How deep is the Deep South of the Red Sea Well, Djibouti is about as far as you can go before you hit the Indian Ocean, and the fish grow big and abundant. But be warned, says John Bantin - its hotter than hell down there

Dont believe everything youre told. The Red Sea is a great part of the African Rift and Africa is a very big place. No-one would dispute that. But have you ever wondered how you can get to the Deep South or the Southern Red Sea by merely driving for a few hours south of Hurghada That would appear to be what a lot of dive operators promise.
     Well, I want you to know the truth. In 1992 I did a diving cruise of the entire length of the Red Sea. It took five and a half months.
     There now follows a brief geography lesson. The western shore of the Red Sea is bordered by some very spacious countries. Egypt is one, Sudan another, Eritrea a third. The east shore is bordered by the massive slab of territory that is Saudi Arabia, and at its southern end there is the Yemen.
     Now, Egypt apart, all these countries tend to present one problem or another for the visiting tourist. So it would be fair to say that Rocky Island and Zabargad, places that mark Egypts border with the Sudan, are probably the farthest south the casual holidaying diver can get, and thats not very far south at all.

Ive just been back to the Deep South. It took more than two hours after we passed Hurghada, and that was at 550mph in an A320 Airbus.
     My journey was to the tiny independent state of Djibouti, which sits surrounded by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia on three sides.
     Hey, that sounds a bit war-torn, I hear you say.
     Well, on its fourth side, Djibouti overlooks the strategically important Bab-el-Mendab Strait, the Gateway of Tears, the entrance to the Red Sea and the route to the Suez Canal. Djibouti is a French military base, hosting large numbers of spiky-looking NATO warships in its port. Ships with more crew than some countries have people, ships bigger than Heathrow.
     It is also a base for the Foreign Legion. Those are the blokes so barmy, so psycho, they got turned down by their own national armies. They make Millwall supporters look like the Salvation Army. When some bloke in a pick-up truck with a big gun mounted on the back unwisely turned up in Djibouti, his fall-out came down in the Gulf of Aden, and everyone has been driving round the hole left in the road ever since. So you could say that Djibouti is delightfully stable.

Djibouti may not be a hotbed of political unrest, but it is hot. And when I say its hot, I dont mean hot. I mean HOT.
     Lac Assal, at 157m below sea-level, is nicely out of the breeze. They say its the hottest place in Africa. It certainly is the lowest, and it is very salty indeed.
     You can visit it during a day of sight-seeing, to off-gas after a weeks diving. If you thought you were hot before, you can find out what its like to get hotter.
     The lake is in an area that was formed by volcanic action, and its still going on. It is in a vast area made up of black lava fields. The Earth moved for me. There are great cracks in its crust where Africas plate grinds against Asia.
     The Earth moves every day. You can see the new cracks that have appeared in the road since you arrived.
     The African Rift continues on through Djibouti, but I didnt go there to see cracks. I went to dive the Seven Brothers.
     No, not the Brothers, the two islands right up at the northern end of the Red Sea, in Egyptian waters. The Seven Brothers are formed by six islands and a headland that stretch across the mouth of the Red Sea from Djibouti, in sight of Aden. They are marked on the chart as the Sebre Islands and I got there on the liveaboard Savruga, a Turkish-built gulet motor/sailer.
     Our trip had a slight hiccup when it was announced, on our arrival, that the President of Djibouti was commandeering the boat for his own diving trip. It was a pity his functionaries had failed to tell him that the boat was already occupied by passengers, but he was very apologetic when he found out, and changed his plans immediately.

The six islands are named in Arabic, in the local Afar language, and in French. I will use English names. Theres Big Island, East Island, South Island, Boeing (because it looks like a semi-submerged 747), Red Island and Tolka. I gave up on a translation for Tolka.
     To get to the Seven Brothers takes a days sailing out through the Gulf of Tadjura, past Obock, the old capital. It usually takes a little longer, because its a shame to miss some of the other dive sites on the way.
     The wartime wreck of a Liberty ship lies on its side, coated with every species of Red Sea reef fish and its lower reaches disappearing into a thick planktonic soup. Talking of plankton, this is a breeding ground for whale sharks, and evidently there are numerous young ones to spot by the end of the year.
     The wreck of a dhow might be made of rapidly deteriorating wood but its cargo of pots and pans and futas (skirt-like wraps worn by the locals) provides useful additional income for some of Savrugas crew. Both wrecks provide homes for enormous quantities of fish. Or should I say quantities of enormous fish I saw one grouper that must have weighed-in at more than 300kg! With hordes of yellow pilotfish bouncing off its nose, and longer than I am tall, it could have sucked me into its maw in one watery gasp.

What strikes you about the diving here is not the variety of unusual species - after all, it is the Red Sea - but the number of any one species you see at a time. You dont spot a couple of yellowbar angelfish, you see 20. You dont see a single honeycomb moray, you see six sticking their heads out from holes in the coral.
     Super-male Napoleons arrive in gangs. There are rivers of river snapper. Black-spotted sweetlips pile up, waiting to be kissed. Blueline and blackspot snapper hover in hosts, in yellow clouds, sufficient to have made Wordsworth gasp. In fact some reefs seem bathed in yellow light from all the yellow fish, so dense are their populations. Blue red-tooth triggerfish are elsewhere in their billions.
     There are busy cleaning stations along each metre of reef, some for surgeonfish, others for batfish, each seductively changing colour to attract the attention of the cleaning wrasses. Scrawled filefish seem enormous and, of course, the ubiquitous titan and the inappropriately named yellowmargin triggerfish are active everywhere. The groupers are very cautious. They seem to know what happens in restaurants back in the city.
     Everything seems bigger than in the north, too, although there was no sign of the giant nudibranchs documented 10 years previously. Also missing are sharks. Being fewer than 20 miles from the Yemen means that the area has been hard hit by shark-finning boats.There are some other big animals, however.

On one dive, at the unimaginatively named Japanese Garden site at Big Island, I strove hard to get some good shots with my camera set for extreme-macro subjects, while a family of common dolphin hovered around me curiously, probably slightly confused that I made no attempt to capture their images.
     Whats he doing, mum asked one youngster.
     Hes trying to take a photo of that nudibranch, silly boy, was the reply.
     Yes, I was sick with disappointment too!
     Apart from the oceanic or ghost triggerfish that shoaled, wraith-like, around us in silvery hordes, there are few animals to be seen here that one might not see at the more often visited end of the Red Sea. Its the sheer quantity that is so appealing.
     And while you are looking at so many fish, it will occur to you that there are so few divers. Its an area that has yet to be discovered by the masses.

The Seven Brothers have not escaped the ravages of coral-bleaching. In some places the coral has died completely, but in others it is as vibrant as anywhere in the world, even with water temperatures that soar into the low 30s. Where the current strikes youll see reefs covered in soft corals, in hues that take your breath away.
     A few miles further north is the wreck of a freighter thats covered in black coral, only its white. Its like a winter scene. Its been like that for at least 10 years, so bleached coral does not necessarily die. Alas, we didnt get there this time but Im told its still the same.

Turkish gulets are turning up as dive boats all over the world. They are relatively inexpensive to purchase and are nice-looking vessels. Savruga is spacious as far as sailing vessels go, but it is not a broad-beam motor vessel. There are limitations of space in that there is only one engine and one generator, which needs to be rested from time to time.
     This means that there is no permanent air-conditioning and no fresh water-maker, so one must try to be abstemious with showers. With a base-line French clientele to service, the food has to be excellent, but it is not a sumptuously luxurious experience overall.
     A long, narrow, pirogue-style boat is used as an annexe boat for diving. It is fast, but not easy to get in and out of. It also proved quite difficult to load and unload, but thats the crews problem.
     Only one dive in the morning and one dive in the afternoon are offered, but in the heat of the summer, at least, thats all I could manage.

So how hot was it Well, it was so hot that the sweat hosed out of my brow and ran into my eyes. The tears from my eyes dripped off my nose. The drool from your lips ran down my chin. And I was only grateful that my knees stayed dry.
     The preparation of cameras took time and patience. I had to be careful not to drip into the housing. Chargers for ni-cads needed to be quick to take advantage of the short window of opportunity available with the electricity generating time. The co-operation of fellow-passengers was essential to getting in the water with photographic gear in good shape.
     But if you want to go to the Deep South of the Red Sea, a trip on Savruga can offer you that. Then, like me, you can become an insufferable bore with all those divers who merely make it to Zabargad and Rocky Island.

Soft corals at the Seven Brothers
Lac Assal - it
River snapper and yellowbar angelfish - at times yellow-coloured fish are profuse enough to lend a golden lighting effect to the reefs
Honeycomb moray
the wreck of a wartime Liberty ship is liberally covered in fish
looking down into the African Rift, where the Earth moves every day
The Savruga at sunset at the Seven Brothers
Want fish Take your pick - they are big and present in abundance at the Seven Brothers
yellowbar angelfish at a cleaning station
feeding station aboard the Savruga
a painted grunt


GETTING THERE John Bantin travelled from Paris on Daallo Airlines. The plane was a smart, spacious ex-Sabina Airbus with a Belgian crew and originates from Amsterdam on its way to Djibouti. The flight takes around seven hours. Connections to Paris from London cost around£100. An entry visa is available at Djibouti airport and costs US$28. Exit tax is $30.
DIVING & ACCOMODATION :Savruga is a twin-masted gulet motor/sailer 23m long with a 6.5m beam. It has accommodation for 16 passengers in eight twin cabins with en suite facilities. Meals, hot drinks and mineral water are included. A wide range of foods are served, including freshly caught fish. Soft drinks and alcohol are available but not included in the price. Satellite telephone for passengers use costs $3 per minute.
LANGUAGE: French is widely spoken and English is also spoken on-board Savruga.
WHEN TO GO: September to May. Water temperatures are 28-330C but a full lightweight suit is recommended as protection against stinging plankton.
MONEY: Euros and US dollars are widely accepted, credit cards are not. Djibouti has good but expensive money-changing facilities.
COSTS: The nine-night trip, including return flight from Paris, costs around£1300. It is organised by Belgian-based operator DiveAway Adventure Diving Holidays, 0032 50 61 17 85, or visit its website www. dive away.com