Archive for Middle East
The problem with writing about all the wonderful places I’ve visited in 2012 is that I simply couldn’t do them justice in a single blog post. Instead, I’ve chosen my favourite photos I’ve taken this year.
I travelled to the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine for the Euro 2012 match between England and France. It was a beautiful summers day and I had time to look around the city and soak up the sun. The game was played in the Donbass Arena, a magnificent, modern football stadium. As it as the summer, there was still a hint of sunlight after the game and I was able to capture this photo.
Blue Dragon Nudibranch
In April, we took a family holiday to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, a place where I have dived many times before. I’m not sure what was different about this trip but I seem very tuned in to find different nudibranchs and slugs whilst I was diving. I found this Blue Dragon Nudibranch on the wreck of the Yolanda at the very tip of the Sinai.
Oslo Harbour is one of the main tourist areas of the city and is wonderful place to be during the long summer days. It is also the starting point for a number of short cruises around the many beautiful fjords and inlets.
There are some lovely towns and villages along the Suffolk coast. Aldeburgh is one of these places and although it is probably best known for its wonderful fish and chips the Scallop just to the north of the town has been the cause of discussion. This sculpture is dedicated to the composer, Benjamin Britten who used to walk along this stretch of beach. Some people think it should be taken down as it is inappropriate for a man made object along such a beautiful setting.
I’ve been spending a bit of time in Liverpool recently and although the city is the butt of a number of jokes, parts of the city are absolutely wonderful. One evening I took the opportunity to head over to the Wirral on the other side of the River Mersey and took this picture of the Liverpool skyline at night. It shows the iconic towers of the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building, the Port of Liverpool Building, the Echo Area and in the distance, the Anglican Cathedral.
Avebury Stone Circle
The stone circles in the Wiltshire village of Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe and is one of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain. It dates back to 2,600BC during the Neolithic period and today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I wasn’t sure whether to include a second underwater picture but I really like this picture of a Titan Triggerfish. These fish can grow up to 70cm long and are sometimes incredibly agressive. I’ve been attacked by them a few times although luckily, I’ve never been bitten. The thing I like about this picture is I was able to get so close to it head on.
Positioned in the North East of the Sinai, Taba Heights is a private resort centred all round an 18 hole PGA standard golf course. It’s position on the foothills of the mountains offers remarkable views over the Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan and Saudi Arabia just 6 miles away. The location together with the fact it doesn’t get crowded makes Taba Heights among the most beautiful places in Egypt.
With over three miles of natural beaches there are plenty of secluded places offering excellent snorkelling opportunities. Dive boats head out from the international marina daily and there are a number of shops and places to eat in the area beside the El Wekala referred to as the Uptown. Weekly in Uptown, there is a street festival where guests and residents come together for an evening of entertainment. For anyone staying in the hotels down the sea front, complimentary buses operate shuttling people around the resort.
A variety of hotels are dotted round the golf course making this a wonderful desert setting. The 5* hotels are situated alongside the beach and further up the hills at the highest point of Taba Heights is the 4* El Wekala Golf Resort. It’s an all-inclusive hotel that also has its own section of beach with a bar and pool. There is also a Dine Around Privilege allowing guests to sample the dinner at various restaurants in different hotels in Taba Heights.
The holiday resort is a superb base to explore the surrounding area in addition to excursions to Eilat and Jerusalem in Israel and the spectacular Petra in Jordan. For all those unwilling to travel too far, St Catherines Monastery is a renowned trip and this can be coupled with a trip to the casual resort of Dahab.
For those seeking to explore the coral reefs, there are choices for scuba divers and snorkellers as well. Farun Island (or Pharoahs Island) is a common spot for boats with both snorkellers and divers. There’s an ancient fort on the island built by the Saracen Salahdin during the time of the Crusades. The excursions all leave from the harbour and for divers, there are many outstanding sites suitable for all abilities of scuba diver presenting an amazing array of marinelife. For now, Taba Heights is still a rather unknown gem in the Sinai however with so much to offer holidaymakers it is becoming more and more successful.
On a recent diving trip to Taba in the Gulf of Aqaba, I took literally hundreds of photos underwater as I normally do. There were plenty of the normal suspects such as clownfish, moray eels and lion fish and I was able to identify all of them….except one.
Some of the dive sites in Taba have expands of sea grass and they are fantastic for finding lots of little creatures that live there. Its also a good reason why when you are diving on such sites that its no problem to crash onto the sea bed. It was here that I spotted a little slug which was about an inch long (2.5cm) and I managed to get a good clear picture of it.
One of the other divers had a laptop and we managed to get the image on the screen in between dives to get a good look at it. However, we checked a couple of marine guides and the dive guides had never seen it before. When I returned to the UK, I searched the internet trying to identify it but to no avail.
One possibility is that is a juvenile slug which has not yet developed its adult colours. It is common in the marine world for juveniles and adults of the same species to have very different markings.
I did see a number of Ceylon Gymnodoris and I’m starting to wonder if the little slug I took a photo of is a juvenile.
I’d be interested to know what you think and if you could identify my little mystery slug, that would be even better.
These are just two photos I took in Taba and you can see the entire collection from my diving trip on my Flickr page;
Taba, Egypt in April 2011
One of the many interesting places to visit on a day trip from the seaside resorts in the Sinai is St Catherine’s Monastery. This UNESCO site lies right in the centre of the Sinai Peninsula high up in the mountains and dates back to the 5th century. The story of St Catherine is that she was a Christian from Alexandria. Her father had raised her as a pagan but as well as converting herself to Christianity, Catherine also converted among others, a Roman emperor’s wife. According to the story, after her death angels transported Catherine’s body to Mount Sinai and it is her that the Monastery was established and it is the oldest working Christian Monastery in the world. Around 25 monks live there and Orthodox pilgrims are able to stay overnight here.
If you plan to visit the St Catherine’s, you need to be aware that it is only open for a few hours in the morning. At midday, it closes its doors and visitors aren’t allowed in. However, this isn’t a problem as a number of excursions arrive here around 2am. This allows people to take the 3hr climb up the footpath to the top of Mount Sinai to see the spectacular sun rise. After that, they descend and visit the Monastery.
There are a number of little shops around the car park and visitors are swamped by people trying to sell books and all sorts of souvenirs. The walk up to the Monastery from the car park is a couple of hundred yards but you do have the option to ride a camel up there. The slope isn’t too challenging so we chose to walk. As it turned out, the biggest problem was a series of locals trying to sell us books and other assorted tat.
The Monastery itself its fascinating, Inside the main building you will find a typical Orthodox place of worship with numerous icons. Photos may not be taken inside the Monastery building and both men and women are required to cover legs and arms out of respect when entering. Once outside, you can see the ‘Burning Bush’ which is mentioned in the Bible and to be on the safe side, there is a fire extinguisher next to it. After the tour of the St Catherine’s is over, it is recommended that you make the short climb up the hill opposite to get a wonderful panoramic view of the Monastery and gardens.
Excursions to St Catherine’s operate most days from the resorts of Taba, Nuweiba and Sharm el Sheikh. There are variations on the itinerary to suit with some leaving early to see the sun rise while others depart just after breakfast and also include a visit to Dahab for something to eat and a bit of shopping.
Located at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, Taba is one of the lesser visited diving areas of Egypt and although it doesn’t get the larger life such as sharks and manta rays, the dive sites offer a colourful and diverse selection of marine life.
One of the great things about diving in Taba is that there are only a few dive boats operating so often you will be the only people at the dive site which is in striking contrast to Sharm el Sheikh a couple of hundred miles away at the southern tip of the Sinai. Although the diving is superb in Sharm, the number of boats at popular sites like Jackson Reef or Shark & Yolanda means that it does get quite busy underwater.
The dive sites around Taba Heights don’t take long to get to which means there is usually the option of a 3rd dive of the day…never a bad thing !! The site that attracts most boats is Farun Island (aka Pharoah’s Island). There is an old fort and lookout post on the island built during the times of the crusades by the Saracen Saladin who was the great rival of Richard the Lionheart. As well as being a popular dive site, it is also the destination for snorkelling trips. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely setting and an easy site to dive.
Taba is a paradise for underwater photographers. The sites are generally quite shallow and there is a superb array of marine life just waiting to be captured on film (or more likely, on memory card). One of the more unusual creatures found in the area is the Frogfish. It is a type of Anglerfish, has a face only a mum could love and is fairly immobile. They are ambush predators and an attack can be as fast 6 milliseconds. Their mouths move so fast that no other animals can see it happen.
Other marine life that can be found in Taba includes a number of species of Moray eel, colourful nudibranchs as well as the ever popular clownfish, lionfish, sea stars and shrimp. The one thing that isn’t allowed in Taba is night diving. This is due to the fact that it is so close to the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel so dive boats aren’t allowed to operate at night. It’s a real shame as there is no doubt that night dives in Taba would be as spectacular as diving during the day.
For several days in late 2010, the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh was in the spotlight as a number of shark attacks in between Middle Gardens and Ras Nasrani struck fear into travellers. Four travellers were injured and a 5th was killed. It was the first deadly shark attack in Egypt for a year and the 1st in Sharm for 6 years.
As with any shark attack anywhere worldwide, there is mass hysteria. The authorities shut beach locations and diving operations though some holidaymakers still ventured into the ocean. It was not very long before two sharks were caught and exhibited the world as the ones to blame. However, the Oceanic White Tip to blame for one attack was photographed by scuba divers and had different markings in comparison to the one that was captured.
Just as unexpectedly as the attacks started, they ended. Shark gurus had travelled to Sharm from just about all over the globe to try to explain what actually transpired. The behaviour definitely wasn’t natural which means the only real conclusion was that some sort of man-made intervention was to blame.
In more distant parts of the Southern Red Sea, shark feeding really does happen though it is illegal. A much more likely conclusion was that the boat carrying live sheep to Saudi Arabia threw dead livestock into the sea. The busy shipping channels close to the Straits of Tiran aren’t far away from the place where the shark attacks happened.
In reality, the reasons may never be known but things have to be kept in perspective. Though shark attacks are horrific, they are extremely rare. In contrast, three tourist coach crashes in October, November and December took an overall total of 22 lives yet still received relatively little coverage. Gratefully, tourism in Egypt is very strong and it has recovered powerfully in the aftermath of a number of tragedies. Sharm el Sheikh is Egypt’s most well liked holiday destination and will definitely be going strong in 2011.
While there is no doubt excellent value to be found in the Red Sea, a lot of people do get annoyed with a few of the prices of package holidays from the different United Kingdom airports. There is outstanding value to be stumbled upon in the stores, pubs and restaurants in the various resorts combined with the fantastic year round temperatures, are just some of the reasons why The Red Sea is such a favourite choice.
The key trouble is that there are simply not enough flights to Egypt and this allows prices to remain higher than other popular European destinations. Granted that The Red Sea does fall into a more expensive APD (Air Passenger Duty) zone than European destinations but the flight costs dictate where you will get your holiday to Egypt for a good price or not.
When talking about flights to The Red Sea, we are talking about the main tourist destinations of Sharm and Hurghada. Both of these international airports serve quite a few resorts and even though there are flights from the Britain into Cairo, Taba and Marsa Alam, the most popular international airports are Sharm and Hurghada.
As with any travel arrangements, when attempting to save money, overall flexibility is the main factor. Egypt is an enormously popular place for families so school holidays, costs and availability can be a major problem. Wherever possible, try and travel in term times. Historically, most of the cheapest flight prices are in mid January with flight prices from 150GBP each. Coupled with low hotel rates, it is possible to tailor make a holiday for just with 220GBP (based on 2 sharing) but this naturally depends on the grade of accommodation and board basis.
The most expensive times of year are Christmas / New Year, Easter and August so if you are looking for a cheap Red Sea holiday and are flexible with your travelling dates, look to steer clear of these busy times.
Port Ghalib is merely 10 minutes from Marsa Alam airport and it is a resort with major aspirations. Found on the Red Sea in Southern Egypt, the blueprint is create a world class integrated resort community. The centre piece of Port Ghalib will be the marina that will be capable of handling over 1,000 boats.
It’s also well-known to scuba divers who fly here to catch their liveaboards that head out from from Port Ghalib and Emperor Divers work from the Marina Lodge at one of the best hotel/diving setups you can wish to come across anywhere on the planet. The unspoilt reefs give you some fantastic scuba diving along the coastline with the popular Elphinestone Reef towards the south being a very popular scuba diving destination.
Port Ghalib is also making its mark in the entertainment world. In 2009, Beyonce performed here as part of her “I am…” tour. It was the very first time the superstar had performed in Egypt or the Middle East and her appearance was very successful. Attracting world superstars like Beyonce underlines the ambition of Port Ghalib to make their name known around the earth. All the same, it is not likely that personalities like Beyonce will be at Port Ghalib each and every week although there are still other things for visitors to do if they want a bit of adventure to relaxing in the sunshine.
As stated, Port Ghalib is a departure point for quite a few of the southern Red Sea liveaboard cruises. Day boats also operate from Port Ghalib with Emperor Divers who are located in the Marina Lodge hotel. There are a number of brilliant dive sites up and down the shoreline from Marsa Alam and unlike the more well known resorts of Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh, there are very few dive boats in the area hence nearly always your party will be the only people at the dive site. Abu Dabab is a favourite shore dive destination at the Sol Y Mar hotel towards the south. Many people come in to find the turtles feeding on the sea grass and if they are fortunate, the resident Dugong will also turn up. Abu Dabab is rather shallow consequently snorkellers can also come along as well.
For non-divers, an array of water sports is available or you’re able to only spend the days sun bathing. Tours are also available to Luxor, Cairo, the historical town of El Quseir or even a camel trading market.
Cairo is an extremely engaging city not just because the River Nile is found there, its also really popular for its shops yet there are other reasons exactly why people pick Cairo as a holiday destination. The city is most well known for having the oldest preserved empire structures including the Three Pyramids and the Sphinx. Its famous because of its age-old attributes and specifically the Pyramids. There are thousands of holidaymakers who take in Cairo every week.
In order for you to relax then as expected there are plenty of eating places and they generally include the evening entertainment, its quite interesting seeing people dance their customary movements. There are a substantial number of retailers, hotels and even spa treatments consequently should you be one of the folks that would love to treat themselves then you know who to ask for additional information about this. A lot of people like the sunshine hence as rapidly as they get to the place they use pools. Why pools? Well here is an reason, a number of hotels in Cairo now offer sea water in their pools instead of the stinky chlorine and i think that’s a fabulous idea.
Also perhaps you might know that Egypt is a Muslim country and starting at 6 o’clock each and every morning those who believe in their faith pray 5 times daily. Thus there is a Mohamed Ali Mosque which is the emblem of Cairo. It’s called that because there was a man called Mohamed Ali (1769 – 1849) who had been born in Cavalia, Greece and was of Albanian source. He had been a soldier in the army that had been sent to The Red Sea to liberate the country from Napoleon’s occupation. Consequently in the end he helped to liberate the country and today people pray for him.