When it came to a destination for a family diving holiday, Mark Evans set his sights on Egypt.
With Roots Red Sea, he found the perfect place to relax, enjoy great diving and make the most of some quality time with his wife and son.
“You’re taking Luke to Egypt?” with a concerned expression was a common reaction we experienced when we mentioned plans for our Easter family diving holiday, and it regularly infuriated me.
My wife Penney and I have taken our son to Egypt twice before – when he was just two, and again when he was eight – and personally I have been to the country more than 55 times over the past 20-odd years, so we know exactly what to expect, but ever since the direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh were put on hold and the mainstream media has seemingly delighted in blowing any minor incident in the whole region totally out of all proportion, Egypt has had to deal with many critics having bizarre misconceptions about what the country and its people are like.
In many cases, I embark on a righteous crusade to educate them about Egypt, the Red Sea and its culture, but other times – as a glazed and confused expression settles across their faces – I just agree to disagree and move on.
As for us, we are dedicated Egypt fans, and when it became time for a family diving holiday, it was the first place on our wishlist. Luke – now 12 – was a PADI Junior Open Water Diver, and he was set to chalk up his Junior Advanced course (which will be the subject of another article in The Next Generation in a future issue). He’d got his initial qualification in the UK and Florida Keys, but for his next foray underwater, there was no other place I wanted to take him than the Red Sea.
We are very spoilt here in the UK. Literally on our doorstep – a mere five or so hour flight away – we have some of the most-diverse Indo-Pacific diving imaginable, a sublime blend of vibrant coral reefs, myriad varieties of marine life, stunning walls and jaw-dropping shipwrecks.
With an array of resorts and hotels running from El Gouna in the north all the way down to past Marsa Alam in the south, not to mention liveaboards embarking on exciting itineraries from Hurghada, Safaga and Port Ghalib, you have a wide range of options regardless of your budget or other requirements.
While I would have loved to take Penney and Luke on a liveaboard, with him only being four-dives-in to his underwater adventures, we felt it might have been a little daunting, so I went for the next best thing – the friendly, welcoming, self-contained resort of Roots Red Sea, which could be described as a ‘land-based liveaboard’ due to the compact nature of the place and the day-to-day set-up for food and diving.
Ideally located a few kilometres north of the coastal town of El Quseir, it is just an hour and a half in a minibus from Hurghada, and an hour from Marsa Alam, so getting there is a piece of cake. Roots is split over two areas – a private beach with a dive centre and beach restaurant, and then a three-minute walk inland over the road is the main resort, where there are all of the accommodation options, a swimming pool, reception, dive centre, restaurant/bar and various chill-out areas.
Operated by experienced British couple Steve and Clare Rattle, the first thing which hits you about Roots is its truly warm and welcoming feel. Rather than just being another ‘guest’, it is almost like staying with friends and family. Due to it being relatively small, it doesn’t take long to get to know any other people staying there, and the way in which the meals are provided – buffet-style eaten on long tables where everyone mingles together – helps to get the conversation flowing.
On our first morning, we went and had a hearty breakfast, and then traipsed to the resort dive centre with all of our gear in mesh bags. While we filled in all of the usual paperwork and presented our C-cards, dive instructor Fathy Abu El Fadek and DMT Kirsty Hobson quickly and efficiently issued us with numbered plastic crates, noted down the brand of our various bits of kit, and then had them shuttled down to the beach dive centre ready for our first dives of the trip.
I don’t think my dive gear has ever been so well treated! At the end of each day, it was all rinsed and then hung up to dry, before being stashed back in our box the next morning. At the end of the week, it received a thorough wash – including inside the BCD bladder. I am surprised it didn’t fall apart from the shock!
We were also given a bottle of water each, inside a number neoprene sleeve. This was ours to use for the whole week, and there were refill stations throughout the main resort and down at the beach facilities, which obviously cuts down massively on any waste. If you have your own water bottles, you can bring them with you and slot them into one of the sleeves.
The Roots dive team have a wide selection of dive sites at their disposal, and diagrams of all of them are prominently positioned on the wall, so you can plan your diving with your instructor/guide. Many of them are shore dives, some are accessed via Pharaoh Dive Club’s own RIB based in El Quseir, and others utilise larger RIBs or hardboats if they are further offshore, such as the legendary Elphinstone reef or the tragic Salem Express shipwreck. Whatever your level of experience, you will find plenty to keep you occupied.
For us, at least for a few days, we were going to be based close to home – a short wander later and we were down at the beach dive centre, where our crates of kit were stationed under a cylinder ready to be set up. A concrete path leads to a natural split in the reef, where you can dive through in a couple of metres and emerge on to the house reef.
Now there are many ‘house reefs’ around the world, and in many cases, while they offer a convenient way to go diving, they can’t exactly be described as fabulous, not-to-be-missed dive sites in their own right. However, there are some notable exceptions, and the Roots House Reef definitely deserves to be on that list. Over the course of several days, we got to know this site intimately, and I can see why it is often showered with accolades.
Once you head through the ‘cut’ in the fringing coral, you have several options. Directly in front of you is a large expanse of sand, which slopes off increasingly steeply the deeper you go. In the middle of this sandy desert is a clump of rocks, which were home to lionfish, pufferfish and damselfish, and were also the focus for mating squid, which were laying their eggs inside the nooks and crannies. A little further down the slope is a rudimentary statue now smothered in coral and encrusting marine growth.
However, while it is fun cruising around this sandy area, looking for flatfish and blue-spotted stingrays, the main action can be found on either side. To the north, the reef wall gradually increases in depth, with a couple of coral heads in 5m-8m that you can have a good mooch about, and plenty of marine life to be found. A stunning table coral protruding from one of these coral heads often sheltered large soldierfish and porcupine pufferfish, and big scorpionfish and lionfish staked a claim beneath any overhangs.
The reef stays quite steep until you reach about 12m-15m and then the terrain changes, and it becomes more of a gradual slope disappearing off into the depths. By the time you reach the ‘corner’ and head off up the outside of the reef out of the bay, it vanishes well below recreational depths. However, you don’t need to venture too far, and we found the most-prolific marine life was within the bay area, especially in the top 10m. Luke was entranced by two large anemonefish who regularly hovered a couple of metres above their host anemone on an rocky ridge some 8m deep.
Next to this is a carpet anemone, and if you looked closely, there were scores of bright orange ‘sexy shrimp’ hopping about and waving their abdomens furiously. All along the reef there were always triggerfish, parrotfish, boxfish, pufferfish, damselfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, wrasse, fusiliers, grouper, snapper and all the other typical Red Sea reef dwellers in attendance.
To the south, shortly after coming through the ‘cut’, there is a natural coral amphitheatre brightly lit by shafts of sunlight, which was always filled with butterflyfish munching on jellyfish in the water column. This soon morphs into a sheer coral-encrusted wall, which as well as being popular with all the regular reef residents, is also adorned with nudibranchs, and many of the holes in the rock are home to various species of moray eel.
Eventually the wall becomes a sloping reef more akin to the north, but around 18m-20m, there is a pinnacle swarming with life. Glassfish dart back and forth in mirrored shoals, while predatory lionfish and juvenile jacks stalk their next meal. In the midst of all of this, there is a bright red anemone tucked into the coral, complete with resident anemonefish, though these guys are much smaller than the two whoppers on the north wall. Still feisty, though!
Most of our dives were spent on and around these main areas, as Luke went through his various Adventure Dives, and while he was obviously blown away by his first real diving experience in the Red Sea, there was plenty to keep Penney and I busy while he was running through skills and drills. The south wall was absolutely teeming with life on the night dive, and we were lucky enough to find a massive Spanish dancer crawling about in around 9m. All I remember of the night dive is Luke zipping back and forth between us and his instructor Fathy like a frenetic human version of a flashlight fish!
However, we did venture further afield on occasion, and our final day saw us out in the Pharaoh Dive Club RIB exploring just outside the harbour at El Quseir. Luke was excited because it was the first time he’d rolled out of an inflatable, and while this was a highlight, underwater I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head at The Rock, a dive site where the reef was literally smothered in anemones, each with several attendant anemonefish.
Sadly the vis wasn’t great due to the fact that all week the wind had blown up, so we didn’t get the full effect, but it was still an amazing sight to see so many anemones all together. I can see why it is considered a true rival to Ras Mohammed’s Anemone City dive site.
Our final dive was along the fringing reef heading back towards the harbour, and I was overjoyed when halfway through the dive – which again was marred slightly by ropey wind-driven vis – I saw Fathy turn around and give Luke the unmistakable signal for ‘turtle’. Luke swam around the coral head and there, chilling on the bottom but just starting to make plans to head up for a quick breathe, was a monster green turtle.
It dwarfed Luke, especially when it lazily swam up from its reef perch and slowly, effortlessly, did a wide circle around our little group and disappeared up into the gloom. A fabulous way to end Luke’s first – but surely not last – week of diving in the Red Sea.
While we all loved the diving side of things, this was a family holiday, and so we also enjoyed some pool time, playing the various games available for the sandy courtyard in the resort, including ladder ball, boules and so on, or just chilling on the beach. I got roped into assisting Luke with a set up of his construction vehicles for an authentic photograph.
It was the Easter holidays, so DMT Kirsty found herself organising some fun and games for the handful of children who were in the resort, including egg-and-spoon races, egg-painting, egg hunts and more.
Roots Red Sea offered the perfect tonic to manic life back home. Everything is laidback and done at your own pace. Steve and Clare run a tight ship, and they have a great team of staff at their disposal. Luke immediately felt at home, and enjoyed the freedom to go and do what he wanted, or wander back and forth between the beach facilities and the main resort.
All of the staff were great with him, Penney and I were comfortable knowing he was safe and someone always had eyes on him, and we couldn’t have asked for better instructors than Fathy Abu El Fadel and Mohammed Mansy. But don’t just take my word for it – come and sample the Roots Red Sea experience for yourself, it will surely not be the last time you visit this little desert gem.
Photographs by Mark Evans & Penny Evans