The Cooper family embarked on an epic, action-packed adventure to Jordan after winning the Experience Aqaba competition – and the Scuba Diver team were right there with them to document this once-in-a-lifetime trip
“Is this a wind-up?” were some of the first words out of the mouth of Andrew Cooper after being told he had won the Scuba Diver / Aqaba Tourism ‘Experience Aqaba’ competition, and in fact it took some serious persuading before he acknowledged that this was not a prank call and he had indeed won a family holiday to the amazing Aqaba in Jordan.
Now when we originally launched this prize draw to win a trip to the Middle East, we were expecting the winners to be the archetypal family – Mum, Dad, maybe a couple of children – but Andrew and his wife Belinda had grown-up offspring, and a handful of grandchildren.
Talks with Nancy Tayyan from Aqaba Tourism soon saw the trip signed off for three generations of the Cooper family – Andrew and Belinda, children Mathew, Sean and Fay (and significant others Josey, Emma and Josh respectively), and grandchildren Harry (10), Jack (7), Charlie (3) and Luna (2). Even up to the point of meeting them at Heathrow Airport on departure day, I still don’t really think they could believe it was all real.
Aqaba Tourism had put together an action-packed itinerary taking in both diving and other watersports in the Red Sea, as well as the iconic land attractions of Wadi Rum, the Rose Red City of Petra, and the Dead Sea. Andrew was the only qualified diver in the family, so this trip would also see trydives for many of the other adults, as well as young Harry.
Welcome to the Red Sea
We flew with Royal Jordanian Airlines to the capital of Jordan, Amman, and then after a couple of hours sleep in a nearby hotel, jumped on the hopper flight down to Aqaba the next morning. It is worth noting there are also direct flights in and out of Aqaba, some seasonal, if you are planning your own trip.
Our base of operations for the next three days was the sprawling Tala Bay development, which incorporates several hotels, a marina and plenty of bars, restaurants, etc, as well as the Deep Blue Dive Centre and various surface watersports providers.
Mohammed Leddawi and his team at Deep Blue did a superlative job dealing with our diverse group. With ages ranging from two to nearly 60, it was a little like herding cats at times, but this well-run, efficient centre soon had everyone kitted out with masks, snorkels, fins, wetsuits, BCDs and regulators.
While Andrew and our team from Scuba Diver – which included award-winning videographer David Diley, who was capturing footage for Aqaba Tourism of the entire trip – were able to sample some of the signature dive sites, including the purpose-sunk shipwreck Cedar Pride, the C-130 Hercules aircraft, the ‘tank’ tracked anti-aircraft gun, and the dramatic wall Power Station, the adult trydivers got their first experience of the Red Sea on the Deep Blue House Reef, which was teeming with fish life, including lionfish, scorpionfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, anemonefish, pufferfish, boxfish, moray eels, stingrays and much more. We even found three frogfish and a seahorse!
After all being blown away by this intro to Aqaba’s underwater realm, they were even more stoked when on the final day of diving they were taken on a tour of the C-130 Hercules aircraft and the ‘tank’ – their first foray into ‘real’ diving. After seeing images of this stunning site around the dive centre, and on my laptop from our dives there on previous days, witnessing the aircraft looming out of the blue with their own eyes was a major highlight of the trip.
Young Harry conducted a Bubblemaker trydive in the hotel pool, and after getting to grips with the equipment and sensation of breathing underwater, instructor Ahmad Izz Alkhatib took him on a tour of the shallows on the House Reef and his eyes were literally popping out of his head as he frantically pointed out anemonefish, lionfish, boxfish, pufferfish and moray eels. I think we might have another young diver on our hands with this one, as he is mad-keen on marine life and really seemed to take to diving.
His younger brother Jack was absolutely gutted to miss out on his chance to do a Bubblemaker – he was just three weeks shy of his eighth birthday – but being a real waterbaby, he took to the water with a mask, snorkel and fins and had a whale of a time snorkelling off the boat while we were diving.
As well as diving, the family had some fun on jetskis, and being towed on a giant inflatable behind a speedboat. To round out the coastal action, they were treated to a private semsemieh session with local musicians on the beach, where the family did a spot of Arabic dancing, followed by a relaxing sunset cruise where you could stand on the top deck and see Jordan, Israel and Egypt simply by turning your head.
Into the desert
After three days enjoying Aqaba both in and on the Red Sea, it was time to check out of our hotel and head into the arid desert, or more specifically, Wadi Rum. Epic is an often over-used expression, but the scenery in Wadi Rum more than deserves this accolade. It is simply mind-blowing. Monstrous rocky headlands, cliffs and mountains jut out of the rusty-red sand in every direction as far as the eye can see, and it was amazing from the main car park and visitor’s centre, but the best way by far to really get the most from any trip to Wadi Rum is to head off on a 4×4 safari that takes you deep into the wonderful landscape.
Our hardy band piled into three pick-ups, sitting comfortably on padded seats on the flatbed, which gave us an unfettered 360-degree view of our surroundings. Tours stop and start, allowing you ample time to get out and explore on foot into canyons and on to dramatic viewpoints, and in many cases, it was only when you were stood next to some of the structures that you fully appreciated how massive they really are.
As you travel around Wadi Rum, if it looks familiar that is because it has been a natural film set for a host of Hollywood movies, including The Martian, Transformers, Star Wars and many more. In fact, our guide pointed out a view that he then showed us in a still from The Martian – very bizarre to be exactly where Matt Damon was sat in his space suit.
Another must in Wadi Rum is a camel ride, and using this authentic mode of transport, with its ungainly, rocking motion, creates a lasting memory. Most of the Cooper clan mounted up on camels, and young Jack set everyone the task of naming their animals, which led to some amusing and decidedly un-Arabic-sounding monikers!
Our camel ride came to an end in the middle of the desert, where a colourful rug was laid out on the sand, and a Bedouin man was roasting and grinding coffee beans to make a pot of the local brew. While he was preparing the coffee – and some sweet tea – his mother was hard at work on another fire making delicious flatbread. Cooked over an open fire on a metal dome, the whole family agreed that it was some of the tastiest bread they had ever eaten.
Our home for the evening was the Rahayeb Desert Camp. Nestled behind a giant sand dune and tucked into a canyon with high walls all around, it was an amazing location. There are various levels of tents here for all budgets, but we were ensconced in their luxury versions, which included air-conditioning, and a full bathroom with sink, shower and toilet. For all those who can’t survive without it, there was even WiFi!
Rounding out an awesome day in Wadi Rum, after a delicious dinner of lamb and chicken, we climbed back into our trusty pick-ups for a short run to the RumSky Adventure, where astronomers were on hand to point out major stars and constellations visible with the naked eye, and then set up powerful telescopes to give us a closer look at some of these stars. Being able to see craters on the moon’s surface was simply mind-boggling.
The Rose Red City of Petra
If Wadi Rum is the ultimate natural movie set, then Petra is perhaps the most-impressive man-made version. It is not known precisely when this sprawling city hidden away in the mountains was built, but it began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st Century BC, when it grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh and spices.
Later annexed to the Roman Empire, Petra continue to flourish, until a massive earthquake in 363AD decimated much of the city. This natural disaster, coupled with changes to the ancient trade routes, eventually led to the downfall of the city, and it was ultimately abandoned by the Nabataeans. By the middle of the 7th Century, it was largely deserted and lost to all but a few Bedouin tribes in the area.
It was not until 1812 when Petra was ‘rediscovered’ by Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt and ever since, the beautiful city has become a thing of amazement for people around the globe – it is not surprising it is listed as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
From the moment you start heading into the winding Siq, a 1.2km-long gorge with towering cliffs on either side, which in parts is only a few metres wide, expectations build, and when you eventually round the final corner and are faced by the Treasury, a detailed grand façade carved directly into the sheer rock face, it is no exaggeration to say it takes your breath away. You might also start humming the theme tune from Indiana Jones, as this majestic structure appeared in The Last Crusade!
The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs cut into the mountainside, along with temples, a theatre, colonnaded streets and churches, and as you walk through the remnants, you get a feel for just how huge this city once was. You can also see how it got its name – the Rose Red City of Petra – due to the colouration of the rock in the mountainside. It is well worth making the tiring trek up to the Monastery, a huge decorative building that measures 48 metres by 47 metres and was in a Transformers movie.
The Dead Sea
After the visually stunning to extremely long and tiring days out to Wadi Rum and Petra, the Cooper family’s final destination was the Dead Sea, some 400 metres below sea level. Everyone has seen the photographs of people bobbing about in this very salty ‘sea’, but nothing actually prepares you for the feeling when you venture in yourself. The water has a very unusual feel, and it is very odd to find yourself floating around like a cork simply by laying back and relaxing.
All of the family took to the water – except for little Charlie and Luna, as the water can really sting your eyes due to the high salt content, so not really for children – and then enthusiastically got stuck into the mud bath, where you liberally slathered the thick, yoghurt-like-consistency black mud all over your body. Soon a jet-black Cooper clan trekked down to the water’s edge for a photograph, and then washed off the mud in the sea. You pay a fortune for Dead Sea mud treatments around the world, and everyone agreed that once it was rinsed off, their skin did feel smoother afterwards. Certainly a unique experience that you cannot come to Jordan and not seek out.
Wrecks & Dive Sites
The Cedar Pride was a 74-metre, 1,161-tonne cargo vessel originally launched in Spain in 1964 under the name Mone Dos. She went through two further name changes – Puerto De Pasajes and San Bruno – before eventually gaining her fourth and final title when purchased by a Lebanese shipping company.
In July 1982, she entered the Port of Aqaba, and on 2 August, a fire ripped through the engine room and crew’s quarters – tragically, two people lost their lives. She was written off as a total constructive loss, and for the next three years she languished as a floating hulk. It was then targeted by keen diver and then-Prince (now King) Abdullah, who came up with the plan of sinking it on purpose.
For many years, it was the only artificial reef in Jordanian waters, and with it being down since 1985, it has a healthy coating of marine growth. Hard corals and encrusting algae smothers much of the superstructure, while vibrant soft corals decorate the crow’s nest, the masts, and under the hull, where a gap in the reef makes for a dramatic swim-through at 26m. The holds are wide open, allowing for easy penetration, and if you carefully rise up around mid-ships, you will go through a large shoal of hatchetfish and find yourself in a large air pocket. I wouldn’t advise breathing this, but it is fun to surface inside the shipwreck at depth.
Lying on its port side, the Cedar Pride is a fantastic dive for any diver, but photographers will particularly love it, as there are many focal points that make great images, such as the aforementioned crow’s nest, the battered propeller, the lifeboat davits, various winches, the impressive bow, and the entire stern section, with its sponge-covered railings.
Aqaba gained a unique dive site in November 2017 when the authorities sank a Lockheed C-130 Hercules four-engine turbo-prop military transport aircraft that was donated by the Royal Jordanian Air Force. It sits on the seabed in 16m, with its front wheels just off the bottom, looking like it is about to take flight. It is holding up to being submerged in salty water quite well, and after a year on the bottom, it is still very much intact, though the odd panel and flap on the wings has detached and now sits on the sandy bottom close by.
The massive rear door is closed, but the sliding door on the right-hand side under the wing is wide open, allowing easy access into the cavernous interior, and the smaller personnel door on the left-hand side just behind the cockpit is open as well. It is possible to carefully work your way into the cockpit area, where you can still see levers, dials, control switches and more, just don’t disturb ‘the captain’ – a fake skeleton in a flight suit and helmet sitting at the helm of this military aircraft.
NB: As I wrote this article in Jordan, plans were afoot to sink another aircraft – this time, a much-bigger Tri-Star civilian airliner – in the next month or two, so it seems that the country’s sunken ‘fleet’ is steadily growing.
The M42 ‘Duster’ anti-aircraft vehicle
While it is known as the ‘tank’, this intriguing little dive site is actually an M42 ‘Duster’ tracked anti-aircraft gun, equipped with twin 40mm M2A1 Bofors cannon. It was sunk in September 1999 by the Jordanian Royal Ecological Diving Society in shallow water. It is a popular snorkel and trydive site because of its location in just a few metres of water, and while it is only quite small, it is definitely worth checking out at least once as it is great for photographers – and lying a short distance from the C-130 and the Seven Sisters dive sites, it is ideal for keeping you entertained while you are doing your safety stop.
The furthest dive site to the north in Jordanian waters, Power Station – as the name suggests – lies just offshore from a power plant. Unlike many Aqaba reef dives, which tend to be coral gardens, coral bommies and seagrass beds, Power Station is a full-on wall dive, which in parts drops sheer into the abyssal depths. The visibility when we dived it was not great, but even so, the massive scale of the hard coral growth on the wall – there are some gigantic plate corals covering vast areas – and the general topography of the dive make it one for the logbook.
Because of the nature of the site, with its close proximity to deep water, there are many sightings of bigger creatures, including eagle rays, various shark species, turtles and more. We kept scouring the murky blue, as the Deep Blue crew told us that there had been reported sightings of a whaleshark the previous day, but alas, it was not meant to be. However, we had two Open Water Divers on the boat who were completing their seventh dive, and literally just minutes after we had exited the water, guess what they caught a glimpse of? Yes, the whaleshark! So it is worth bearing in mind that while Aqaba’s reefs are teeming with the usual Red Sea reef fish, there is always the chance of some of the larger pelagics paying a visit.
I think it is safe to say that Andy, Belinda and their extended family had a fantastic trip to Jordan. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, taking in the underwater wonders of the Red Sea in Aqaba before ticking off the unique Wadi Rum, Petra and the Dead Sea. All three generations enjoyed their time in-country, and they found the Jordanian people friendly, welcoming and generous. If you are looking for a destination that combines scuba diving on coral and artificial reefs with truly unique land-based attractions both natural and man-made, you’d be hard-pushed to find somewhere that can compete with Jordan’s extensive offerings – and I think the Cooper clan would agree wholeheartedly.
Photographs by Mark Evans
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