Dahab was like a breath of fresh salty sea air. There was the before Dahab which included searching, walking, finding, and staying safe in Cairo, Aswan, and Luxor. There was also the right after Dahab in Hatzeva, the one hot amazing shower that I will remember for the rest of my life, and the coffee that tasted like heaven. But in between those moments was Dahab, right there, perfectly timed at the end of our trip. For all of the non-planning we had done before setting off for Egypt, leaving Dahab until last was the best decision we could have made. We had gone from Evron to Taba to Cairo, Cairo to Aswan, Aswan to Luxor, and finally Luxor to Dahab without much more information than a few handy hostel addresses and less than $200 on each of us. It was early 2004 and our group consisted of me, somewhat seasoned traveler, Andrea from Colombia, also somewhat seasoned traveler, like me used to discomfort and being poor, and Kirsty, very unseasoned traveler, from a wealthy family in South Africa (complete with ingrained racism and fear of the “other” which hadn’t been too noticeable until we stepped off the bus in Cairo). I don’t know what we were exactly thinking when we set off but it definitely wasn’t about the actual safety of the country or the places we would be staying in (less money better option was our mantra). That said the only place where I actually felt uncomfortable was Luxor as we kept feeling like someone was following us. We relied on our instincts and obviously our good luck, and also on the relative safety of Egypt at the time.
This all took place in early 2004, so 15 years ago, and many things may have changed since then. I do hope Dahab hasn’t changed too much though…
We got on the bus to Dahab from Luxor Bus Station at 5pm, with fresh, warm, buttery rolls, and cheese for the journey, assuming we would get some good sleep on the bus and wake up refreshed in the morning in Dahab. The trip did not go as planned at all. First of all there were so many checkpoints along the way, it literally felt as if the bus stopped every few minutes, and we had to show our tickets and papers frequently. I gather that this is even worse now from some online forums, so if you are planning on making the trip by bus be prepared for it to take hours longer than the service states. I’m actually not sure if the bus route even exists anymore. We were told that it would take 13-15 or so hours, it actually took about 21.
When we got on the bus we found 4 empty seats, two on one side of the aisle, two on the other, so we thought that we were all set for the trip. An hour or so in to the journey and the man in front of us moved into the empty seat next to me with his baby (to give his wife more sleeping room), and proceeded to talk to me in Arabic even though I didn’t understand, and try to hand me the baby. It was kind of cute, and I think that if we had all been able to understand each other better it would have been a lot easier. I was tired though, and really wanted to sleep my way through the journey so as not to think about having to use the (really) stinky bus toilet at some point. Suddenly the bus made a very strange sound, and then a weird mechanical type of smell proceeded to fill the air. We stopped at the side of the road while the driver went to check out the issue. We then continued along to Hurghada where we stopped at a garage where someone checked the bus out. We all sighed in relief at the thought of non-stinky toilets, but one look at the coffee stop by the garage’s restrooms and we braved the bus loos, covering our faces with a bandana. Off we went again, ready to settle in for the night, driving north up by the Red Sea, when the bus broke down for good. In the middle of freezing nowhere, desert all around apart from the water to our right. I went out for a cigarette, but it was so cold I rushed it and went back into the bus and tried to sleep. About an hour later another bus turned up, we all piled on and finally made our way up over the Suez Canal and towards Dahab.
We arrived at Dahab bus station around 11am and took a quick service bus to the sea front. We walked around a bit looking for somewhere to stay, and chose the Venus Camp where we shared a thatched hut and communal bathroom for about 6 Egyptian pounds each. The scenery from Dahab is absolutely amazing: glistening Red Sea, mountains in the distance across the sea, sand, camels and striking blue sky. We were there in January but the weather was warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt in the daytime. We didn’t brave the water though which I slightly regret now.
Our hotel was literally steps from the beach, and the main beach area, which is full of restaurants and comfortable Bedouin type seating areas, cushions on the floor and low tables with blankets and shades overhead. A plate of rice, soup, salad and bread only put us back 5 Egyptian pounds, and a bowl of Kushary even less. I bought a new top and pants (I was literally travelling with the bare minimum that I had been washing and drying as much as possible), and rushed to have what I thought would be a lovely, refreshing shower after all of those hours in the bus. But that was not to be… The showers in the camp used salt water, a mere trickle of lukewarm saltwater, my soap wouldn’t lather and I ended up feeling less clean when I got out of the shower than I had before I got in! It was an excuse to just not bother for the rest of our time there.
We decided we would forgo the sunrise trip to Mount Sinai, something that I regret now, but I still remember how exhausted we were, and how tired of buses and trains we had become. All we really wanted was to relax for a few days before making our way back up north to Evron, and I also know that none of us had much money left anyway. So that’s how we ended our tour of Egypt with less than $200 trip: relaxing by the Red Sea, walking around, looking at the beautiful blue blue of the water against the red browns of desert mountains. I will always miss the beauty of the Sinai and Israeli desert landscape, the land that looks so barren from a distance but when you look closely there is so much beauty in every step. Lunar rocks, colored sand, looming hills, and the appearance of millions of stars in the sky at night, every night. And the food… I miss the food. Not all of our food experiences in Egypt were a success (the snot-like consistency of what was meant to be tahini in a falafel sandwich in Aswan comes to mind), but most of the time we were lucky. It’s not always easy to travel on a tight budget as a vegetarian or a vegan, and sometimes it means having to make do with bread and cheese or bread and hummus (which is fine by me). Luckily Egypt is one of those places where you can find quite a bit of vegetarian-friendly street food, so I never went hungry. Dahab gave us omelets, falafel, aubergine spreads, salads, soups, and the one winter drink I still crave: sachlab. My endeavors to find sachlab led us to some interesting and important finds in both Egypt and Israel (jumping in a sherut to Akko without having any idea where I was actually heading was one).
Venus Camp with the bamboo huts, Quo Vadis Napoleon restaurant, with the fairy lights and the cushioned floor area on the beach and the deals we made for breakfast and dinners: places that most likely no longer exist today, but definitely still have a place in my mind. We were so exhausted after Taba-Cairo, Cairo-Aswan, Aswan-Luxor, and then Luxor-Dahab, that all we could do was walk slowly, breathe, and relax by the sea, even though the wind was Egyptian-winter cold. Restaurants let us sit in their beach area hang-outs with just a drink and a snack because they wanted to attract more business during the less touristy winter days, and we welcomed the fact that we didn’t actually have to do anything. After spending the evening listening to music and enjoying cake and ice cream by the sea, we made our way back to the camp to sleep, ready for the 2.5 hour bus journey back up to Taba the next morning, and a re-entry into Israel that would lead us all back up north to the kibbutz.
I know that there are advisories on travelling to the Sinai area due to military operations and terrorism, however it was also not considered safe either in early 2004, at the peak of the Second Intifada. It appears that currently most attacks are on Egyptian security forces, as well as churches and flights, so road travel is probably best, and the usual safe travel cautions apply, as with anywhere. In my opinion everywhere is unsafe in some shape or form, and obviously some places are more dangerous than others, but everyone should research an area in full rather than just base a choice on a travel advisory. Dahab is such a gorgeous place to stay, inexpensive, and you can easily get to Israel, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia if you wanted to. Just remember that if you are planning to travel to Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and/or Yemen after Israel it’s important to not have a stamp that gives the idea that you may have been in Israel. Israeli officials usually provide entry visas and stamps on a separate piece of paper, but you will need to ask Jordanian and Egyptian officials to stamp a loose piece of paper if you are crossing one of the land border crossings between the countries. It’s pretty obvious to anyone where you have been if you have an Egyptian stamp from Taba in your passport…
I will work on Cairo, Aswan, and Luxor next, grateful for the fact that I wrote so diligently in my journal during my travels. I want to go back, older, wiser, and with the intention on taking better photos and without the feeling of needing to rush through everything. I would love to revisit Aswan, sit up high on the banks over the Nile and relax.
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