AN article I read about the ritzy-glitzy new purpose-built resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera after I’d been said do
n’t go to Sharm for surfing, as hardly any wind blows: thus no surf.
Mother Nature obviously hadn’t read that piece, because for almost the whole week I was there, recently, a fresh breeze blew across the Gulf of Aqaba and surf was definitely “up” for those equipped.
Despite a constant mini-gale, the Red Sea and my hotel’s magnificent swimming pools were a tempting 20-22C, but getting out of the water could be a chilly experience, before finding a wind-sheltered, sun-spot.
Old Arabian Hands tut-tutted at this odd weather, even more so when Thursday dawned gunmetal grey, instead of a usual cloudless cornflower blue sky framing a golden sun. Even a spot or two of rain came on the stiff breeze.
“It hardly ever rains in Sinai . . . never in January!” commented one OAH. He’d said earlier, over a litre or two of icy Sakari draught lager, he’d soldiered in the region with the SAS and the Sultan of Oman’s forces and now taught scuba and snorkelling as a freelance (and probably illegally) to veal-pale skinned, soon to turn brick-red, northern European tourists. He’d done a couple of profitable stints in security in nearby Iraq, but decided that wasn’t his fight.
While awaiting the bugle call to some future (not too far distant, he hopes: tempus fugit) conflict, teaching leggy ladies from Lithuania, Latvia, London, Leeds or Las Vegas to dive, safely, on some of Sinai’s hundreds of historic shipping wrecks — craft that foundered or were sunk by enemies from Biblical days up until the new millennium — and also onto fish-teeming coral reefs isn’t a bad way of earning a none-too-stressed living.
Sea, sand and sun are the main attractions of Sharm and a handful of new tourist resorts strung between it, at the tip of the Sinai (it means “tooth” and the peninsula is shaped certainly like a tooth) and Taba at the northern extremity of the Gulf of Aqaba, where this Egyptian town lies, in the past very uneasily, next to Eilat, a beach resort and Israeli harbour opposite Aqaba, otherwise land-locked Jordan’s only port. In turn Aqaba is 17km from the Saudi Arabian frontier. In such “crazy corners” of the world are great espionage thrillers set.
To my amazement, travellers can now cross the Israeli border and back with a minimum of fuss, and it was from Taba we took a powerful catamaran passenger ferry across the Gulf to Aqaba, then on to Petra, the Lost City dating back to the sixth century BC in the Jordanian Desert, in a spectacularly scenic arid rift running between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.
Had we turned right instead of left, after passing currently the world’s biggest flag and tallest flagpole: marking the spot where Colonel TE Lawrence “Lawrence of Arabia” and Sharif Hussein Bin, great-grandfather of King Abdullah II, the newish Jordanian monarch, began the 1916 Great Arab Revolution, to drive the Ottoman Turks out of Arabia and speed the end of World War I, we would have hit Saudi Arabia in 20 minutes.
That is, of course, providing we weren’t waylaid at the multi-coloured Aqaba branch of McDonalds, for a non-Turkish coffee and halal Big Mac or Egg Macmuffin or whatever they specialise in.
It’s a sad fact that as you enter the gloriously pristine, gleaming clean Aqaba Marina, with squillion-dollar ocean-going craft from every corner of the globe moored, the first thing to catch your eye, after the violently, noisily flapping Revolution Flagpole, 132 metres high, with silk flag 20m x 40m – replaced every 10 or 12 weeks due to fading in the fierce sun and being torn by wind — is an outpost of the McDonalds Empire chain of disgusting burger joints.
Aqaba appears in both Testaments of the Bible, is mentioned in the Koran and the Talmud; the Ancient Greeks and Imperial Romans were there; the Crusaders fought Saladin there; Britain and her allies battled Napoleon’s army and navy; Britain and her Empire — including many troops from this part of the world — landed there in the WWI, which ended sooner, rather than later, as a result of a pact signed yards away; it has been bombed and blasted in Arab-Israeli Wars since 1947 and hasn’t escaped the attention of rabid, bloodthirsty Islamic fundamentalists: yet your eyes are automatically drawn to a garish McDonalds logo!
Next time I’ll outline some cultural and fun excursions to be enjoyed from Sharm el-Sheikh and Southern Sinai. I flew with Thomas Cook from Gatwick, but you can take Air Zimbabwe to Dubai and catch a connecting flight, or via Johannesburg or Nairobi and Cairo.