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Food and Travel: Up the Suez Canal

SAILING from Asia (Jordan) back to Africa we rounded the Sinai Peninsula with soaring sand dunes. Voyaging up the magnificently engineered Suez Canal, connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, the Sinai Desert was on our starboard bow (right hand side).

According to the ship’s newsletter, “Sinai” may be derived from the Moon Goddess, Sin, worshipped by local people in ancient history or could be from “senneh”, the Hebrew name of an indigenous bush.
I was always told Sinai was Nabataean Arabic for tooth and the rugged historically sparsely occupied peninsula certainly resembles one.

Some explanations of place names defy logic. It is common cause that Cameroun (or Cameroon) in West Africa (Kamerun in the German of its colonisers) is so named because the country resembled a prawn (camarao in Portuguese).

That may or not be true but how the hell did Henry the Navigator’s navigators know it looked like his favourite piri-piri’d crustacean, when they only saw the coastline from the quarter decks of  galleons? The country’s borders were not officialy delineated until the Treaty of Berlin nearly 400 years later!

Thanks to international jet-set tourism the Sinai is no longer sparsely inhabited. Indigenous nomadic Bedouin tribespeople still ply ancient camel routes but are viewed suspiciously by Egyptian police and security services when they get too close to the up-market hotels of glitteringly swish resorts like Sharm el Sheikh, Taba and Taba Heights.

Most of the terror incidents in Egypt in the last couple of decades were carried out by Bedouin…so they are all apparently tarred by the same tarbush!

After 27 years of an Egyptian state-of-emergency, usually unsmiling cops are fond of tightening trigger fingers on battered AK 47s whenever the Bedouin appear in any number.

Southern apex of Sinai is the marine national park of Ras Muhammad, one of the world’s most popular — and rewarding — scuba-diving and snorkelling sites.

We were due to leave Port Suez at 6am; I was on deck a tad earlier, hoping to catch a dramatic 6:06 sunrise over Arabia. Alas visibility was poor with a minor sandstorm blowing fine grit.

There are two harbours in Suez city: Port Ibrahim and Port Tawfiq which between them have extensive dock facilities to serve the huge number of vessels transiting the canal — soon to celebrate the 140th anniversary of its official opening. There are petro-chemical plants and the oil refineries have pipelines pumping the finished product to Cairo.

Suez is also a major stopover for myriads of devout Muslim pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia for the annual Hadj.

Almost unheard of before the building of the canal by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the ancient city was totally destroyed during rather one-sided battles between the Egyptian army and the victorious Israeli forces which had occupied the Sinai Peninsula since the 1956 Suez Crisis debacle.

In these skirmishes, much shipping was sunk; the canal was closed until 1975. Shipping had to take the long route around Africa and Cape Agulhas, something the activities of Somali pirates has recently forced to happen again. Following a pirate attack on the MV Melody just north of The Seychelles, I was on the last cruise up the east coast of Africa for the foreseeable future.

The canal is 110 nautical miles long and, as ships are banned from making more than eight knots due to possible erosion of the banks from bow waves, it often takes up to 14 hours to transit.

In our convoy was another floating gin-palace cruise ship: Costa Victoria, which we had tied up alongside in Aqaba, Jordan. I still have a wry grin when looking at photographs taken on a January Western Caribbean cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Mexico and Belize of its sister craft.

I was on the world’s biggest ship, Independence of the Seas and she was often berthed alongside Costa Fortuna. Did the owners not realise almost all English-speakers would mangle that to Cost-a-Fortune?

I used to write a humorous column for a tobacco magazine set in the fictional Zimbabwean farming town of Paradys Valle, where the local Greek shopkeeper was Costa Plentiopolis!

French warships were also in our convoy, presumably redeploying from the Coalition Naval Task Force at Dubai, back to Toulon. France also still has a maritime base near Djibouti on the Horn of Africa in its former colony of the Territory of the Afars and Issas.

The desert landscape on both sides of the canal is almost totally bare, with just a very odd thin patch of greenery. You can see the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Ismailia for scores of kilometres each way, even in poor visibility.

Set in the desert, a few hundred metres from the canal, its most prominent feature is a huge sculptured concrete bayonet pointing at an often cloudless sky.

There are hundreds of Kiwis and Australians buried there from the First World War, when they fought the Turks of the German Kaiser’s allies the Ottoman Empire. There’s also a World War II section where many air force casualties, especially Canadian, are interred. Burials continued there until the end of British occupation of the Canal Zone.

The Rhodesian African Rifles took its turn with other British and colonial regiments at guarding and garrisoning the important international waterway.

Our transit took only 10 hours 10 minutes (I’m unsure how we saved nearly four hours.) As we left Port Said on the port bow three dolphins gracefully led us into a Mediterranean unusually (in my experience) grey and uncharacteristically choppy, with a biting chill wind, in marked contrast to two-and-a-half weeks of the placid, warm tropical Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

The ship’s seawater swimming pools were severely under-utilised for the first 30 hours or so of the Mediterranean crossing.

Six days later, I wandered along a hauntingly beautiful but almost deserted beach at Cruden Bay in the north of Scotland (next stop Norway!), which was remarkably smooth, calm and an attractive shade of blue, compared with the Med, just off the coast of Africa.


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