I'd given in to Nino's badgering to go to Egypt for two reasons: I wanted to dive with him, and there was the wreck of the HMS Thistlegorm to dive. While Nino started his training at Camel, I started begging to be on the next trip to the wreck. It was only a few days' diving before I got my wish.
I'd been diving previously with a couple of likeable Canadian Koreans, and they were up for the trip, as were a couple of English divers from Camel. We rose at 5am for the departure: she lay some hours away, near the mouth of the Suez Canal. We boarded in the dark, climbing to the upper deck whilst the crew made ready to cast-off. Two more divers joined us, a tall crop-headed man in his 60s; his companion a portly, bearded 40-something. Russians? I hoped not. The bearded man laid down and pulled his hat over his eyes, the rest of the divers already asleep on the mats at the rear of the sun deck. That left just myself and the older fellow at the table. I offered my hand, my name, and asked where they were from. He told me that he was a Norwegian named Robbie, and that he detected a Liverpudlian lilt in my accent. We laughed, and he told me of his fondness of the Beatles. We shared the opinion that the others aboard were missing out on a spectacular sunrise; together we watched in silence as the orange orb crested the horizon. When the sky was lit, we began one of the most interesting discussions I have had for a long time. Topics covered were Liverpool; the 60s and its music; the Summer Of Love and its similarities to 80s Acid House culture in Britain; the Baby Boomers; World War Two; Vietnam as the first war viewable from your living room armchair; diving; travel, and in particular the way it changes you and your outlook. I mentioned my limited belongings back home, and the fact I had no mortgage or permanent place to live. "You don't own things...they own you" he said. I told him I couldn't agree more and, while I felt a little rootless in life at times, that I wouldn't alter things.
I've met plenty of good people on the road, but certain ones connect with you on another level, regardless of nationality or age. Seb (England, 19) in Ko Tao; Karl (Germany, 20-odd) in the Batad; Gerd (Bavaria, 50) in Coron; Jonathan (my age, French Canadian) in Palawan. All interesting, thought-provoking people completely on my wavelength. I have a handful of close friends back home whom I could talk to right through the night, and they would love these people, too. I now add Robbie to that list. A neuro-surgeon back home, he informed me that this holiday was on his Senile Week. This the extra week's holiday you get in Norway after you pass 60. Not bad. He'd been diving some years with Alun. They work at the same hospital. Alun's an orderly, and was surprised when one of the top surgeons came down to the basement to say he'd heard Alun was a diver, and could he go diving with him? He told me it had been interesting to see Robbie's diving progress from awkward novice to the experienced diver he is today. By the time we arrived at the Thistlegorm, they had invited me to go and dive with them in some very cold and dark waters in Norway. I will definitely be taking them up on that, and taking Robbie some Peep Show DVD: he loves Mitchell & Webb.
Robbie told me some interesting tales of WWII, from a different perspective to that which we are presented. The British were responsible for enough atrocities. And the first casualty of war is said to be the truth, after all. Several civillian ships had been strafed or sunk by the RAF off the Norwegian coastline. Suspicion of German munitions or troops aboard were deemed reason enough to risk or even take Norwegian lives; A German cruiser had been sunk in a fjord near Narvik, but was literally undiveable due to the sweeping currents and freezing water in the fjord; A lake in Norway held the remains of two Blenheim bombers which had crashed into each other shortly after take-off...and divers had found boots with the airmen's feet still in them. Grim. And after the Germans had been defeated on a remote peninsular, the British refused to let the locals keep the trucks and boats which had been captured, and instead saw fit to crush them with bulldozers. Thanks for all your help beating Fritz, chaps. Charming.
The boat slowed and Tulio, our Italian guide, popped his head up from the stairs and told us to kit up. The lower deck became a hive of activity; regulators connected and tested, masks rinsed, wetsuits struggled into. Around us, six or seven boatloads of divers were doing likewise. My heart sank as I saw a group of around twenty divers on the boat next door preparing to enter. I'd heard the wreck got busy, but Tulio told me that this was nothing. So in we went. As we descended down the line I looked around me, horrified at the criss-crosses of shotlines from various boats, and the hordes of divers dropping onto the wreck. I'd liken it to being an extra in the final scene of a Bond film, and not in a good way. At least 20 divers were in view at any given moment. I was kicked in the head from above, and a diver rose from below, crashing into me and swimming away with no acknowledgment. I had no idea it would be this bad. One of the Canadians mistook another group for us and disappeared, Tulio in hot pursuit. This was a joke, and it was costing me £50 per dive? I hardly took the wreck in, I was that down. We climbed aboard the boat, and Alan made eye contact with me and sadly shook his head. "I dived this wreck 20 years ago, and also 7 years ago...it was not like this." He refused to to make the second dive. I almost followed suit, but decided that I was here, and that I might as well dive.
It was the right decision. We were in before everyone else, having had a shorter surface interval. I was paired with Julian, a veteran of several hundred wrecks, and who knew this one well. After being hand-held around the first dive with the less-experienced divers in the group, we decided we were going to be the naughty boys and disappear alone. Arriving at the stern of the ship, we watched Tulio lead the group into one hole. Julian pointed at another and I nodded: see you later, kids. The Thistlegorm is a beautiful wreck. Sunk by the bombs of a Heinkel He111 on its way back to base after a fruitless search for its intended targets, the ship had received its complete payload of ordnance. As the vessel went down, primed depth-charges on the decks exploded, causing more fatalities. There are many highlights on this wreck: two Bren-gun carriers on their sides, tracks intact; trucks in the lower decks, as well as rows and rows of BSA motorcycles; and Lee Enfield rifles litter the main deck nearer the bow. You can certainly see why it is rated as one of the world's best wreck dives.
Twice I encountered Tulio and the rest of the group, and he knocked two forefingers together to tell us to stay with the group. I nodded and ignored it. To be honest, I'd be pissed off if the boot were on the other foot, but I had paid well over the odds for these dives, and I wasn't about to follow a group and view the wreck through the silt someone in front was kicking up. No way. Besides, myself and Julian are both adept at wreck orientation, and are used to diving them. We knew where the shotline was, and were more than capable of looking after ourselves. The third time I passed him, Tulio shook his head and gave me a V-sign.
On the way back to the shotline, another group descended. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A guide had a young girl below him, supporting her with an arm around her waist. She had no equipment besides a bikini and a mask, and was breathing from his alternate air source. On a wreck. Twenty-odd metres underwater. In strong currents. What a complete lunatic. If they'd drifted away from the group, and she'd panicked, I wouldn't have bet much on her making it to the surface on a single breath. That's before you even start considering the Bends. I'm sure PADI would be interested in speaking to him.
We regrouped at the bow, and headed back past the locomotive and rolling stock on the foredeck, an amazing sight. I'll have to return to dive this one again, but on a liveaboard trip next time, to avoid living in Sharm, and to be first on the wreck at dawn's break. Climbing back aboard, Alun was waiting, shaking his head wistfully. I gave him a comiserating shake of the head in return. I didn't need to tell him how good the dive had been, as he'd seen our group enter the water alone, while the other boats continued lunch. But I bet it was better when he dived it 20 years ago, so no big deal. And it'll still be there in another 20, though the way she's being treated by divers and dive operations, there'll be less to see.