I would rather have a passport that grants me access to all the places that Joel’s passport allows him to go. I would rather not have to pay all of that $$$ for every visa I need to get; I would rather not have to gather all the bank statements and hotel bookings and proof of insurance and all the rest; I’d rather pass up on the stress of going to the application appointment to endure a string of what feels like criminalising questions; I’d rather forget about all the third-party visa agencies that couldn’t care less about you or your passport; I’d rather not have to go to my home country at the southern tip of Africa every time I want to get permission to go somewhere. BUT…NOTHING beats the feeling of relief and joy and pure unadulterated excitement when you are handed back your passport with a brand crispy new visa in it. Which is why I was especially excited to go back to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.
(Not visa-free, but a free visa for South Africans, woohoo!)
We got our Advanced diving license in Sharm two years ago, and we haven’t been in clearer waters anywhere else in the world since then. It is incredible – like almost not even credible, it is so crazy clear. And ever since then we have been dying to go back to this blue universe.
Well, we are in between jobs and degrees and homes – so…no better time than now, right?
Sharm el Sheikh, the town
Sharm el Sheikh sits on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, flanked by the red sea and sheltered by the Sinai Mountains that rise dramatically from the dust. We love it here. Joel has bragged about Sharm el Sheikh so much to his family that his dad now jokingly refers to it as Caramel Shake (pronounced the American way – it’s better). But you’d probably be surprised if you showed up in town, thinking: “….this is what they have been raving about???”
It’s a strange little town, actually. Before the 1960s it was sparsely populated by Bedouins living in shacks and tents in the shade of the mountains, and some fishermen drawing life from the sea. And then like a mushroom in the night, it became a thriving resort city for Israelis and Russians. But it’s half empty now, tourism has tanked after a plane got shot down about three years ago, with closed down restaurants, mall and hotel construction sites stopped mid-way. Salespeople who moved their lives here when it was booming have little to do and are particularly aggressive. Shisha lounges line the street with no customers. So now it’s a sparse, flat town lining the bays with faded Russian signage and lush resort hotels. An Arabic twilight zone where all the Egyptians can speak not only Arabic and broken English, but fluent Russian or Polish or Italian. Actually, we were almost always at first approached in Russian before we told them we are from South Africa. It’s strange place.
But we don’t love it for its town.
Sharm el Sheikh, the back country
It’s more than just a neglected tourist town – the majestic mountains are rich to explore and the sun sets in a red ball of glory every night behind them. In fact, one of our favourite travel experiences ever was climbing Mount Sinai in the dead of the night for the golden sunrise. This time we took off on ATVs just behind the main town, Naama Bay, to kick up some dust and chase some storks. We yelled our names into ‘Echo Mountain’ with a bunch of Arabic tourists, and waited for the mountains to yell it back to us. Tourism has picked up a lot since we came here two years ago, when the Hilton was so empty we could have had our names echoed back to us in the foyer, so it was nice to get out of the crowded resort.
Sharm el Sheikh: Affordable Luxury
Honestly we also like Sharm because it is cheap. We stayed all-inclusive at the Hilton for 70EUR a night, in a huge ocean-view room. A beautiful resort with multiple pools and spectacular snorkelling right from its private beach. Also, we just came from the Philippines, where we roughed it for 10USD a night, where power cut out and toilets didn’t flush and fans didn’t really do it for us at night in the 90% humidity or whatever it was. So when we arrived in Sharm it was a power shot of ultra super duper luxury, and we welcomed it with open arms!
Sharm: Gate to the Red Sea
But mostly we love Sharm el Sheikh because the diving is out of this world. The water is a colour of blue that gets you every time, the visibility is 15 meters on a bad day, but 30 meters most of the time, and the conditions are always mint. Sharm el Sheikh has something like 364 days of sunshine a year. And in this case, a sparsely populated town with a dwindling tourist industry is perfect. Less people in the water means healthier sea life. Plus, it’s got one of the top-ten dive sites in the world in the Ras Mohammed National Park – Shark & Yolanda, where we got to descend in the open blue, with the Shark Reef wall dropping hundreds of meters into the darkness below, and explore the Yolanda wreck with toilets and bathtubs and basins strewn about at a shallow end a few meters away. There is no place for reef diving and visibility like the Red Sea at the tip of the Sinai peninsula.
Sharm to Cairo
And when we got all the diving out of our system, we decided to do something a bit crazy. Joel has never seen the pyramids before, so I convinced him we should go to Cairo for a day. It’s crazy because we would leave at midnight on a bus from Sharm, get to Cairo at 8am, do all the stuff, leave there at 3pm, get back at midnight (if there aren’t delays or traffic!!!), fly from Sharm to Istanbul at 3am, fly from Istanbul to Oman at 9pm.
Three continents, two days.
We did it.
We were exhausted.
But we did it, we survived the surprisingly crowded Egyptian Museum after no sleep and no breakfast. We fell asleep only for a minute on the Nile cruise. We managed to convince all of the Papyrus sales people that I already bought one 15 years ago and don’t need another kitschy papyrus with my name in hieroglyphs. WE SURVIVED THE PYRAMIDS. We posed for every dumb photo they made us pose for until we had to be rude about it. We managed to completely evade the sales people in the perfume shop. We skipped the bus ride back and bought tickets online with Air Egypt from Cairo to Sharm. We made it to the airport in time. We realised we didn’t actually have tickets. We bought tickets again. We flew back to Sharm with plenty of time to catch our flight to Istanbul.
It will now forever be known as the craziest 48 hours of travel we have ever done, until, God forbid, we do something crazier. We spent valuable time on three continents in two days.
By the end of it – when we finally arrived back in Sharm el Sheikh – we were so ready to move on and get out of Egypt. We were so ready to say goodbye to the busy resort luxury in Sharm and usher in a time for early quiet mornings of camping on the beaches of Oman for a month. So we checked in, checked our backpacks right through to Muscat, even though we were still to spend a day in Istanbul, and took off right out of there on my window seat.
Sayonara Sharm. That’s a wrap from us.