|It was my love of heights that got me involved in diving. A strange statement, but in a roundabout way quite true. Ever since my firschildhood outdoor-pursuits camp, I had been shinning up or falling out of every available tree or building. In fact, fighting gravity was my early lifes main purpose. |
Only one factor stood between me and my growing terraphobia: school. Patience kept me going. That and the knowledge that only good grades could gain me a place in either of climbings two meccas: Bangor or Sheffield University.
For no good reason, I chose Bangor. As it turned out, this was the fateful blow to my climbing career. Having spent my entire adolescence dreaming of three years uninterrupted cragging at the taxpayers expense, reality turned out to be a disappointment.
Im not suggesting that I had to study. God no. The problem lay in the weather. North Wales may boast some of the countrys highest, steepest rockfaces, but it can also lay claim to some of the wettest and most unrelenting rain.
By the end of the first term, I had got little closer to good rock-climbing than the odd optimistic inspection of various dripping-wet, and therefore unclimbable, crags. There were random overhangs under which we would sweat and grunt, preparing for that fateful day when the sun would emerge. But even clinging upside down to a lump of rock grows boring eventually.
On days when I stayed home, peering out towards the mountains through a rain-streaked window, my housemates would stumble in late, buzzing with stories of their latest diving adventures.
Most of it was exaggeration, I was sure. But they were beautiful exaggerations, and they were exaggerations that I too could be telling down the pub, instead of relating the latest aborted climbing adventure.
By the end of the year, I had badgered one of them into training me, and I was soon reaping the rewards of a sport that can be enjoyed regardless of the weather. Dorothea Quarry was the chosen venue for my debut performance in the art of blowing bubbles.
Of course, the act of diving starts long before the actual bubble-blowing bit. It starts in the car park, crouching behind a car, trying to worm into a borrowed semi-dry; with piling the lead on to the belt and slinging it over your protesting hip-bones.
It starts with staggering under the weight of a tank down a vertiginous slipway, slick with either mud or seaweed; with flailing around in the shallows, fighting your fins and marvelling at your own incompetence.
At first, I mistook this for being an unwelcome but necessary precursor to diving. But in time I realised that this is the sport itself.
Not just the gruelling and awkward preparation, but the many other facets of somehow enjoyable discomfort: the sweet agony of sitting in a drysuit with a full bladder and a long bumpy ride home; the helpless frustration of trying to climb a dive-ladder with hands frozen to the marrow and beyond all feeling; the art of sounding resolute and cheery, having travelled the length of the country to dive in water thicker, colder and blacker than Guinness.
This lesson would soon be learned, but at the time I naively supposed the sport took place under water. I must have had some idea in mind, because as I dipped beneath the surface I instantly realised how easy the water bit is compared to the land bit. But then I cant have been all there, because I also remember how fascinating it all was.
Dorothea - fascinating I remember the thrill of seeing a car door, my first ever underwater car door. Equally, I can recall a small dead tree, but not just any dead tree, a real sub-aquatic one. And although I cant help but sound sarcastic now, I was deadly serious then. Even the stones held more interest than those on land.
Most surprising of all were the underwater precipices. The sheer slate-grey walls all around, that shot straight and clean into the blackness below. I should have been prepared for this vertigo, but I wasnt. Indeed, my most persistent memory of learning to dive is of those icy cliffs, and the blackness beneath.
Wales mountain crags are at least cushioned by soft rolling hills, cosy valleys and carpets of warm, woolly sheep. Beneath these towering sub-aquatic ramparts was a void - cold, undeniable, yet curiously addictive.
My instructor surely noticed this, as he led me back from the edge of the abyss for the 10th time. Again and again I strayed there, lured from my group of fellow-students by the irresistible darkness.
Somehow, retrieving regulators and clearing masks couldnt match the pulse-thumping allure of the deep, that heart-felt rush of gazing down into the blackness and the freedom to fly above it.
Of course, diving has many more facets than just adventure, perhaps the greatest of which is observing nature. These past few years have provided their close encounters: schooling with mantas in Kenya and hammerheads in Egypt; hounded by silky sharks in Sudan and dolphins in the Yemen. But there is one creature that stands out above all, and it is the one creature I met on my very first dive.
For me, this wild, amber-eyed beast has come to embody the thrill of diving. For me, it has evolved into an almost mythical symbol of potency. It is an animal that epitomises the fighting spirit, and the will to triumph over adverse conditions.
In fact, no other species can truly compare with that one newt that I encountered on my very first dive in Dorothea Quarry.