Sheikh-ing it up in Sharm

Having spent the best part of the day either roasting alive in a brow-beaten Clio on the M25, queueing in painfully slow-moving lines at Gatwick Airport and trying to arrange our heads in a semi-comfortable position on inflatable ‘pillows’ on the plane, we were thrilled to finally touch down in the humid night air of Sharm El Sheikh.

Sis had been twice before on diving expeditions, and I had eventually agreed to accompany her on another jaunt on the condition that we make a 48-hour stop in Cairo for some culture.

It was extroadinarily late when we arrived, but that didn’t stop what looked like hundreds of opportunists turning out en masse in minibuses, urging a procession of weary passengers to take their transportation to our various hotels.

We paid (what, in retrospect, seems like) a rather large sum to be whizzed a ten-minute drive away to the Tropicana Rosetta – selected by Sis because of it’s perfect proximity to the Red Sea’s most trusted diving outfit – Emperor Divers.

Arrived at the hotel, which I was very impressed with, and a ‘guide’ was deployed to take us to our room. It seemed like a simple task but I suppose it was no mean feat, considering the hotel houses around 2,000 rooms. After wondering around for 35 minutes, it appears that the feat was, in fact, too mean indeed – he go lost in his own hotel.

Frustrated, we put him out of his misery by offering to find the room ourselves and fell into bed at around 4am.

I woke up the following day to find that Sis, amazingly, had managed to get herself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 6am and lugged a holdall of ridiculously heavy dive kit all the way through the hotel grounds to the dive centre.

NB: Any competent diver will tell you that this is extremely unwise – after being at high altitude on a plane, you should never dive immediately afterwards and must allow at least 24 hours after landing. Sis probably new that but the desire to dive was too great!

My first day alone in Sharm left a lot to be desired, and the decision to catch some rays by an empty pool before other residents started pouring out of their rooms was not a wise one.

Everything started off fine, until I was harrassed by a procession of The World’s Rudest and Most Annoying People.

First, there was a waiter trying to coax me into some restaurant, then another trying very insistently to get me to buy drinks – at 8am. When I declined, the first tried to touch me and the second began asking FAR too personal questions.

Then came a rather rotund woman called Chi Chi or something, who spent half an hour incomprehensibly extolling the virtues of an expensive massage.

Finally, a rude English tourist, believing me to be foreign, arrived with a group of overweight friends and announced loudly ‘I always have that lounger and some girl’s taken it!’ to which I sat up, shot her a look of tired contempt and sauntered back to my room.

And this is where I have to say something rather controversial – Sharm, as I suppose with many other resorts, seems to bring out the worst of British tourist behavior. They tend to become rude, lazy, obscene and utterly devoid of any sense of decorum.

One thing I simply CAN’T understand is why Brits travel the long 5.5 hour journey all the way to Egypt, purely to stay in the hotel the ENTIRE time and never leave the poolside or the local English bars. For GOODNESS sake, Egypt is one of the most ancient countries on the planet, there’s so much to explore, the sea, the desert… and granted, Sharm is a very young part of the country but it’s still an incredibly long way to come just to sit there and bake.

Why not just to go Malaga or Benedorm and be done with it???

Right, rant over!

Anyway, I returned to my room, dressed, found the concierge, got a map and went to explore the area. I must say that Na’ama Bay left a lot to be desired.

My impressions of Sharm didn’t improve much that evening either when Sis and I sat down for dinner in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the quietly lapping sea, only to be served up a series of dishes which each tasted distinctly of dirty dishwater.

The food is, without a doubt, shocking. And the surprising thing is, the waiters wander off in a strop looking distinctly offended if you don’t finish everything on your plate. I wondered whether they thought that was as good as food ever got.

I also got the distinct impression that travelling as two girls with no man seemed to set us up as ‘fair game’ to the aimless Egyptian men who seemed to be lurking at every corner – we did have to fend off an awful lot of unwanted, and occasionally quite intimidating attention.

Thankfully, Tuesday was much better. In fact, it was BLISSFUL. The reason was that we spent almost zero time in the hotel, which was a major bonus.

At the time of writing this, I am out on a boat with a handful of divers, hovering near a cluster of coral reefs in sparkling and sublime Red Sea, and I’m getting progressively browner in the cool haze.

I haven’t been able to dive as I’m not qualified, but I’ve spent the day completely unwinding and have really enjoyed it. The captian’s even taught me basic Arabic and the Egyptians on the boat are much friendlier and more relaxed than anywhere on land.

Lunch on the boat was simple and delicious – in complete contrast to the food we’ve had on land – and didn’t have that strange dishwatery aftertaste that most of the food here does.

Sis had two great dives while I browned on the sundeck and took spectacular pictures of the Marine National Park. The others on the boat were quiet and relaxed, which made it even more perfect, while the diving instructor was an enormous bronzed Frenchman with long blonde hair and a Viking beard, who enthused about his forthcoming dive trip to the Galapagos.

We headed back for an afternoon siesta then went to a busy Italian trattoria for pizza, thinking it couldn’t possibly be bad – and my god it was! I’m almost getting used to feeling slightly sick/weird after every meal, and there’s an underlying smell of rotten meat everywhere.

Some of the Egyptians out on the town were quite funny though – one tried to cajole us into joining them and when we walked straight past he said ‘What-evaaahhhh’ in the style of Catherine Tate which I found mightily amusing!

Knowing we were due to fly to Cairo early on Thursday morning, and were planning a desert camel trek in the evening, we decided to spend Wednesday chilling out watching Snake Eyes and Arabic TV in the hotel room.

I’m glad we did, as the evening took a lot of energy. We travelled in an all-Arab bus deep into the red-hued Sinai desert at sunset.

The atmosphere was spine-tingling – the sun was setting over the mountains and all around us there wasn’t a sound except for the distant rumble of dozens of Arabs on quadbikes racing through the desert. I think it’s some kind of national passtime.

We were thrilled that everyone else on the bus went off on quads and we were the only two on camels, so we had the guide and the animals to ourselves. The camels were cute but stinky and cranky, guided by a Bedouin called Mohammed who treated them with a touching amount of care.

We trekked about a mile into the desert while our guide told us all about the Bedouin culture, and stopped to climb a rock where we sat down and promptly stood up again when he told us there were snakes and wolves around us!

There’s an old Bedouin tradition of communicating across the mountains – something they still to today, apparently. If you shout your name into the still silence of the desert, it appears to echo all round the mountains like a boomering – quite incredible!

As it got dark we headed into a beautiful Bedouin tent where we were served incredible mint tea and delicious flatbread, then watched the stars twinking across the desert – a magical night.

Having spent the last two days exploring the intoxicating Cairo (see Cairo Day One and Cairo Day Two), we returned to Sharm for one last day of diving. This time, I wanted to test the water for myself and asked the crew if I could jump in and swim in the ocean, to which they finally relented after agreeing the ‘drift’ wasn’t too dangerous.

Slipping into the cool ocean waters was sublime after the red-hot heat on deck. I swam the full circumfrence of the boat, enjoying the stillness of the water, then all of a sudden a particularly impish crew member thought it’d be amusing to shout ‘Shark!’.

Having been mentally scarred for life by Jaws 2, I scrambled out of the water and up the steps with the all decorum of frightened urchin and spent the rest of the journey giving him ‘evils’. What fun!

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