by Joyce Carta
I stayed at Nesima Resort in the heart of Dahab, a city whose name means “golden” in Arabic. It’s primarily a dive hotel as Dahab is primarily a dive destination. However non-divers, even non-snorkelers, would be charmed by Dahab. It’s local flavor blends resolute Bedouin independence with the panache of seascapes bordered by the fierce Sinai mountains topped off with a waterfront full of curiosity shops, crafts and tented, fire-lit seafood eateries. Where Sharm El Sheikh is somewhat sophisticated and studded with its share of 5 star lodgings, Dahab offers something closer to an authentic Middle East trade crossroads. A different attitude, a different pace of life.
At breakfast at Nesima I spoke with a mixed group of German and British divers who’d just completed 10 days of “diving perfection” as they put it. Despite chilly temperatures and with the aid of 5 mil wetsuits they reported large varieties of fish, big fish and healthy corals. They raved about the unique “Camel Dive” experience, which in the course of their 10 days, they’d done twice, once north of Dahab and once south. The “Camel Dive” was the experience I was about to simulate, without the dive part, that is – and everything I’d ever heard or read about it promised that this was like no other experience you could ever hope to have.
I had contracted with “Radwan,” a Bedouin entrepreneur who would supply the transport to the camel, the camel itself, guiding and answers to the dozens of questions I knew I’d have. The morning was spectacular, clear and fresh. “Wicked,” according to Radwan, who’d picked up more than a little British slang in his time.
It was 8:45 AM and we’re off. Through tiny streets we traveled north out of Dahab in his rattling but reliable Mazda 4X4 truck, past all kinds of new construction…dive hotels coming everywhere. Dahab is growing north and south, fueled by the dive trade with a minimum amount of casual tourists passing through. We crossed the checkpoint where my name and nationality was duly recorded and then drove off onto a road that puts Kenya’s worst to shame. Winding, rocky, dusty. We picked up some kids, mostly girls en route to sell trinkets to the tourists up the coast. They piled into the back of Radwan’s Mazda truck – after camels, the vehicle preferred by Bedouins. We picked up a young and old woman with a small Downs Syndrome little girl who smiled and waved at me through the rear window for 20 minutes. She’s a lucky little girl; she’ll always have a family who’ll care for her.
We arrived at the Blue Hole, a famous Dahab dive site, where I met my four-footed transport and saddled up. Bedouin saddles are not for the bony and sitting astride guarantees inner thigh ache. On the other hand, the crooked leg over the withers seat Bedouins prefer guarantees that one or the other foot will fall asleep. Pick your poison. We began the trek, me riding and Radwan walking behind clicking and talking continuously to his camel (“Har-EEB, Har-EEB” – “GO, GO”) for an hour and a half. Radwan, the poet, describes his people to me:
Strong like the desert,
Soft like the sea,
Walk like the wind,
On true dive treks the camels transport divers and all their gear over these same paths. We passed spectacular rock formations, tiny rest huts at the dive sites along the way and the deep turquoise/lapis Red Sea. The camel knew his work and knew his path and never put a wrong foot over the sharp rocks. Bedouins use male camels for transport; they live 15 – 30 years, seem to eat a few handfuls of whatever comes their way and drink nothing…at least nothing that I saw. At one rough patch he swayed himself to the ground so I could get off and walk it…too hard for him to balance the load and find his footing at the same time.
The tide was coming in looking fast and we three were along in the world. Radwan sang to the camel, answered my questions in very passable English (one of 7 languages he can manage in) and we continued through some of the most beautiful desolation on earth. We took the route north to the end, to Ras Abu Gallum.
A settlement had sprung up to serve the divers – Bedouin people with carved features and mocha skin, beautiful children. I was singled out immediately by little “Fatma” who turned somersaults from my knees, flipping over to the ground. Adorable, but with runny mucous eyes. The interior flies in her hut were the reason. I met her male relatives, all friends of Radwan, met her mother, who may have been 30 but looked 50, a sister, a 1 year old and a newborn who nursed loudly as the flies buzzed. I took tea with them, hot, sweet and satisfying. Bedouin tea with a bit more zing, mint I think, than the typical Egyptian variety (which frequently, amazingly, is Lipton’s!).
Radwan, who’d walked the whole way I rode, wanted to rest, pray and eat. I had decided to save my appetite for a waterfront fish dinner so I declined lunch. On the dive camel treks lunch is a Bedouin barbeque, usually fish, prepared on the beach by the camel boys as the divers rest during their surface interval. It must taste absolutely delicious.
There was so much to explore. I walked up the beach, chatting with the few Westerners about (this is very low season), entertained by the children and just basked in the end of the world feeling the place emits. I visited the “rest room” (definitely not for the nasally sensitive and would have been an appetite spoiler if I’d had one)…BUT…it had a door. Of course the door didn’t close but personal business privacy was respected.
I had an up close look at a camel saddle resting on the ground and it is exactly what it felt like – a triangle of wood topped with a blanket that does nothing to cushion. The sand had a mica sheen, tiny diamonds exposed by the sea’s crushed granite. I spoke with a few divers and got the same raves I’d heard at Nesima. Phenomenal clarity, healthy coral, huge fish, morays, crocodile fish, lionfish and more. I wandered up the rock trail, watching 2 kids launch a row boat I doubt if a full grown male tourist could have moved.
And then it was time to head back. My camel had finished whatever was in his snack sack, Radwan had completed his noon prayers and meal and we said our goodbyes. But not before little Fatma finagled me out of 20 Egyptian pounds for 3 beaded necklaces. I knew I was being totally ripped off and loved every minute of it.
Strong, soft, walking with the wind and forever free – or at least until we regained the truck at the Blue Hole. I was sorry to see it end but I’m sure my back will be relieved. The 8” high pommel and cantle horns, while essential for stability in the camel mounts and dismounts, also penalized you ferociously for bad posture. On the way back the “Radwan taxi” was again in service, giving a bed full of little kids an easy way back to Dahab. We passed young and old women in the shallows, low tide now, fishing for octopus with sharp sticks. Back through the checkpoint, my name dutifully crossed off, we returned to civilization.
But part of me will always be north of Dahab, free forever, like the wind, like the desert, like the Bedouin. Thank you, Radwan, for this day.