Down the coast from Hurghada, the stream of holiday resorts becomes less dense until three belated spurts of development on the outskirts of Port Safaga (58km), El-Quseir (a further 85km) and Marsa Alam (a further 132km). Little more than an overgrown, grubby port, Safaga has few charms, though it is within boat range of some stunning offshore reefs, while El-Quseir retains a sleepy quality unlike anywhere else on the Red Sea. The region around Marsa Alam is home to several isolated diving camps and resorts, as well as the Port Ghalib tourist development, of which construction is ongoing.
Further south, communications become tenuous and bureaucratic obstacles loom as you head towards the Sudanese border. From Bir Shalateen, you need military permission to proceed further south, or into the mountains. The principal attraction of the far south is its reefs, which can be reached on dive boats operating out of Hurghada, Safaga, El-Quseir and Marsa Alam.
The Red Sea Coast’s booming tourism industry has prospered at serious cost to the environment. Rampant development, over-fishing, pollution, the degradation of coral reefs and increased pressure on water supplies are just a few of the problems. As the Hurghada Protection and Conservation Association warns: “Environmental deterioration is no longer a threat but a reality. Each day in the Red Sea we are witness to the depletion of the very resource base that attracts so many visitors here in the first place.” In recent years numerous “eco-lodges” have sprung up in the region. While some – such as those run by Red Sea Diving Safari – have genuine green credentials, many others are simply indulging in greenwashing. Similarly not all the dive centres and travel agencies are as conservation-minded as their promotional literature might suggest. The key thing for eco-minded travellers to do is to ask lots of questions – How is waste disposed of? What is recycled? How is power usage minimized? How does the local community benefit? What conservation efforts are being made? – before deciding who to stay and dive with.
EL-QUSEIR, 85km from Safaga, is another phosphates extraction centre, though with fewer inhabitants and more appeal. In pharaonic times, boats sailed from here to the “Land of Punt” (thought to be Yemen or Somalia), as depicted in reliefs within Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri. The Romans knew it as Leukos Limen (“White Harbour”), while under Arab rule El-Quseir was the largest Red Sea port until the tenth century, remaining a major transit point for pilgrims until the 1840s, when Flaubert caught its last flickers of exoticism.
Today, El-Quseir is a sleepy place, mostly unaffected by tourism, despite the resorts on its outskirts. Life moves pretty slowly, except on Fridays, when Ma’aza and Ababda Bedouin flock in for the weekly market. The best dive sites nearby are the Brothers, east of El-Quseir, and the Elphinstone and Abu Dabbab reefs, down towards Marsa Alam, although the Quei and Wizr reefs are closer. All the resorts have their own dive centres although they may not allow outside divers to join their trips; it’s best to book a dive package deal from the outset.
Smack in the town centre, just past the main traffic roundabout, sits El-Quseir’s most impressive landmark, the sixteenth-century crumbling walled fortress, which now houses a museum. Designed to protect trade routes used by the Ottomans, the fortress declined after trade was diverted around the Cape of Good Hope. Napoleon’s army raised the French flag here in 1799, only to attract the attention of British warships sailing off the coast. The French survived a brief assault, but abandoned the fort two years later. Its most recent occupant was the Egyptian army, stationed here until 1975. The cistern, watchtower (climb up for excellent views) and rooms built into the walls of the fortress each contain small exhibits on the history and traditions of the Red Sea coast.
In addition to the fortress, El-Quseir has a few other sights that are worth a quick look, including a small harbour where you can see local boat-builders at work, and a beachside promenade, good for a stroll. A few blocks back from the waterfront, past a number of shuttered and balconied houses, are the thirteenth-century Faran Mosque and an imposing former quarantine hospital dating back to the nineteenth century.
The town of MARSA ALAM itself is undistinguished, consisting of a large army base, some government buildings and apartment blocks constructed for the expected influx of hotel staff to the area, grafted onto a fishing port where liveaboards now moor. The area around the town, however, has become a diving hub, and there are some excellent dive sites within striking distance. The best places to stay are outside Marsa Alam to the north and the south.
PORT SAFAGA (Bur Safaga in Arabic) amounts to very little. Coming in from the north, you pass a slip road curving off to a series of holiday resorts on a headland, catering mainly to divers. The town, whose economy is driven by the nearby phosphate mines, begins 3km later and consists of a single windswept avenue running straight on past concrete boxes with bold signs proclaiming their function, until the bus station and a final mosque, 4km south. Silos and cranes identify the port, which runs alongside (but remains out of bounds) for most of this distance. Safaga’s only attractions are the reefs to the north, and there’s not much reason to hang around otherwise.
Boats and instructors at the main dive centres tend to be committed to groups, though they will take on independent travellers if they have space: expect to pay around €300 for a PADI Open Water course or around €50 for two boat dives. As in Hurghada, an environmental fee of €3 a day is levied on all divers and snorkellers. The main diving grounds lie 6–8km offshore from the holiday resorts between Safaga Island and the Ras Abu Soma headland to the north. Tubiya Island is ringed with corals just off its beach, while dive boats drop their clients directly over the sunken North and South Fairway Reefs or the twin pairs of sites known as Tubiya Kebir, Tubiya Soraya, Gamul Soraya and Gamul Kebir. Other sites include the Seven Pillars off Ras Abu Soma, and the Panorama Reef and Shark Point, 10km east of Safaga Island. Most of them are notable for their coral pillars and strong currents. Note that among the big fish prevalent in these waters are aggressive hammerhead sharks.
For keen divers who have made it this far, there are several camps and hotels to the south of town offering the opportunity to explore the most remote dive sites in the southern Red Sea – and to experience an eerily empty and barren region of mountains, ocean and reef far removed from the commercialized northern Red Sea coast.
One of the most popular of these dive sites is the Dolphin House Reef (also known as Samadai Reef), a crescent-shaped protected area set up in 2001 to protect the area’s spinner dolphins. Tourist numbers to the reef have been capped at two hundred per day – previously there were up to 2,500 – and it’s now a great spot for snorkelling as well as diving. Other notable dive sites include Elphinstone, a 300-metre-long reef ideal for drift diving; Abu Dabab, a series of sheltered reefs; Fury Shoals, a set of reefs rich in marine life; and St John’s, a site with caves, black coral and – if you’re lucky – sharks.
A unique protected area covering 6000 square kilometres of land and 4000 square kilometres of sea, Wadi Gimal National Park is home to an interesting mix of archeological sites and wildlife. The area once lay on an important trading route, and there are several pharaonic and Roman ruins to explore, including the village of Geli and an old emerald mine. Wild gazelle can also be seen, while in spring and the autumn you may be able to spot migrant birds such as osprey, falcons, white-eyed gulls and the occasional flamingo. Red Sea Desert Adventures (w redseadesertadventures.com) and the Shams Alam Beach Resort can organize dives, excursions and overnight camping in the park.