The Sinai Under Siege

Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is a world of underwater splendour and spectacular sand dune scenery. But the Sinai is under siege. Photojournalist Jeremy Jowell swam with a dolphin and climbed Mount Sinai for sunrise...

The imposing Egyptian border guard took a quick look at my passport and thrust it back immediately.
"South Africa?", he quizzed, his moustache starting to quiver. "No, you not allowed in Egypt. You go back," he barked, pointing towards Eilat.
It was January 1984. South Africa was still in the icy grip of apartheid and we were persona non grata in most of Africa. After winter travels through Europe and Israel, I planned to hitch from Israel's Taba border down the Sinai coast and enjoy a few days snorkeling in the famous Red Sea. I had been enchanted with the area's amazing underwater world on a previous visit in 1977, when the Sinai Peninsula still belonged to Israel. Yet there I stood. Busted at the border. Disconsolate.

It's thirteen years later and things have changed somewhat. Now South African's don't even need a visa to enter Egypt and the entire country seems to know more about Bafana Bafana than I do.
After two weeks of warm welcomes throughout Egypt, I was again approaching the Sinai Peninsula. This time by boat, from Hurghada on the Egyptian mainland heading across the Gulf of Aqaba towards the southern tip of the Sinai and Sharm el-Sheik.
On board the ferry were the youth of the world, afloat on a sea of dreams and headed for thegood times of Dahab. After a turbulent five hour crossing, we passed close offshore Ras Mohammed, where the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal meet.
Ras Mohammed, proclaimed a marine national park in 1988, boasts some of the most spectacular coral reefs and scuba diving in the world.
The vivid blue of the sea and the coral shapes below blended strangely with the stark brown beauty of the desert. We arrived at Sharm el-sheik shortly after midday and after passing through customs, I took the first available taxi to Shark's Bay.
Riding through 'Sharm' and past the resort town of Na'ama Bay, I was shocked at the amount of development taking place.
The Sinai was under siege.
Everywhere one looked, hotels were being built. Cranes were working frantically and construction crews were hardly visible in the frenzied dust clouds. Piles of rubble lay scattered around.
Tourism seems set to take its toll along this beautiful stretch of coast. The beauty and attraction of the Red Sea has always been the pristine condition of the reefs and their colourful abundance of marine life. But in the last few years, signs of wear and tear have begun to show.
Significant areas of the fragile coral have been destroyed. Broken after being handled and tramped on by tourists and suffocated by construction litter and debris blown into the sea.
But worse is on the way.
An article in an Egyptian business magazine gives some frightening facts for the area's peace of mind.
There are currently just over 8 000 hotel beds in the Sharm el-Sheik area. But when all the current development is completed by mid 1998, that figure will have grown to 30 000. Another imminent problem is an influx of boats. Many hotels have been built along the beach, denying shore access to the majoirty of dive sites. Therefore many more boats are needed to ferry divers to the reefs.
With tourist numbers set to explode, many locals and businessmen fear that the area will become overdeveloped and overcrowded. The result - irreperable damage to the reefs that could jeopardise the main reason why tourists come to the Sinai in the first place.

Situated about 20 kilometres north of Sharm el-Sheik, Shark's Bay is, relatively speaking, untouched. Only one large hotel is currently under construction.
I checked into the Shark's Bay Resort, a Bedouin-style village with airy bamboo bungalows spread out across the reef-fringed crescent bay.
The sun was starting to sink and as I swam out for a quick snorkel, I was blessed by a truly humbling sight. Gracefully gliding through the blue, close enough to touch, a majestic manta ray eyed me inquisitively. I held my breath, wishing time would stand still. Then in a sudden flash of fins it was gone.
The underwater world at Shark's Bay is indicative of the wonders found all along the Red Sea coastline.
Rainbow worlds of coral and fish combine to take the senses to fairytale pleasure. All the reds and blues and yellows and greens. Fantastic fern forests provide an underwater playground for the Angelfish, Butterflyfish, Parrotfish and Wrasse.
I dived below the surface and stretched out with a weightless grace. Twisting around to watch giant bubbles from divers below fizz and float upwards in the watery light. Huge schools of tiny purple and red fish danced around me and a school of sleek blue snapper accepted me as their own.

The modern world is infiltrating the Sinai under many guises. Seventh Art, an open-air cinema, situated 25 kilometres into the desert from Sharm el-Sheik, was due to open in October.
"We're very excited about this as it's a first for the area," said French organiser Diynn Eadelh. "The seats and screen are in place and we're looking forward to opening night."
Their first screening  - Jurassic Park.
More monster development in the defenceless desert.

After languid days of intense water pleasure, it was time to head north. I joined a group in one of the notoriously fast service taxis and off we sped between the sand dunes and the sea.
Suddenly we were deposited in the heart of hippiedom.
Decadent Dahab is a throwback to the '60's - a laid back pleasure kingdom where revellers wake from the previous nights decadence and soak the psychedelic surrounds straight to the brain.
Such was the case with Kevin, an ex-Rhodesian who had been living in the desert and was planning to marry a 16-year-old Bedouin girl. Kevin had a rather dim view of the world.
"There's a war coming, I tell you man, there's a big war coming here soon. Millions of people are going to die. Me, I don't love anyone...except Jah," raved the turbanned oddball, bursting into tears and a Bob Marley song.
Anything goes in Dahab... and everything's easy to come by. Twenty years ago, 'Di Zahav", as it was then known, had one beach bungalow. Today, it has developed into the sex, drugs & rock 'n roll centre of the Sinai.
The big buzz in town was the upcoming Expand Your Mind Desert Rave. Techno history in the making.
"It's going to be amazing," said Caroline, an Aussie who worked in one of the dive centres. "Tickets have been selling all over Dahab, Sharm el-Sheik and Eilat. People are even coming from Tel Aviv and Cairo. The desert's going to rock like never before."
Two days later however, Caroline and crew were down in the dumps. The rave had been cancelled at the last minute - stopped by the Egyptian police, apparently due to political friction and violence with Israel.
"Theyconfiscated the organiser's passport and warned him that if he even had a party for 50 people at his home, he would be arrested," said Caroline bitterly.
 
Dahab is wall-to-wall bungalows and bohemian boutiques, restaurants and dive centres. Even a tattoe and body piercing parlour. With the recent tourist invasion, pollution has become a major problem. On several occasions I encountered sheets of packing plastic entangled in the shallow reefs. Baraka bottles lay like ugly landmarks on the seabed. In a Clean-Up using 60 divers, ten tons of litter, including plastic bottles, carpets and clothing, were removed from the sea.
"There is a lot of environmental ignorance among some people who live here," commented dive master and safari guide, Hesham Khalil. "They think it's only Dahab's nightlife that attracts people but it's also our beautiful reefs...and they need to be protected."
But away from the madding crowds, Dahab's coastline offers stunning underwater excursions. Nabil, the manager of my bungalow complex, took me out to two of the favourite, and most dangerous, dive sites.
First stop was the Canyon - notorious for it's treacherous underwater caves.
In January 1995, an English tourist died while diving here. Nabil's two closest friends went into the depths to recover the body. Neither were ever seen again. In their honour, Nabil arranged for a memorial stone to be sent from Cairo bearing their names and the message, 'The God will give them paradise.'
"I was a keen diver but since that day,I never go down again," he said, gazing sombrely at the stone.
The Blue Hole is a circular reef that drops vertically to great depths just metres away from the shore.
I floated over the edge and looked down into infinity. An unworldly calm came over me as I looked into blue nothingness. All around, shoals of striped fish seemed suspended in space. I watched in wonder as sunlight streaking down through the water lit up a moray eel while it snaked through coral crevasses in search of food.

Dinner that night was a treat. Bedouin-style chicken, covered by onions, sliced potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and herbs, cooked in foil directly over the coals. All washed down with numerous cups of delicious mint tea.
The full moon was high in the sky as we set out for our assault on Mount Sinai. After a midnight taxi drive into the heart of the desert, we arrived at Santa Katarina Monastery at 2am.
Hundreds of people were taking advantage of the bright night as the full moon cast a dazzling display over the desert. In the footsteps of Moses, we walked past the monastery and began the climb up the winding camel path.
The mountains glowed white in the biblical setting. Up ahead, the track twisted around grey valleys and luminous cliffs. Camel silhouettes shuffled upward and flashlights pricked the darkness below.
After a back-breaking final ascent up the dreaded Steps, we reached the summit, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandements. At an altitude of 2285m, we were exhausted and out of breath and sat down to await the coming of the dawn.
Those that had dosed off, slowly began to stir as the sky lightened. Soon, every available view point was taken and a silence descended on the wide awake crowd.
The moment was magical. Everyone held their breath as the weak sun peeked through the haze and crested a distant peak. Then a group of climbers burst into song.
After Dahab's decadence, it was time to move on to more mellow pastures. I had long harboured a dream to swim with a dolphin so early one morning, I set off with Hesham and others for Nuweiba.
Located just south of the town, Abdullah, a deaf and dumb fisherman, and Olina the dolphin have become a major drawcard for passing tourists.
Assuming ownership of Olina, Abdullah charges everyone $3 for the priviledge of a date with the dolphin. With the money accumulated over the years, he has bought hearing aids and is tentatively beginning to speak to visitors.
Legend has it that Abdullah first encountered Olina four years ago near Sharm el-Sheik. When he moved up coast, Olina followed and the two have been inseperable ever since.
"When I went to France for two weeks, she left the bay and only when I came back, did she return. She is my best friend," said Abdullah through an interpreter.
I entered the water, eager for my encounter with the gentlest creature of the sea.
After a few minutes, Abdullah gave a shrill whistle and suddenly there she was, swimming straight towards me.
Words cannot begin to describe the experience. A breathless laughter gurgled through my snorkel as the dolphin swam in lazy circles, belly-up and eyes closed, while we scratched her smooth stomach.
Freed from the earthly bounds of clumsiness, I glided with Olina alone. For a few magic seconds, I hugged her dorsal fin as she towed me into her watery playground. Then elated and out of breath, I reluctantly surfaced for air.

We stopped for lunch at Ein Fortaga, a small Bedouin settlement near the entrance to the Coloured Canyon. Nomadic Bedouin women draped in black tended their goats and prepared tea while the men smoked cigarettes and spoke amongst themselves.
In our 4x4, we left the road and headed into the barren desert landscape.
"This is probably the wildest jeep track in the desert," said Hesham, as lurched and slided to the edge of the canyon.
We hiked down the steep gorge and were soon surrounded by the silence of massive earth-red peaks. The canyon twisted and turned as we walked in deeper, dwarfed by the towering crags. In some places, we had to squeeze through gaps in the rock less than a metre wide. The rocks were turning a deep orange as we stumbled up the other side, thirsty and exhausted.

For my last few days in the Sinai, I headed for the peace and quiet of Ras Satan. Simple bamboo huts dotted the sand in a corner of the world where electricity has yet to strike.
After another salty day in the sea, I took an open air shower under a billion star sky. The dark veil of the universe studded my ceiling and shooting stars streaked through the Milky Way. Far away, glimmered the lights of Saudi Arabia.