stopped for a refreshing mint tea at a Bedouin-style cafe composed of coloured carpets, low cushions and tables shaded by a palm canopy.
Several purpose-built resorts, such as Sharm el Sheikh and Taba, have sprung up along the Red Sea coast in recent years taking advantage of its balmy year-round climate and sandy beaches. But the region was already popular with scuba divers for another reason - its spectacular coral reefs. Eschewing the bright lights and glitzy hotels of Sharm, we based ourselves in the laid-back bohemian town of Dahab. The reef gardens that rim this coastline are considered some of the most beautiful and diverse on earth and are easy to explore from the shore with just a mask and snorkel.
On this occasion I was pleased to have brought some fins as the swim to the Three Pools from my entry point to the water was further than I'd expected. In places the reef is so shallow and close to the shore that it's impossible to swim over it. Foot injuries from the shallow reef are common - swimming from a tiny beach accessed from one of Dahab's waterfront eateries, I cut my foot on some coral and a friend was unfortunate to come into contact with a sea urchin. He immediately went in search of some lemon juice to dull the pain, and it seemed to do the trick.
Simply sitting in the Bedouin-style cafes that line the shore in Dahab town is a nice way to get acquainted with the locals. Cats roam the restaurants hoping to catch a morsel and we were besieged by a clutch of kittens keen to share our food. This delightful scene was broken up by a large mean-looking, flea-bitten moggy who launched at the table, stuck its claws in a pizza and dragged it onto the floor. Local children also come to mingle with visitors, carrying bundles of bright twine and offering to make bracelets in a choice of colours. A young brother and sister and their little cousin came to hang out with us, weave bracelets and play backgammon. We shared supper and the girls spoke excellent English so we chatted about our lives. They told me that they sell bracelets to help their families and to buy books and equipment for school, and later they showed me where they live in a simple two-storey cement block with fabric draped over the doorway, and a few goats trotting around in the dust.
Next door to the main town is Dahab's crescent-shaped lagoon area. Like Na'ama Bay in Sharm el Sheikh, the golden sand beach and calm glistening waters have attracted an almost solid line of international hotels, including the ubiquitous Hilton. You can try a range of watersports including windsurfing and wakeboarding, but the beach is more peaceful than Na'ama Bay, where the sand is obscured by sun loungers.
For excursions and boat trips, I took the Egyptians lead, shopping around and haggling for the best deal. But for diving I was careful to choose a reputable operator. PADI-accredited Dive Africa was a safe bet, offering boat trips from Sharm el Sheikh's marina to Ras Mohammad National Marine Park with tasty on-board meals. The reef drop-off here resembles an underwater forest populated by turtles and a myriad of rainbow-coloured fish. Huge pink gorgonias branch towards the surface and moray eels peer out from crevices in the coral-encrusted cliffs. Above the water, a shoreline of pale sand stretched in every direction, empty except for a lone Bedouin woman with long dark robes billowing in the breeze.
Not far from Dahab is another renowned underwater playground - the Blue Hole. Essentially a huge circular gap in the reef, the exquisite marine life is close enough to the surface to be appreciated by snorkelers, and divers can enter the water via 'the bells' for a thrilling dive around the outer reef that culminates in the Blue Hole. But this beautiful anomaly has a dark secret. An underwater arch or tunnel leading to the outer reef, said to be located at around 70 metres, has been like a siren song, luring reckless divers to their deaths. I must admit to scanning the depths for a shadowy grotto during our dive, but I'm cautious enough never to go deeper than 40 metres.
Safaris so good
Even for the non-religious, a pre-dawn trek to trace Moses' legendary steps to the top of Mount Sinai is well worth the effort for the reward of an awe-inspiring sunrise over the mountains. This is said to be the site of the Burning Bush, where God appeared to Moses. Watching the sky slowly illuminate from the roof of the Red Sea's dramatic Rift Valley is sure to fill anyone with spiritual awe. So it's little wonder that at the foot of the mountain lies St Catherine's, which is one of the world's oldest functioning Christian monasteries and a designated World Heritage Site.
Organising treks and camel safaris in the Sinai desert is a simple business in Dahab, and with its clear night skies free from light pollution, it's also the perfect place for stargazing and spotting shooting stars. We visited a small Bedouin camp at night and ate a barbecue dinner around a camp fire, washed down with local favourite - mint tea. The Bedouins, whose simple way of life hasn't changed for centuries, give the region a character that's distinct from the rest of Egypt. But, of course, these desert-dwelling nomads are not limited to Egypt and live across Arabia and the Sahara too.
In the Sinai, the earth feels ancient, silent and stripped to its bones, giving the place a powerful aura. There's little visible sign of its significance, but the Peninsula is the only land bridge between Africa and Asia, and has played a significant role in history and religion. Below its shoreline, the abundance of life is all the more startling for the sharp contrast with the desert above. Dahab is the perfect base to enjoy it all. It's a place of simple pleasures - spending time snorkelling, exploring the desert, and hanging out in the waterside cafes, sharing apple and strawberry sheesha, travellers' tales and games of backgammon. As another traveller who had been there for a few months put it, "once people come here they don't want to leave".