‘I heard you like highballs’ said Fred, owner of The Arch Climbing Wall in London. ‘You should come to Egypt, there’s loads of highballs, untouched. It’s amazing.’ He ran behind the counter and came back with a book. ‘It's just a draft, I did it last year’. On its black and white cover was printed A Dahab Bouldering Guide: Bouldering in Egypt’s South Sinai. Inside was page after page of immaculate looking blocs in a stunning desert setting. It looked like bouldering on the moon. ‘I’m heading out there this December for a month. You’re more than welcome to join’. I was looking at flights almost before he finished the sentence. By shuffling things around I could get nine days off in December. The trip was born.
Since the 70s, Dahab has become eponymous with all things diving. Many come from abroad to dive the Red Sea, which offers inviting temperatures at any time of year. Fred Stone first came across Bir Wadi Qu’nai in 2005 when he was working as a free dive instructor in Dahab. It lies about 30 minutes drive along a road and along a valley—only accessible by 4x4 or camel. For the past decade Fred and friends from The Arch have been developing the boulders, which culminated in Fred producing a guidebook to the area.
We flew into Sharm el-Sheikh, and were herded like sheep by Egyptian holiday reps, waving their arms and creating disorderly queues. Emelia and I watched as the majority of our fellow passengers made their way onto their package holiday buses. ‘I’m not going to leave the resort’ one guy boasted. With relief we were picked up by Fred and his wife Ros. We took a cab north for an hour, passing through police checkpoints, heavy machine guns lying idle. In the dusk we drove into Dahab down disintegrating roads. Goats and camels lined the streets, grazing the many rubbish piles in the streets. Cars and motorbikes drove down the wrong side of the street. This was a world away from where we had come from. I liked it.
For a week we played on the boulders in the wadi, repeating problems in the guidebook, or brushing and cleaning new projects. Our local Bedouin guide, Khaled, was also a keen boulderer, establishing some of his own lines. It was a simple routine: We climbed until we got hungry, by which time Khaled had prepared a lunch of tuna salad, falafel, and flat bread freshly baked in the sand. Through the day he provided endless cups of intensely sweet mint tea. In the evening we would drive back and change into wet suits and flippers for a few hours of snorkelling or free diving under the instruction of Fred. It was a winning combination.
The boulders are scattered on the sandy valley floor and side walls. It takes about thirty minutes' to walk from one end to the other. The season for bouldering is winter, November to February, when temperatures hover between ten and twenty degrees centigrade, although it can feel much cooler with a breeze. Sadly the political climate in Egypt has been volatile. Egypt has experienced several terrorist attacks and civil unrest in the last year. The latest Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice is that Sharm el Sheikh is fairly safe with commercial flights still available, but anywhere outside the city’s perimeters is a risk and all but essential travel should be avoided. Thorough research is advised before booking a trip. Hopefully the future will look kindly on Dahab and climbers will once more be allowed to explore this incredible place without fear.
Jerome Mowat Climber and writer. Based in Sheffield and London.