So I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter (follow us here) and I follow an awful lot (I should say a wonderful lot, really) of “Travel Tweeps” – mainly travel bloggers who backpack their way round the world, and in some cases using social networking as a means to actually financially fund their trip. I find myself getting rather envious of their journeys to exotic places and the experiences they have, the food they’re discovering, the people they’re meeting.
However, travel tweeps, both the bloggers and travel industry people, seem to enjoy little more than to compiling a top ten list to detail and rank these experiences, serving to make us even more jealous as not only as we have not experienced ONE of them, they’ve experienced ten of them, and presumably more to have been able to whittle the list down that far. Recently I’ve read about the top ten views from hotel swimming pools, the top ten countries to visit as a vegetarian, the top ten sacred Asian sites, and the top ten deadliest forces of the world (an unusual, un-enjoyable one, and I was very glad Egypt’s army weren’t on the list).
Then I have to stop myself for a moment and take a look at where I am. Really, I’m one of them – in a way. The only difference is I’m slightly more sedentary for the moment and I started a more static business to fund my being abroad. I see my round the world trip lasting a lifetime, hopefully afforded the opportunity to live and work in, as well as really get to know, a wide variety of places.
After a day when I did a check dive in the afternoon (living on the coast of the Red Sea, I had gone criminal lengths of time without exercising my scuba diving skills) and drying off only to go for a horse ride into the valleys of the mountains that rise up behind Dahab, I got to thinking about how lucky I am to live where I do, and how I could construct a pretty good top ten list of my own.
Now, I must emphasise the point of my writing this is to only remind myself about a very damaging thing called envy and also as a reference point to anyone in Dahab or making a trip here and wondering about how they can fill their days when they’re here. So here goes. At number 10….
10. Very little at all, actually.
So this one’s a cheat, but before we go on to the extreme sports, the hiking, the out of town trips etc, let us just remind ourselves that one of the very best days in Dahab is one where you pause to do absolutely nothing. Rarely do we give ourselves enough time to relax, and after all, for many unwinding is what a holiday is all about. Here in Dahab you can go for breakfast in a café on the beach (most will serve brekkie until about 1pm and later, if you ask nicely) and that same café will have sun loungers. So when I say do absolutely nothing, I really mean eat, sunbathe, read, swim, snorkel, dry off, repeat.
Spend plenty of time doing not much at all
Okay, I had to think twice about including this one or not, when it’s inevitably going to knock something else off the list but… the food in Dahab is impossible to ignore so it rightfully deserves a ranking. It’s the variety of food in Dahab that earns itself this place; you can eat for next to nothing at the falafel shops, or dine in considerably more style in any number of absolute beachfront restaurants. Some of them are built over the sea, so given the right spot you can watch lion fish, squid, cornet fish and any of the other evening-time sub-aqua busybodies whilst you wait for your food (if you’ve ordered a seafood platter, you might do best to NOT look into the sea at this point). More of the traditional local fare includes koshary (a sublimely cheap and filling carb-fest) which you can buy for a shop or a vendor with a little cart (the best one being Mr Ali, and don’t forget to try his rice pudding – best in town) or a grilled chicken dinner (complete with rice, veggies, bread and tahina) for about £3/$5. Alternatively, indulge yourself with a thick shake. These seem to be Dahab specialities, and the name gloriously underplays itself. If you’re thinking you’re going to get a thick milk shake, you’re wrong; you’re going to get a (very large) cup of ice cream, some partially melted into the bottom of the glass to create a vague milk shake resemblance, with toppings and bits and bobs (you can never really be sure what you’re about to get, but chunks of fruit, sauce and wafers are a good bet). If the ice cream isn’t piled about half as high again as the cup, you’ve been short changed. Ali Baba restaurant and Same Same are currently neck and neck, in my humble opinion, for best thick shake in town!
One might think that fruit juices really aren’t eaten, so shouldn’t come under this category – but the mango juices and the strawberry juices are so thick and fruity that they are basically just a cup of blended fruit, thus nudging them under the eating umbrella in my book.
Mmmmmmmmm. Thick shake.
There’s an ever growing expat population here in Dahab. That’s one thing that contributes to its uniqueness – the town is very roughly equal parts Egyptians, Bedouins and those who are becoming known as “local foreigners”. Many of these local foreigners are the more modern version of hippies, the travellers who have been on their soul-searching journeys and found themselves, only to settle in Dahab than return home. There are a number of reiki practitioners, crystal healers, artists, a homeopath; everything for the alternative therapy fans (of which I am one). For the population size, there is a wonderful ratio of yogi as well. Every day of the week there are classes of varying standard and type. There are so many that in fact it’s a great shame not to get involved at some level and I am now (having tried a vast array of classes over the years, due in part to a sense of obligation, my mother being a yoga teacher) a great believer in there being a type of yoga that suits everyone. My personal favourite is an Ashtanga class run by Birgit of yoga-dahab but there’s a huge variety – you can even try underwater diving yoga, but that’s for qualified divers only!
7. Bedouin Dinner
If you don’t have a huge amount of time to explore the desert culture here in the Sinai, a Bedouin-style dinner in the desert mountains that surround the town give you a taster. You’ll be driven into the wadis (the valleys, the gaps between the rocky mountains) by jeeps to a Bedouin tent where a fire will be started and a feast of a dinner prepared for you on the site. It’s a relaxed evening, getting into the desert spirit of things, being entertained in a very simple setting and with simple but delicious food. The best trips are those that include star gazing with a powerful telescope as after dinner you can get acquainted with the universe with very, very little light pollution to contend with.
6. Horse Riding
Horse riding is clearly great wherever you are, but riders in Dahab are spoilt for choice when it comes to trekking routes. The most well trodden route is the one down to the beautiful Laguna where vast stretches of sand provide good galloping terrain and the backdrop of the mountains and the sea make for idyllic scenery. Otherwise, you can head north along the beach to Assalah and then inland, into the desert valleys of the mountains. In fact, nearly all of the usual Dahab sites, the snorkelling sites and desert adventures, can also be reached on horseback, from Wadi Gnai and the snorkelling spots in the south, to the canyon and the Blue Hole in the north. It’s recommended however that you go with a reputable stables as some are more challenging for the animal lovers amongst us, as horses are often underfed and the riding guides are irresponsible with a lack of regard for the rider’s experience. We’d recommend the Blue Beach Stables as they can offer safety equipment as well as having a fully qualified instructor from New Zealand on hand at all times and on all rides.
With horses at the Laguna
Again, not an activity unique to the area but another one made so by the terrain and the scenery. It almost seems as if Dahab was designed to be a quadbike track. Trips start off on the smooth tarmaced roads for people to get used to their machines and drive uphill to a stupendous viewpoint across the Laguna. From there, the trips usually either head downhill again and back to the coast, making the most of some chopped-up, sandy banks being prepared for building work to come in the future where the adrenalin junkies can get their kicks and the more timid can feel adventurous as they meander over the bumps. The track then takes you down the coast to the southern oasis, through some of the mountain valleys, a quick stop for a Bedouin tea and then back to the Laguna for sundown.
Quadbiking, and the magnificient views over Laguna
4. Trips into the desert
This one might seem a bit vague, but to pack everything into the list I needed to make some broad umbrella terms. The Sinai peninsula, from the north to the south, is one huge desert area that ranges from the mountainous south to the more Mediterranean north. Many tour offices run trips into the desert that range between a few hours, overnight or over several nights. A great one-day trip takes in the White Canyon, the Coloured Canyon and a lunch stop at an inhabited oasis settlement of Ein Khudra. The canyons involve some light bouldering, i.e. clambering over, through, between and down things that you might not think possible at first sight but a leap of confidence gets all through. It’s fun and active and beautiful all at once.
Other trips to the desert can involve a night’s stay in a Bedouin tent, or a three or four day journey over to Serabit al Khadem, an area of ancient turquoise mines and an Ancient Egyptian temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Check out our earlier blog entries which detailed our trip to this area, as well as an overnight trip to a nearer area of the desert at St Catherine.
3. Ras Abu Ghalum
A day trip to Ras Abu Ghalum is a little bit like taking a trip in a time machine to see what Dahab was like before the electricity and the tourists and the water supply arrived. A small coastal Bedouin settlement about 10 km up the coast from Dahab (that’s a rough estimate, and I’m open to corrections on that one!), Ras Abu Ghalum is a perfect spot for a quiet but adventurous day trip, or an overnight trip for those with more time and the inclination. You can’t get there by car (well, theoretically you can, but it takes about four hours each way, and you can walk there much faster), so you take a jeep to the Blue Hole and then go on either by foot or by camel. There are simple shelters by the beach which can either serve you for the day, or for the night. The main pull of Ras Abu Ghalum is the spectacular underwater scenery meaning it’s a fairly popular spot for divers but they come in relatively small numbers due to having to haul their equipment down the rough coastal path by camel. It is easily the most abundant coral garden in the area and easily accessible for snorkellers as well as divers – and it’s not hard to sling a snorkel and mask in a bag to take for the journey. Local Bedouin will prepare meals and charge modest prices for them, as they do for the use of the shelters to sleep under. Miles away from the nearest electric lights, you can always expect a magnificient show of stars in the night sky and when disturbed, the phosphorescence in the sea glows as if to mirror the skies.
Similar experiences are also available up the coast between Nuweiba and Taba; many beach camps have been set up which range from open wooden shelters to more luxurious wooden huts with air conditioning and wifi. My preference is always for the more simple experience; the benefits of removing yourself from the majority of known comforts and finding others are untold.
Beach huts at Ras Abu Ghalum
2. Mount Sinai
The mountain which is so significant that it has taken on the name of the entire geographical area in which it sits is not actually the highest one in the region; that title goes to a neighbouring peak, that of Mount Catherine. Mount Sinai is known by the local population as Gebel Musa (Moses’ Mountain) as it is said to be the one which Moses ascended and received the ten commandments from God. The summit stands at 2,285 metres so is not an insignificant climb and the last part is made up of some fairly steep and uneven steps. It’s most often climbed at night so as to watch the sunrise over the rest of the mountains so it involves either a little preparation or a lot of sleep deprivation. At its base is the Monastery of St Catherine which is around 1,500 years old and contains what is said to be Burning Bush, or a descendant thereof. For those with religious leanings, a trip to the mountain holds great significance but even for those who just like a good hike, climbing Mount Sinai is most definitely a must-do.
Sunrise at Mt Sinai
Now this one is possibly the broadest of the umbrellas I’ve actioned for this list. You’ll have to forgive me however, because if I hadn’t then this would have become the top ten lists of water sports in Dahab; another worthy topic of course, but not the point of this particular list and not one that I am really all that qualified to pass comment on! Dahab is ideally situated on the coast of the Red Sea and in amongst a huge number of world renowned dive sites, so it’s a real shame, whilst you’re here, to NOT don a wetsuit and a tank and get underwater. There are a huge amount of dive centres in a very small area, meaning you can usually strike a good bargain with one keen to keep your custom (although if the deal looks too good to be true, it usually is, and corners may be cut). With the variety of dive sites and the abundance of marine life ranging from the wee little Nemos (Clown fish have irrevocably lost their usual name, thanks to Disney Pixar) and the tinier seahorses to the huge Napoleon fish, turtles and the occasional pod of dolpins, Dahab is the ideal place to learn to dive or to progress through the certifications. The dive centres regularly run boat-based diving trips to S.S. Thistlegorm, another world famous dive site around the wreck of a Merchant Navy ship sunk in 1941.
Diving in Dahab
Another watersport growing in popularity, especially here in Dahab, is freediving, or diving without a tank and on one breath of air. Freedivers were first drawn to this area because of the depth of the water close to the shore, meaning competitions were easily held without expensive boat hire, and competitors were reaching depths of up to, and now over, 100 metres. There are a number of instructors in town who can take students through varying levels of certification. You can have a morning’s taster session, a full day, or a full course of around two and a half days which will see you diving to depths of 25 metres on one single breath hold. The instructors work their wizardry (or really, they’re teaching you how to manipulate the mammalian dive reflex…) and have reliable methods of increasing the length of time you can hold your breath for, and most people are hugely surprised by their quick improvements over a very short time.
Dahab has also become a firm favourite of the global windsurfing and kitesurfing communities, thanks to its blustery days and sheltered conditions at “Baby Bay” and the Laguna for beginners. Again, many centres, mostly all down by the natural lagoon in the south of the town, cater for everyone, from beginners to professionals so it would be a shame to pass by without at least having a go!
Watersports at Laguna
Now the cheapest water sport, the one with the least equipment and the one with the most opportunities to just get in and have a go, is the good old favourite: snorkelling. Although it’s only recommended to use designated and well known snorkelling sites, in theory the whole coastline of Dahab is one long reef but it’s easier to access in some places than others. The main part of touristic Dahab lines Masbat Bay, itself having three areas of snorkelling interest: the Lighthouse, a fantastic but oft-used reef jutting out into the sea directly from the shore; Bannerfish Bay, so named because of the schools of Bannerfish that hover around several coral tables; and to the south of the bay, the quieter, less visited Mashraba reef begins its long stretch all the way down to Laguna.
Enthusiastic snorkellers =)
And there ends my top ten list of things to do in Dahab. The problem is, I still missed things off. I missed off the overnight trip to Petra, Jordan (I very intentionally missed off the one-day trip, as that’s just a criminal poaching of innocently and hardly owned cash), a day trip to Cairo (hard work due to the travelling overnight two nights running, but worth it, and you could always extend the trip), an outing on a snorkelling boat or a glass bottomed boat, a day trip to the water park and cafés of Sharm el Sheikh, a rock climbing session with fully qualified British instructors, full moon parties in the desert, visiting the new Friday community market… You just need to bear in mind the length of your holiday, and whether or not you might need to schedule in a holiday after the holiday.
Thanks and apologies to my friends and family, images of whom I have used without first telling them. Never mind, eh. You had a good holiday.