Massawa and the Escarpment – Back up the hill

 Click here to go to the first part of this chapter.

I headed back to Chris and Sheila’s where they laid on an early lunch.  I had another swim around the bay.  After a while, I realised that I was not really satisfied with the surface, there was too much going on below me, so I nipped back to the caravan and took the snorkelling gear.  I went into the coral on my own this time, and felt much more at ease and confident.  I looked in the deep.  It was a shame in many ways that Chris wasn’t there because he was so much more knowledgeable.  I saw Sponges and sea cucumbers and could recognise the black spiny urchins a mile off, but the myriad of coloured fish were still a mystery to me.  In a way I didn’t care that I didn’t know the names, I just lapped up the atmosphere, the wonderful world that is only a few feet beneath the surface.  I then lapped up something I wasn’t really looking for, a huge globule of salty water.  I coughed and spluttered and came bouncing onto the surface.

 I decided to spend my last few minutes in the water just relaxing on the surface.  I leant back and the extra buoyant salty ocean supported me with ease.  I lay there and looked up into the brilliant blue sky. I gently waggled my feet to make me turn full circle, and for the last time I look at the mountains to the south, the mainland to the east, Chris’s compound to the north and the Red Sea in the east.

 Then it was time to leave.  The taxi man rolled into the compound bang on time,  but far too early for me.  Thanking Chris and Sheila so much for such warm hospitality, I sat in next to the taxi driver and set off for work and another week in Asmara.  We retraced our steps, over the causeway and the streets of new Massawa, then across the wide desert, including over the Wadi where the concrete bridge was out, past the railway yard, and up to Ghinda, then up and up the valley, criss crossing the railway track.

Bridge out

Bridge out

Then up the true escarpment past all the old accidents, to the very top and the stupendous view back down, then over the lip and in amongst the very tame suburbs of eastern Asmara, before I really felt on home territory as we headed down the narrow straight road to the hotel turn off in the south of the city.

 Along with my excursion to Massawa through some of the most dramatic scenery in Africa, the friendliness of the people in Eritrea helped make those two weeks very memorable.  The little Italian touches – Pizza and pasta, many different coffees, mixed with the Arabic – the sweet teas, the clothes, and the African; the wicked sense of humour.  The crew I worked with were all different characters; Mehari the boss was a quiet man, but had an icy stare that showed that you should never get on the wrong side of him.  I learnt that he had been a major force in the Eritrean army during the war with Addis.  I was fearful for him when the war broke out again.  I was fearful for the whole of Eritrea; for the people who had told me “When we got independence we laid down our guns.  We never wanted to fight.  We just wanted our land back and now we have it, we need never fight again”.  I never understood why they took up the arms again against the Ethiopians for that scrap of land on the border.  I hope they never have to do it again, as the majority of Eritreans were the kindest, most generous and deserving people in Africa.



Massawa and the Escarpment – Swimming, Resting and Raining

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.

Massawa and the Escarpment – Learning to snorkel

 The compound was made up of a caravan, a portable room and a couple of converted containers

The Hillman Compound

The Hillman Compound

.  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.

Chris and Sheila's front garden

Chris and Sheila’s front garden

  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.

The Gorgona Trip – The prison and trouble on the reef

I tossed my bag over into the small wet fishing boat and precariously dangled for a moment between the two boats.  We loaded up our boat and set off in a wide loop to the shore, where the only way onto dry land was through the gentle breakers above the coral-shingled beach.  We scuttled up the beach and assembled in a large open sided building where we were allocated our cabins.  The men were in one large dormitory, the women in another.  Only twenty four visitors are allowed on the island, and everything we brought had to be taken back by us, and everything on the island had to remain here.  Gorgona is a preserved island, where the fragile balance of the island’s ecology is protected at whatever cost.

 We found out why the island had remained so “untouched” after a simple breakfast.  We walked about half a mile south of the camp along a steamy pathway.  Several types of monkeys chittered in the thick branches above us, tormenting us as we walked onto a concrete platform.  We saw a large number of derelict buildings with barbed wire protecting the jungle from them, or vice versa.  The division between jungle and building was now fuzzy, and insects swarmed throughout the area, plants grew out of every available crevice and the hard concrete façade was fading in green moss, mildew and fern.

Gorgona Prison

Gorgona Prison

 We suddenly were aware we had been brought to a high security prison.  Colombian governments had used this for about 30 years to keep opponents away from the public eye.  They were shepherded off to Gorgona and held for years, often without trial, and without any contact to the outside world.  The conditions were unbearable now; what they had been like when the place was supposedly habitable, one can only guess at.  The jungle may have been tamed to a certain extent when the gaol was in use but the barbed wire must never have kept the flies, cockroaches and scorpions away.  Now, hoards of termites rampaged up and down walls, temporary tunnels and permanent encampments splattered the walls.

 We were shown the normal quarters, the ranks of bunk beds, as they had been when the camp closed down, only a few years before in 1983.  And behind the kitchens and guards quarters were a set of holes in the concrete filled with storm water.  We wondered whether they were latrines, or holes for superstructure now rotted to nothing.  No, this was the solitary confinement block.  The holes were barely wide enough for a man to get his shoulders into.  They were lowered into these deep holes, and deprived of movement even to scratch their noses or move their aching limbs, they could be left in these holes for up to twenty-four hours at a time.  And they were prey to all the creepy-crawlies that would come, and some were left in the open air, so the rain, wind and sun would torment them for all this time. These simple rounded holes in the concrete could barely show the extent of the inhumanity that was inflicted on these people and yet the stories our guide told us made the scenes so vivid that we all shuddered to contemplate the ordeals the prisoners had to go through.  There may have been a glimmer of understanding if these people were proved to have caused similar hardship to others, though I would be hard pressed to subscribe to that philosophy.  That many of these people were here merely for holding a different opinion, liberal rather than conservative, or vice versa, made it even more unbearable.  And the final bizarre thought, as we left this ruin behind, was that somehow, the inhumanity between men had meant that the other species on the island were left untouched, and that humans were now able to protect this ecological niche for the enjoyment of others only because of the suffering of their fellow men.

 We headed back to lunch at the camp, and then in the afternoon were invited down to the coral reefs on the southeast coast to learn how to snorkel.  This was my first time ever snorkelling.  Graeme and I had been into a shopping centre in Cali to get ourselves kitted out.  We had bought the cheapest snorkelling gear we could find, it looked the right colour, and a pair of swimming trunks, which I had neglected to get when I was in the UK.  We headed down to the beach with all the others and stripped off.  The guide was giving a run down on how to snorkel.  I don’t remember much (Chris Hillman in Eritrea taught me a lot more several years later, but then again he did it in English not Spanish).  I worked out I had to spit in my goggles to stop them clogging up, and how to breathe through the pipe at the top.

 I put my head in the water, and my goggles filled up with water immediately, and I swallowed a gallon of salt water.  I stood upright immediately and coughed and spluttered over Graeme.  We tried to tighten the back of the mask, but they would still fill up, albeit more slowly than before.  That was the one valuable lesson learnt; buy cheap, expect mistakes.  But we did manage about thirty seconds of snorkelling every time we went down.

A beach on Gorgona

A beach on Gorgona

 The sea was quite rough and it was difficult to make anything out.  We were told not to put our hands on coral as it was very sharp, and also you ran the risk of irreparably damaging the reef.  So we were careful to swim to the side the reef.  To be honest, it wasn’t the best reef in the world.  It was quite steep and the roughness of the breakers made it difficult to see anything but bubbles and fizz.  Eventually, as my eyes became used to it, I did see some brightly coloured fish, but moving too quickly for me to find out what they were.  All in all it was a disappointing first experience. This being the landward side of Gorgona, I expected that this was the best of the coral reef.  Then came a disaster that almost ruined the whole month in Colombia.  I was trying to stand up when a large wave hit me and I toppled onto some reef.  I put my right hand to break the fall and landed straight on a piece of razor sharp coral.  It was a second or two before I realised that I had hurt myself.  I felt the bang, and got up.  Graeme was nearby and went whiter than he normally looked.  “Al, look at your hand”.  Blood was streaming down the side of my hand away from my little finger.  A wave hit it and washed it off, but immediately the whole area was full with blood again.