Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 December 2007
Issue No. 874
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Heaven down south

Rasha Sadek heads Deep South, where the Earth is at its most tantalising

Click to view caption
Tondoba Bay, south of Marsa Alam, is home to varied species of marine life -- all ever-charming

For those who'd rather find a weekend getaway approximate to the capital, this isn't exactly their thing. Those, too, who are into five-star and pampering spa treatment had better look elsewhere. Welcome those who, in short, have an affection for top notch diving -- non-arguably the best in the country -- and are intrigued by the idea of being accommodated at an ecolodge with African-style huts, besides enjoying unspoilt nature that stays virgin thanks to the environment preservation spirit.

It's no easy, short ride but, I could swear for days, it's well worth it. Hadabet Um Tondoba, 14km south of Marsa Alam, houses Deep South ecolodge on the ever-inspiring Red Sea. The dive centre is located directly on the beach, while the huts are erected 745 metres from the sea and into the desert. Why this far was the first question I threw at the person I bumped into as Lamia Kamel -- managing director of Corporate Communications Plus and the reason why I was at the place at that time -- and I hopped off the car. "So that the sewerage doesn't kill the coral reefs and pollute the sea," he said emphatically, but in a you-already-should-have known-that tone. This was no less than Ismail Marzouk, the dive master and environment manager -- yes, Deep South has a position of this sort.

Huts are erected over an upland and each is different from the other and has a character all its own. Bearing different names, my hut was Passion, Kamel's Moonrise. Each hut comprises a twin bed and a cupboard made of sackcloth. The walls are entirely painted, very skillfully I have to admit. The ones I saw were either coloured murals of dolphin tails, deep sea fish, turtles and corals (ever fancied sleeping on the seabed?) or silhouettes of people. In every room, a quatrain from the English-translated version of Egyptian vernacular poet Salah Jahin's Rubaiyat is painted on the wall, leaving one to wonder overnight about man's flaws and foolishness.

Bathrooms and showers are situated close to the restaurant. They are very neat, indeed. Besides the 12 huts that stand now, eight more are being constructed to be equipped with bathrooms. The restaurant is open-air, but roofed, seatings on cushions and low tables. The bar, again roofed and open-air, stands on the highest area in the location, just the perfect spot to watch the sun being swallowed into the magnanimous Red Sea mountains.

At the bar we lounged for a full view of the sea and the desert, interrupted only by palm trees. Come darkness and we were exchanging horror camp tales -- people obsessed, moving objects and children turning into cats at night. Into the details of this latter we delved. The story goes that in one of the Egyptian townlets, if not weighed in gold upon birth, the souls of baby twins escapes them during their sleep to roam the streets in the shape of a cat. There's more. If the infants are awakened by a family member, they die. As I mocked the idea I spotted a cat heading straight in my direction. In answer to the reader's question, yes I was scared.

The spirit of Deep South instantly captures the soul of those who like close encounters with nature. The staff, numbering 20 plus, encourage one to engage in the mood, for they are themselves soaked in it to the core. There's something definitely different (genuine) about their smile, not like the Cairenes whose facial expressions disguise their real most-of-the- time wicked intentions. The staff of Deep South are easily categorised as your friends immediately after your arrival. Enhancing the esprit of the ecolodge is the animated character of its owner Karim Noor whose standing word to the comers and goers is "peace" -- and the word surprisingly quickly spreads.

Over breakfast on the second day, conversation took us way beyond the confines of the ecolodge. From best actress to international politics, our group just kept getting bigger, with people we met for the first time smoothly joining in. This was exactly what hooked me to this place. The simplicity with which human interaction occurs refreshes one's memory of the times when man used to dream of a better world. At Deep South, it is indeed a better world.

Social responsibility is key in Noor's structure. He had built a clinic, next to the Decompression Chamber, to treat the families of the Ababda tribe. Numbering 30, the families are diagnosed and offered medicine free of charge. One would expect the Ababda to be treated in exchange for other responsibilities on their part. No. Noor feels it's Deep South's responsibility to take care of the neighbouring tribe who had not ruined the surrounding environment, including the cleanness of the shore, sea water and coral reefs.

Nomadic Ababda is a tribe with a history. While they are the original dwellers of Wadi Al-Gemal, they were forced to abandon their tradition of livestock herding due to drought conditions that forced them to leave their homes to areas closer to urban centres, and consequently changed their tongue from their original Rotana to Arabic. They now depend mainly on fishing to provide for their families, yet their means does not destroy the ecosystem for they fish in controlled amounts. Noor, along with Marzouk, are on the way to start a project that provides Ababda members with educational classes in reading and writing, the English language and environmental awareness, especially in the eco-tourism field.

Marzouk explains that upon arrival at the ecolodge, guests are offered a course in environmental awareness. This directly relates to diving as guests are instructed to follow an environmental friendly policy. "Doing it right" is Marzouk's approach generally in life and specifically in diving. He believes that travellers don't stay at Deep South only to enjoy the scenery and the cerulean waters, but rather to "learn" about the environment since where divers go deep is the first in the whole chain that keeps the planet from deterioration and extinction.

The beach of Deep South is characterised by a unique diversity in its seatings. There you have chez lounges, wooden tables and chairs, hammocks, a tent with Bedouin-style seatings, and for colder days a cove. The fire by the beach is a classic, of course. On nights when a barbecue party is held, fire adds to the ambiance -- a genuine feel of extrication.

Out of Deep South and further 84km south lies Galaan nature reserve. A must-go if you've already reached Deep South, this beach must have fallen directly from heaven and hasn't been visited by many. The sea is nothing like what has been seen before anywhere. I repeat, anywhere in the country. Shades of blue blend with the sky across the horizon intercepted by mangrove trees in the midst of the water.

An excellent spot for birdwatching, ospreys and seagulls are plentiful. The former are interesting creatures in their own right. Shortsighted as I am (blame the endless hours sitting on the computer), I wanted to take a closer look at the black bird. I would very quietly approach, and as it senses the proximity, in a most provocative haughtiness, takes two steps away. For more than half an hour, my enthusiasm did not wane to get closer to the osprey, nor did its two steps, every while, change style. The bird really did get on my nerves. It was the osprey versus I in the shallow waters. Had I sensed it was bothered by my intrusion, I would have simply walked away. But no, the bird insisted that I make all the effort of tiptoeing and walking on eggshells only to see it taking two steps away (haughtily). Needless to say, I lost the battle against the osprey.

Defeated as I was, I returned to the Bedouin tent to the hospitality of two -- my guess Ababda men. One was smoking his shisha which was buried all the way in the sand (to prevent humidity from entering into the pipe) and the other was preparing for us some very delicious gabanna coffee. This is green coffee. Non-toasted coffee beans, ginger and cardamom are the ingredients. In fact, sugar is not stirred; instead it rests at the bottom of the cup to give off only its aroma. In Galaan, the water is perfect for swimming. Please, while there make the water-walk to the huge mangrove tree that stands in the middle -- a sight not to be missed. Snorkelling in this area is awesome due to the clear visibility, and as I have been told by one of the tentmen, turtles swim right next to snorkellers. Turtles don't shy away from humans, simply because all those who reach this far have been told in Deep South about the importance of nurturing, loving and taking care of the environment and marine life.

Honkorab is another virgin beach north of Galaan and is very suitable, besides swimming, for a stroll along the white sands and rocky plateaus. Generally, the sea stretch from Um Tondoba until Galaan (that's as far as we went before reaching Barnis) is breathtaking with changeable water colours from bleu ceil to dark blue. The stretch is also heavily inhabited by mangroves, which despite their rapid declination in the past 50 years, provide energy for their respective ecosystems. Besides their crucial importance to the environmental system, mangroves add structural complexity and biological diversity to the shore. Juvenile fish seek the mangrove's high biomass of food and find refuge from larger predators in its nooks and crannies.

DIVING: In Tondoba Bay and around, there are dozens of excellent dive sites that all enjoy gigantic coral formations which thrive on countless fish species that differ in size, shape and colour. Of all the dive sites, 14 stand in prominence. Marzouk, who has done more than 1,800 dives, says the Samadai Dolphin Sanctuary is one of the "hottest shots". This is a platform reef 20m off Marsa Samadai Bay that is seven kilometres north of Tondoba bay. Samadai Sanctuary is a protected park known for its high diversity of marine life. It comprises two big hard coral gardens and a cave on a shallow depth of five to seven metres.

Shaab Abu Hamra, also known as the Elphinstone, is for advanced divers and can be reached by boat in three hours. Across the world, it's the third best shark site for encountering the beasts, manta rays and other pelagic fish. It's a healthy reef wall since it's 13 miles off shore and hence exposed to strong currents besides the fact that it's not visited by many. Its slopes go deep from 85 metres to over 100.

According to Marzouk, Erg Al-Torfa is the "Elphinstone rehearsal". Characterised by its high diversity of marine forms, it comprises two huge pinnacles and enjoys the strong possibility of visuals of white tip sharks, rays and turtles. The site can be reached by RIBs in 20 minutes. As for the Amphora dive site, it houses an old Roman pot located under one of two huge pinnacles in the middle of Tondoba Bay.

Even if you're not willing to go that far into the sea -- although for sure any dedicated diver will go all the way -- the House Reef of Deep South has won the Best House Reef award. For an amateur diver like this writer, the House Reef is simply beyond words. Other interesting dive sites include the Tondoba Checkpoint, 2.2km to the south, Marsa Tondoba, Tondoba Drift, Marsa Mikki South and Marsa Mikki, Torfa Mikki Drift, Torfa Saif, Marsa Naizak and Erg Tondoba.

ENVIRONMENT PRESERVATION: Soon after arriving at Deep South, environment becomes a big word, its preservation practised with affection. The ecolodge is involved in environmental projects including Ganoubi and Life Red Sea. Marzouk has prepared a case study entitled Red Sea Coastal Development: Constructions or Destructions, in which he explains, among many other things, the importance of coral reefs to our ecosystem. He writes that corals remove and recycle carbon dioxide, the excess of which contributes to global warming. Reefs, as well, provide shelter for the land against ocean storms and floods. The benefits are countless, he proves, before concluding, "the biggest threat to our coral reefs is unorganised coastal development which creates a massive load on the Red Sea coral reefs, leading at the end to massive destruction and loss. Building huge walls of concrete blocks by resorts and hotels tears down the second lung of the planet."

Traveller's notes:

- Deep South can be reached either directly by plane to Marsa Alam Airport, from which a car will take you to the ecolodge in about 20 minutes, or you can take a plane from Cairo to Hurghada Airport, from where you can rent a taxi to take you to Deep South for LE300-350 in a little over three hours.

- Accommodation in Deep South is on full board basis. Listed prices are per person per night: An African Hut 35 euros, a chalet with bathroom (that can be arranged by the management next to the ecolodge) 45 euros. Transportation from Hurghada Airport to Deep South and back is 45 euros.

- Cost of diving packages: one-day package is 30 euros, three-day package 80 euros, five-day package 125 euros, additional day 25 euros. These packages include unlimited House Reef diving, two guided dives per day by boat, and tanks and weights. The Samadai reef visit is for 25 euros, and Shaab Abu Hamra 35 euros. To rent full equipment add 20 euros per day.

- Egyptians are given 25 per cent discount on the above mentioned prices. However, 10 per cent of the total value of the bill is added as sales tax, applicable to foreigners and Egyptians alike.

- For more information regarding reservations, e-mail info@deep-south-diving.com, visit www.deep-south-diving.com, or call 010 395 9492.

- Marsa Alam is approximately 800km north of Cairo. Port Ghalib, in Marsa Alam, is the only privately owned marina on the south coast of the Red Sea and is an official point of entry. Making it easier for yacht owners, they need only fill a Berthing Application and present a customs declaration. From there, officials of the marina will take care of the rest.

Wadi Al-Gemal

NEARLY 50km south of Marsa Alam, and 7km into the Eastern Desert, lies Fustat Wadi Al-Gemal national protectorate. The Camels Valley is a sanctuary for wildlife and nature-lovers alike. The park is 7,450 square kilometres, divided into 4,000 square kilometres on shore and the rest marine waters.

The park's ecolodge is fit for half-day safaris and overnight stays, and is distinguished for its white tents.

Because of the wadi's location, it has been a hot spot for nomadic settlers who criss-cross its routes. Among the most well-known tribes in the wadi are the Ababda and Bishareen, both belonging to the authentic Beja tribe. The latter are the original inhabitants of the Gabal Elba region, situated in the southeastern most corner of Egypt. The remoteness of the area has helped the Bishareen maintain their original culture and pastoral nomadism. The tribesmen are famed for being the most experienced in training camels.

For more information, log on to www.wadielgemal.com or call 012 100 1109.

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