As the year’s end draws near, we find ourselves captivated by the beauty that Egypt offers. As we are cramped in an office in polluted and traffic-filled Cairo, we are daydreaming about all those places we visited during 2013.
This year might not have been the most regular of years, but vacations were guaranteed to be stress-free and mellow given the emptiness of the resorts in Sinai. We also had a taste of things off the beaten path as we trekked through Fayoum and Siwa. At times, we were unable to escape the urban life, and had to make do with what Cairo had to offer, be it summer fun in the city or appreciating the historical aspect of the city of a 1000 minarets.
So, here is a recap of some of the places most engaging places of 2013.
If it is utter relaxation you are looking for, there is no better place for it than Aswan. This enchanting city by the Nile seems to radiate calmness. All you need is to find the nearest boat and lounge like a recently caught fish under the sun. You might even score a tan while you are at it.
“The best thing about Aswan is that felucas are like taxis in their availability, but cheap considering the amazing scenery they offer. A group of ten could get a feluca for as little as 100 EGP and you could easily coordinate with the sailor the pick-up time,” said felucca sailor Am Mohamed.
He took us along the Nile, showing us beautiful rock formations and some colourful Nubian houses scattered along the banks, ending the trip with a visit to the Botanical Garden.
In the garden, more vendors wait to show off their handmade crafts and souvenirs. Little children selling flowery necklaces and Nubian takiyas (knitted hats with colourful patterns) sprint towards visitors after stepping foot on the island.
The island was once the base for Lord Herbert Kitchener, the British Field Marshal responsible for ruling Sudan in the late 19th century. Even today, many still refer to the island as “Kitchener’s Island”.
The air on the island is refreshing, especially in contrast to the thick Cairo smog. Lovers of botany can visit the museum for plants and seeds. The island grows tropical trees and palm trees from all over the world, fruits such as papaya and coconuts, spices such as ginger, paprika and cinnamon. It is no wonder the island is also equipped for agricultural research.
For those desiring some relaxation with a view of the sunset on the Nile and some greenery in the background, the Botanical Garden has no competitor.
For those who are adventurous and do not believe in ghosts, the underwater wrecks are a paradise. Not only do you witness the glory of man-made objects, but their sheer, untouched beauty as formed by the sea around them. Pay attention to all the new inhabitants and forms of corals.
A little further to the north, close to Sha’ab Ali in the Strait of Gobal, lies the Thistlegorm. This ship is truly the stuff of history. It was a British supply ship for the army during the second World War and was sunk by the German air force on 6 October 1941. It is now lying upright at a depth of 30 metres. Most of the cargo is still untouched and during a dive you can see Bedford trucks, BSA motorcycles, Bren guns and ammunition, Wellington boots and two locomotives.
The world was introduced to this wreck in the documentary The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau, in which he tells the story of how he discovered the wreck in 1953. After the discovery by Cousteau, the precise location of the Thistlegorm was lost, and people only started exploring it again in the early 1990s with the arrival of the first diving tourists to Sharm El Sheikh.
The Thistlegorm is definitely the most famous wreck dive in Egypt, and it is way up there on the list of ‘must-dives’ in the rest of the world. The size of the ship, together with the cargo, the accessibility and the marine life make for a spectacular couple trip, and it should be on every wreck aficionado’s bucket list.
Unfortunately, it is also a wreck on which you can really see the damage that is done by divers. People have taken souvenirs with them, and have dramatically reduced one of the wreck’s major points of interest: the cargo. On top of this, there exist bad mooring practices in which 20 or 30 dive boats are tied off on the wreck. Some of them tie their lines onto breakable parts of the ship, which leads to the slow destruction of the wreck.
Despite these factors, the Thistlegorm remains a great dive, and even dive guides that work in the Red Sea are captured by its magic. Each one of them has a story or a tall tale about their experiences on Thistlegorm; the first time they saw it, the first time they tied a rope off, the time they lost a diver (and found him) or the time the current was overpoweringly strong. Try finding out the Thistlegorm story of your guide next time you spend some time on a dive boat, or discover one of your own! Even if they may be a little further from the truth than they should, these exaggerations only serve to augment your entertainment.
The lucky city by the sea might not have had its share of destruction like Sharm El-Sheikh despite being targeted by both resorts and tourists. It has managed to retain its natural beauty while also acquiring urban qualities. It might be the perfect mixture of sea and city.
In my experience, Dahab has two sides; the fancy side and the laidback side. The fancy side is located a little outside the main centre of the town and is populated by top-quality hotels with access to a calm and clear lagoon complete with a sandy beach. You pay more to stay there, but if you want to lounge on the beach and dabble in some fun water sports then that’s the side of town for you. Most activities can be organised through the hotels or, at the very least, your hotel will be able to provide you with information.
On the other side of town there is much more variety in terms of accommodation, but only if you’re willing to give up a few stars in ratings. In my opinion, however, if you want to spend time in your room you should stay at home- there is too much to see in Dahab to waste time worrying if your room has a good enough view. There is a variety of accommodation available in Mashraba, and further up the strip of shops and restaurants at the Lighthouse area. This side of town has a lot more going on and the activities are easily accessible. Walking up the strip you will find a number of different restaurants, all with comfortable cushions to lie about on. There are also some specialised restaurants like the Blue House for Thai, Chillax for burgers, and Carm Inn for a varied menu cooked with fresh ingredients.
The beach is at the far end of the strip and is not huge, but almost all of the restaurants have sunbathing areas and access to the water. You have to walk further up for deeper water but that is not much of a hindrance.
It must be noted that there is no division between the sides. If you want to access the fancy side’s beach then you can pay a small amount to rent a sunbed and use the water sports facilities, and vice versa.
If you ever find yourself in a group and you mention something like bungee jumping, you will certainly find both those who cannot wait to try it and those who think you are a lunatic. The concept is quite new to Egyptians and yet it is spreading quite quickly. One of the best spots for the most adventurous sports tourists is Mount Catherine.
Located in the South Sinai governorate, Mount Catherine is the highest point in Egypt at a height of 2,629 metres. The mountain is a pretty easy trek, and the only challenge is concerned with low oxygen levels and the time taken to reach the top and go back down. It really depends on how fit you are, and the trip can last all day or just under five hours. Some of the most fit people even run up and down the mountain, encouraging other slow-movers to keep their spirits up. It is best done as a group activity, especially if it’s your first time trekking up the high mountain.
The nicest time to trek up the mountain is November, when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold. But if you are not afraid of the cold, nipping wind of late December and early January, you might be able to catch the snow-capped top of the mountain. From there, you can view Saudi Arabia and Jordan. While you’re up there, check out the Saint Catherine Monastery.
Tip: The last few hundred metres are stone steps, so if you have weak knees, you might want to arm yourself with some knee-support bands or climbing sticks.
Another possible outdoor activity is hiking in Wadi Degla, a jewel for all the thrill-seeking Cairenes located right outside Maadi. Essentially a valley, it offers different heights, paths and even terrains to get your hiking fix. The protectorate extends over an area of about 30 kilometres, and makes for a great and fun way to exercise. The busiest time for the valley is during the weekend when groups of people come to walk, run, or bike. Wadi Degla is also famous for its canyon, which resembles those found in Jordan or the Grand Canyon in the United States. When heavy rain falls, small waterfalls form across the canyon and water gathers in small pools. Even though it makes for a great excursion, the canyon is a bit slippery on its own and so it is not advisable that you attempt to climb it during the rain. For first timers, it is best attempted in the safety of groups.
Tip: If you go to the protectorate quite early, you might be able to catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife lurking in the valley, such as red foxes, mountain rabbits and deer.