It was all very sudden. Being told you’re off to an interesting part of the world is always great news, especially if it’s on your bucket list for all sorts of reasons, but to also be a part of something that you never thought you would be… well, that just makes it even more special.
Such is the case with my more recent trip to Aqaba in Jordon, at the invitation of the Aqaba Tourist Board. Alongside a familiarisation trip to various sites in the area, including Aqaba itself as well as the legendary Petra and Wadi Rum (both causes of a very jealous wife let me tell you!), the main attraction was the scuttling of a Hercules C-130 cargo plane as an artificial reef and then diving it!
How could I say no!
The way out went very smoothly. I had never flown with Royal Jordanian before but check in remarkably painless and boarding was very smooth. The Airbus we flew in, I forget the model, was comfortable enough and came equipped with decent food and the utterly fantastic Lego Batman.
Landing at Amman’s Queen Alia airport, we had a 5ish hour wait until the next flight would take us to Aqaba itself. It was in passport control where I met up with Sean and Dom, an underwater photographer and a representative for a dive magazine respectably, who spotted me from the crowd from my look of confusion and tiredness similar to theirs. After waiting for the baffling but ultimately trouble-free passport control, and discovering a shared love of Lego Batman, we met up with a few other guys from our dive group in arrivals, where we were taken to the local Amman airport hotel.
The room was comfortable and clean, nothing fancy but it was perfect for a tired man like myself who needed a few hours’ kip and a shower. It seemed like no sooner had my head hit the pillow that my alarm went, shower was had and I was back in the airport scanning my shoes.
The flight down was on a small jet, again I have no idea the model, with Royal Jordanian and was very comfortable. Or at least I presume it was because I snored like a rhino from the moment I sat down to the moment we hit the tarmac.
One short transfer later, we arrived at the Intercontinental in Aqaba, a cool, modern resort right on the water. Breakfast was served while rooms were assigned and after being suitably topped up with strong coffee and beef bacon, we made our way to the rooms. My room was very clean, super comfortable and had everything I needed to enjoy my stay. The bathroom was also fantastic, gigantic and super clean (as well as having some comfy free slippers, which now live under my bed!), the whole thing made me feel right incredibly comfortable.
However, there was no time to sit and relax, the main event was calling!
Taken by coach to the site of the scuttling, as we pulled in I was very excited to see the aircraft sat on a barge out at sea.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed and built originally by Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin). Capable of using unprepared runways for takeoffs and landings, the C-130 was originally designed as a troop, medevac, and cargo transport aircraft. The versatile airframe has found uses in a variety of other roles, including as a gunship (AC-130), for airborne assault, search and rescue, scientific research support, weather reconnaissance, aerial refuelling, maritime patrol, and aerial firefighting. It is now the main tactical airlifter for many military forces worldwide. Over forty variants and versions of the Hercules, including a civilian one marketed as the Lockheed L-100, operate in more than 60 nations.
It has a wingspan of 40.4m, a length of 29.8m and a height of 11.6m. They weigh 34,400kg and can carry a massive 33,000kg of cargo.
I had never seen one in the flesh before so I didn’t really appreciate how big it was until I saw the little dots of the launch crew scurrying around it. Set on the beach was an array of seats and a stage where a few speeches were going to be given throughout the event. Accompanying this was a full orchestra, who were fantastic. Puzzlingly, with them were 5 or 6 bagpipe players which, as the son of a Scotsman, seemed rather out of place in a desert but fit the military vibe of the proceedings. Once a member of the Jordanian royal family, I believe it was the king’s brother, arrived the show kicked off with speeches from all involved. As this was mostly in Arabic it was lost on me, so I joined the rest of my crew to get the best shots on the water’s edge.
The plane was slowly cruising around the area on its barge, allowing us all to get as many shots as we could from many different angles. The first thing that struck me about it was that the engines had been removed but as these would be filled with all sorts of oils and lubricants, it would not be a great idea to drop them into the ocean as they would not be good for the local marine life.
Not long after the event got underway, we were treated to some awesome aerial flybys by the Jordanian air force, including another Hercules with an image of Petra painted onto its tail fin. It and two smaller jets flew back and forth over and around us, as if to say farewell to their comrade in arms. The noise from them was awesome, drowning out the bagpipes and the crowd with a deafening roar of 4 massive propeller engines.
But the Hercules couldn’t parade around forever, soon she would have to be sunk. After everyone was thanked and after one last pass from the other aircraft, the Hercules was attached by great thick ropes to a crane moored in the bay. She was lifted up, the barge under was moved away and she was gracefully placed into the water. It didn’t take long for her to start going under. Before we had even realised the main body was under, just the wings and tail above the surface. Finally, as the Petra Hercules made its farewell pass the wings filled and went under, leaving just the massive tail fin to slip beneath the waves. Soon all that was left were the bubbles slowly finding their way out of the plane and up to the surface. It left me with a bizarre mixture of loss that this great thing was gone when I had spent the last hour staring at it, but also of great excitement that I’d see it again in a few days and knowing that it was going to become an amazing new artificial reef in the area!
After a few photos it was time for a bite to eat. Heading up to the Berenice Beach Club, lamb, fish, delicious salads and more hummus than you can shake a stick at was on the menu, alongside some more traditional Jordanian music and conversation about what we had all just been a part of.
After everyone had eaten, we returned to the Intercontinental to edit pictures, write articles and all sorts of other things, trying my best to keep myself in the moment for as long as I could. It was about at this point that I realise that running on 3 and a bit hours sleep and two strong coffees were not going to keep me in the land of the living much longer. After re-joining the gang for another bite to eat (a theme of this trip) and more banter about the dive industry, I rang the wife and hit the hay, exhausted but utterly satisfied and stoked for what lay ahead.
Day two was Wadi Rum. I had heard of the place before but to be honest knew very little other than the views, and the heat, were breath-taking. After breakfast we made our way by coach to Wadi Rum while our guide Ali told us about Aqaba, Jordanian history and a little about the local area.
We first stopped just inside the desert proper, at a train used by Laurence of Arabia during the Arab uprising. It was cool to see and take a few pictures but before long it was time to head to Wadi Rum itself. After arriving at the visitor centre, I was immediately impressed by the giant rock formation in the centre sat in the shadow of. Called the 7 Pillars of Wisdom, it is named after Laurence of Arabia’s book and it is truly a sight to behold. After a break to freshen up, we jumped into some open top 4 wheel drives to make into the desert. The rock formations were stunning, showing layers of different rocks with the sandstone being eroded and pitted over time. We stopped after a while, allowing the group time to climb a dune to reach a lookout point. The views around were spectacular. Hopefully, the pictures will say more than I can type.
A little further down the track, we stopped to check out some rock murals, both writing and animals, including oryx and ibex which we were informed are being reintroduced in the area.
We soon made our way to a spot for a cup of Bedouin tea, which was very sweet and had a delicate citrus flavour to it and was delicious. At this spot there were also more rock cravings of Laurence of Arabia, date stamped for 1917.
After this, we made our way to the Rahayeb desert camp for a bite to eat. The camp is set in a natural valley between some beautiful rock formations and we were greeted with some special Bedouin coffee and a refreshing cold towellete for my face. We were just in time to grab some lunch, which had been cooked in a pit in the ground. The idea is that the pit, covered in sand, cooks at a much hotter temperature than if the food was just cooked over a fire. This allows food to be cooked using far less wood, which is great for the travelling Bedouin. On the menu today, spiced chicken and lamb, along with shawarma, roasted veggies and various hummus and dip dishes, all of which was delicious.
After a brief inspection of the rooms available it was time for me to have a go at another first in my life, camel riding. Having never ridden a horse before (I’ve been bitten by one, but I’m hardly an expert) I was a little dubious but I always wanted to be a cowboy so I leapt aboard. My camel was at the head of our little train and was a very friendly soul. We rode for around 30 minutes into the sunset, which threw a beautiful golden light across the dunes. After a few photos at our destination, it was time to disembark my camel. I would have loved to continued riding across the dunes, maybe we’ll make a raei albaqar out of me yet.
At our destination, we were met with more fantastic Bedouin tea and the opportunity to take some awesome sunset photos. We were serenaded by a Bedouin man playing a rebab, a traditional string instrument who also explained the Bedouin traditional way of making coffee and what coffee means to the people. Give me a call, I’d love to tell you about it!
Finally, with the darkness setting in, we made our way back to our coaches for the ride back to the hotel. Tired, dusty but very happy, I grabbed a bite, rinsed the sand out of my beard and hit the sack, excited for the day to follow, Petra!
An early wake up was the order of the day as Petra was a few hours by coach away. I had not slept very well due to being a plonker and taking caffeinated paracetamol the night before, so I slept most of the way there. We stopped along the way there for a spot to grab a refreshment and use the facilities, as well as snap a few pictures of the stunning Petra Mountains.
We were soon underway again and it wasn’t long before we had made it to the site. Petra has been on my list of places to go for many years now so I was buzzing with excitement. There is a fairly long hike to get to the major sites but there is plenty to see along the way. At first the carvings are sparse, small tombs or living caves with a few holes here and there. It is also where one of the few pieces of text can be seen, someone’s name, written in both Aramaic and Egyptian to show the multi-cultural elements of the city.
The pass then starts to wind its way along a tight valley, beautiful with many different layers of rock and all sorts of cool shapes due to the erosion from the wind and rains over the years. Along this could be seen the remains of a water system the ancient peoples had dug into the rock wall to divert water from the aquifers into the main city.
I will put some pictures of the valley and the rock layers, along with the carvings and little idols along the way as I think pictures will say more thanwords can.
After around half an hour or so of dodging horses and admiring the formations, the first site can into view around the bend.
The treasury is the first carved vista that I saw and words simply cannot describe it.
Built as a tomb (tombs have ornate carvings whereas homes did not) it towered over me as I stared at it, slack-jawed in awe.
Every part of it was exquisite and while there were parts that had been damaged over time, the parts that were not looked as though they could have been carved yesterday.
Again, pictures over words.
We moved along further into the city and I was amazed to see just how much there was to see. In so manypictures and articles, you are given the impression that there are a few sites but you could see everything in a day. This is not true. I will have to come back to see the rest! There were so many living rooms cut into the rocks, royal tombs, religious areas, theatres and other spectacular carvings that wherever you looked there was something to take a picture of.
It is difficult to really describe the site and get across how I felt when I was there, hopefully my pictures can give you some idea.
We stopped off for some lunch in the basin of Petra in the late afternoon before making our way out but not without stopping along the way for some more stunning views and photo opportunities.
I was sad to return to the coaches to make our way back to the hotel, as I would have loved to have spent some more time exploring but I was also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to visit one of the all-time highlights of my life.
It was dark by the time we returned, I had been engrossed in my book so I didn’t notice the sun drop like a rock. As it was the evening we all decided to grab an early bite to eat before prepping for the next day’s diving and getting a good night’s sleep. But not before rinsing the sand out of my beard.
The following day was the day of reckoning! We were going to dive the Hercules! I woke up a little early you make sure that all my gear was ready as we were checking out of the Intercontinental. We would be checked into the Movenpick while we were in the water. We were split up into 4 groups to reduce the number of divers at each site and I was diving with Sinai Divers. The boat we dived from for the two days was called the Harmattan and was a spacious, well-equipped day diving boat with plenty room to kit up and comfy inside spaces to chill out or warm up after a dive.
Our guides, Mohammad and Marie, were great fun and gave very informative dive briefings ensuring that we knew where all the major sites were, as well as focusing on diver safety.
The four sites we dived over the two days were the Hercules, the Seven Sisters, the Power Station and the Cedar Pride, and I will talk about each site in a bit more detail below.
The Hercules itself looks mighty and impressive in the water, sat upright as if in flight in a sandy bottom right next to the reef at 17m. We spent the entire dive exploring every nook and cranny and it did not disappoint. Whilst entirely bare of life (which will hopefully change soon!) the dive is still very interesting. All the stickers, warnings and signage inside the plane and wings were still there, which was very interesting to see. The rear door is permanently shut due to how she sits but there are plenty of points of ingress that are very easy to enter and exit. As the plane is so huge inside, there are no entanglement hazards but it is still important to take care. The cockpit still contains a lot of the control levers and other interesting things to see, as well as a surprise that I won’t spoil for you! It’s a great dive and I can’t recommend it enough!
The Seven Sisters is a lovely coral garden that sits next to the Hercules, at a depth of around 20m. With plenty of hard and soft coral to see as well as nudibranchs, fish, shrimps and other critters, it was a great dive to complement the Hercules. We swam alongthe reef, grabbing a few shots of the marine life and just enjoying being in the water. A few octopus could be seen hiding under rocks but my little GoPro was able to sneak under and get a few images from a respectful distance (there may even be a FINdex coming, watch this space!). At the end of this dive there is the wreck of an anti-aircraft tank, sunk in the 80’s, which has been well and truly absorbed by the sea. Covered in fish, coral and sponges but still showing all the details of its previous job. A small but perfectly formed way to end the dive.
The Power Station is a dive a few clicks north of the Hercules, named so because the site is in front of a power station. This was the dive we got some depth on! A lovely set of walls and plateaus with plenty of coral cover and fish life, we were also lucky enough to see a Hawksbill turtle cruising through the area. I’m a sucker for a turtle, so I did my best to follow him but he soon left me in the dust. There were also plenty of shrimps and clownfish to keep the photographers entertained.
Finally, we dived the wreck of the Cedar Pride. A ship sunk as an artificial reef in the 80’s, it is also covered in marine life like the tank is. It straddles two bommies allowing you a unique experience of diving underneath the ship. It does not have much internal structure to speak of and what there is isn’t suitable for beginners, but there are a few cool air pockets left in the cargo holds from when they sunk it. Putting your head up and being dry while checking your gauges at 12m is surreal, just make sure you keep your regulator in! 30+-year-old air with all sorts of gases in it is not good for you! There is plenty of life to keep photographers and critter hunters entertained for a few dives, including some elusive frogfish which I was unable to find. Feel free to send me your images if you are able to! A great dive, very much recommended.
After the dives both days, we returned to the Movenpick for a bite to eat and a kip. The rooms are a touch smaller than the Intercontinental but were still very comfortable. They also had eco-friendly cosmetics in the bathroom, always a plus with me.
The following day was spent visiting hotels and dive centres, which I won’t bore you with the details but it was very informative and interesting to see a huge variety of hotels and dive centres in the region. It was a long day but very worthwhile.
After returning to the hotel to freshen up for our return home, we said our goodbyes to friends made over the week and made our way by coach to the airport. I was able to catch some shut-eye as we travelled overnight and we arrived with plenty of time to check in. Queen Alia airport is not very large at all for an international one but it has all the bits you would need.
Strong coffee was the order of the day! I grabbed a stuffed camel and some of the local paint stripper for the family and well as a few other knickknacks but it was soon time to head to the plane. We travelled on the same Airbus as we did on the way out, comfortable enough for this giant man to sleep most of the way.
So would I recommend Aqaba?
Short answer – yes.
Long answer – yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees!
Not only was I able to visit some of the most beautiful places on earth above water, I was able to have a great time and see some awesome, one of a kind sites underwater. Get yourself there on the next plane you can!