There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 28 January 2011

A Shark in the Red Sea - my brush with mortality

Last month a German tourist was killed snorkelling off one of Egypt’s Red Sea resorts. Nothing that follows is intended to make light of that terrible event.

I should also apologise to those who have heard me tell this story in a school assembly or on one of several other stages. I would justify my repetition merely by claiming that it is a good story – and a true one, to boot.
In the course of this blog I have occasionally had a bitch about the tourist industry. I’ve done it here, here and here. Nothing winds me up more than the ‘all-inclusive resort’. There is something intrinsically wrong about resorts designed to minimise holidaymakers’ contact with the host country. I understand people wanting a rest and a complete break while on vacation, but to visit somebody else’s country and to treat the local people, language and customs as an ignorable inconvenience seems to me downright rude.

I am thus no great fan of the resorts the Egyptians have built on their Red Sea coast, but my complaint is not that it has been developed – opening up some of the world’s best diving is, surely, a plus - but how it has been developed.

We visited Hurghada in August 1990, taking a day trip from Luxor and driving across the Eastern desert. There was then just one major hotel, but the building was about to start in earnest, sites were marked off and ready for the bulldozers.

The nearest thing to a diving centre was a beach hut where a man rented out snorkelling equipment. Having enjoyed my lunch and the ensuing nap I wandered down there and hired a snorkel and a face mask. He wanted me to have flippers, too, but they were an extra 75p. There are times when I am astounded by the perversity of my own meanness, I find £500 easier to spend that £5, and as for 75p, well its good money and I didn’t really need the flippers, did I?

The coral reef starts barely twenty metres from the shore in water that is swimming-pool warm and no more than shoulder deep. Hanging face down in the water above the reef I was amazed by the huge variety of shapes, textures and hues in the coral. I looked down, like god surveying his creation, and watched the inhabitants, as varied and brightly coloured as the coral, going about their fishy business. Then I moved on, effortlessly gliding over a small shoal of sliver grey fish the length of my forearm but almost completely translucent. I hovered over another patch, watched that for a while and moved on again.

After an hour or so I realised I was developing a problem. Being sometimes above water level and sometimes below, my back had felt cool, but the August sun is ferocious and I slowly realised it had been exposed to powerful rays for longer than was good for it.

I set off in the direction of the shore, glancing back under me as I turned. What I saw froze my blood. There, in the deeper water beyond the coral was a menacing shape. It was a huge shape, it was a dark shape; it was, without a doubt, a shark.

Suppressing my panic, I struck out for the shore. After ten adrenalin powered strokes I risked another glance downwards and backwards, hoping to see a bored shark gliding gracefully off into the deep water. But it was still there, no nearer I noticed with relief, but no further away either.

I was swimming as quickly as I could, but trying hard not to splash, as splashing, I seemed to remember, would make me look like an injured fish and attract the shark.

The shark was still keeping station. I had nearly reached the edge of the reef and would soon be over the sand. The water would become shallower, but that brought no comfort - I was sure I had read about sharks attacking in less than a metre of water.

By the time I was over the sand, the shark had reached the reef. Safety was not far away but I knew that, however fast I swam, the shark could close the gap with one powerful flick of his tail.

I swam on, ignoring the tiredness in my arms and legs. If only I had hired the flippers I would be safe by now. One half of my brain panicked, while the other half ticked on coolly, even mundanely. Having reviewed my reading on the subject of shark attacks the cool half turned its attention to my meanness and considered the irony of dying for the sake of 75 pence. It was not, I thought, my whole life that was destined to flash before my eyes as the jaws closed, but a vision of 75 pence of loose change.

Another ten strokes and my chest would bump into the beach, surely then I would be safe. I risked one last look back. I could see the shark had now crossed the reef and was rippling over the sand, and I could see something else, too. The dark shape from which I had been swimming with barely suppressed panic was not a shark at all - it was my own shadow on the bottom of the sea.

I was momentarily stunned by a feeling of relief, then I started laughing. I am quite good at laughing at my own stupidity, even if I would rather others did not do it. I pulled myself together, walked up the beach as though nothing had happened and covered my reddening back with a towel

Some people really do have to face unimaginable horrors, but for me the most frightening thing I have ever encountered (so far, anyway) turned out to be no more than my own shadow. That event confirmed something I had long suspected; if you ignore the imaginary fears, the real world is actually a surprisingly friendly and reassuring place.

PS The more I read that last line the more sanctimonious it becomes - but I can't quite bring myself to delete it.

March 2009 - A further thought. There is a well known (and possibly even true) factoid that more people are killed each year by falling coconuts than by sharks. I was recently relaxing outside our chalet (for want of a beter word) at Philip Kutty's Farm, on an island in the extraordinarily beautiful backwaters of Kerala. A ripe coconut launched itself from an adjacent tree and hit the ground less than two metres from where I sat. The earth, or at least Philip Kutty's Island, shook. Had Isaac Newton been from Kerala rather than Lincolnshire he would have invented the bomb shelter, not gravity. I was in more real danger from the coconut than from an imaginary shark - but it was all over before I knew it was happening, which made it a lot less frightening.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

David Clough M

Probably Definitely the most beatiful baby in the world
...and our very first grandchild. Love and congratulations to Siân and James.

The arrival of little David on Monday last week put blogging activity on 'hold'. What better reason could there be?
So, the delayed
China's Far South West: Part 8 Guilin
will appear in a day or two

update: and indeed it did

Thursday, 6 January 2011


Lynne and I visited Poland in July 2002 and I wrote this soon after. I don't claim any new insight - I doubt there are any left - and Auschwitz has been written about many time before by people better qualified and more eloquent than me, but I could not visit such a place and walk away like it was a country house or a museum. I had to write something, if only to try understand what I had seen.

Like all tourists in Kraków Lynne, and I walked up to the castle and the cathedral, strolled along the Vistula, lingered in the magnificent old square and photographed the seminary where Pope John Paul II trained as a priest.

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

The next day we drove fifty kilometres east to Oświęcim. Oświęcim? The name is hardly familiar. Why make a special journey to this small industrial town?

Every part of Poland has spent long years under foreign occupation. Every Polish town has at some time been Russian or German or Austro-Hungarian and has acquired different names in different languages. ‘Oświęcim’ is pleasantly obscure, but its German name is known throughout the world. Oświęcim was once called Auschwitz.

Today the camp is a museum administered by the Polish government. Beyond the modern visitor centre, we passed beneath the words ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ in wrought iron and entered the camp itself. All around us shoulders hunched, faces took on thoughtful expressions and conversations hushed in half a dozen languages. I was probably not the only one wondering why I was there. Had our visit any more moral validity than slowing down to gawp at a motorway accident?

Entering Auschwitz under Arbeit Mach Frei in wrought iron

At first sight Auschwitz does not seem terrible. Well-built two storey red brick barracks stand beside neat gravel streets lined with shady trees. I had read that the birds no longer sing here. That is not true.

Once a barracks for the Prussian Army, it was not built to be a place of horror
Entering a building we were faced with photographs stretching the length of the corridor – portrait sized versions of the camp mug shots. They look back at you, some terrified, some defiant but most with carefully guarded expressions. At first the roughly shaven scalps rob them of individuality but moving down the line you begin to see real people staring out from a living hell. Beneath each photograph is a name, an occupation - lecturer, shoemaker, engineer - a date of admission and a date of death. For older men these are often days apart, but generally it took perhaps six months to work a man to death.

Other blocks are as they were in 1944, straw the only bedding, toilet facilities cruelly inadequate. We entered the ‘Death Block’ past the bullet-pocked wall against which those who displeased the authorities were shot. In the basement, where Cyklon B gas was first tested on Russian prisoners of war, a party of Spanish teenagers listened uneasily as their guide explained the events of sixty years before.

Everywhere the shaven headed photographs stared down. Some of the hair was spun into cloth - a bolt of it sits in a glass case at the top of a flight of stairs – but much was stored. It now occupies a gallery in one of the huts. Behind a glass wall is the hair of tens of thousands of human beings. It is impossible not to stare open mouthed. It is impossible not to walk the whole length of the gallery though every step offers the same pitiful view as the step before. When I entered the camp I thought I might grasp some understanding of the suffering endured here, after this I knew I never could. In another hut is a gallery of shoes: men’s and women’s shoes, labourer’s boots and city loafers, broken and lace-less each one a public witness to a personal tragedy. There is a gallery of suitcases stencilled with names and the addresses they would never return to. There is a room of brushes - hairbrushes, shoe brushes, shaving brushes, toothbrushes. There is a mountain of spectacles and a sad display of prosthetic limbs.

Outside there is another world of trees and singing birds. It is hard to decide which world is real. Passing the hospital where Josef Mengele performed his perverted experiments we reached the crematorium. Auschwitz was a work camp, not an extermination camp but for most death was the only release. As the Red Army advanced, the Nazi’s blew up the ovens as though trying to pretend nothing had ever happened.

If Auschwitz is terrible, a two-minute drive took us to a place that is even worse. We approached Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau, across flat Silesian farmland.

Outside the gates of Birkenau life goes on

The gate-tower and forbidding entrance are familiar from flickering newsreels.

The gate tower at Birkenau seen from inside the camp

We climbed the gate-tower and scanned the vast camp, but it is the railway that attracts the eye. Bisecting the camp it leads a quarter of a mile into the distance. At the end of the line are the gas chambers and crematoria. To the west only the brick chimneys and floors of the wooden huts remain...

The railway and the destroyed huts as soon from the gate tower, Birkenau

To the east a section of the huts have been preserved and look much as they did in 1945, except that grass is neatly mown and the people are tourists - well fed and brightly dressed.

Preserved huts, Birkenau

We descended and walked through the camp. A fox strolled past us, as though everything was completely normal.

Fox, Birkenau
We entered one of the huts. If the barracks in Auschwitz could have been comfortable under a different regime with a different purpose, these were designed for misery. At night the inmates huddled on dark wooden shelves, the small stove pathetically inadequate in the vicious Silesian winter.
Inside one of the huts at Birkenau

Birkenau was purpose built for the extermination of the Jewish race. Killing was on an industrial scale. As trains arrived those who could work were taken to the camp where they might survive for weeks or months while the rest - the old, the infirm, mothers with children - went to the gas chambers. If the camp was full whole trainloads were gassed on arrival. In eighteen months two million people were killed. As at Auschwitz the gas chambers were destroyed as the Russians advanced. As at Auschwitz it remains obvious what they were.

The Railhead, Birkenau
The gas chambers and crematoria are just to the right

How did all this happen? The camp forces visitors to face deep questions about the nature of humanity and the presence or absence of God. It would be inappropriate to attempt to deal with such serious topics in a few sentences here.

Back in Krakow we visited the Kasimierz district, home in 1939 to 70 000 Jews.

Lynne outside the Old Synagogue, now a museum, Kasimierz

Today 150 live there but with Krakow’s tourist boom Kazimierz is enjoying a renaissance and restaurants serving Jewish food surround the old square. We sat outside the Café Ariel eating Jellied Carp and Tcholent stew. It was Friday and men wearing yarmulkas strolled in the square greeting friends. As dusk fell they drifted towards the synagogue. I wondered why they had stayed in Krakow. I had neither the language nor the impertinence to ask but I knew that for centuries Poles and Jews had lived here in harmony. Even in the worst days there were oases of sanity, the factory of Oscar Schindler lay just across the river from where we sat.
We dined at the Ariel Restaurant, the square in Kasimierz
As night fell children danced outside the synagogue singing traditional songs in a joyous affirmation of their ancient culture; proof enough that the ‘final solution’ had failed.

I cannot say that I enjoyed visiting Auschwitz, but it was an experience I will remember and it finished with children singing, a note of hope at the end of a dark day.