For me it was the noise. As you draw close to the reef, there is a crackling noise, which continues incessantly. It is like people breaking loads and loads of kindling ready for a fire. I asked Chris about this and he said that the argument has never been settled. He thought the most likely explanation for it was that there are a species of shrimp living in the coral and surrounding area which stuns prey by clicking loudly with their claws. Apparently the noise produced gives off shock waves which can paralyse small fishes at several places, and the noise itself can be heard for miles through the water. Magnify that by the number of shrimps that can live within hearing distance by the number of times they click their claws together and it might explain this incessant noise.
Looking around I could see different coral shapes. Then I saw the enemy, the spiny urchin. Its small body is masked by a set of long black spines. The spines themselves are not poisonous, but made of fine calcareous material that breaks easily and can stick in your foot if you have the misfortune to stand on one in bare feet. The irritation caused is intense and there is little you can do about it until the body works out the fragments of lime.
This worries me and starts me hyperventilating when I see some. What is worse, Chris has told me not to put my foot down on any coral, and the problem is that my instant reaction when there is a problem is to do this, and I am torn between putting my foot on the fragile coral or on the urchins which live on the sandy crevices between fronds. Hu hu hu hu goes my bronchial system.
Gradually I come round to easier breathing and I am putting my foot down less regularly and enjoyed the spectacle. It was better than TV where you look straight at a glass bowl, these brilliantly coloured fish were swimming all around me, and some of them would come up close and give me a good stare before flicking their tails at me and scurrying off into another crevice. Looking around, there were butterfly fish and angel fish, eels poking their heads out of every hole. Crossing the coral, the bottom drops steeply away into a grey-green gloom on the far side. The number of species was even greater on this side, and despite the feeling that I could no longer put my foot down, I felt more confident to explore here.
Moving off the coral reef, there was far less activity, but some of it was amazing. While most of the sand was flat, some areas had wide craters, abutting each other closely. These craters were fairly shallow, and in the centre was a hole. Each crater contained a small goby fish that swam around rather agitatedly. But alongside, in every one, was a snapping shrimp, that would clean up the area around the crater. When the goby had snapped at a passing morsel of food, the shrimp would quickly come and grab anything spewed out of the side of the mouth. The shrimp lived in a small hole in the pond and waft its tentacles in the water to sense any change in circumstances. Every pond had its fish and every pond had its shrimp. They lived together in a remarkable piece of symbiosis. It is difficult to work Darwin’s theory of evolution in to this place; where did the relationship start – did the shrimp find itself in a fish’s pond and find the living easy. Did the goby decide that the shrimp was not that good to eat? How did the fish keep its area clean before the shrimp started the domestic work?
Elsewhere, there were a few small rays buried in the sand, only their eyes showing. A sudden movement sent them shuddering off in a cloud of sand and two flaps of their curious wings sent them forty yards away.
After a while, I tired of having salt water in my mouth, of breathing in a coughing splutt, so we decided to come out. We moved into the relative cool of the caravan and I had a shower and some lunch. Massawa grounds to a halt at about 12 o’clock. The heat is so intense there is nothing you can do. Chris, Sheila and the kids went off into their beds. I went out and sat in the shade between the caravan and the container with the offices in. Slumped in a seat I read a few pages of a book as the wind between the two buildings quietly refreshed me in the stinking heat. The bay in front of me looked completely glazed over. The mountains to the south shimmered. The sky still moved as clouds built up from the east and moved over the mountains, but everything else was still.
Something that surprised me about the desert was the activity of clouds. In many ways, you expect clear blue skies all day and crystal clear views of the stars at night. But here we had wispy cirrus clouds that built quickly into thunderstorm clouds before dissipating over the land. The sky to the south became quite dark as the afternoon dragged on. The mountains disappeared into a large black cloud and the wind caught the lower edges and sent them towards the escarpment. Some rain appeared to be falling but much of it seemed to evaporate before it got to the ground. Then the cloud stuck on the western escarpment. It was then that I remembered the area I had passed through in the morning. The green acacia thorn and relatively well watered hills below Asmara existed because these clouds built up. They were too high and the desert was too hot for rain to reach the lowlands, but the mountains caught the clouds head on and the moisture replenished the parched land almost daily. It was still only a tiny amount of rainfall, but it was more than anywhere else received.
The afternoon wore on and it seemed like it would never get cooler. Eventually, though, Chris and Sheila emerged and we pottered around before going out to dinner. It then did something that hadn’t happened in Massawa for weeks. It rained. Small black blobs of rain fell on the sand and immediately soaked down and disappeared into the excess of dust. But it rained.