For a real experience of Egypt, travel to the desert from Hurghada, race on a sand buggy, enjoy Bedouin hospitality and admire the fossils on the mountaintops
Hurghada is a new resort built on the Red Sea coast, a slim strip of green rescued from the grey desert. Considered the capital of the Red Sea, it blends traditional Egyptian old town charm, with its bustling bazaars, with modern city convenience, nightclubs, a museum and an aquarium. Oncesa fishing village, it now boasts a Marina, from which you can go sailing, dolphin spotting, or diving.
If you prefer something more peaceful, drive 30 km south to the wonderful Fort Arabesque at Makadi Bay. A 5* hotel, it is located directly on the Red Sea next to a coral reef. You literally wade in from the beach until you are about waist high in the water and while you wait at the reef the fish start teeming around you. The hotel has 5 outdoor swimming pools and lounging areas, which the kids would have spent their entire holiday in if allowed. The gardens are beautifully laid out and well-cared for, full of Palms, hibiscus, jasmine, rose bushes and many species of local shrubs that in the fresh hours of sunrise and sunset fill the air with a lovely fragrances. An all inclusive stay at the hotel includes aerobics, aqua aerobics, archery, bicycling, canoes, beach football, french bowls, table tennis, tennis, beach volleyball, windsurfing and evening entertainment (cabaret or dancing) on-site.
If you're feeling more adventurous, drive out of Hurghada into the desert until you arrive at a large concrete shed, home of the Sand Buggies www.speeddevils-egypt.com, where you can experience the journey of a lifetime.
A Bedouin scarf keeps the dust out of your mouth – priced at $5 but worth haggling – and it's worth it to be shown how to wrap it around your head, Bedouin-style. Any jet lag will be thoroughly shaken out of you on this desert safari, as you race between sand dunes and shallow, flat-topped mountains.
At the Bedouin camp, if we’d had the robes we would have billowed like Lawrence of Arabia in the desert wind. As it was, feeling very stiff from our ride, coated with a film of grey sand and feeling very much a part of the desert itself, we sauntered, almost cowboy-like, into the Bedouin shack. Most Bedouin shacks use dried reeds strung together to form matting to make both the walls and the roof. Inside this shack were two large meeting rooms with seats all around the edges, covered in brightly-woven squares. The Bedouin believe that every guest is specially brought by Allah or God and when they welcome a guest God will, in return, be favourable to the Bedouin. Our Bedouin host seemed a little depressed and worn and possibly felt Allah had been too generous in his supply of guests that day. He was wearing the traditional black robe, or dish-dash, which was somewhat dusty. We were served a very sweet, mint tea and apple-flavoured shisha pipes.
Our guide, Mohammed, joined us and I asked if this was a welcome part of the trip for him. “When I was a boy all the men used to sit outside smoking shisha while the women did all the work. You know most tourists, especially Americans, treat us like peasants, but we learn English from the age of seven.” We asked about the numerous checkpoints and armed guards that we’d seen. “National Service is very important to us. If we are invaded we need to be able to defend ourselves. It’s a matter of honour.”
Mohammed finished off my shisha, which had gone out for lack of vigorous sucking, then led us to the neighbouring shack, where a Bedouin woman was cooking flat bread, similar to chapatti, on a large round metal dish over a fire-pit. Mohammed introduced us to her three children, who allowed themselves to be distracted by their visitors’ sweets, which we’d been encouraged by our travel rep to bring along for them. The bowl designated for tips was prominently displayed at the front of the fire-pit, so I made my offering, and we were rewarded with as many chapattis as we could eat being pressed upon us.
I was surprised to learn that 95 per cent of Egypt is desert. Only five per cent of Egyptian land is fertile and this is watered by the River Nile. This is why 95 per cent of the Egyptian population lives along the banks of the Nile. The other five per cent of the Egyptian population are the Bedouin, who live in the desert, having settled there several centuries ago. The Bedouin woman we met spoke no English but we communicated well with gestures and smiles of appreciation for each others’ hospitality.
When we took to our sand buggies again, a convoy of quads joined behind. We bounced and gyrated, slipping through the glass-like sand for another half hour before entering a narrow, steep gulley. With a spurt of speed we climbed to the top and drove to the edge where we could look down into the valley below. The incline had been so slight for most of the way that it was a shock to discover that we were at the top of the mountain overlooking the Bedouin camp we’d just visited. Mohammed pointed out the numerous fossils of sea-creatures by our feet, “these show that the mountains were once underwater.”
As we waited for the sunset, Mohammed asked my adventurous ten year old if he wanted to drive the sand buggy. Mohammed stood on the sidestep next to him, giving the steering wheel a very occasional redirection, and they raced around the mountaintop, a billow of dust streaming out behind them. It was so sunny that Mohammed had to point out the sunset. The bright blue sky turned into a cool yellow for a short while then disappeared, leaving a grey, cold emptiness behind it, which drove us home.
Nearest airport: Hurghada, Egypt available from London Gatwick
Hotel: Fort Arabesque, Makadi Bay. The hotel is 5* and located directly on the Red Sea next to a coral reef. You literally wade in until you are waist high in the water (as an adult) and the reef is teeming with fish. There are 5 outdoor swimming pools, which the kids would have spent their entire holiday in if allowed. The gardens are beautifully laid out and well-cared for, full of Palms, hibiscus, jasmine, rose bushes and many species of local shrubs that in the fresh hours of sunrise and sunset fill the air with a lovely fragrances. An all inclusive stay at the hotel includes aerobics, aqua aerobics, archery, bicycling, canoes, beach football, french bowls, table tennis, tennis, beach volleyball, windsurfing and evening entertainment (cabaret or dancing) on-site. A cashpoint machine is promised for 2010.
Excursions: We booked through Thomas Cook and had access to a range of tours, including trips to Cairo ($220-$265 per adult) and Luxor ($95-$230 per adult) and the Sand Buggies (single $81, double $61 per adult, family car $204). Your Sand Buggy journey is filmed for an additional 220 Egyptian pounds.
Budget holiday tip: the cheapest times to book tend to be in the Egyptian winter (Dec-Feb), which is cold for Egyptians but still lovely and warm at about 22-29C (it rarely gets colder than 20C). At Fort Arabesque there is so much to do, you really don't need to go off-site.