The Red Sea has long been noted as one of the best diving sites in the world. Being part of the Great Rift Valley, the sea is incredibly deep with a rich and varied sea-life. After obtaining my PADI Cert in Thailand’s dive mecca Koh Tao, being mesmerised by the kaleidoscopic coral of Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef and diving the Southernmost and Northernmost tips of the Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea was beckoning me. Whilst Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt has long been the undisputed King of Red Sea Diving, Aqaba with just 15 miles of coastline is thought to have more pristine coral due to the lesser numbers of dive traffic…….and the beautiful vivid reefs of colour is what my eyes wanted to see.
I waved goodbye to my riding companions and set off for Aqaba with my trusty driver Ibrihim. The journey from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea took a little over three dusty hours, the border with Israel remained heavily armed with a no man’s land of nothingness stretching between both countries. We caught rare glimpses of sparkling water and across the Gulf of Aqaba could spy Eliat in Israel. Aqaba itself was a town caught between two distinctly different facades that contrasted greatly……..cobbled streets hiding souks and souvenir shops, the fragrant pungent smell of spices competing with the greasy aroma of neighbouring Pizza Hut and Burger King, the haunting call of the Muezzin competing with the relentless din and drone of construction, the sound of progression. From a sleepy fishing village was emerging a five-star seaside resort.
I stayed on the South Coast, on the outskirts of town, 15kms past my hotel was the border with Saudi Arabia, to the North lay Syria and Lebanon. This area of Aqaba was developing fast, cranes as far as the eye could see and row upon row of luxury five-star resorts, but yet it was still very much in its infancy. My rucksack fell with a heavy thud, sprinkling the pristine white marble tiles with fine red dust, a reminder of the desert as I checked into the Radisson and was promptly shown to my room with a sea view shortly after. It wasn’t long before I found myself on the beach, trawling the wooden shacks for a dive shop, eager to fill my days with adventure and activity.
The first dive I did in Aqaba was from the shore, and the coral certainly did not disappoint, the sheer abundance and vivid colours had me enthralled and hypnotised. Diving for me is like entering a slightly meditative state, in the Underwater Kingdom everything moves at a slower pace, the breath slows, the body slows and the mind slows into a peaceful state of calm and bliss. Turtles, Napoleon Wrasse, frogfish and eels darted to and fro, performing acrobatics to the backdrop of an underwater rainbow. Next up was a wreck dive………..a ship had been specifically wrecked here especially for divers to experience and explore, and it was amazing although not as visually appealing as the previous dive there was an immense sense of adventure squeezing through windows and little rooms of the ship, you could almost imagine stumbling across buried pirate treasure.
Aqaba was a little slice of luxuriant paradise; I spent my days lazing under the golden glow of sunshine, the heat from its rays caressing my skin. I wandered through the cobbled streets and alley ways of the old town souks and bazaars, haggling over the prices of souvenirs, my mouth watering at the aroma of fragrant spices. I watched the sun dip behind the palm trees and melt into the sea………but I felt like I could’ve been anywhere in the world, each five-star hotel a carbon copy of another, there was no soul here and I missed the magic of the Desert, the sound of the lute and the explosion of stars in the night skies.
The Desert called and my gypsy heart answered. After five days of civilisation and luxury I grabbed my rucksack, boarded the bus and abandoned my five-star hotel to return to Wadi Rum, to strip my soul bare once again and to re-join my tribe, the Bedouin. For the next five days, I once again became the recipient of the Bedouins legendary hospitality and I truly immersed myself, I travelled from camp to camp with my Bedouin family, drinking sugary chai and eating whatever was offered. I once again galloped across the sandy expanse and learned about training racing camels. I camped beneath the giant sandstone rock faces, still warm from the heat of the day’s blistering sun. I sat around camp fires listening to songs and stories, myths and legends, not always understanding the Arabic tongue, but the language of smiles, laughs and hand gestures is universal. I danced and laughed with joy as the lightning forked across the night sky and the rain finally came, a vital gift from the skies for the Bedouin.
And once again the days passed too quickly and it was time to leave the desert and it’s people behind…………as the sun began to rise, ready to bear its relentless heat upon the shimmering sands, I cast one final look at the enigmatic desert and heard the whisper of goodbye on the wind.
Wadi Rum Desert Ride November 2009.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)
(Please note, the dive photos are not one’s I took myself, they are advertising from Aqaba Dive Centers. In 2009 I did not possess a waterproof camera or any type of water proof housing………even though only 8 years ago, photographic technology has made remarkable leaps and bounds towards accesibility since!)