Many tourists visit Egypt simply to dive or snorkel in the Red Sea, whose coral reefs put the Caribbean and the South Pacific in the shade. Besides all kinds of other watersports and some swanky golf courses, Egypt offers horse- and camel-riding, trekking, jeep safaris and hot-air ballooning, but for Egyptians the only sport that counts is football (soccer) – a national obsession.
Diving and watersports
The fantastic coral reefs and tropical fish of the Red Sea are the bedrock of tourism from Sinai to Marsa Alam, while the Mediterranean coastline has sunken wrecks and ancient ruins to explore. All this makes Egypt an excellent place to go diving, on a package holiday or through local dive centres. Many people learn to dive here, gaining a PADI, BSAC or CMAS certificate. The initial step is a five-day PADI Open Water course, costing around €200–350/$250–425 including equipment, plus about €35/$45 for the certificate if it isn’t included. You progress from classroom theory to dives in the hotel swimming pool or from the shore, finishing with a few boat dives. Most centres offer a supervised introductory dive (around €35–70/$42–85) for those uncertain about shelling out for a full course. Kids aged 8–10 can try the PADI “Bubble Maker” course (€50/$65), which includes a short dive close to the shore. Qualified divers can progress through advanced open-water, dive master and instructor certification, and take specialized courses in night or wreck diving. Note that if you’re certified but haven’t logged a dive in the past three months, you might have to take a “check dive” before you can go on a sea trip.
Boat trips to dive sites usually include tanks and weights; lunch on the boat may cost about £E50 extra. Dive packages can be a good deal, costing around €260/$340 for a five-day package (ten dives), with discounts sometimes available for advance or online bookings. Liveaboards (safari boats) allow you to spend days or weeks at sea, cruising dive sites and shipwrecks. This can work out cheaper than a hotel and dive package, averaging around €100/$130 per person per day, including full board; where equipment rental isn’t covered, expect to pay an extra €25/$33 per day. Most are pre-booked by groups, who may not welcome people joining them at the last moment, so it’s better (and cheaper) to buy a package deal at home, though during quiet periods vacant berths might be found by asking around boats in marinas.
If you’re aiming to arrange things yourself, be careful when choosing a dive centre. Ones attached to big hotels or with longstanding links with organizations like PADI are safer bets than backstreet outfits, but smart premises are less important than how they treat their equipment. If left lying about, chances are it’ll also be poorly maintained. Also note the location of the compressor used to fill the tanks; if it’s near a road or other source of pollution, you’ll be breathing it in underwater. Misunderstandings can be dangerous underwater, so you need an instructor who speaks your language well.
Anybody who can swim can snorkel. Due to its coastal reefs, Sinai (especially Na’ama Bay) offers better snorkelling than further down the Red Sea, where most coral is on islands. Masks and flippers may be rented at any resort, and many also offer windsurfing and kiteboarding (notably Ras Sudr and Dahab), yachting (Hurghada), waterskiing and parasailing (also at Almaza Bay on the Mediterranean coast).
While a few resorts offer shark-fishing, Egypt is chiefly renowned for angling on Lake Nasser, the vast reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam, which teems with massive Nile perch, carp and tilapia. Fishing trips can be arranged in Aswan or abroad.
Riding, trekking and jeep safaris
Around the Pyramids and the major Nile sites, donkeys, horses and camels are all available for hire. Horses are fun if you want to ride across stretches of sand between the Pyramids or in the Sinai desert. Donkeys are best used for visiting the Theban Necropolis, where they traverse mountains that you’d never cross on foot, and enliven the trip no end. Elsewhere they have less appeal, but you might rent a caretta (donkey-drawn taxi cart) to explore the pools and ruins in Siwa Oasis.
Camels (the dromedary, or one-humped Arabian camel) make for rigorous but exhilarating riding, and you’ll probably want to try them at least once. They are good for short rides around Aswan, but really come into their own in Sinai or the Western Desert oases, where you can go trekking up wadis or across dunes that horses could never cope with. Trips – lasting anything from a half-day to a week – are easily arranged with local operators, or as part of “adventure holiday” packages from home.
If you’ve never ridden a camel before, try a half-day excursion before committing to a longer trip. Even a few hours in the saddle can leave you with aches in muscles that you never knew existed, so it’s advisable to alternate between walking and riding. The mounting is done for you but be sure to hold on to the pommel of the saddle as the camel raises itself in a triple-jerk manoeuvre. Once on, you have a choice of riding it like a horse or cocking a leg around the pommel, as the Bedouin do, in which case you should use a lot of padding around the pommel to avoid soreness. It’s easy to get the hang of steering: pull firmly and gradually on the nose rope to change direction; a camel should stop if you turn its head to face sideways.
Trekking on foot requires more stamina, especially in the High Mountain Region of Sinai. The ideal number of trekkers is three to five people; larger groups travel more slowly. You’ll need comfortable hiking boots, warm clothes, a sleeping bag, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip salve, bug repellent and toilet paper. In the Western Desert, your baggage may be transported by camel or jeep (in which case blankets are provided).
Jeep safaris are the best way to experience the oases, from an overnight stay in the White Desert or the Great Sand Sea to a deep-desert expedition to the Gilf Kebir.
Golf and hot-air ballooning
There are golf courses around Cairo (one within sight of the Pyramids), as well as at Sharm el-Sheikh, Soma Bay, El Gouna and Luxor. For details, visit w touregypt.net/golfcourses.htm.
From October to May, visitors to Luxor can enjoy the thrill of drifting above the temples and tombs of the Theban Necropolis in a hot-air balloon.
The only sport screened on Egyptian television, football (soccer; kurat ‘adem in Arabic) transfixes the nation during international and premier matches. The national team won the African Nations’ Cup in 1986, 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010, and the two rival Cairo clubs, Ahly and Zamalek, have long dominated the domestic league, and regularly win African club competitions. Clashes between them can be intense – and have occasionally led to rioting – but games are in general relaxed: Cairo Stadium is the main venue. As well as the big two, other teams include Ismaily (from Ismailiya), Masry (Port Said) and Al Ittihad (Alexandria), while in recent years a new wave of corporate-sponsored teams such as Petrojet and ENPPI have also muscled their way into the premier league.
Should their team win, thousands of supporters drive around Cairo honking horns and waving flags attached to lances – beware of being run over or impaled.