One thing I didn't expect from our time in Egypt was to have very much time by the sea. We had planned Cairo and Luxor, and while the river Nile was obviously going to feature a lot in our time there, they are not coastal towns/cities and so would be low on the sea life front. Towards the end of our time in Africa though some of the Worldschool families started to talk about a group trip down to a place called Marsa Alam on the Red Sea coast. I had heard of Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh but admit that Marsa Alam had not been on my radar before, but it sounded incredible. A chance to escape the growing heat of inland Luxor, do some swimming and explore a new area.
With Kris sadly having some work commitments and not able to join us, the boys and I signed up and set off on a Thursday afternoon in a minibus with 4 other families. 5 adults, 4 teens/preteens and 3 younger kids, plus our driver and guide, all travelled the 4 and a half hours South East to Tunduba Beach. (Please don't feel too sorry for Kris left behind, he enjoyed a very peaceful couple of days catching up on work in peace, visiting the local restaurants for good, home cooked food and even had a night out with one of the other worldschool hub dads who had stayed behind, and there may or may not have been some rum involved on that night).
It was a long drive but the sight of the sea as we started driving along the coast was a welcome one, I hadn't realised how much I had missed it!
We were staying on an Eco Lodge camp site right on the beach. Some families in small, brick built huts and some in wooden ones, they were very basic and we were informed there would only be 4 hours of electricity every day, between 6 and 10pm so to use it wisely. There was also no Wifi so apart from the odd bar of mobile data to check in with family not with us, the internet was also out of action).
Although the accomodation was basic (it wasn't wise to spend too much time checking out the decor in the rooms) it was comfortable enough and it was great to be there with friends, ready to unplug from civilisation for a while.
That first evening was spent on the beach, the kids running off their excess energy from sitting in the bus all day while the dive centre rustled us up a delicous dinner of pasta, rice, flatbreads, falafels, salads and roasted vegetables.
The next morning found us in very windy weather and sadly the boat trip we had hoped to do could not go ahead. Still it was nice and warm and so we decided to hike 5km or so along the coast to find the infamous Al-Nayzak, a natural salt water pool that is believed to have been created by a meteorite hitting the land. Because of this locals call it "the shooting star" and we decided it was worth exploring.
The hike was long and hot but probably the most interesting hike we've ever done. The coast line was full of treasures: beautiful coloured stones, shells and sea glass. Pieces of coral washed up from the reef. Skeletons of giant puffer fish, eels and other unidentified animals and, scuttling between all of that, the largest number of hermit crabs any of us had ever seen!
Walking along the soft sand, picking our way through pebbles and scrambling over rocks while the children stopped to pick up treasures and show each other meant that the walk took a lot longer than we had anticipated, so it was a welcome view indeed when we saw the lake appear in front of us.
Small but perfectly formed, the waters were crystal clear and teeming with life, clown fish, jellyfish and small pufferfish were all spotted and as everyone began swimming and snorkelling. The older kids were convinced they could see the remains of the meteorite in the middle of the lake and took turns diving down to touch it (spolier alert, it definitely wasn't the original meteorite but it was fun to pretend).
The wind was still high though and getting out of the water meant your skin was hit with tiny grains of sand shifting about, we were glad to see a makeshift hut off to one side that we could use to change in and out of our swim gear in with some protection from the elements.
We arranged for our driver to meet us for the return leg and we were all very grateful when he arrived because our snacks were running low and bellies were empty. He gave us a lift into town where we found a small restaurant selling pizzas, burgers, pasta and salads and we all ate until fit to burst.
That night was spent playing card games, reading, the teens exploring with the pack of dogs who live on site and, just as the electricty was due to go off, we all retreated to bed falling to sleep quickly.
For full transparency it was not the best night's sleep any of us had ever had. Mosquitos made themselves well known and Jake, who had been reluctant to listen to me about application of sun cream that day, had burned the back of his legs on our walk meaning he was very uncomfortable and keen to make sure I was reminded...regularly.
The next morning came and although not very well rested we woke keen to see what the day would bring.
At the campsite our breakfast was included and served, buffet style, in a communal, open walled, covered dining area a short walk from the huts. Each morning would see flatbreads, jams, falafel, eggs and fruit along with plenty of hot, black tea which would set us up very well. I love communal eating like that, starting the day with conversation and planning for the day ahead.
The wind was still high so there would be no diving/sailing today either but we had asked our driver to take us out along the coast and he had some suggestions of a few places we could visit. So, all bundling back into the bus, with snacks we'd picked up from town the day before (plus some fruit and flatbreads from breakfast) we set off.
We were driving along to Wadi el Gemal National Park, about an hours drive south from the camp site. Some of us had seen photos of herds of wild camels here but were disappointed to learn that the photos probably hadn't been taken in Egypt and that if we did see any, we did spot one or two, they would probably be farmed camels. Still the area was beautiful and even more so as we reached our first stop, Qulaan mangrove beach, deep in the national park.
Have you ever seen photos of those beaches with white, soft sand and crystal clear waters? You know the ones, there's a coral reef shimmering just off the coast and green vegetation all around. That's Qulaan mangrove beach, actual paradise on earth.
The wind was still vicious, and if you stood in the wrong place your skin was painfully exfoliated but the sea was great and there was a covered hut where we could escape the wind and look out over the picteuresque bay. Some of the locals, there to offer handmade bead necklaces and other momentos brewed us up some Bedouin tea (black leaves flavoured with cinnamon and cardamon) and made us feel very comfortable.
After a while paddling in the waters, chilling in the tents, drinking tea and seeing how many crabs and jellyfish we could find we got back into the bus heading for our next stop, Sharm El Luli beach. This is a long, shallow warm lagoon with reefs either side and on a warmer day would have been a fabulous spot for some snorkelling, but alas the wind was still strong and we couldn't convince most of the teens to get back out of the bus. The younger kids were more engaged though and they had a lot of fun splashing in the shallow waters while us parents did our best to take some nice photos and protect them from the wind when it was time to get out.
Back to our campsite for fresh fruit and more delicious food from our hosts, and again an evening of games, chatting and movie watching for the younger ones (it's far too long winded to write about here, but any of you who know Jake "in real life", do ask him to tell you the story of the monster on the roof of their hut that night ;-))
Our final day began and, finally, the wind had died down. This meant that the older children could finally get out into the water for some proper snorkelling action. Two dive guides set off with them out to the coral reefs where they had a fabulous couple of hours watching green turtles, puffer fish, star fish and octopus and lots of other tropical fish besides. It was wonderful to see them heading off to have fun without adults and younger siblings tagging along!
The parents and younger kids hung out at the dive centre, a bit of swimming, lots of eating, lots more chatting and an impromptu scavenger hunt all meant the hours rushed by and all too soon it was time to be packing up and heading back through the Egyptian sands into Luxor.
Our drive home was a real long slog. We left later than planned from Marsa Alam and so our original route wasn't open any more. Tourists have to go through designated check points at designated times when travlling around Egpyt, a hangover from past decades when there were more troubles in the area, and because we were late it meant we had to go a slightly different way. I have tried to block a lot of the last bits of the journey because:
a) i was feeling very travel sick for the last half
b) mostly everyone else was feeling sick too
c) the children were all struggling as we got to hour 6 and
d) yeah, well, all of us in a minibus for 6 hours is enough to test anyone.
Still we made it back to Luxor with limited drama, all very pleased to be there! With sunkissed faces, hair full of sand, pockets full of stones and shells and many fabulous memories, it's a weekend we'll remember for a long time to come.