By Julie Mora Perez and Jasmine Boyd in association with the Handicapped Scuba Association International

As an exotic dive/travel destination it would be difficult to outdo Egypt, especially when part of the journey includes actually touching the Great Pyramid, marveling at the centuries-old wall paintings in the Valley of the Kings tomb of Ramesses IV, and riding a camel to “The Oasis” – a dive site that’s like a rare sapphire set in the shimmering desert sands.

That’s how a dozen vacationers spent 16 activity-packed days on the Handicapped Scuba Association’s (HSA) annual “big” trip. The travel group included 5 people in wheelchairs who bravely waited on the airport tarmac 3 hours before even beginning the 11 hour flight from New York to Cairo.

Cairo

Our first impressions of Cairo are that it is a city which in some ways has entered the 20th century, with cars, taxi’s, noise, and people abounding, but it is also a city steeped in an ancient allure that exists even today. There are donkeys in the streets pulling wagons, all the men wear robes, and the women all wear the traditional hijabs to cover their heads.

It is a 40 minute drive through horribly chaotic traffic to arrive at the Movenpick Pyramids Hotel (20-2-385-2555), a peacefully landscaped, single story edifice that is not only accessible but also has an extremely accommodating staff. Upon noting that there was no wheelchair access to the pool, hotel employees built a ramp within 15 minutes of our request.

On the ground, travel within Egypt was in the air-conditioned comfort of mini-vans with hired helpers to lift people in wheelchairs. One or two steps were encountered at almost every location, and getting across sand was often required, but with assistance from the hired aides, virtually everything was possible. The helpers were arranged in advance through a tour company, Sylvia Tours (20-2-302-6699), at a rate of $30 per day/per person.

As wheelchair users we found Egypt fairly accessible with minimal assistance, particularly when visiting the Great Pyramid and The Sphinx, both of which date back to 1700 BC. You can get dropped off right at the pyramid and wheel your chair up and touch one of the massive blocks; Each one about 5-1/2 feet tall. Getting all the way around the pyramid in a chair, though, is not as easy. However, the interesting option of renting a camel does exist. Still, even with this alternative transportation, the only way into the Great Pyramid is to be carried, which is made all the more difficult by the heat and narrow interior. The Sphinx, with caravans of camels crossing the desert in the nearby vista, also provided an accessibility challenge. To get as close as possible, three steps had to be overcome with the aid of our hired assistants.

Accessibility certainly wasn’t an issue for those whose credit cards burned as hot as the desert sand while touring the Khan Al Khalili Bazaar – an open-air marketplace where rows and rows of boutiques competed with one another across narrow passageways — selling everything from perfume bottles to gold and silver jewelry to rugs.

For those whom shopping wasn’t enough of a thrill, back at the hotel was another sort of hypnotic entertainment – belly dancing. There was a belly dancing act every night and we often relaxed and took in the show.

For the archaeologically-inclined, the Cairo Museum contains a huge collection of Egyptian antiquities. Among them, the treasures of Tutankhamun, the famous boy-king who ascended the throne at the age of 9 in about 1334 BC. First excavated in 1922, King Tut’s tomb was the only one in the Valley of the Kings to have been found not pillaged by robbers. His throne is only the size of a modern dining chair, but made entirely out of gold.

 

Dahab

A soft, low murmur of predominantly male voices assemble beneath a star-filled night. It’s a social gathering with little cups of espresso so strong it is syrupy, so dark it matches the inky-black desert sky. In the spirit of friendship a hookah pipe is passed, containing a lung-searing, eye-watering, but tasty tobacco. Black-banded, white headdresses flutter around faces weathered by heat and wind and sand. No, it’s not a scene from some “Lawrence of Arabia” sequel, it’s a typical laid-back night in downtown Dahab – a Bedouin village on the east coast of the Sinai peninsula.

By day Dahab is just as interesting, just as much of a cultural surprise, as one could imagine. We found Dahab to be the highlight of the trip. It was like an old hippie town: very quaint and charming, with one dirt street and camels everywhere. Camels in Dahab are still a main mode of transportation. Accessibility is also good, as you can wheel from the hotel all the way to the other end of town, stopping at shops along the way.

Unlike the distinctively native atmosphere of Dahab itself, the Nesima Resort and Diving Center (20-62-640-320) is not only luxurious and accessible (with 5 wheelchair accessible rooms), but its open-air dining area is right on the beach with the Red Sea as a stunning backdrop. It is mesmerizing to sit in the cool ocean breeze and snack on pita bread with tahini dip while watching camels cross the beach, led by Bedouin riders, their hoods flapping in the wind.

And the diving? Not far from shore, the calm, clear water reveals spectacular reefs and lots and lots of lionfish, beginning at a depth of about 20 feet. More than 1000 species of fish inhabit Dahab’s abundant and colorful coral reefs.

As if all this weren’t enough, an entirely different type of adventure awaited our divers on the Camel Safari Dive. Camels transported us to a remote dive spot called “The Oasis,” a palm-tree lined Blue Pool surrounded by nothing but desert. While the camels were turned loose to graze, we swam through the Blue Pool to the other side and the reef. There were pristine corals – cones and formations you could swim through, blanketing mounds in every direction. After surfacing from the first dive an authentic Bedouin lunch was prepared on-site.

Although it felt a little precarious perched atop the hump of a one-humped camel, we loved the safari dive. It was an incredible experience, riding through the Egyptian desert along the Sinai coast with a mild wind blowing through your hair and listening to the pitter-patter of camel feet.

Dahab scored well with everyone from the standpoint of its quality dive sites and for its accessibility. The divers truly enjoyed diving in Dahab where entries were easier, marine life was plentiful and there were no currents to struggle against.

Sharm El Sheikh

Of course, for an Egyptian dive trip to be truly complete, it’s a “must” to experience Sharm El Sheikh, where the tip of the Sinai peninsula juts into the Red Sea. Exhaustively publicized, Sharm boasts a number of notable dive sites. Unfortunately, most of these also involve water currents, sometimes quite strong. It’s boat diving in Sharm and it’s a veritable bustle of boats since they all depart from the same public dock. In its favor, it is a flat, easy push from the hotel, The Camel Dive Resort (20-62-600-700), which has 5 totally accessible rooms.

At sea, the boat traffic is only slightly better. Some commented that it was a zoo, with boats anchored like cars at Christmas time in a Macy’s parking lot. However, sea life was teeming at the dive spot, Ras Ghazalni – swarms of small fish like a rippling curtain of fins and tails. There was even a huge angel shark, some 10 feet long.

For travelers who appreciate the ways of pre-high rise Egypt, the crowding in Sharm is not likely to please. It is quickly being built up because after the year 2000 there will be no more building permits issued, so all along the coast you are finding wall-to-wall hotels. Sharm is, sadly, losing some of its charm.

 

Luxor

The last stop on our tour required a flight aboard Egypt Air to the city of Luxor. On the Nile River, it is green and plush, but holds quite a cultural surprise for Western visitors. Some of the people there live like they did 2000 years ago, in mud-brick houses that appear to blend into the sand and the mountainsides.

Leaving the mud houses to their inhabitants, our group settled into the Movenpick Luxor (20-95-374-855) with its view of the Nile – a stunning contrast of beauty and industry. Fishermen still use ancient methods, throwing down their nets and slapping the water with a stick to chase the fish into them. It is almost like traveling back in time.

If there is time and opportunity, the best way to see Luxor is by horse and buggy. A rental is only $5.00. Of course, there is the almost mandatory temple tour, where the standard answer to “Where are we going now?” becomes “ABT” (“Another Bloody Temple”). However, the true standout is viewing the massive grandeur of the Karnak Temple, first on the tour, and the most transforming in its capacity to recapture the era in its original magnificence. The temples are truly awesome to behold. All are open air and wheelchair accessible with only minor assistance. Nothing can compare with the feeling of being at the Luxor Temple near sunset… It is simply gorgeous!

The Valley of the Kings, close to Luxor, is known to be the final resting place of at least 33 Pharaohs. Their tombs are visible as entrance holes in a mountainside, where steps lead to once elaborately furnished burial chambers deep within the earth. The ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation, and as the personification of the Sun God, the Pharaoh was customarily buried with every imaginable convenience and luxury he might need in the Afterlife. Today, all that remains of these tombs, which were pillaged, sometimes only a few years after they were sealed, are the detailed wall paintings depicting events in the life of the Pharaoh. Surprisingly, the tomb of Ramesses IV is ramped, providing wheelchair access quite deep inside!

 

Once you’ve been somewhere like Egypt, traveling takes on a whole new meaning. You just cannot imagine how people live in other parts of the world until you’ve been there and experienced it. It’s what I call “culture shock travel” and Egypt is one of the best places for such an experience. A final word to the wise: Despite the venerable age of the country, baggage handlers WILL be baggage handlers, so wheelchair travelers are advised not to take their best chairs. Realize too, that accessibility of hotel rooms generally means hand-held showers and passable doorways. We’re not talking ADA standards.