The compound was made up of a caravan, a portable room and a couple of converted containers
. Chris and Sheila had spent some time in a house, but had eventually settled in the caravan just because it proved convenient and a nicer surrounding. The immediate area around the caravan was covered in netting to keep the sun off. A breeze came through between the shed (where they kept a museum of artefacts found in the Red Sea) and the caravan. It was not exactly cool, but it was a welcome relief from the near 40 degrees in the shade that was around in mid afternoon.
But the thing that was most amazing about the compound was the garden. You came out of the front door of the caravan onto a stone jetty with a small wall.
You dropped off the small wall into the warm water of the Red Sea, a shallow sandy bay. Just a few yards out, a coral reef that curved round the bay into the deeper water in the distance. This was the garden. I had been there a couple of hours when Chris asked me whether I wanted to go Snorkelling. The last time I had attempted this was in Gorgona in Colombia, where I had a pair of cheap goggles which filled with water immediately, and I remember I had gashed myself on the side of a piece of razor sharp coral and opened a wound which could only be closed by wrapping a rubber tourniquet around my entire hand with the strap from someone else’s goggles.
Was I pensive? I said not. I borrowed a pair of baggy shorts, a pair of sandals and a good mask. We went into the water and I flailed my arms about to get over to the coral reef. I was not the best swimmer in the world. Correction. I was a terrible swimmer. I would not even attempt to swim normally unless I know that I can reach out with my foot on the ground. Eternal shame, terrible mistake, should have got confidence when I was child, but there you are. I think the thing was that I was never in the right atmosphere to learn how to swim properly. My experiences as a child amounted to the overpowering chlorinated stench of the Victorian Public Baths in Garston, South Liverpool, and the cold, grey, overpopulated waters of beaches on the south and west coasts of England and Wales. If I had been brought up in Massawa or the Caribbean or Dar es Salaam, I am sure I would have been easy to teach, as the water is warm and inviting, the climate is fine and getting out of the water did not form an ordeal in itself.
Here was wonderful. The Red Sea is unusually salty, probably because of the severe evaporation rates, particularly in shallow bays like the one I snorkelled in. I could quite easily lie on my back looking up into the blue sky and float without effort all day, sun burn permitting.
Chris wanted me to see the reef though and he gave me a quick lesson in snorkelling. Try to breathe normally, don’t put your feet on any of the spiny urchins. I went over for the first time and started trying to use the gear. I found that water started splashing into the pipe. I was looking down too hard, I should look across. I got a mouth full of salt water and coughed and spluttered upwards. Chris came back and asked what the problem was. I hoarsely told him. He taught me how to “spit” the water out through the release valve at the back of the pipe, the pressure opening this valve and exhaling any fluid that had got in. Still, I didn’t like the taste of the very salty water on my mouth, but I suppose you got used to it.
I tried again. I found myself unable to control my breathing when I went down. I was taking short sharp breaths, and quite often the waves lapped over the top of my pipe and down came another glob of very salty water, causing me to splutter and stand upright once more.
Chris asked me whether I felt relaxed. I did feel relaxed, but my respiratory system was telling me otherwise. I told him it was that feeling of claustrophobia at the moment when you put your face down into the water –like pushing yourself against a pillow. Once through the skin, I was free again, and could calmly observe without hyperventilating. Salt water permitting.
Having at last mastered my breathing, I could start looking around me. The wonders of the coral reef are known to many through film or personal experience, but as with so many things, there are elements of a coral reef which can only be appreciated with your own experience, and things no-one had ever told you about snorkelling become your enduring memory.