Egypt Diary, Dec 22-29 2018

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Anne, the “Stuka bomber”

Our vacations are normally focused on hiking mountains, allowing me to reach my annual goal of 100 new peaks. But as my goal was already reached in July, we decided to try something else for the Christmas break. Like snorkeling, which we both enjoy. I’m a rookie, but my philosophy is that you get slightly better every time you practice.

We ended up with Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula. Anne had been there in 1996, and looked forward to see the place again. Most likely, very developed since back then. We booked ourselves into Hilton Waterfalls via Amisol. All inclusive. There has to be a first for everything.

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Our “base-camp” for Christmas break

My journey began on the 20th, when I drove from Sunnmøre to Anne’s place in Sogndal (3 hours). The next day, we drove to Hov (Søndre Land) (4,5 hours) and our friends Eva and Bjørn, who would look after Karma while we went to Egypt.

Dec 22 – travel day

We drove from Hov to Oslo airport Gardermoen for the 12:15 flight. This airport must be the best in the world, from a traveler’s point of view. Disclaimer: I have NOT been to all the airports in the world. The flight was delayed but by 13:50, we were airborne on the Norwegian flight to Egypt.

My sensitive skull doesn’t deal well with flights. It has to be the cabin pressure – equivalent to 2000-2200 meters above sea level) as I always get an intense headache after a short while, and I soon went into survival mode.

5,5 hours later, we touched ground in Sharm El Sheikh. Being the first ones out the shuttle bus, we passed quickly through the passport control. After collecting our luggage, we were instructed by the Amisol representative to head for a certain bus.

After twenty-some minutes, we were on our way towards the hotel, with some stops to other hotels along the way. Interestingly enough, the most time-consuming part was checking in at the hotel. Without a queue, it took roughly 30 minutes, but we ended up with an upgraded room, without having asked for the upgrade. But sea view sounded much better than garden view.

The room was OK. The hotel looked OK. It had pools and other facilities, but most importantly, it was located by the beach and apparently, there were good snorkeling opportunities there. Tomorrow would show. After a quick walk around the hotel area, we called it a day.

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Checking out the hotel area

Dec 23 – hotel day

After breakfast, I had a feeling that 98% of the hotel guests were Russian-speaking. That was somewhat surprising. I had expected a somewhat broader international scene. The food was OK. Nothing really missing, and no real wow factor. Staff friendly and helpful. There were of course a few annoying things, but there always are, regardless where you go. The restaurant was OK.

Then it was time to check out the beach. There was a “Lego” floating bridge that led us across the coral reef and keeping the balance was a real struggle. I didn’t know what to expect, this close to the beach, but the first impression was “wow“. OK – there were no shoal of large fish, but there were plenty of small and colorful fish. With zero effort to get here, this was more than satisfactory.

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Finally under water

The water temperature was OK, but I got cold after 10-15 minutes. After all, it was winter in Egypt. It was much colder to surface and we hurried across the floating bridge, shivering, aiming for the towels. Two trips before lunch, then one after and then relaxing before dinner. That’s basically how day 1 went.

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So much to see..

The hotel offered an elevator-tram hybrid, which was quite cool to look at, after dark. We tried it once…

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The elevator/tram

Lunch and dinner was OK. Nothing really missing, and no real wow factor. The dessert table was disappointing – mostly cakes we didn’t fancy and a lot of “jelly” stuff. Time to order something to drink took its time. We were halfway into the meal before being served. Workaround; sit by your table until your order comes, and THEN go get something to eat. On a balancing note – the staff worked really hard, always friendly and doing the best they could for us. So – absolutely no complaints from our side!

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Tiran island seen from our hotel room

Dec 23 is the day we decorate the Christmas tree. And Anne had a surprise in store for me…

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He he … quite a surprise!

Dec 24 – hotel day

Christmas Eve was pretty much a replica of the day before, with 3 trips into the water.

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Nice to be back…
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Anne is OKay!

We dressed up for dinner, but chose the all inclusive restaurant, and not the one upstairs where we would have to pay extra.

After dinner, we enjoyed a small aquavite and bacon crisp – the closest we came to a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner.

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Aquavite and Bacon Crisp

Christmas Eve ended on a quiet note, and we prepared for our first snorkeling cruise the next day.

Dec 25 – Tiran Island

The snorkeling cruise to Tiran island was booked at the hotel the day before. It wasn’t in our original plans, but two days at the hotel was enough. We wanted to see something else.

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Tiran island

We were picked up by a bus at the hotel, and after several stops by other hotels, the car was full and we were driven to Naama bay. The harbor was full of other tourists and other boats. I soon understood how this business works.

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Naama Bay

We were led to a diving boat named Queen III. We were the only non-Russian clients and we received a separate briefing by the crew. It was amazing to learn that the entire Egyptian crew spoke Russian. I guess the rules of the tourist game are just as easy as they are “cruel”. Either learn what you need to learn, or you’re on the outside.

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We are being briefed – in English…

We then started our journey to the coral reefs outside Tiran island – located between Egypt and Saudi-Arabia. We anchored up next to some other boats and got ready for our first swim.

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Coral reef outside Tiran

We followed our snorkeling guide, and in the beginning it was all nice. But after 10-15 minutes, I started to get really cold. I told Anne and our guide that I wanted to return and Anne decided to join me back. I’m not really sure if the guide got a chance to think twice about this, because we turned around immediately. We went the wrong way and had to swim directly across the coral reef to get back to the boat. Apparently not good. But, no harm done as we never touched the reef.

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This is basically how it works…

Eventually, the boat moved on to its second stop. The chief diving guide instructed us to follow the guide. Apparently, someone in the crew had noticed our unsanctioned return to the boat.

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Our guide shows us how diving should be done

The second trip into the water soon turned cold, and Anne suggested after a while that we should return to the boat. I said “no”. I had promised the chief guide that there would be no solo games, and it was the right decision, because it turned out that this time the boat would come for us!

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Divers

Afterwards, the boat took us to our third stop – close to the shore on the Sinai side, and lunch was served. I skipped the third trip into the water, but Anne went out for a final swim.

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Shipwreck close to the shore

Afterwards, we returned to Naama bay, got into the waiting bus and were driven back to the hotel. We were told on beforehand that that we would be back at 3pm, but the time was closer to 5pm when we were back in the room. Still, plenty of time before our dinner reservation on the Italian restaurant at the hotel. Which all inclusive guests could book once during the stay. Some things just sound better than they are, but at least we could order a wine bottle from the menu. I have to agree with Anne – the default wine served in the main restaurant was among the dullest ones we’ve ever tasted.

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Our snorkeling guide – a 110% enthusiastic guy!

We called it a day early. We had to get up at 5am for our main project during our stay in Egypt.

Dec 26 – Gabal Katrîne

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On top of Egypt!

See separate trip report

Dec 27 – Ras Muhammad

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Sunrise. Room view.

This snorkeling cruise was Anne’s Christmas present to me. After I got sick the night before, there was a 99% probability that we would not go on this cruise. But 5 minutes before the morning deadline, I decided to give it a try.

We assumed that the cruise was based on the same model as the cruise to Tiran island, which allowed us to prepare ourselves accordingly.

Once again, we were picked up by the hotel, but taken to a different bay this time. It was the same entrance procedure and soon we were on a boat called Almarosa. The difference was that this was a boat built for snorkeling cruise only, and not diving.

The chief guide asked us to gather around him. He was indeed a friendly and very enthusiastic (understatement) bloke, but a bit too enthusiastic for some of us..

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The chief guide

Once we got a private moment with the guide, Anne and I told him that we were not interested in a slowly-follow-the-guide trip which would last for 30-40 minutes. We wanted the boat to be base-camp, and swim out and back as we pleased. I would get quickly cold, and I needed to visit the bathroom every 10-15 minutes. I wondered if I had got Pyelitis again. The guide understood, but could not promise anything.

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In the Ras Muhammad National Park

Eventually we reached the first reef and most of the clients went into the water. It was clear that the guide had planned a 30-40 minute excursion (with one person clinging to a lifebuoy, dragged by the guide). After 5 minutes in the water, I felt this was a no-go for me, and as the boat was still close by, I decided to return to the boat. Hence, the pictures from under water are mostly taken by Anne.

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Wow…

The little I saw was magnificent, clearly more interesting than Tiran. The crew didn’t understand why I returned to the boat, and as none of them spoke English then they would just have to keep wondering.

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Nice…

After a while, the others returned to the boat and we sat course for another reef. The sea was clearly more rough now and after a while, the boat turned around. I could see in the distance where we planned to go, and I was happy that they turned around. It looked very bumpy out there…

The Captain decided not to return directly to the shore, but keep the boat out in the open waters. From what I understood, this was a better choice than sticking close to land. The sea got even rougher, the boat swayed from side to side and one after the other got seasick. A Saudi woman totally barfed down the only toilet. Not good. Not for her and not for me, which was already a steady visitor.

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The cruise got quite rough…

Lots of pale faces around, some with a plastic bag in front of their mouths. It was a pleasant surprise that I was unaffected by the rough sea, and it might be because I stood on the middle of the boat, trying to be in balance. When the boat rolled left, I rolled right. And so on. It worked out quite nicely.

Eventually, we reached shore and anchored up outside some hotel and were served lunch. It was much calmer waters here, and it was also quite amazing that they were able to prepare anything at all, given the rough trip back.

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We could finally relax again…

At first, only two persons went into the water – Anne and me. We were allowed to go by ourselves to a small reef close by. After a little while, Anne signaled that she wanted to return. We got some big waves on our way back, but reached the boat without any issues.

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Checking out the small reef

A couple of the German clients jumped into the water, and when there were no more people in the water, the Captain sat course for the shore.

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Big mosque

Back at the hotel, I was very happy about having survived the day. I was still not in good shape, but in better shape than in the morning. I proposed we should go down to the beach bar to celebrate mission accomplished for our 3 projects. We ended up in a conversation with a guy from Moscow, about international economy. Being an investment consultant, he was clearly the only qualified one, but after a few drinks, everyone feels qualified. His wife yelled at him 5 times during our conversation. He ignored all of them and soon she left with some biting remarks. He shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about Russian girls…

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At the beach bar

The alcohol was a mistake. I ended up in bed, shivering cold. What the heck was wrong with me? And the evening ended on that note…

Dec 28 – hotel day

The day in short; 3 trips into the water, 3 meals and the rest of the time spent in bed. It helped to tell myself I wasn’t sick and I just needed to have a few slow days.

The time in the water was just sensational. Every time I went back up, I looked forward to going back again…

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This one we hadn’t seen before!
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Me – chasing moments

Dec 29 – departure day

Our flight would leave 7:50pm and the bus would pick us up at 4pm. The friendly staff in the hotel reception let us keep the room until 3pm. That is a massive upside when you’re not feeling well. Thanks!!

After breakfast, we went back into the water, and it was a blast – again!

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Absolutely unreal!

But afterwards I was so cold that I knew that was the last swim for this holiday. And toilet visits every 10-15 minutes. By now, I was convinced that I had Pyeletis and did NOT look forward for the bus trip (with many stops along the way) to the airport.

At 3pm, I decided that I would not go on the bus, and instead we took a taxi to the airport. EGP 175 and some tips. One problem solved.

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I will miss this for MONTHS to come…

The next hurdle was to get to the gate; 1: Passport control at the entrance. 2: Security and passport control to get into the check-in zone. 3: Check-in and passport control. 4: Passport control. 5: Security and passport control. And finally, we were in the departure hall. Of course, they had one additional passport control at the gate, but the flight left on time and it was a fairly OK flight back home, despite the fact that I got intense headache once again.

We landed in Oslo 40 minutes past midnight and it took a while to get to the car and to get the ice of the windows. The car was totally glaciated. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.

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The car – after being driven for an hour…

The headache didn’t pass until we reached our friends house by Randsfjorden, and by 3:30pm, we could stumble into bed. Quite exhausted, but happy when Karma came running out to welcome us home!

Summary

The obvious post-trip question is; would I like to return to Sharm El Sheik?

Short-time answer: No. I need to get a distance to a cumbersome airport system, checkpoints and other security measures. I know they are there to protect us and their tourist economy, but is someone really considering when security becomes a hassle only? And I am no fan of the aggressive street vendors, or annoying hotel shop vendors for that matter.

I don’t enjoy the feeling of having to leave a tip for every person that does something for me, given that I’ve already paid for the services. It gets tiresome after a while. On the other hand, I do feel good about leaving a good sum of money with Moussa and his cousin for their excellent services on the Mt. Catherine trip. Win-win. Quid pro quo.

Long-time answer: Yes. I would like to return to the Sinai mountain range and check out Moussa’s (see the Gebel Katherina trip report) lodge. And perhaps go on a scrambling trip with him in the mountains surrounding St. Catherines. And more snorkeling for sure! But not on the snorkeling  cruises.

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Goodbye Egypt. For now…

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