During the Being Peace retreat in Deir Istiya, Clare and I were thinking about where we could spend the final week of our holiday. Ideally it would be somewhere much cheaper and more relaxing than Israel and a place to unwind and reflect on our trip before heading back to London. We spoke to one of the Israelis on the retreat and he recommended a beach camp he had been to recently in Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula. It sounded perfect and when we arrived back in Tel Aviv after the retreat, we started making plans to go.
Our journey began with a five hour bus ride to the city of Eilat, the southern most point of Israel, at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. Most of the journey was through the Negev desert which covers the entire southern half of the country.
On the way, some distance from the town of Dimona along highway 25, we passed the Negev Nuclear Research Centre, situated in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. We could just make out some of its buildings in the distance, surrounded by a massive sterile zone and a military grade security fence that we followed for many kilometres. Information about the facility is highly classified although it’s believed to be the place where Israel makes its sizeable arsenal of nuclear weapons. The entire area is heavily guarded and the airspace above the facility is out of bounds to all aircraft.
Near the southern end of the Dead Sea we turned south onto highway 90, a road that for most of its length passed close to the Jordanian border and the desolate mountain range that defines it. At one point we saw a military fighter jet roar past at incredible speed and quite low to the ground – another reminder that military presence is never far away, even in remote parts of the desert. Just before Eilat we had to stop at a checkpoint where a soldier boarded the bus, walked up and down and glanced at the face of each passenger before allowing us to continue our journey.
Eilat is the Israeli version of any cultureless and tourist-oriented seaside resort town, comprising an array of ugly mega-hotels, themed resorts and shopping plazas. As soon as we arrived we left again and caught a bus to the Taba border crossing with Egypt, less than ten kilometres to the southwest. Getting through the border and organising a minibus on the other side took most of two hours. There were numerous passport checks and two sets of border fees to pay. It was quite a process but once in Egypt everything became much cheaper.
The Egyptian minibus driver drove us to a beach side camp called Aquarium, about 30 minutes south of the border. It was one of many similar camps scattered along a curved stretch of white sandy beach known as Bi’r Suwayr on the eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Most camps are owned and operated by Sinai Bedouin and consist of small collections of khoshas: wooden frame huts made with palm fronds. Each camp generally has a small restaurant serving traditional home cooked food and basic shower and toilet amenities.
The camps are particularly popular with Israelis who visit regularly for a dose of cheap beachside relaxation. The area can get very busy during popular holidays like Sukkot, when all the huts are occupied and tents are required to support the influx of visitors. Very few Europeans or other international tourists seem to visit the camps. Instead, they tend to stay further south in more developed resort towns like Nuweibaa, Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh. During the period when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, before its withdrawal in 1982, all of these towns used to be Israeli settlements.
When we arrived at Aquarium camp, we were immediately greeted by our potential hosts and served tea, before even discussing our accommodation. We were not sure at that point whether Aquarium was even the right camp for us or whether the driver had just dropped us off at a place where he knew the people who ran it. The staff at the camp spoke very little English but they seemed both relaxed and sincere and any Israelis we’d spoken to had typically mentioned how cheap it was to stay there.
After the tea, we had a brief walk around the camp. The calm waters of the Red Sea were right in front of the accommodation huts and almost the entire camp was surrounded by fine sand. Several traditional Bedouin-style seating areas provided comfortable places to relax and enjoy the view. It was a stunning environment and we soon discovered that it would cost only 100 Egyptian Pounds (£4.30) for the hut, per night. Food and drinks were kept on a running tab and the restaurant was open all day. If we wanted something, we just asked and it was prepared for us on the spot and brought to wherever we were sitting.
Thankfully for us there were only four other people in the camp when we arrived, all of the them Israelis, and by the middle of the week, they had all left, and we had the entire camp to ourselves.
Our accommodation was a wooden frame hut with a low pitch roof, made of dry palm fronds to form a small single room. It was built right on the sand only 30 metres from the water’s edge, with no other huts in front of it. The floor was a mat of locally woven rugs and a double mattress and some cushions formed our bed. A single light bulb inside provided illumination, but only between the hours of 6pm and midnight when the camp generator was running. The hut had a small verandah at the entrance, again with mats and cushions and a low table. It was the perfect place to sit and read or write, to drink tea and watch the water.
In the morning we usually woke up with the light, around 6:00. The mountains of Saudi Arabia across the sea would be a soft pink colour until after the sun came up. Sometimes we’d go for an early morning swim, then Clare would do some yoga and I’d go for breakfast. The restaurant included a kitchen and a large communal seating area, shaded with a thick roof of dried palm fronds. The area was divided into sections, each with a ring of cushions and a coffee table in the centre. Each morning I would order the same thing: coffee and a freshly made pancake topped with banana, Nutella and honey.
For the rest of the day, we’d alternate between reading or writing, going for swims, drinking tea, and taking short walks along the beach. The sand felt good to walk on and was well-maintained by the owners of the camp. Early each morning one of the staff would always be out raking the sand and sweeping it off the rugs and cushions of the seating areas.
About 40 metres from the shore was a reef that traces the line of a small cliff before it drops away into deeper water. It is ideal for snorkelling, with lots of different kinds of coral and a variety of interesting and colourful fish. The reef is teeming with life and has the appearance of an underwater garden. Some of the species we saw, like the mesmerising Lion Fish, we later discovered are quite venomous.
For lunch we’d normally order a plate of salad (capsicum, cucumber and tomato) with roasted flat bread, soft white cheese and tahini. The flies were particularly prevalent in the middle of the day, so each mouthful of food was accompanied by loads of swishing and swiping this way and that in an effort to keep them at bay. By sunset the flies had gone and the evening meal could be had in peace.
Every day around 3pm two fisherman from the camp would get into a little boat moored near the shore and head out to catch fish for the evening meal. By this time the moon’s effect had made the waters calm and the sea looked more like a placid lake. Seventeen kilometres across the water, the mountains of Saudi Arabia again began to slowly change colour, becoming ever pinker as the sun sets lower in the sky. It was a wonderfully soft landscape in the evening. The waves lapped at the shore, a subtle breeze would gently move westward from the sea, occasionally a dog would bark. The atmosphere was peaceful and always felt like the perfect end to a hot day.
For the evening meal, there was the option of fresh fish when the fisherman returned, normally around 6 or 7pm. The putt-putt of their little boat signalled their arrival and the light from one of their head torches gradually revealed their location as they emerged from the darkness. They would bring their catch up to the kitchen and invite you to choose the fish you would like to eat. It was then steam-cooked and served with fresh salad, rice and flat bread.
There was no WiFi at the camp which was nice in many ways although it made it impossible to post to our blog. There was some 3G phone reception depending on where you were, emanating from mobile phone towers dotted along the coast. Devices could only be charged in the evening after 6pm when the generator was running and only from wall sockets in the restaurant.