-- Clay Henderson's Log of the Red Sea

Red Sea Rising

My introduction to the Red Sea was from my seventh floor balcony of the Hurghada Hilton following an hour plane ride from Cairo.  On opening the sliding glass doors the gusts of strong northeast winds disheveled everything in my hotel room. It was a sign of things to come. 

 The next morning I experienced a 60 km taxi drive along the Eastern Desert to the phosphate port city of Safaga to meet Sea Gem.  Along this coastal drive were many conflicting sights including bombed out buildings from recent wars, world class diving resorts,  and Bedouin nomads.  My taxi driver made me put away my VHF radio and portable GPS when we cleared military checkpoints for fear they would consider me a spy.  Along this ride one could see the stark contrast between the green and blue hues of the Red Sea and the shades of brown of the Arabian Desert and the 2000m peaks of the Eastern Mountains.  As we headed south the wind continued to build and whipped up  sandstorms in cylindrical cyclones much like the pillars of fire and smoke described in Exodus.

 After an interesting conflict with local customs, I found Sea Gem with Charlie and Saundra well in tact.  The 55 foot motorsailor was docked next to a 750 foot phosphate ship.  I did not realize at the time that we would be this close to other such large ships during the next week.  At sunset, we pulled away from the dock and threaded through coral reefs and narrow passages to the anchorage opposite rally headquarters at Lotus Bay. The 2 hour trip to cover 2 miles gave us another lesson of the Red Sea. Charts are not always as they appear and nothing is properly marked.

 While the reefs at Safaga are apparently a great tourism draw, it was not for me. The water temperature of 62 degrees and a 21 knot wind was perfect for Russian and German tourists.  My snorkel, mask, and underwater camera are still packed. 

 Following a couple days in Safaga and an outstanding side trip to Luxor to view the antiquities, we weighed anchor a sunset in 18knots of wind to head north 204 miles to Suez.  Within a couple of hours the seas had built to 25 and it seemed that no matter which point of north we sailed, the wind was on our nose.  Through the course of the first night, the winds gusted to 35 and seas became more soupy with thick based and steep irregular waves.  Sea Gem is a stout and heavy ship and it would glance off the top of the first wave and pound down into the next with water slashing across the deck reducing visibility and limiting sleep.

 At  first light the next morning we arrived at a point outside the reef on schedule.  The plan was to divert inside the reef to the light green waters protected from the winds and waves.  We rode along the outside of the reef bouncing up and down looking at the dive boats with German tourists on the other side but could not find the way through.  What we did see were several hulks rusting atop the edge of the reef. Those boats were obviously desperate to find their way into the calmer waters before meeting their fate. As for us, we motored north into the teeth of it where the Gulf of Aquaba and Suez come together.

 For the rest of the day we dodged oil platforms, wells, and fishing boats while coaxing Robbie, the automatic pilot along.  During the course of the day the sand and  hyper saline waters of the Red Sea rendered the two freshwater makers inoperable.  The best part of the day was the view as we entered the narrower part of the Gulf of Suez.  We watched the sun rise above the peak of Mt. Sinai to our east and reflect against the mountains of the Eastern Desert to our west. 

 Our second night on the Red Sea was  hard work under uncomfortable conditions.  Navigation and steering were somewhat problematic.  As we headed north through several active oil fields there was always gas burning at the wellhead.  But the red glare of the burning gas was hard to distinguish from a red port running light.  At one point we  noted nine ships on our radar screen as the southbound ships from the Suez Canal made their way past us.  We had two close calls during this time.  First, we observed a fishing boat coming closer and closer to us. Once it was within a quarter mile, it turned around.  As we continued to watch it, we heard louder Arabic voices on the radio.  Eventually, we noticed the fishing boat turned around because a  1000 foot oil tanker was bearing down on us.  Another time we were hit to the port quarter by a rogue wave. We turned back into it to find we were staring broadside into a large  freighter. Too close for comfort in uncomfortable seas.

 About 44 hours into our trip, the seas calmed, the winds dropped, and it was a beautiful cruise into Suez Bay.  We passed in close proximity to over 25 freighters and tankers waiting to go north through the canal.  At 2:30 we joked that school was out as we watched the southbound collection of container ships, tankers, freighters, and yachts head south from the canal. 

 As we approached the canal, the mountains of Sinai and the Eastern Desert began to converge to a low point of the desert where the city of Suez and its canal begins. The Red Sea Cruising Guide has it right. There is a great feeling of euphoria for all northbound sailors on seeing the Port of Suez. For us, we covered 294 nautical miles in 47 memorable hours. 

 No where have I found the origin of the name Red Sea.  Obviously, it is a name that has been with this place since before the time of Moses and the Pharaohs.  On seeing the pillars of fire in the desert, it is obvious that some things have not changed in several thousand years.  On my first night on the Red Sea, I watched the full moon rise and reflect a deep bloody color from the desert sands across the sea. On successive sunrises over Sinai and sunsets of the Eastern Desert, I watched subtle shades of beige transformed into the red hues of sunset.  It is a reminder that three of the world's great religions stemmed from prophets who have emerged from the desert surrounding this place to tell of the word of God. Given that there has been an historic connection to the Creator of these parts, I will always believe it was named from on high. 

Twitching in Egypt

 There are 17 sailboats in the Millennium Odyssey circumnavigation  which have now converged on the Red Sea and for a tour of Egypt.  I have rendezvoused with Charlie and Saundra Gray on the Sea Gem as they have now made their way three quarters of the way around the world from their home in DeBary on the St. Johns River.  They are seasoned sailors and this has been a lifetime experience for them and I am pleased to join them.

 I have joined them with my binoculars around my neck and "Birds of the Middle East and North Africa" guidebook from the American Bird Conservancy. There are several boats and crew members from England, Australia, and New Zealand and they refer to me as "the twitcher," a British way to identify that certain sub-set of humans otherwise know as birdwatchers.

 Egypt and the Red Sea in the springtime is an outstanding place to see resident and migrating birds.  In my first 10 days here I have added 60 species to my life list and every stop reveals something new.

 People are very friendly here and many have volunteered to help me identify these birds.  Many children have never seen binoculars before. Today, I showed about a dozen children a flock of 50 Greater Flamingos on a mudflat.  They were amazed.  Several people have stopped me on the street to ask me what these small Bushnell's are and one asked me to pronounce and spell out b-i-n-o-c-u-l-a-r for him.   In return, I  have learned that the Arabic word for bird is "abu erden" while there is no verb equivalent for birding.

 My first excitement was adding two Florida birds to my list.  I've searched our Gulf Coast in vain for several years for the Gull Billed Tern. They are common on the Red Sea.  Another of the Florida specialties is the Bulbul.  While I have not seen it in Florida, it is very common in the Nile Delta. 

 It is obvious that birds have been very important to Egyptians since the ancient times.  We climbed down into the tombs of several Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings above the Nile at Luxor.  Clearly inscribed on the walls of these tombs are hieroglyphics that describe much of ancient life. So far, Egyptologists have identified 45 species of birds drawn on these ancient walls.  Falcons, doves, ducks, and geese are very prominent in ancient hieroglyphs and papyrus drawings.

 You can't help but like an ancient culture that regards the Ibis as a god and named  it the Sacred Ibis.  Regretfully, it didn't keep later generations of Egyptians from eating this bird into extirpation from the Nile Valley.    But unique birds can still be seen in and around the Egyptian antiquities.  In the Sacred Lake of the Temple of Karnak were seen the Egyptian Goose and Egyptian Swallows. Nesting in the cracks in the massive limestone blocks of this  temple are Rock Martins.  In the hills around the great necropolises in the Valley of the Kings  were Desert Larks.

 The Nile Valley is a continuous birding venue. Here the great deserts give way to lush green fields and the  life giving irrigation from the Nile. Here are all the long legged waders, Black Necked Stilt  and the Egyptian Plover.  Above the fields are Black Kites, Kestrels, and Great Gray Shrikes.  Around the fields tended to by donkey carts were yellow Wagtails, Cattle Egrets, Bulbulls, and Palm Doves.  On seeing the Nile River for the first time, the obvious resident was the Pied Kingfisher hovering above the water next to the ancient Felucas which ply the river next to Luxor, the greatest city in the world for a thousand years.

 The Arabian Desert is home to only the sturdiest of creatures not to mention Bedouins and dromedaries.  Above the peaks are Egyptian Vultures and Lanner Falcons.  On the desert floor are Desert Wheatear, African Rock Martin and Brown Necked Raven.

 The coast of the Red Sea finds resident birds of the sea as well as being an important migratory corridor.  The White Eyed Gull and Sooty Gull are common here as well as both the lesser and greater Black Backed Gull.  Other common species include the  Osprey White cheecked Tern and Caspian Tern. 

 In Suez, the habitat changes again to muflats and shorebirds. Birds include the WireTail Swallow, Spur Winged Plover, Great Stone Plover, Lesser Sand Plover and the like.  What attracted the most attention from me  was the small flock of Flamingos just off the causeway, their pink color in stark contrast to the greens and blues of the Gulf of Suez.

 In my ten days here there is one small bird that will guarantee to get you excited about traveling half way around the world with binoculars and a guidebook. The first time it flew past me in a garden next to the Red Sea I chased after it.  Colorful, different, distinguished, with a funny  crest, it's the pharaoh of birds.  We saw it again in the Nile Valley in many places and saw it immortalized on hieroglyphics. It's called the Hoopoe and it's a species all to itself.  Look it up.  It's the quintessential Egyptian Bird.  It's  worth twitching all over Egypt to find it..