South of Hurghada
Until the 1980s, the coast south of Hurghada was virtually untouched by tourism and a wealth of coral reefs and islands lay undisturbed but by the adventurous few. Recent years have seen a boom in hotel building, and large resorts pepper the coast between El-Quseir and Marsa Alam as an airport brings in package tourists mainly from Germany and Italy. Yet the port of El-Quseir remains a peaceful little place, with accommodation suiting backpackers and an atmosphere that's quite unique, while south of Marsa Alam restrictions imposed to protect the environment mean that new hotels have to be eco-friendly and hence there are some truly stunning getaways if you have the time and the money. The interior of the Eastern Desert remains one of Egypt's least explored areas, hiding ancient tribes and scattered ruins in the mountainous expanses stretching towards Sudan.
Safaga stands 567 km from Cairo, 65 km (45 minutes by taxi) south of Hurghada's airport, where the coastal road meets the main road across the Eastern Desert to Qena. Though the town isn't particularly beautiful, it has this stretch of the Red Sea's usual attractions: diving, snorkelling and perhaps the most famous wind on the coast. The stiff breezes that favoured the trading vessels along these shores now provide excellent conditions for windsurfing, generally cross-shore in the morning and side-shore in the early afternoon. (The Windsurfing World Championships were held here in 1993.) Safaga has also seen an upsurge in health tourism as of late, with many psorisis and arthritis sufferers journeying from afar to roast in the mineral-enriched black sands. With such geological riches, the area does not rely totally on tourism. It has local phosphate mines that export the mineral overseas.
Most travellers simply pass through in a convoy on their way between Hurghada and the Nile Valley. Outside of the sea, there is very little to visit other than a small fort that overlooks the town and offers good views.
Further south is El-Quseir, 650 km from Cairo and 80 km south of Hurghada, an old Roman encampment and busy port. Far enough away from the hoards of package tourists in Hurghada and Safaga, and without any mega-resorts such as are found on the stretch of coast south to Marsa Alam, the small sleepy town has managed to retain a lot of its ancient charm. Coral-block houses with creaky wooden balconies are dotted around the old village by the seafront, people are incredibly friendly and move at a slower pace. The surroundings are still pristine and the nearby diving superb, but the town's real charm lies in the unspoilt continuity of real life - something that's missing from other more user-friendly beach retreats in Sinai and the Red Sea. The sense of history and sea-trade, the tangible presence of Islam (heightened by the noise of 33 mosques) and the narrow pastel-toned streets make it feel like an Egyptian version of Zanzibar. But considerably smaller and with less tourists.
The name 'Quseir' means 'short' as this was the starting point both of the shortest sea-route to Mecca and the shortest way to the Nile Valley, five days away overland by camel. Located in a small inlet sheltered by a coral reef, the modern road inland from El-Quseir to Qift, just south of Qena, follows an ancient pharaonic route that is lined with forts, built at a time when almost a hundred small but very rich gold mines operated in the region. It was from El-Quseir that Queen Hatshepsut departed on her famous expedition to the Land of Punt and throughout the pharaonic era there was trade with Africa in wild animals, to supply the pharaohs with elephants during times of warfare. This was also once the most important Muslim port on the Red Sea. In the 10th century it was superseded first by Aydhab, which is the ancient name for the Halaib in the currently disputed triangle on the Egyptian/Sudanese border, and then by Suez after the canal was opened in 1869. Now the port's main function revolves around the export of phosphates. The 16th-century fortress of Sultan Selim (rebuilt by the French in 1798) still dominates the town centre and creates a sort of mystique that no other Red Sea village quite has.Sights
The partly ruined
was built in 1571 by Sultan Selim to protect the Nile Valley from attacks from the sea and to shield pilgrims bound for Mecca from Bedouin raids. The devoted left their camels and horses at the fort while they made the
. There was conflict here at the end of the 18th century - during the French campaign, and then again between the British Indian Army coming in from Bombay and the Egyptian campaign to the Arabian Peninsula headed by Ibrahim Pasha in 1816. The central watchtower affords good views of the surprisingly high mountain ranges to the south, which contain the mineral wealth of the area; from here the sea and mountains were surveyed for invaders.
Other buildings from this earlier period include the mosques of Al-Faroah, Abdel-Rehim Al-Qenay and Al-Sanussi and the fabulous derelict granary just behind the police station. There is also a significant number of tombs, mainly near the fortress, of holy men who died en route to Mecca, which are still considered important by the town's inhabitants.
Wadi Hammamat is a
bout 100 km along en route to Qift. It has some fascinating pharaonic graffiti - hieroglyphic inscriptions - including the names of Pepi, Sesostris, Seti, Cambyses and Darius. The inscriptions lie along an ancient trade route where remains of old wells and watch towers are also detectable.
This remote bay, 113 km south of El-Quseir and 13 km north of Marsa Alam, has transformed into a small village celebrated by divers. There is an extensive underwater cave system to explore, and some outstanding coral formations. It's also near a group of striking offshore reefs with great sloping walls, the mysterious
among them, where in its dark depths some say lie the remains of an unknown pharaoh.
A tiny fishing village 130 km south of El-Quseir, Marsa Alam is a gem of the southern coast. The village is also a way station between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea since a road through the Eastern desert connects it to Edfu, 250 km to the west. The small harbour is nestled in a beautiful area where the coast is lined with rich mangrove swamps that encourage rich bird and marine life. These mangroves are protected and all new developments are supposed to be eco-conscious in order to ensure the preservation of the fragile environment. There is nowhere to stay in the town itself, and the coast north to El-Quseir is dotted with Disney-esque resorts that make an astonishing spectacle lit up at night. Independent travellers are usually heading south of Marsa Alam to one of the smaller camps at Tondoba Bay, Marsa Nakari, Wadi Lahami or Wadi Gimal.
A very ancient city - named by Ptolemy II, Berenice became a trading port around 275 BC. The ruined temple of
is near the modern town. Inland there are remains of the emerald mines of Wadi Sakait that were worked from pharaonic to Roman times. Berenice is noted for both quantity and quality of fish and having a climate reputed to promote good health. The coast is lined with mangrove swamps and there are some beautiful coves that are completely isolated.
Offshore is the
, a most unusual volcanic island. Evidence of its origin is found in the (olive-green) olivine mined as a semi-precious gem stone. Mining has been active here on and off since 1500 BC.
(named after another semi-precious stone) offers breathtaking views of the surrounding area. A wonderful place to watch the dolphins and, in season, the migrating birds. Once off limits to visitors, Zabargad Island has finally been declared a Protected Marine Park by the Egyptian government. Sometimes a permit is required for this area, though a bit of
to the right people can often grant access. It is still relatively untouristed and safari boats spend three-four days exploring the dive sites and surrounds.
There is one interesting excursion possible from here into the interior, but a guide is essential. The restored tomb and mosque of
Sidi Abul Hassan Al-Shazli
lies some distance inland. The buildings are modern, being last restored on the instructions of King Farouk after his visit in 1947. The road is a distance of 110 km southwards off the main road west towards Edfu. Al-Shazli (1196-1258) was an influential Sufi sheikh originally from the northwest of Africa but who spent much of his life in Egypt. He had a large and important following and was noted for his piety and unselfishness. He travelled annually to Mecca, for which Marsa Alam was convenient. His
is popular despite the isolation of the site, attracting around 20,000 devotees. Events stretch over the 10 days before Eid Al-Adha, and if you are in the area at this time it's the ultimate
experience, however the road is officially closed to foreigners and you will need a lot of willpower and some luck to get through.
The last outpost before Sudan, 90 km south of Berenice, Shalatein is not easily accessible for independent travellers as the political situation remains sensitive due to the disputed border area and thus the police are rather twitchy. There is nowhere that tourists can stay and so most visitors come on a day trip from either Marsa Alam or El-Quseir. The reason for visiting is the exceptional daily camel market that brings Sudanese herders to mingle with the Bashari and Rashaida tribespeople who make up the main population of the town. While the Rashaida migrated from Saudi Arabia around 200 years ago, the Bashari belong to the nomadic Beja tribe who have been wandering the Red Sea hills for 6000 years, not answering to any central government until the early 1990s. Both tribes wear their traditional clothes like a uniform, Rashaida men all in mauve
and the women in red dresses laden with jewellery, whilst Bashari men twist a fine length of cotton 4-7 m long around their heads to form a massive turban called an
. Camels are traded between the locals and the squatting Sudanese who wear long knives and carry a camel whip and wooden bowl for watering their beasts; thousands of euros can be passed over the sand during these transactions. Aside from the animal market, wooden stalls sell a huge variety of produce and products, intermingled among these are a few selling 'souvenirs' such as the silver, pottery, shields and swords that are still used in the daily routines of the tribespeople. An organized trip here is pricey
but as it is presently the only way to visit this remarkable town it's money well spent.
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