By Bob Bak
The Scuba Sports Club of Westchester NY
When I first thought about joining the Club’s trip to dive in Egypt’s Red Sea, (The Scuba Sports Club of Westchester NY), my head was filled with concerns and some fears as to what might lie ahead. Upon the coaxing of friends, and following the decision we made to spend a couple of extra days in Cairo before diving, I came to realize that my concerns were unfounded. What I was to experience is a lovely nation of people concerned for their well-being of the good people who come to visit their country. Egyptians are rightly proud of their country. Upon our arrival at Cairo International Airport we were met by our concierge who expedited our visas and collected our baggage for transport to the hotel. We were whisked away by mini-bus through Cairo, a city of 22 million people. This is substantially more populous than NYC! We were taken to The Meridian Hotel at Giza. This is a beautiful 5-star hotel overlooking the Great Pyramids.
Upon arrival we rested up after the long flight, and then had a quick dinner before heading out for the dramatic Sound and Light show at the Pyramids and Sphinx. The ride over to the show was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Weaving in and out of streets lined with cart vendors, zipping by with the mirrors nearly being ripped off on walls, and nearly hitting pedestrians. Upon arrival we sat and were quickly immersed in Egyptian history, a laser and sound show projected u onto the Pyramids and the Sphinx — we watched the show in shear awe. I sat there with my jaw dropped, thinking that “I cannot really be here!”. The history — sitting among archeological finds which were 4500 years old! The cradle of humanity. I sat thinking “how could I possibly have concerns about our hosts towards us?”. After the seeing the show attended by a couple hundred people, I noticed many empty seats. Prior to the spread of worldwide fear of terrorism, approximately 3,000 people were attending this show every night.
The next day the temperatures were in the high 80s/low 90s – very pleasurable! Our first stop was at the Great Pyramid where some of us ventured up to the Burial Chamber. We found the entrance created by explorers (tomb raiders) and then proceeded through a series of narrow low passages, up steep inclines, and finally into the large barren stone chamber. A room with no view. Unbearable hot, with no ventilation. I thought it may be my last resting place! A nice condo 455′ high with the stone over my head weighing in at about 1,000,000 pounds! This place had to have been constructed by aliens! After the Great Pyramid we drove to an overlook, to marvel at the three Giza pyramids together. We then went to see one of the Pharaoh’s boats that was encased in a pit carved out of limestone at the foot of the Great Pyramid. The purpose was to provide transportation in the afterlife for Khufu, Pharaoh Cheops. Literally the oldest surviving boat in the world. The cedar planks still looked great even after 2,500 years. This was known as the Solar Barge. It was breathtakingly intact. The reconstruction crew reported that the components were carefully stacked and organized so that the builders in the afterlife would have no problems reconstructing it. The hemp rope was in amazingly good condition, looked new.
After the Boat Museum we drove over to the Sphinx. At the standard spot, some of our team gave ‘virtual kisses’ to Sphinx in photos which flashed around the world via Facebook, while ‘Doc’ our guide told us of the history behind the temple. We were totally immersed in history of the area and the way people viewed working for the Pharaohs and building these great structures. Over 20,000 people labored four months a year for over twenty-eight years to construct the Great Pyramid. After being outside under the sun, the next leg of the trip was to visit one of the few places where official papyrus woven artwork could be viewed and purchased in the art gallery. These were beautiful works of art, crafted on papyrus using a 4,000-year-old formula from these pressed reeds. Some of the scrolls we viewed in museums in the upcoming days on this same papyrus paper have survived thousands of years and are in incredibly good condition, still having vibrant colors and carefully painted details evident.
After this stop we went for lunch, and then off to the ancient city of Memphis. Memphis was founded 5,000 years ago by the first Pharaoh and served as the capital for some 1,000 years before being destroyed in wars. There we saw large statues uncovered at the historic site. One granite statue was more than 4,000 years old and retained astonishing detail. Another carved in limestone was intact on the side which had been buried, but eroded on the side exposed to the elements. This statue of Ramses II had to be close to 40′ tall. The details and power of this statue remain astounding.
From Memphis we sojourned south to Sakkara. The pyramids of Sakkara were 1,000 years older than the larger pyramids of Giza (which are more familiar). The pyramids of Sakkara were ‘stepped’ rather than more visually triangular. This was because the construction techniques were not as advanced 1,000 years earlier. An alternative explanation is that the ‘steps’ provide a pathway for Pharaoh to ascend to heaven. The other feature of note was that the flood plain of the Nile extends outward from the Nile to the east and to the west, but… when that flood plain stops, inhospitable desert suddenly takes over. There is no gradual transition. It is green, agricultural land and then – suddenly – sand, sand, sand. Sakkara is a necropolis – a city of the dead. The ‘Rich and Famous’ of the day including of course the Pharaohs of that Old Kingdom, were buried in those pyramids and other lesser structures.
After Sakkara we visited a rug factory where we observed rugs being made in the traditional fashion. The ancient looms – unchanged for thousands of years – are used in the manufacture of these rugs. The sheen and patina of the rugs were alluring! Several of our team purchased rugs at that shop. One of our group ascended up to the roof of the building with a moving view of the Nile River valley and flood plain. Rich agricultural fields extended out for miles and miles. But were cut off by the desert. It was clear how the Nile was the source of life in both ancient times, and now – in this otherwise very inhospitable desert region!
A long day came to an end with a meeting of the minds at the local oasis in the hotel lobby bar fueled with nectar from the gods!
The following day was just as packed as our first day. We started the day with a drive thru The City of The Dead to The Citadel of Mohamed Ali, where we saw the fortress surrounding The Great Alabaster Mosque. A beautiful place of worship overlooking Cairo from a hilltop. Our guide Doc was a wealth of information about the history of Egypt which he presented to us passionately with great Egyptian pride. It was interesting hearing about Egyptian history from a Egyptian and not CNN. We then visited the Antiquities Museum in Cairo, housing thousands of artifacts showing the rich history of Egypt and its people. There we viewed many stone carvings covering thousands of years. We viewed the collection of gold artifacts from King Tutankhamen including the head piece. What amazed me more than the shear amount of gold, was that it was protected by only a few small old Yale locks made in Stamford Ct. So much for all those TV crime shows! It was humbling to think that we take pride in our country and our history of 241 plus years; and here I stood surrounded by the history of Egypt 20 times that of ours. I noticed that this museum was not filled with foreigners — but with Egyptians.
There was one area in the Museum that was a bit unsettling to me. That area was the halls of the mummies. These were the actual remains of the ruling class of Egypt. Though being totally amazed at seeing the actual remains preserved by mummification I felt that I was being sacrilegious, fearing some ancient curse. So the remedy for this —go to lunch and then shopping. We dined on a river boat on the Nile River. It was then I realized how good a cold Coke Zero tasted. It washed the dust out of my throat.
Then we were off to the bazaar (Khan el-Khalili) to shop. Small shops lined crowded streets. Well, not streets — more like alleys. Everything under the sun could be found.. From leather shops, silver shops, hookah shops, and even shops with an abundance of belly dancing outfits sought out by one of adventurers. He insisted it was for his friend. Humm. Another fellow traveler went in search of dolls. No, not belly dancers but real dolls. I was beginning to wonder about those I was traveling with. In the back alleys we sat in a small coffee shop enjoying some strong Turkish coffee. Red Bull has nothing on this elixir. We took in the sights and sounds of the market. People ask if you were safe there. I felt totally safe there with our guide. It also helped he had a submachine pistol under his jacket. Tools of the trade. After the market we were off for a dinner cruise on the Nile River. We boarded the paddle wheeler and had a sumptuous dinner followed by entertainment from dancers. That is when my faith in humanity (well more so not worrying about this group of members) when one in the group took charge and showed us young-uns how to party. Travolta had nothing on him. It was a fun-filled night with laughter. For those starting do doze off they were soon wakened by Mr. Toads wild ride back to the Hotel.
Morning came early with a quick breakfast and off to the airport at sunrise. Thank goodness it was a national holiday. The 1 1/2 hour ride to the airport took 20 minutes. It pays to travel on a holiday. At the airport security was heavy. We passed thru with no problems. We boarded a short flight to Marsa Alam down the coast on the Red Sea. We arrived at this small but nice airport and was greeted by Dmitry, manager of our boat, the Heaven Saphir. It was a short but comfortable ride to the Port of Galeb. This looked like a fairly new area, which is still being developed. Tourism had dropped off since the rise in terrorism. They too have felt its effects. Closed shops and empty condos. We were able to board the Heaven Saphir and dropped our bags. We were early, so we went into the picturesque port town for a drink and shopping for souvenirs. It felt weird. The shops and alleys were empty. Shop owners were enthusiastic and respectful. The afternoon ended by a waterside bar and a few cold beers. We went back to the boat for dinner and met some of the crew. Afterwards we went back to the port where people who had been hiding in the heat of the day flocked out to party at night. The port was packed. We enjoyed the night, and boarded the vessel for some rest. Diving comes early.
The week was packed with non-stop diving. I do not know why they dubbed it the Red Sea. It should have been called the Golden Sea. Golden soft coral adorned every site we dove at. The beautiful coral glistened in the penetrating sunlight waving back and forth. Sites varied from reef head to island. A few things were consistent: lots of wind, rough seas, many dive boats at one site, a wealth of healthy coral, lots of fish, clear water, and beautiful walls.
For those of you who have not experienced a liveaboard, you are missing some of the best diving there is. You are totally immersed in diving from the time you wake till the time of you disembark. You live and breathe diving. You are either under the water enjoying the sites, or you are sleeping dreaming of the last dive, or you are relaxing, drinking, or eating talking about diving will the other guests. All guests interact even those who have a language barrier. Somehow, we all communicate our love of the ocean. Sometimes, you have famous divers on board like ours. One member was dubbed Jack Black. On a liveaboard you also get to know the crew. They become your extended family. Our dive masters aboard the Heaven Saphir we not only knowledgeable about the dive sites, but were totally aware of all of the divers and their safety. This was one of the few dive crews who actually watched their guests questioning as to air consumption and depth. Their expertise also shined by showing all small creatures hiding everywhere.
Highlights of the trip included mantas, a thresher shark, and a up close and personal oceanic whitetip shark with its escorting pilotfish. The high light of the trip for me came on a night dive filled with moray eels and small shrimp. We came around a coral head and there it was, the Holy Grail: A Spanish Dancer about 8″ long. What a beautiful creature. Its movements highlighted with its flowing skirt of red and pale frills as it moved over its coral home. The dive lasted over an hour. Much of the time spent watching this beautiful creature. Night dives are special in the Red Sea. Most of the time you could spend under the boat in the light of the vessel just watching those who come by for a free meal. The week was filled with ups and downs. Literally ups and downs from the windswept seas. It made interesting sleeping with projectiles in the middle of the night pelting you in your bunk as you held on for dear life. You soon gave up and said to yourself I’ll pick it up in the morning. Unfortunately, several fell ill with flu-like symptoms at various times during the trip, but everyone pitched in and took care of one another, including fellow passengers who were not in our immediate group. Diving was mostly from Zodiac inflatable rafts. if you never dived from one, it takes a little getting used too. It is fun to watch each other’s “graceful entry” back into the raft. We look like fish flapping around on the deck!
Another highlight was diving the wreck of MV Salem Express near the port of Hurghada. The Egyptian divemasters were ambivalent about diving this site. There are five pillars of Islam: believing in one God, daily prayer, fasting, giving charity, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. On December 17,1991 the Salem Express ferry was underway from Jeddah to Safaga with perhaps as many as 1,000 Muslim pilgrims who had just fulfilled this fifth tenet of Islam – making Hajj in Mecca. The Captain misjudged and hit the reef around midnight. There were close to 1,000 victims. Perhaps as many as 500 are still trapped inside the wreck. There are cars jumbled together, luggage, and a significant debris field around the wreck, which itself is covered with coral. The terrible loss of life explains why the Egyptian divemasters are of mixed mind about diving Salem Express. They do not wish to in any way trivialize the site. Certainly, we were totally respectful of the spirits of the victims who are on Eternal Hajj. Perhaps the staff in future could make an offering, or prayer service, or lay a wreath (or whatever is appropriate in Islamic tradition) to pay respects to those who lost their lives in fulfillment of their religious duties that awful night so long ago…
The Heaven Saphir looked to be one of the better vessels at the dive sites. It was comfortable and had large deck areas to spread out on. The food got better every day. With an exception here and there… there was also some chocolate mousse which we lovingly dubbed dog poop. You had to be there, but let it be said that even the cook (when he tasted it) went to the rail, and overboard it went. The faces of people as they tasted it were priceless. The cabins on board were large with full-size bathrooms. There was plenty of room to find private space if you needed it. We docked late afternoon in Hurghada, another beautiful Port area. Some ventured into town for tee shirts, genie lamps, and Cipro. The evening was spend enjoying a full Turkey feast in celebration of our host Dmitri’s birthday. Some hearty souls ventured into the night partying till it was time to leave.
The morning of our departure came very early, departing the boat in the wee hours of the morning. Last minute packing and trying to keep track of luggage being put in the bus for the trip to the airport in Hurghada. A fifteen-minute ride to the airport and then security line after security line, before our departure for JFK Airport in Queens/Brooklyn (or so we thought). When you get ready for final take off, and you are on the runway and the engines are winding up, and then the Captain comes on to advise that ‘we are returning to the gate due to mechanical issues’ you sort of lose confidence in your aircraft. Then your one-hour delay becomes a three-hour delay. You taxi to the runway, the engines roaring — and at that moment you realize you are no longer a passenger, but rather a guinea pig! Your 14-hour flight over the Atlantic just might become the ultimate dive trip. Just saying!
The one thing about this trip that made it was exceptional was being able to share it with friends. When traveling to faraway places, it is nice to know others in your group have your back. You can relax a little more, and you are able to share your experience with friends. If you have a chance, come travel with us. I can assure you that you will be busted on, with some watchful eyes just waiting for you to screw up. After all, we are always on the lookout for the new recipient of the Friggin Ziggin award!
Dive Safe, Dive Often,
Bob Bak is a member of the Board of Directors at TSSC, and past President of The Scuba Sports Club of Westchester NY. He has also been Diver of the Year at TSSC, and has also served as Safety Director for our Club. He has served in leadership roles at another scuba diving club in our area. Bob is revered in the greater NY metro area for his diving experiences and knowledge, his friendly smile, welcoming nature, and he has dived all over the world. Bob has a huge heart and is a true leader; I will always remember him leading our Club in a moment of personal reflection on the tenth anniversary of the WTC attack. Many of us in the Northeast diving community also love about Bob Bak is his resolute commitment to diving safety, and his tireless service to new divers (like me) – to get them started on safety habits and diving skills.