RED SEA DIVING BORES WILL TELL YOU how they used to travel along the shores of the Sinai with the Bedouin in their Jeeps, sleeping under the stars and envious of those who had had the foresight to bring a woolly hat.
Fresh water was at a premium, so little washing was done. You either washed
in your own urine or the salt from the seawater simply dried in crusts and fell off, helped with a little rub-down with a handful of sand.
Ablutions were made behind a convenient rock if you could find one, and you rarely found one that hadnt been found before. Comfortable it was not, but at least it was eco-friendly!
The Israelis introduced some luxury while they possessed the Sinai. They introduced dive-camps with facilities such as tents, electricity made with mobile generators, field kitchens and eating areas, and dive-shade areas improvised from sticks and rushes. They introduced the deep-drop toilet, and set a standard that has been emulated since.
So when dive-camps were set up along the southern shores of Egypts Red Sea in the 1990s, it wasnt surprising that Egyptian operator Red Sea Diving Safari went for something similar.
Camps were established at Marsa Shagra, Marsa Nakari and Wadi Lahami, offering tented accommodation, regular wholesome meals, somewhere shady to kit up, communal showers and as much unescorted shore-diving as required.
Perhaps it still smacked of a hardship posting, but in a land that was little else but desert, the only other choice was to be permanently boat-based.

TODAY, THINGS ARE DIFFERENT. The dive camp at Marsa Shagra, around 10 miles north of Marsa Alam, sits cheek by jowl with big resort hotels such as the Kahramana. The tents are still available and popular, but the camp has grown.
Now the management feels it necessary to offer more permanently built accommodation, in the form of little brick-built chalets or madyafa, with en-suite facilities. Some even have air-conditioning.
They have done something similar at Marsa Nakari, 10 miles south of Marsa Alam, and at Wadi Lahami, 100 or so miles further south, where the dive-camps maintain their remoteness.
However, as development of the Red Sea Riviera carries on apace, it is likely that they too will soon enjoy the loud music emanating from possibly less eco-friendly resorts close by.
So why would you want to stay at an eco-village, rather than at a comfortable hotel or on a boat At the end of her holiday I asked Yvonne Lode, a nurse and diving instructor from Dorset, and a Red Sea diving veteran, why she had returned to Marsa Shagra with her friend Di for a repeat diving holiday.
Ive found both trips to be cheaper than a liveaboard, she told me. This last was my 15th trip to the Red Sea and these have been mostly on liveaboards, so I can compare a little.
Generally I find the eco-village more relaxed, too, because you can make your own schedule. You wake up when you want to, and go diving when its convenient.
Yvonne said she could think of few downsides. I love the scruffy, laid-back nature of the place and I love the tents. Theyre remarkably comfortable, and Im known to like my creature comforts.
For example, I now loathe and detest Sharm, which is a shame because some of the local dive sites are beautiful, but Sharm itself, and Naama Bay in particular, is a nightmare.
Who needs grass and mosquitoes in the desert It will be a victim of its own success, if it isnt one already.
The nitrox fills at Shagra were pretty good compared to those on the liveaboards I know, and I always got near as dammit spot on 32% every time.
The shared facilities were absolutely spotless, and I cant fault the shower-blocks or loos. It was mostly empty when we were there this time, so we had them almost to ourselves. I honestly cant think of many criticisms, otherwise I wouldnt have gone back.
Both the Marsa Shagra and Marsa Nakari eco-villages offer several ways to dive. You can choose to make unlimited dives along the house reef from the shore, or arrange to get a lift out by RIB, and to get picked up later when you surface, too. Naturally, you can do this at your own convenience.
Longer RIB rides from Shagra need to be booked, but they take you to places such as the famous Elphinstone Reef, which has all the features of a Red Sea offshore reef, and is famous for oceanic whitetip shark encounters, but in sight of the mainland.
Or you can take the long ride to places such as Ras Abu Dabab.

THE OTHER OPTION IS TO GO on a truck and shore-dive elsewhere, including the marsa or bay at Abu Dabab. This is a unique place that has an inauspicious little reef but a vast area of seagrass that is home to numerous huge green turtles, complete with magnificent remoras carried on their shells.
Youll also get the chance to see several curiously shaped guitarfish, mimic octopuses and, of course, the now famous lonesome dugong or sea-cow (This Dugong Dont Care, November 2008). There is a hotel and resort now built at the bay, so you have to share the water with a lot of swimmers and snorkellers, but its still a great dive.
Because the Marsa Shagra Eco Resort runs the diving there, its guests can get permission to dive there, too.
Marsa Nakari has some nice rarely visited reef pinnacles and habilis nearby, and you can also dive the wreck of a freighter that ran aground a few years ago. On the way there by truck, they stop off to brief you on the dive by using the very real visual aid of a similar freighter high and dry on the shoreline.
Shaab Samadi (Dolphin House), another gem, lies just off Nakari, with beautiful soft and hard corals growing in caves and caverns. Again, diving the house reef allows you to do your own thing as and when you like.
Wadi Lahami is a long way further south, and only a few miles short of the great headland of Ras Banus. It is set in a huge and shallow bay thats ideal for kite-surfing, though as yet the kite-surfers have not really discovered it.
Kite-surfers stay up late and like to drink and dance, whereas divers tend to go to bed and rise early and are not such party animals. There is no natural synergy between the two groups, so time will tell.
At the moment divers have the dive-camp at Wadi Lahami very much to themselves. Its run by Ross, an archetypal western Australian, who has been there for years. I asked him if he was on an FBI witness-protection programme. He said Australia doesnt have the FBI. Hes been away too long!
When the tide drops, the bay can be very shallow indeed, and it can be a
long and uncomfortable walk out to water deep enough for the waiting
RIBs, or back the other way on returning from diving.
I recommend that everyone wear boots for this. Many years ago, I picked up an infection in a tiny cut in my ankle while wading out here. This saw me in hospital many months later with all sorts of frightening propositions being discussed by the medical men.
Fast twin-engined RIBs that can carry up to 10 divers each travel out to dive sites in pairs. RIB rides tend to be much longer from Wadi Lahami than from the other camps, and usually visit the dive sites of Fury Shoals.

I FOUND IT IRONIC that I was doing dives here that I had done so often from liveaboard dive-boats, but this time with the dubious benefit of well-pummelled buttocks from the long and exhilarating journey. The reef, with its forlorn wreck of a sloop and the wreck of the tugboat Tien Hsing at Abu Galawa are favourites, along with Shaab Mansour and Sataya (also known as Dolphin Reef).
Because there are fewer people at the Nakari and Wadi Lahimi camps than at Marsa Shagra, those that stay there are more likely to bond as a group. Meals are limited to those found on an average liveaboard, whereas Marsa Shagra has a huge dining room and buffet akin to any found in a typical Egyptian hotel.
But are these camps really eco-friendly Alas, I believe it is a marketing hook on which the owners, confronted by competition from modern hotels with all their presumed comforts, have hung their hats.
Perhaps they were eco-friendly when they were first built, but I travelled back from Wadi Lahami in the company of two real eco-warriors who had been appalled at what they called a misrepresentation of the truth.
They took one look on arrival and voted with their feet.
All three resorts are lit by hundreds of lights that burn all night and obscure the view of the stars. Diesel-fuelled generators that run continuously make electricity. It was explained to me that these must run at a minimum 80% capacity or they will get damaged, so lights stay switched on.
Water and sewage is dealt with in the same way as at any resort. My chalet at Marsa Shagra had no batteries in the remote control for the air-conditioning. You could say that this was a good thing, but it meant that I was unable to turn off the unit when I went out for the day.
Usually I would use the air-con just to take the edge off the pizza-oven effect after the sun had set.
My showers were always quick and I didnt use much water, but that was less about being ecologically aware and more to do with the shower curtains being too short. The bathroom floor would flood if I was under the flow for more than a couple of minutes.

I asked Yvonne what she had thought about the environmental aspect.
Is it an eco-friendly holiday - well, not really! she said. The plane journey to Egypt and the fuel and oil from the RIBs must have an impact.
The reefs appeared to be pristine and mostly untrashed, which I havent found to be the case on some liveaboard trips. There were signs telling guests to conserve water, and strict instructions not to walk on the reef at the waters edge on the beach, which was good. They do their best. On day trips on the lorry, the staff were very good about cleaning up after us, and always left sites as clean as they found them.
So these dive camps may not be true eco-resorts, but if you want a relaxed time, diving when you want to, Marsa Shagra and Marsa Nakari camps can offer you that, while keeping your feet firmly on terra firma between dives.
The hum of the generator is all too clearly heard all night at the (for now) remote Wadi Lahami camp, because there are no loud sounds coming from any nearby busy resorts to mask it.
What a pity they havent come up with the idea of turning off most of the lights outside at night.

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