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Sunday, 18 August 2019

Exploring Egypt: Camping in Ras Mohammed

Pack your sleeping bags and head to the most serene spot on Egypt's Red Sea, Ras Mohammed, between Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab

Heba El-Sherif , Wednesday 26 Oct 2016
Ras Mohammed
Our camping spot at Marsa Marsa Breika in Ras Mohammed protectorate (Photo: Khaled Mostafa)
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The reality of most camping trips is, it doesn’t matter what time you end up falling asleep. The sun will seep through the thin walls of your tent shortly after sunrise, tickling you into consciousness. So you sit up, slither out of your sleeping bag and, in my case, grab the gas stove and the coffee maker.

Earlier this month, a 36-hour stop at Ras Mohammed National Park—the narrow peninsula that marks the southernmost part of Sinai—turned into a weeklong stay at arguably one of Egypt’s most precious protectorates.

Ras Mohammed
Start your day with a short hike up the observation cliff in Ras Mohammed (Photo: Heba El-Sherif)

Where to stay and what to eat

We pitched our tents in a quiet bay unexplored by most visitors, overlooking a small stretch of water along Marsa Bareika --the only authorized camping ground inside the park.

Between food and drink, we had brought supplies to last us two days, so on day three we hop scotched to Sharm El Sheikh, about 18 kilometres north, for a restock. The city’s Old Market, a predecessor of the overly-commercial Neama Bay had everything we needed: fresh bread, nuts, fruits, vegetables, pasta, ful, tuna, ice and beer.

Although many regard Ras Mohammed as a daytrip destination, there are several sites that will welcome you overnight.

Ras Mohammed
Tents at the peaceful Bidawi camp in Ras Mohammed protectorate (Photo:Heba El-Sherif)

Camps along Marsa Bareika run a slightly different operation than those along the Taba-Nuweiba coastline, however. Meals need to be ordered a day in advance. All visitors to the park share one main bathroom: a composite of three toilets and a sink, situated at the tip of Marsa Bareika. The toilet stalls sub for showers. The bathroom is supplied with toilet paper and in some instances an old bottle of soap, both signs of upkeep, albeit minimal.

Past the bathroom, the first campsite appears to your right, operated by ‘Am Gemei. More a meeting point than a camp, the beating heart of this spot is its restaurant: a shaded area with tables and chairs. At 70EGP per person, you get rice, grilled chicken, potatoes cooked in tomato sauce, tehina, green salad, soda, mineral water and a cup of Sinai’s signature tea spiced with habaq (a culinary herb similar to basil). The food is delicious and the portions generous.

Ras Mohammed
A filling hot lunch freshly cooked at Am Gemei's camp in Ras Mohammed protectorate (Photo: Heba El-Sherif)

Beyond the restaurant, a few teepee-like tents line up down the beach. Despite their basic, almost flavorless set-up, a single night stay with full board is EGP 300 and EGP 250 if you only sign up for two meals.

Further down the bay at Bidawi, where a night’s stay and three meals a day are also priced at 300EGP, the air is different.

Unlike its neighbours, this is a full-on camp, boasting a central hang out area, four showers and one dry toilet, kept in order by a group of warm, welcoming staff led by Halabi. The camp is comprised of 12 tents, facing the bay in a v-shape. Each tent comes with its own kilim (woven rug), mattresses and bed sheets.

We ended up spending a whole morning at Bidawi, lazing in the shade and sipping spiced tea. In the background, a group of chatty Italian women munched on homemade cake as they shared travel stories with Halabi and his crew.

The sights

Ras Mohammed was declared a national park in 1982. It presumably gets its name from the cliff on its southernmost tip, a weathered mountaintop that resembles the face of a man.

The area harbors dozens of types of coral and attracts travelers hoping to spot sharks, which are said to appear around May and June. Diving is only allowed in designated areas along the park’s coastline.

Ras Mohammed
The Sharks observatory beach (Photo: Heba El-Sherif)

On our first day, we headed to Shark Observatory, a secluded, cove-like beach that houses two gorgeous viewpoints, revealing the entire east side of the park. It is also home to the liveliest reef on this small peninsula and is famed for its caves; one moment you’re snorkeling in shallow water, and the next you are at the edge of a reef wall that drops to what feels like 100 metres.

Close by is Yolanda Beach, a wide stretch of sand suitable for shore divers and snorkelers alike. To maneuver between the sites, you need to have a car.

The Mangrove Channel is also worth checking out, although the lush tree blossoming in the salty water of El Qulaan in Marsa Alam puts these ones in second place.

While the reef of Marsa Bareika may not be one of the park’s prized diving spots, it is not unusual to come across a menagerie of fish while snorkeling casually. This spot is a haven for those not interested in swimming in the deep end. You have to bring your snorkeling gear, however. Water shoes also make for a more comfortable swim.

We had planned to dive around Tiran, a rich diving site some six kilometres offshore, but unluckily for us the African and Arab Parliamentary Unions were holding meetings in Sharm El Sheikh at the time of our visit, so the island was closed to visitors.

Although on most weeks the military’s operations against militants in northern Sinai are of no concern to vacationers in the south, we got to see three apache planes fly a few metres off the ground (to mark the occasion of the meetings, we presumed). Politics aside, it was an odd sight flashing across a quiet sky that ordinarily bears seagulls and stars.

Ras Mohammed
Ready to take a dive in the unspoiled waters of the Red Sea? Ras Mohammed is the place (Photo: Heba El-Sherif)

Diving Ras Mohammed

If you are staying in Ras Mohammed, you have two options for diving: drive to Sharm El Sheikh and join a diving cruise, or sign up for shore dives. To do the latter, you will need to arrange with a dive center—also in Sharm—to meet you at the park in the morning with the necessary gear and permits.

For boat dives, Sharks Bay comes highly recommended. The center charges EGP 600 for two dives a day, in addition to a meal. Boats depart from Sharm El Sheikh at 8am and return at 4pm, giving you ample time to drive back to your campsite before sundown. Their options for dive sites are plentiful.

We opted for shore dives with Blue Ocean Dive Club, exploring the reef at Marsa Ghozlani—a rich inlet suitable for both certified divers and first timers. We paid EGP 250 per dive.

Ashraf, our dive guide, was calm both above and underwater. He was always keen to point out the names of the different fish we saw on each dive, and never shy to give us tips for improving our diving technique.

Our last dive in Ras Mohammed was on a sunny afternoon. As we put on our gear and walked to the water, Ashraf said: “Let this one be a journey. Don’t rush.”

Some 20 metres underwater, I met a lone puffer fish and wondered where it was headed. A large stingray lounged in the sand, conquering the stillness at the far bottom. Fleets of goldfish flashed brightly, some black and white with crazy protruding eyes. A sea turtle paced steadily, like a king, and slender eels peeked through rocks. They were so peaceful that I forgot they might bite.

Everything seems friendly and untroubled. For a moment, you feel like you’ve disrupted the peace, which seems to come freely along the seafloor.

These reefs are a wonder world, and they left me awestruck. But the feeling that lingers way past the forty-minute dive is that of sweet anxiousness, the one that hits you when you cannot wait to do something all over again.

Ras Mohammed
Waiting for the sharks at the Sharks observatory beach in Ras Mohammed protectorate (Photo: Heba El-Sherif)

Practical info:

• Entrance fee is EGP 5 per person and EGP 10 per car. To spend the night you have to pay an additional EGP 5 per night.
• The park closes at 5pm. Cars are not allowed in or out past curfew. All sites within the park close by 4pm.
• The nearest gas station is at the gates of Sharm El Sheikh, 15 minutes away.
• ‘Am Gemei +201005093743
• Captain Ashraf of Blue Ocean: +201009793108
• For camping equipment, visit Alfa Market’s Zamalek branch.

 

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