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.

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