Sudan - not for the feint hearted

I (along with Steve B) joined a group of 10 divers to Sudan. All were under special invitation only and the choice of destination hand picked. Little did we know that getting to Sudan was to be the biggest challenge of the trip as trouble over obtaining a visa and therefore permission to enter the country, pulled away some of the excitement building up to the trip.

A surprisingly easy journey to Cairo and on to Sudan left us sighing with relief as Sudan Air touched down with the plane still in tact. The planes were old and gave us little confidence that they were going to make the journey. We made it past the guards who hand searched each item of our luggage. We experienced delays both ways but at least made it there and back on the date the ticket said, which for Sudan Air, I understand, is very good.

Once on the boat we slept and the beauty of Sudan appeared at sunrise as we headed off on blue clear water to dive our first reef of the 14 days we were on the boat. The air temperature reached 30 degrees C by 8 am increasing to the mid forties later in the day.

Our boat was a Turkish gullet, beautiful and comfortable due to the way the crew ran it. Without air conditioning this boat is not for those that crave luxury and to stay cool, each night was spent sleeping in commune in the open-air sun lounging area or the `poop deck' as it became known. This gave us the advantage of waking up to the sun rising and dolphins passing by as they started their morning feed. Bottlenose, Spinner and Risso dolphins appeared regularly on the bow of our boat as we moved through the Sudanese waters.

Water temperature of 29 degrees C and reefs bursting with life invited us in each day with consistent enthusiasm for more. The downside was that Sudan diving is predominantly run by Italian companies whose Italian clients seem to feel that sunbathing is priority and two dives a day sufficient. For the rest of us hard core divers, this was not nearly enough and we managed to get two night dives and two extra day dives during the fortnight as a special concession, still not what we wanted or had agreed with the agents we booked with.

As we headed north up the Sudanese Red Sea we were soon the only boat in the water and had the reef to ourselves. We dived the most popular reefs, mentioned in all the dive books, in particular a reef called Shaab Rumi that was a favourite dive due to the number and closeness of sharks. The reef, a steep wall, plateaux at around 25-30 metres before dropping off into the deep blue.

This creates a current or surge that the pelagics hang around in. Grey sharks parade here and are indeed in their element. Confidently they appear out of nowhere and move over the plateau around and often, behind you. Your mind trips back to the Jaws scenes as you see a shark loom in face on. Your brain kicks in and you lift the camera to take some definitely different and hopefully impressive shots.

Once we got over the thrill of the sharks after a few dives here, we began to appreciate that the site held other pleasures in the form of a resident shoal of sweetlips and a group of big eye that I have only ever witnessed in ones or twos. Barracuda clustered together in their hundreds, always avoiding the right pose for a good picture. Trumpet fish cruised along and shoals of Jack and Trevalis rushed about. This truly was an interesting plateau. Hammerheads featured on deeper dives with one coming up the reef to around 20 metres to observe what I was doing. These guys have awesome features and are creatures to be admired if lucky enough to see them close up.

As a contrast, reefs such as Merlo or Abington, offer stunning walls and reveal marine life at whatever depth you choose to hang. Nudibranchs, we identified as Wind Dancers (chromodoris) were found in a group of four and were as thrilling as being with the sharks. These nudibranchs are extremely rare in the Red Sea. As their skirts danced in the current, the group of photographers looked at one another hoping someone had a shot left to take.

Turtles were relaxed and undisturbed, even curious of us, and fish that normally would appear singly appeared in massive groups. Seeing a huge shoal of a few hundred Titan triggerfish for those that have experienced an aggressive one is both amusing and more fearful than the group of sharks. Caves with glass fish were also present if you chose to look for them. A great sight I'll always remember was around 35-45 masked puffer fish swimming in unison over a reef. Marine life aside, the corals were abundant and at Ma Sherifa huge soft corals like tree trunks arranged themselves in an underwater garden effect.

Two dive sites reminded us of man's intervention or addition to the life under the water. Jacques Cousteau, back in 1963, built an underwater village in Sudan. This was known as Conshelf Two with five men living in a starfish-shaped house for four weeks, never surfacing. The house has since been removed but the garage remains and a scanty tool shed. The former, shaped like an urchin sits near a drop off and is now covered in soft and hard corals, providing a marine habitat. It proved an excellent night dive.

At Sha'ab Suadi, we dived the wreck of the Blue Bell. This wreck ran on to the reef some years ago with a cargo of trucks. It slid off the reef and turned around, now lying upside down, with the bow on the reef edge at 14m and stern on the bottom on 64m. Toyota trucks stand upright on the reef shelf at 14m. The first swim through at 45-55 metres was great as a huge shoal of trevalis spiralled inside. The water felt cooler and denser and fish charged around inside the wreck. This swim through was pretty empty but the deeper swim through has more apparent wreckage.

Our final day gave us the chance to carry out two dives on the Umbria. This gave us the opportunity to first explore the stern and then the bow section and also get inside the holds. This Italian vessel was a merchant ship scuttled when Italy declared war on England in 1942. It was an excellent wreck but visibility closer to Port Sudan was not as we had become accustomed to over the last two weeks. Bursting with marine life this wreck provided us with a complete structure plus interesting cargo, bombs stacked high, hundreds of Italian wine bottles still corked and old Fiat cars still lined up. I spotted up to 12 Candy Striped nudibranch on a red sponge on the wreck and a resident giant puffer fish lived in the bridge area.

As a finale a group of dolphins gave one of our group a farewell display and left us all buzzing with the memory of our close snorkel with them only a few days before.

If I could go back without the hassle of the Sudan Airport and with as many dives a day as I could handle, I would, as I feel there were many reefs that we did not see. If not, I'll pass and head back to the Southern Egypt Red Sea or the Brothers Islands instead or perhaps look for another adventure elsewhere.


This page was last updated on : 06 Sep 2011