Dahab on Egypt’s Red Sea coast is one of the best dive resorts in the world – and quite possibly the most accessible too.
All along Dahab’s shoreline are reefs of delicate corals, shoals of different brightly coloured fish, turtles, rays and sometimes even huge harmless whale sharks and playful dolphins. The water is warm and clear, heated by year-round sunshine – and it’s all only a four-hour flight from the UK.
While its famous neighbour Sharm el Sheikh has grown into a sprawl of characterless hotel complexes, where options for leaving your hotel compound often mean taking a taxi to a shopping mall, Dahab remains compact, relaxed and charming. Virtually all of its restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, dive centres and hotels are right on the seashore, separated from the lapping waves by a continuous traffic-free, paved promenade that stretches almost the entire length of the town’s coastline. It would be difficult to find a more wheelchair-friendly place in all Africa.
Most of Dahab’s accommodation is family-owned and friendly, tailoring to individuals rather than the masses. One of these in particular stands out. Owned by Englishwoman Lynne Gillis and her Egyptian husband Helal, Dive-Urge was planned from scratch to be wheelchair accessible. All the doors are wide, all rooms bar two are on ground level, beds are at a considered height, bathrooms are spacious and grab rails are provided where needed. The rooms form a courtyard with wide paths meandering out into the mature garden of exotic flowers, bougainvillaea bushes and palms. There are only two raised areas: the workshop and compressor room where the scuba tanks are refilled, and the freshwater pool where kit is rinsed after each dive, yet both of these areas have ramps. A tranquil, but practical place.
DIVING FOR EVERYONE
“It was instinctual really,” says Lynne. “We just always wanted to ensure that we would be able to cater for everyone, including people with mobility issues. And we were lucky, because when we got it there was only the original house, which was already all on ground level, with land around it – so we could create everything just how we wanted. We put a lot of thought into every little detail. We became quite obsessed with it really, ensuring that no one would have their way barred to any part of it.”
Even so, Lynne and Helal didn’t want to build a disabled diving club: they wanted it to work well, but for everyone. “It doesn’t feel like a specially adapted place, just somewhere that gives anyone the freedom to move around, regardless if they have a disability or not,” she says.
From a well-considered start, Dive-Urge has continued to evolve. Before a guest arrives they are asked if they have any special requirements. Once they’ve checked in, if there’s anything else they need Lynne, Helal and their dedicated team will do her best to provide it. The same attention to detail and ‘let’s do it’ attitude extends to the diving too. Regardless if you are a seasoned scuba-fanatic or someone tentatively trying this sport for the first time, and no matter what your disability, Lynne’s motto is: “If you are up for the challenge, so are we.”
Doreen Barker is one woman who was up for a challenge, though when her husband Chris booked the couple a holiday with Dive-Urge, she didn’t know what the challenge was. Doreen has severe Rheumatoid Arthritis, and the holiday was intended to get her some sun and to give Chris the chance to go diving again.
As Chris explains, Lynne had other ideas. “When I was arranging the holiday I got an email from Lynn asking if Doreen was going to dive,” he explains. “I sent one back explaining that Doreen was in a wheelchair and got the reply: ‘So???’ I showed the emails to Doreen and, to this day, I am convinced that is what made her consider giving it a go instead of just saying no.”
Doreen’s arthritis restricts her neck and shoulder mobility so even normal snorkeling is impossible. Lynne suggested that Doreen could start out with supplied air snorkelling. This involves wearing a diver’s inflatable waistcoat (called a buoyancy control device) and a scuba tank to breathe from, but staying on and just below the surface. This way she could see the fish and coral and get a taste of what using scuba gear is like. The equipment is pretty much standard for everyone regardless of abilities; the only adaptations that may be needed are webbed gloves instead of fins to propel the diver along.
‘NEXT TIME, OPEN YOUR EYES!’
Dressed in a wetsuit Doreen was pushed to the edge of the water in her wheelchair by Chris and dive instructor Charlie, then lifted into the sea. Together they slid her dive kit on and put the scuba regulator into her mouth. The hand signal divers use to communicate were not an option as Doreen has limited use of her hands; instead it was agreed to squeeze Charlie’s hand once for ‘Yes’, two for ‘No’ and three if she had a problem.
“I gave his hand one squeeze and he turned me over, face down,” says Doreen. “After a few seconds he turned me back over and said, ‘Very good Doreen, you didn’t panic, you kept breathing normally, but next time open your eyes!’ – he’d looked underwater to check I was alright and seen me with my eyes shut tight!”
Chris was just as nervous as Doreen, hoping that everything would go well and that she would enjoy herself. “The next time we turned her over, Doreen’s head began to move about left and right, quite violently,” he remembers. “Charlie and I thought she was in difficulty. We flipped her onto her back and Charlie grabbed the regulator out of her mouth. She shouted, ‘Wow, that was fantastic! I could see little coloured fish everywhere!’ We fell about laughing.”
After that first experience, Doreen was hooked, returning twice to Dahab and subsequently going on to gain her International Association for Handicapped Divers (IAHD) Open Water 3 qualification. Doreen qualified through the Scuba Trust, a charity that helps disabled people learn to dive. It also arranges overseas holidays for experienced divers, pairing them with non-disabled ‘dive buddies’ and forming relationships with dive centres that can provide all the necessary support.
One of these partner centres is also located in Dahab. Reef2000 has been hosting Scuba Trust visits for 10 years as well as regular visits from disabled divers who come as independent travellers. British owner Dave Elgin is as enthusiastic as Lynne about supporting disabled divers. Unlike Dive-Urge, the hotel here has limited accessiblity, though there are two wheelchair-friendly rooms, and Reef is often the dive centre of choice for disabled divers staying at other hotels in town.
“We’ve had people dive with us with a huge range of disabilities including a regular client who has autism,” Dave explains. “Others have been amputees, some have had motor-neuron disease. We have hosted quadriplegics and even people without gag reflexes, which is obviously quite challenging when it comes to diving.” This wide experience has made Dave well aware that each diver’s needs are completely different. “It’s our job to ensure they have a safe, enjoyable time, but we are also very considerate of each guest’s needs,” he explains. “I can honestly say everyone who has dived with us has had a lot of fun, and so have we.”
It’s a testament to Dahab’s suitability for disabled divers that one of the former trustees of the Scuba Trust, Gill Cullwick, spends many months a year here and is having a holiday home built in the town. “It is a superb place for disabled people to dive, it doesn’t matter if they are beginners or really experienced,” Gill says. “Nearly all the dives are from the shore and all of them top class.
“Many disabled divers think getting in and out of the water from the shore is a hassle, but they usually soon realise that here in Dahab it is much better than diving from a boat,” Gill adds. “Once you’re at the dive site, you’ll be carried into the shallows if needed, get your kit on and away you go. Dive over, it’s a leisurely flop on the beach for lunch then back in for another dive. So much easier than messing about getting on and off a boat – and no sea sickness either!”
Even thought she has dived in many resorts, for Gill, Dahab is the best. “The promenade has nearly all the bars restaurants and hotels right off it and there are only a few with any steps at all. It’s such an easy place to wheel around and you are right there in amongst all the activity, day or night. In or out of the water, I really can’t think of a better place for British disabled divers to come and dive.”
For more information about disabled diving, tips for experienced divers and beginners alike try the online resource Wheelchair Divers: www.wheelchairdivers.com
The IAHD (International Association for Handicapped Divers) runs diver training courses and organises holidays for people with physical impairments or minor learning difficulties: www.iahd.org
The Scuba Trust helps disabled people learn to scuba dive and organises diving holidays: