Walk like an Egyptian

By Business & Finance
23 June 2012
Sharm El Sheik

Colourful waters for diving and many ancient sites to visit, Yvonne Moran is busy taking in the Egyptian delights.

Red Sea mimic blenny, pyjama nudi branch, glass, lion, masked puffer, devil scorpion and lyretail hog fish.

These were some of the many interesting critters that greeted this diver recently in one dive in the colourful, crowded waters off Sharm El Sheikh, in Egypt.

Snorkelers aren’t left out, however: the warm, shallow waters are a paradise for hundreds of multi-hued fish as they go about their daily business seeking breakfast, lunch and dinner around the radiant soft and hard corals the inhabitants call home.

The Red Sea is a watery paradise on earth and guests – many of them first timers – in Hilton Sharks Bay grabbed the opportunity to see a hidden underwater world several feet from the shore.

On land, sun worshippers turned a lobster pink under the searing sun’s midday and early afternoon rays.

There are also lots of other water-based activities that hopefully remove some of those unwanted kilos gained from an all inclusive resort experience.

The Old Market in Sharm El Sheikh town (many of its 150,000 inhabitants originate from elsewhere in Egypt but have relocated there for the work provided in 150 or so hotels that have sprung up in the area,) provided a first glimpse of life outside a resort and into the ‘real’ Egypt.

A camel slumbered on the footpath of the busy main street; nearby, four bored policemen watched the comings and goings of tourists as they weaved their way into shops – and away from the many hustlers standing guard outside stores open until midnight.

Shopping in Egypt is not for the fainthearted: it demands endless endurance, a good sense of humour and most of all, a steely determination to avoid being overcharged. Prices aren’t fixed, so everything is negotiable – and renegotiable. Head to Na’ama Bay, a 20 minute drive from Sharm, for the region’s best shopping. This very lively bar, restaurant and consumer heaven (or hell, depending on one’s perspective) has a vast array of stores selling fake designer bags, papyrus, spices, locally-made perfumes and beautiful, delicate glass perfume bottles, gold, silver and simple jewellery, glass decorations, scarves, mother of pearl boxes and some truly dreadful, kitsch, tourist trash.

It’s also a good spot to wine and dine, should you tire of the food in an all inclusive resort, or simply want a change of scenery. The Hilton has a nightly hourly shuttle to and from Na’ama Bay for approximately €2 each way.

Excursions are a great way to experience new activities, and for many in the group, riding the ‘ship of the desert’ was definitely a first.

The camels complained loudly, their passengers on board, as they unwilling raised themselves to a standing position, before plodding off for 40 minutes in the direction where dinner would be served in a Bedouin tent. A very entertaining, enthusiastic and informative talk about stars and the solar systems, observing the moon’s craters and Jupiter’s rings through powerful telescopes under the clear desert sky, was the highlight of the night.

There are not many countries that sit on two continents, but a 4:00am wakeup call next morning and a 45 minute flight to Cairo saw tourists transported from Asia (the Sinai) to Africa in one swoop.

The city of 20 million souls, (approximately one quarter of the country’s population,) boasts some 1,000 minarets and 350 churches in a country that’s 10% Coptic Christian. Mosques, churches and the City of the Dead, where thousands live amongst graves due to land shortage, were put aside to visit the storehouse of one of the oldest and greatest civilizations on earth, in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

The 3,000 –year-old plus solid gold mask of Tutankhamun and the fabulous golden horde of jewellery and artefacts in its own dedicated room are just some of the 1,600 artefacts found in what turned out to be the archaeological find of the 20th century. The 19-year-old Pharaoh’s tomb is the only one discovered never plundered by grave robbers in the Valley of the Kings. It provided a unique insight into the ancient Egyptians’ world view. The magnificent find in 1922 caused a sensation world wide and Howard Carter spent nine years excavating the site.

With 120,000 artefacts in the museum and an estimated 100,000 in storage, the museum is a Cairo must-see. Time-constrained tourists, however, should pick and choose what to ponder over, and employing a guide makes this a much simpler process.

The tourist crowds were thin on the ground, a reflection of the perceived political instability currently enveloping around the country. The neighbouring burned out building, which was formerly Mubarak’s political party headquarters, was a reminder that Egypt is only recently slowly evolving into what’s hoped will be a bright and democratic future for all.

A short, but leisurely boat ride on the Nile, where the poorest of the poor live on tiny boats while the wealthiest reside in large, luxurious riverside apartments, was followed by lunch. It was time to visit a city suburb, to see Egypt’s most symbolic sight: the pyramids at Giza.

It took 20 years and an astounding 2,500,000 limestone blocks to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the oldest and largest of the three mighty apexes. Ironically, the only statue of Cheops ever found in a land that adored massive statues, measures just 7.5 centimetres. (Sand was sifted for three weeks before Cheops tiny head was found. The statue is now safely ensconced in the museum.)

The nearby pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus descend in order of age and size, but are all identically orientated 8.5 degrees west of magnetic north. The construction of these mighty edifices was only done during the annual flooding of the Nile, when the limestone required from the south was transported on the Nile to a nearby water source.

A shisha smoking session in a local tea shop, watching the world pass by, was the grand finale to a varied, interesting day.

Adventure continued apace the next afternoon, as the Lawrences (and Lauras) of Arabia donned scarves to cover everything but eyes from dust. Diesel pumping sand buggies transported the group into the desert for a 90 minute, fun filled experience.

Drinks and dinner in Na’ama Bay was the grand finale to a week packed with new experiences.

The sun, sea and fun made it difficult for many to return home.

Sharm Diving

Information: Getting there and staying there

Thomas Cook Ireland flies direct from Dublin to Sharm El Sheikh every Wednesday.

Yvonne Moran stayed at the 4-star Hotel Hilton Sharks Bay Resort. Rates start from €699 per person for seven nights for a twin room on an all-inclusive basis, (including meals, drinks and hotel facilities.) Flights and transfers are included.

Thomas Cook can arrange flight excursions to the Pyramids in Cairo and a boat trip on the Nile from €215 per person.

Enjoy a fun-packed sand buggy safari in the Sinai Desert, with afternoon tea in a Bedouin tent for €59 per person.

Ride a camel in the desert before the sun sets, dine in a Bedouin tent and stargaze through massive telescopes to see the moon and Jupiter up close and very personal for €45 per person.

Other excursions include a visit to dive havens (snorkelling is also possible) Ras Mohamed National Park or Tiran Island for €66 and €61 respectively, including food and refreshments. Enjoy a nautilus boat for €80, including food and refreshments, or go on a cultural odyssey to Luxor. Flight and food costs €232.

Diving and Snorkelling: A mask, fins and snorkel can be rented from Sinai Dive Club for €9 per day. The dive club is conveniently located within Hilton Sharks Bay. Dives start from €30, including tank and weights. Other equipment is extra.