Friday, 6 April 2012


Egypt is more known for the Nile and its pyramids than it is for its diving and recreational sports. But such thoughts would lead you to overlook the potential of the Red Sea, which offers diving sites that can compete with the best diving sites in the world and are better than most. It was wintertime when we visited Dahab, one of the Red Sea's leading tourist towns, so it wasn't not really perfect beach weather. It’s lucky that still plenty to do in Dahab when you’re not on the beach. 

Leave your camel at home, son.
The quiet streets make for pleasant strolling and there’s plenty of shopping at the market and shops. There’s a pleasant walk around the promenade, dotted with beach umbrellas and signs limiting the riding of camels and horses in the town (although goats are not an uncommon sight). You can enjoy drinks at one of the myriad of restaurants, most of which come with a view of the Red Sea, a view that stretched all the way to Saudi Arabia, that formed a mountainous silhouette on the horizon. At night, there's beers to enjoy (not always an easy thing to find in other parts of Egypt) as well as conversations around a sheesha pipe until the early morning.

The beach promenade at Dahab.
Despite being a place of beauty, Dahab has been scarred by recent events. The whole Sinai peninsula was occupied by Israel from 1967 until 1982. After its return to Egypt, large-scale development has taken place, often at the expense of the local Bedouin people, who have been marginalized by people arriving from other parts of the country. In 2006, a series of bombs exploded around Dahab, that killed at least 23 people, mainly foreigners, who clustered around the picturesque centre of town, enjoying the pubs and restaurants. These bombings followed on from others in the Sinai peninsula in 2004 and 2005 and have been attributed to either a group dedicated to improving the lot of the local Bedouin people or to an Islamic terrorist group known as Jama'at al-Tawhīd wal-Jihad. The series of bombings placed stress on the tourist industry in the peninsula, something that it is still recovering from. Slowly but surely though, Dahab is a place that more and more tourists are returning to.

Our hotel-Saudi Arabia in the background.
The biggest drawcard to Dahab (apart from the atmosphere) is the diving and snorkeling on offer. We kept ourselves busy in Dahab with an overnight trip to climb Mount Sinai so we only managed to go snorkeling once. It was, however without doubt, the best snorkeling experience of my life and easily the most accessible. We hired gear from our hotel, walked about 15 minutes down the beach, which is a nice sandy beach as opposed to the more gravelly beach that you find in the centre of the town, to the dive spot (a place called the Islands, named after the two large coral islands that are dominant features here) that our hotel had recommended. 

View of the islands diving site.
We put on our flippers, waded awkwardly out about 50 metres in knee-high water until we hit the edge of a sudden drop-off that signals the start of the reef. Once you drop down into the abyss, you are instantly taken by the clarity of the water (there is great visibility here) and by the abundance of fish you can see. The dense reef  has canyons and hills, valleys and peaks that carry a wide and diverse array of species that can be enjoyed even by snorkelers; venomous lionfish, colourful parrotfish, pufferfish, wrasse, trevally, odd looking butterfly fish, all living among the dense coral (over 130 different types) that sustains life here.

Chill under an umbrella
For divers, there is the Blue Hole, known as the world’s most dangerous diving spot, infamous for the number of divers who die here each year, leading to its nickname of “Divers cemetery”. Most incidents are associated with divers who attempt to find their way through the reef via a tunnel. The entrance to the tunnel is 52 metres down, below the distance of what even advanced recreational divers dive to. Divers often suffer the effect of the bends, exacerbated by divers who miss the tunnel and continue to descend, hoping to find the entrance of the tunnel. Other divers get disorientated in the tunnel itself. For the less ambitious diver or snorkeler though, Dahab offers a range of safe diving and snorkeling opportunities that are rewarding in the diversity of fish you can see and plenty of places to recount your day's adventure with friends.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

New Zealand's rose tinted glasses

Richard Boock, a columnist in the New Zealand Herald, commented on how Saudi Arabia should be banned from the Olympics as it is the leader in gender apartheid (no Saudi women will be at the London games or have attended any previous games). In the article, Boock argued that New Zealand should be a major player in the push for Saudi Arabia to be banned, in part because of our history of severing sporting ties, in particular rugby ties, with the apartheid regime in South Africa. While I fully agree with his hope that Saudi Arabia should be held accountable for its treatment of women (and not just in sports), his article did highlight that New Zealanders tend to think that they played a crucial part in ending the apartheid regime. After all, in 1981, New Zealand found itself effectively split in two during the tour of the South African rugby side between those who backed the tour and those who wanted the tour to be cancelled, many of whom took to the streets in protest, leading to violent clashes with police. I would argue that the assumption of the significance of New Zealand’s role in ending apartheid has been overplayed and over-represented. In fact, the opposite could be argued that New Zealand supported the apartheid regime by continuing rugby ties with South Africa well after other countries and codes had stopped all contact.
Protestors and police clash during the 1981 Springbok tour to New Zealand.
1963 saw the start of the sports boycott on South Africa when they were suspended by FIFA and then subsequently banned by the I.O.C from competing at the 1964 Olympics. The IAAF (in charge of track and field) followed suit and suspended South Africa in 1970, the same year cricket also cut official ties with South Africa. Rugby though, and not just in New Zealand, was much slower in enforcing a total boycott on South Africa (although Australia’s last rugby test against the Australians was in 1971). This is particularly surprisingly in that rugby was the most popular sport among the white community in South Africa and the loss of international rugby, of all sports, would have had the greatest impact on the regime. The Springboks were traditionally one of the top two teams in the world (beside New Zealand's All Blacks) and were the only team to hold an edge in face to face encounters with New Zealand. The Boks were the pride of white South Africa, a potent symbol of the apartheid regime. Due to this, coloured and black communities would support the All Blacks when they were playing South Africa, including Nelson Mandela, who cheered on the All Blacks when he was serving his jail time imposed by the South African government.
Nelson Mandela supported rivals of the Springboks while in prison, before embracing the team when he saw the power that the team had to help reunify the country.
This is a tradition that continues even to this day with many non-white South Africans supporting the All Blacks over the Springboks, much to the chagrin of other South African supporters. Throughout the apartheid regime, South Africa remained as a member of the IRB (International Rugby Board) but was banned from competing in the 1987 and 1991 World Cups. However, as well as the Springboks touring New Zealand in that divisive 1981 tour, there were tours of South Africa by the British Lions and France in 1980, by Ireland in 1981 and by England in 1984. New Zealand was even going to tour South Africa in 1985 until the New Zealand High Court stopped the tour (however, in 1986, the New Zealand Cavaliers, which included 28 out of the 30 originally selected All Blacks, toured South Africa).
The NZ Cavaliers toured South Africa in 1986 as a rebel team after the New Zealand High Court stopped the All Blacks from touring the Republic in 1985.
These tours in the 1980s came after the Gleneagles agreement in 1977 where the countries of the Commonwealth had agreed that “the urgent duty of each of their Governments vigorously to combat the evil of apartheid by withholding any form of support for, and by taking every practical step to discourage contact or competition by their nationals with sporting organisations, teams or sportsmen from South Africa or from any other country where sports are organised on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin.” The Gleneagles agreement came from the actions of the All Blacks who toured South Africa in 1976, an action that led directly to 25 African countries boycotting the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (centre) attended the Gleneagles conference but then disregarded the agreement in 1981.
Clearly, New Zealand valued its rugby relationship with apartheid South Africa so much that it would allow this slur on New Zealand’s name, enough that for several tours of South Africa (in 1928, 1949 and 1960), the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) followed their South African counterparts lead and refused to allow Maori or other non-white players tour South Africa, enough to endanger the health of members of police, security, tour supporters and protestors alike during the 1981 tour. Given New Zealand's rugby history of not wanting to cut contact with South Africa, either by touring that country or by allowing the Springboks to tour here, it would be hard to argue that the NZRU actively sought an end of the apartheid regime  (a Springbok tour was stopped by the New Zealand government in 1973). At best, they can be portrayed as neutral political observers, at worst uncaring of people oppressed by apartheid. The New Zealand players who toured with the Cavaliers tried to justify it by either saying that sport and politics don’t mix, that they were doing good by touring a white-dominant country with a multi-racial team ignoring the fact that most of them had gone to claim the large player payments on offer (rugby at this time was officially an amateur sport). So I’m not sure if New Zealand has a positive legacy on opposing sporting contacts with oppressive regimes. This isn’t to say that New Zealand can’t be a world leader, just like in their no-nuclear stance. It’s just pointing out that New Zealand didn’t do as much as it could to bring apartheid to an end.