Echoes of nature
Bored of five-star luxury? Want to enjoy nature at its best, far from the hassle and bustle of ordinary tourist cities but get the same quality service? Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he searches for answers in the virgin town of Marsa Alam on the Red Sea
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Preparations before diving; the main restaurant of Marsa Shagra, though simple, provides first-class service; chalets, with sea and mountain views, are spacious with private sun terraces; instructing divers before embarking on a safari trip; divers in a speed boat; tents (below) for simpler accommodation photos: Mohamed El-Hebeishy
Though it is being promoted as the newest and most fashionable tourist resort in Egypt, combining pure nature and virgin marine life with the luxury of super deluxe tourist villages, Marsa Alam, located on the coastal Red Sea 800km south of sleepless Cairo, is packed with a number of ecolodges for those who look for simplicity, pristine nature and an eco-friendly environment.
Despite the fact that Marsa Alam's pace of development is a step slower when compared to booming neighbour Hurghada, there is a number of ecolodging facilities within the vicinity of the town. Red Sea Diving Safari is one of the few tourism companies that focuses on ecotourism as a concept for sustainable tourism. It owns three of the finest ecolodges in the area: Marsa Shagra, Nakari and Wadi Lahmi. A week's vacation in any of the three equally competitive facilities is an experience not to be missed.
Begun in 1986 with a portable camp site, Marsa Shagra has developed in the past 20 years or so to become one of the biggest ecolodge chains in the country.
Marsa Shagra, the first ecolodge in the series, is located 20km north of Marsa Alam. Marsa Shagra Ecolodge is similar to Nakari and Wadi Lahmi in terms of accommodation alternatives. They all come with a fine list of tents, huts and chalets. Don't be misled by the word hut. In fact it is a brick-built chalet but without a private bathroom and which falls short on space when compared to a full-fledged chalet. All facilities come with basic needs, so don't expect any AC or cable TV. After all, it is supposedly a back-to-nature type experience.
Marsa Shagra acquired its name from a nearby mountain that is stunningly yellow in colour. Due to its colour, locals started calling the place Marsa Shaqra (Blondie Bay). By the time the words twisted and turned, Marsa Shaqra had become Marsa Shagra.
The ecolodge of Marsa Shagra is not only the eldest among the three ecolodges but also wins the trophy for the largest capacity with 200 persons to fill. Nakari, which is located 15km south of Marsa Alam, ranks second with 125 persons. The farther and most secluded is Wadi Lahmi Ecolodge, located 140km south of Marsa Alam. It finishes third with 75 persons capacity. With a price list that offers an unlimited diving package and a place that is equipped with all the required gear, eager divers and underwater adorers are guaranteed a heaven. When I say equipped I do mean it. As an example, the southernmost decompression chamber is available in Marsa Shagra. For perspective, decompression facilities are needed mainly for treating diving emergencies.
When it comes to diving, the menu serves all tastes; from shore dives to truck dives, from speed boats to all-day sea safari trips. Just to give you an idea, truck dives in Marsa Shagra cater for sites like Sharm Abu Dabur, Marsa Morean, Marsa Iglah and the most famous Marsa Abu Dabbab, renowned for possible sighting of turtle, guitar ray and the rare dugong, or sea cow as it is commonly known. Boat trips include the spectacular Elphinstone, a reef located 20 minutes by speed boat from Nakari Ecolodge. Elphinstone holds a variety of charming marine creatures, among them hummer head, white tip sharks, grey reef sharks and the gigantic manta ray.
Another alternative for boat trips is Samadai Reef where a close encounter with dolphins is possible. To shed more light, Samadai Reef represents a resting and housing location for spinner dolphins. It was declared a natural protectorate in January 2004. In order not to disturb the local inhabitants -- dolphins in this case -- a management plan was put into place where the horseshoe reef is now marked with two buoy lines. One represents the end line for speed boats while the other represents the end for snorkellers. Samadai Reef comes with a $15 ticket price (for both Egyptians and foreigners) payable to the natural protectorate's managing authority. No snorkellers are allowed to go into the water without life jackets, both as a safety precaution as well as a way to limit free diving and possible dolphin harassment.
Moving to Wadi Lahmi, the list of in- house shore dives includes spectacular locations like Shabrour, Habili Ghazal and Habili Daisy. The speed boat dives, on the other hand, include Abu Galawa Al-Soghier and Abu Galawa Al-Kebir, with the former being famous as a wreck dive. A Chinese tugboat, Tienstin, had sunk while coming from the Suez Canal and heading south to Eritrea. Sources give two dates for this incident: 1945 and 1951. In any case Tienstin now lies between four to 14 metres underwater in Abu Galawa Al-Kebir.
Another fabulous speed boat dive is Claudia Reef renowned for its two- chamber cave system with lots of black corals. Non-diver guests are not excluded from speed boat excursions. One very interesting day trip is that to Satayeh, where an encounter with dolphins in the wild is most possible. Though Satayeh is part of Wadi Al-Gemal National Park it has not yet inherited the same management plan as Samadai Reef.
If you are not into diving or snorkelling, don't get the impression that boredom is on its way. Several other interesting activities are also available. Kite- and wind-surfing is in Wadi Lahmi, as well as bird watching by mangrove thickets. Desert lovers, rest assured, you will have an unforgettable experience. Dromedary Desert Safari Wadi Lahmi caters for excursions to Kalalat and Wadi Lahmi or a longer on- road trip to Shalatin. Astro tours are also available for star-gazers as well as camel safaris to Sharshaf. Both Kalalat and Sharshaf host ruins that date back to the Roman era.
Seeking marine adventure or desert safaris, looking for relaxing quality time or a close experience with nature, Marsa Alam is the place to book your ticket. Red Sea Diving Safari Ecolodges is the perfect choice for a different experience with quality service.
For reservation and price list information, please visit www.redsea- divingsafari.com .