Marsa Nakari – learn to dive diary by Sharmin Islam
This diary will give those thinking about taking 'the plunge' a better idea of what's involved as Sharmin gives her account of learning to dive on a week long holiday at Marsa Nakari.
Approximately half past six Egyptian time, Friday December 30th, and therefore, of course the night before New Years Eve. Stepping off the plane after a comfortable five hour flight, we are instantly greeted at Marsa Alam International by a soothing warm breeze, a stark contrast to the chilly Christmas snow we hastily left behind. Having rarely been away during the festive season, let alone with four quirky but pretty unfamiliar characters (Lydia and hubby Paul, and their two friends Charlie and Lee), something tells me this is going to be one trip to remember. The sole difference between the rest of the gang and myself is the fact that this is to be my very first ever diving experience and hopefully a successful qualifying one by the week's end...
One hour and a minibus ride later, we arrive at our long awaited destination, Marsa Nakari, and receive an even warmer welcome from Mahmoud, manager of the camp, Hesham, general manager, and their hospitable staff for whom nothing is too much trouble. There is certainly no sense of sycophancy as is often associated with some global resorts, this is definitely a “everyone is part of the family” orientated vibe, and one that suits me just fine. Pretty clay ground lights are interspersed along pathways, which suits the unfussy style and gives the camp a picturesque view from a distance. The added bonus to our evening arrival is having to wake up on Saturday, and appreciate it all over again in its morning glory. However, the night is still young, and no weary travelling is going to force me into early retirement.
There are three types of accommodation for all holidaymakers to choose from, which are tents, mandarahs (traditional stone huts), and madyafas (en suite chalets). I have already opted for the chalet which is very spacious inside and incredibly clean and includes all basic amenities. These chalets also consist of porches at the back which house wicker chairs and a table facing onto the back of the desert, which is ideal for chill out time away from the social interaction when preferred, with only the rhythmic sounds of the desert breeze and breaking waves for company – hmmm, I could definitely get used to this.
Not really knowing what to expect and only going by Lydia's impressive descriptions, I am already overwhelmed by the whole vibe and unblemished beauty of the resort, and I haven't even been in the famous Red Sea yet (skinny dipping or not)! There is still more to be discovered as I find on retiring to the newly built restaurant and it's vast array of traditional and European buffet food, ranging from Mediterranean salads and hot home cooked pulses, stews and meats, through to about seven different desserts (and all astoundingly created from scratch by just one dessert chef – take note Gordon Ramsay!) After our fourth helpings of just about everything with the unfortunate assistance of pleasant interactive waiters, I begin to wonder if I'll be diving by the end of this tour, or getting harpooned instead if my gluttonous ways get the better of me - mastering the art of buoyancy control will be interesting. So far I feel rather spoilt, and this is all very much a treat for me, but it is noticeable that all the other guests are equally as spoilt too. After our exceptional dinner of “eat-as-much-as-you-like”, we head back to the sheltered communal table/seating area where guests and staff interact in a relaxed atmosphere, usually aided by a few bottles of Egyptian beer and chill out music to help break the ice. What feels like hours later and having familiarised myself with my little gang, I decide to call it a night and drift off to the soothing sound of the Red Sea desert breeze.
Saturday morning and New Years Eve. Having slept surprisingly well, I emerge from my chalet bleary eyed, that is, until I face the gorgeous desert heat – not stifling but hot nonetheless. What an instant mood enhancer. Breakfast is another large buffet with the same welcoming smiley faces from the night before. As the more experienced divers, including my travelling companions, head out to various reefs in search of oceanic sharks, dolphins, and colourful marine life which the Red Sea is so famous for, little old me is left behind to self study on more theoretical open water knowledge.
After an unsurprisingly exquisite buffet lunch (and prophetic visions of my inevitable harpooning), the gang exchange intriguing tales of types of fish I've never heard of, let alone be able to recognise on a sighting. Now I really feel naïve, but as with most things in life, it is an acquired knowledge through sheer eagerness. I certainly get the impression that learning to dive becomes a very addictive pastime once introduced to, if the enthusiasm and childlike animated faces all round are anything to go by. The remainder of my afternoon is taken up by Paul (one of the gang, and conveniently a dive instructor) introducing me to the dive equipment and how I shall be laden with it from this present moment onwards.
In the meantime, the hard grafting staff are busy setting up New Years Eve celebratory equipment around us which is a nice touch and creates a sense of unanimous spirit and anticipation for the night ahead. Afternoon cake is presented at the regular time of four o'clock when all divers return from their various adventures and further enlightening tales are exchanged. All the hyped up energy leaves me a little sleepy and I feel a short nap coming on, the only problem being I'm too excited to doze.
Having recharged my batteries after half an hour, I'm once again ready to face the world, or should I say desert. Word soon goes around that a huge feast has been prepared over the course of the day for all seventy odd guests to begin the New Year celebrations. And lo behold, there laid before us in the restaurant is the most spectacular banquet I have ever seen, served up by the most impeccable staff. Huge platters of starters, moving on to hot food, none knows where to start and the colourful display is endless. Lydia also manages to count up to twenty one, yes twenty one desserts, all created once again by the one and only dessert chef - I'm astounded and not the only one.
The atmosphere is buzzing as everyone tucks into the veritable feast fit for king, and after bombarding Hesham with generous compliments of his staffs' impeccable work, he discreetly vanishes from the table only to reappear with the said master chefs all in a lineup. The rapturous applaud and cheer is unanimously heartfelt and the chefs all look rather embarrassed but they deserve it and more so. Such modesty is quite endearing and I feel pleased that we have the opportunity to make them feel appreciated. After the feeding of the five thousand, guests leave the restaurant in dribs and drabs making the short walk back to the communal area for celebrations to get going.
The safari logo has been laid out in coal along a background stretch of raised sand and lit up to create an impressive fiery glow, and in the foreground is a large circle of spotlights with a small bundle of firewood for a miniature bonfire in the centre, should anyone feel the need to demonstrate funky moves or even belly dance God forbid! I'll leave that to the professionals. The huge sound system with its equally huge speakers has just been set up and is being tested out repeatedly. The sound reverberates in such a way that I imagine it to be heard in neighbouring countries, but it can hardly be regarded as noise pollution, and everyone is in high spirits (including the distilled duty free variety!) The celebration is great and the first New Year I've enjoyed without feeling the pressure that being in the UK imposes on us most of the time. Drink is flowing and lots of people milling around the whole camp, all with the added backdrop of the Red Sea and its sounds. Such bliss, I might have to make this an annual habit from now on, as I can't think of a more relaxed way to see the New Year in. Being two hours ahead, the midnight chimes are sound followed by the countdown, and fireworks are set off. New Year greetings are exchanged between staff and guests and the partying continues in true Egyptian style into the early hours. As usual I end up being one the few last standing stragglers and decide to call it a night as the bonfire disintegrates into a pile of ashes.
Sunday morning and my mouth feels like the desert – parched. Grabbing my bottled water I head out to witness the aftermath of the night before half expecting sights reminiscent of Dawn Of The Dead and smirk at the comparisons of various regrettable hangovers, as I have none to compare, lucky me.
The timetable is as usual, and after breakfast, people head out to their next adventures at sea, or like myself, remain on camp for more studying and practical lessons on basic techniques. I find it difficult to envisage becoming familiar with the whole diving experience in one week, which I find that most experienced divers all feel at some stage during the beginning. A wave of mixed emotions comes over me and if I'm honest I find the whole idea extremely daunting and even suffocating. After all it's not natural to be able to breathe under water and the vast depths below can create psychological fears of losing control. I almost allow my worst fears to get the better of me as I grow increasingly anxious and find myself unable to face it today. The most frustrating feeling is being unable to pinpoint the core of my anxiety, but I am increasingly assured by my instructor that it's a common reaction by all beginners and has experienced it himself. Having taken some time out to find my bearings and confront my fear, I return to the waters edge ever more determined to accomplish the challenge. All of a sudden I feel supercharged with a stronger and more positive energy and continue with the practical lessons and exercises throughout the day, managing a little recreational dive to build up my confidence. Watching all the beautiful marine life is fascinating and certainly distracts me and quashes any preconceived fears I had. What a difference in one day, now I see how it can be accomplished as it is a very intensive course and in some respects the most difficult level, due to the fact that everything is being learnt from scratch.
The next few days are pretty similar in their layout and most importantly my unwavering confidence has reached a comfortable plateau. Come Thursday, my last two qualifying dives have been successfully completed and all that remains is my theory test to be sat. As I sit peacefully near the sea, I pause momentarily and contemplate my week so far.
The sun is setting and a beautiful reddish yellow sphere sets the sky aglow, as I complete my test, moments away from my hopeful Open Water qualification. How surreal it all seems, the end of the week is nearing, and I've had a whole new world opened up to me which I never imagined I would experience. My moment of truth arrives, and judging by the look on my instructors face doesn't look promising, or is this merely a joke? I feel gutted after the early struggles and determined hard work I put into the course, but after a few torturous moments of badgering him for an answer, he finally gives me an emphatic yes (followed by a mock right hook from me). I am now officially a qualified diver! Relief and elation sweep over me and a Cheshire cat grin is permanently fixed on my face for the remainder of the evening. I return to the communal socialising area where I am greeted with a touching round of applause by my gang and guests I have not even met before. Time to celebrate and enjoy our last night in camp, and so the drinks start to flow and poignant memories begin to root themselves in my mind.
Leaving it all behind and saying goodbye to “the extended family” proves extremely difficult, yet the one consoling fact is that I will be returning and very soon, as this is one resort that you can never experience too much of. Now I appreciate Lydia and Paul's compulsions for extremely frequent trips there over the years, and judging by the glum looks on Charlie and Lee's faces on landing in the UK, they'll also be frequenting the resort as often as I intend to. As it happens I couldn’t have asked for a more amicable and humorous group to have shared my week with, and by the end we feel like we’ve known each other for a long time. So there we have it, one newly converted Oonas diver with gills and not a harpoon in sight. Now when was that next flight to Marsa Alam?...