|IT ALL STARTS ON THE M25, ON THE BIT BETWEEN HEATHROW AND GATWICK. At certain times of day, a variable speed limit is displayed on gantries above each lane and speed cameras are turned on.
They claim this keeps the traffic flowing more smoothly and tames the wilder excesses of those who value excitement above arrival. The truth is, they get to impose more speeding fines.
On the day of the Red Sea package flights for divers, the speed limits and speed cameras are turned on early. They know that most divers bound for the Red Sea have driven from oop North or from Wales or from somewhere else without variable speed limits, which makes it much easier to catch them and impose fines. Your three points and fine will be on the doormat when you get home.
At the end of the road lies Gatwick. Why, ferGawdsake There are 50 million people in Britain, and 49 million of us live a bugger of a long way from Gatwick. And why should we have just this airport to take us divers to our most popular overseas diving destination
Still, Red Sea charters are now flying from Manchester. I know this, because I saw the variable speed limit signs and cameras being installed on the M62.
The main on-site car-park at Gatwick is huge and divided into clearly signed zones, so make a note of the zone in which you parked and youll have no trouble finding your car when you get back. Except that every Wednesday somebody comes along and moves the signs around. Its the only explanation.
Throughout the car park are public urinals where you can wait for a coach to take you to the wrong terminal. Still, there are only two terminals, so if you do arrive at the wrong one, you only have to get to the other.
The coaches run every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, every day of the year, though only coaches which are already full are allowed to drive past the shelter in which you are waiting. People will wave, however.
Queuing at the airline check-in desk used to be one of the joys of a Red Sea trip. New friends could be made, relationships develop, marriages be consummated and children born, all in an atmosphere of frigid hostility in case anyone tried to push into the queue.
Not any more. The most exciting thing you have to look forward to now is an argument about hand luggage. They say 5kg and they mean 5kg.
Explaining that your main luggage is a bit light so your total luggage is under the limit, even if your hand luggage is a bit over, cuts no ice. Neither will pointing out that you are vertically challenged and built like a whippet.
Taking a bag under 5kg is a waste of time as well. They just assume that youve hidden your hand luggage somewhere cunning and shout at you anyway.
The departure lounge will be a disappointment, but eventually you will get on your airplane and can settle back into your seat and savour the delights to come.
There is the moment when the aircraft just sits, poised, at the end of the runway. The engines are running and the whole airframe vibrates just a little as the pilot makes last-minute checks and waits for clearance to take off.
Then the throttles are opened, the noise level swoops upwards and the vibration changes to the quivering of a trapped beast. The brakes strain to hold the massive weight against the thrust of the motors, until they are released and the aircraft can leap forward.
As the plane accelerates down the runway, a single question dominates your mind. How can anything with so much excess baggage possibly fly It takes a distinct effort not to leap to your feet and scream Were all going to die!
Against all the odds, however, your aeroplane will leave the ground, and eventually climb to cruising altitude, at which time the tannoy will bing to announce words of wisdom from the pilot.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Cattle Truck Airlines Red Sea divers flight. We will be flying very slowly today to save fuel, and also to make the flight as long as possible so that you will need to spend a lot of money on refreshments.
Unfortunately, you will find that the seats are so closely packed together that putting your hand in your pocket for money will result in serious injury.
On the bright side, however, when we finally reach the Red Sea the weather will be wonderful.
An aisle seat might seem like a good idea. At least you will be able to go for a pee and stretch your legs. Just watch out for the duty free trolley. Arriving wet-side with no more than ankle contusions means youve been lucky.
The highlights of the flight will be the movie and the meal. The movie will be viewed on small screens which have been carefully sited to ensure that as few passengers as possible can actually see them, and listened to on headsets for which a charge is made.
The charge will be a great deal higher than the sound quality.
The meal will have cost the airline less than a pound per passenger, probably a lot less. And that pound includes any paper or plastic throwaway items, as well as the food.
Since these really are the highlights, you can draw your own conclusions about the rest of the flight.
Sleeping the time away would be a good idea, if only you could get comfortable on a seat made from recycled cheese-graters padded with old newspaper, and which you cant recline without the person behind having their knees rammed up their nose. Either everybody reclines, or nobody.
Finally, the aircraft begins the descent into the Red Sea airport of your choice.
Passengers who do not return their headsets neat, tidy and functional are worked over by the friendly and attentive cabin staff to teach them a lesson. The pilots voice comes over the tannoy:
Thank you for flying Cattle Truck Airlines. We hope you have enjoyed your flight today, and we look forward to being of service to you on your homeward journey, when we have arranged special facilities for all returning divers!
By the time the aircraft has come to a complete halt and the pilot has turned off the seatbelt sign, three-quarters of the passengers have already retrieved their luggage from the overhead lockers and are jamming the aisles. As most of these passengers are divers, the hand luggage they have retrieved is heavy and solid.
The advantages of a window seat now become apparent. Not only are you less likely to be stunned by descending luggage, you can also sit calmly and take your time, instead of being crushed by a pair of divers who are living proof of your descent from the apes.
And all the time remembering, with a smug little smile, that last on the bus to the terminal means first off.
Just inside the terminal is the queue for visas. If you get your visa in the UK before you go, you can skip this queue, go direct to passport control and be first in the baggage reclaim queue.
Do not view this as an advantage. The earlier you arrive to claim back your bags, the later they will come off the plane. Just think of queuing as an essential part of the flying experience.
If, however, you really want your luggage to be first off the plane, and guarantee it arrives in mint condition, pack your kit in a cardboard box tied closed with string.
Be careful to collect the right cardboard box. Every airport baggage reclaim belt has at least one, and a pair of live chickens or 30 metres of floral curtain material are no use at all 20m down on the Giannis D.
Once you have your own luggage, you can finally make your way out into the main airport concourse and find the representative of your tour company. You will already have seen him when you entered the terminal, and will have been told to meet him again just after baggage collection.
This arrangement will have slipped his mind in the intervening hours, and you will be left alone in a rapidly emptying airport. Alone, that is, except for the poor soul who has arrived in Egypt to find his baggage has gone to Stockholm, and is currently engaged in filling out the necessary forms.
Local taxi-drivers speak English, and they will get you to your hotel or boat, eventually. And assuming that your tour company hasnt changed it, and not told you. Look on it as an adventure, an opportunity to see the side of Egypt the casual tourist never sees and, above all, to see the type of driving the M25 speed cameras are there to discourage.
Your diving will be great. Compared to the UK, it has to be. You will be able to see your own fins, for a start. While youre wearing them, too. How many UK dives offer that sort of viz
Your return journey starts at your resort hotel, where you wait for the pick-up bus to take you to the airport. As the scheduled departure time of your flight gets closer, you might begin to wonder if youll make it.
Relax. You might.
Finally, the coach will turn up and everyone will climb aboard. Almost everyone. The tour rep will have a list with a name on it which nobody recognises, so youll need to wait until the only way you could possibly make it to the airport on time means being driven by an Egyptian coach-driver. Stroke of luck you have one, then.
When the coach finally stops and you remove your blindfold, you will find the longest queue you have ever seen stretching out of the terminal building. Weary, and resigned to missing your flight, you join the queue.
Moments later, you realise the queue is getting shorter. Moments later again, you realise it is getting shorter fast. Egyptian ground staff can x-ray your main luggage, hand-search your hand luggage and issue you with a seat in roughly the time it takes UK airport staff to ask for your tickets.
As you pass through passport control, you find out who the unknown name belonged to. The man with the luggage in Stockholm has got his bag back just in time to travel home with it.
The departure lounge will be grim. The air-conditioning operates in inverse relationship to the temperature, there is nothing to drink and too few seats and, worst of all, there is always a loud voice saying something like Just as we got back up to 50 metres and the mating manta rays were out of sight, an oceanic whitetip chased a pod of dolphins past us. I was so startled, I nearly lost the completely intact motorcycle wed lifted from the unknown wreck less than quarter of a mile from the Thistlegorm.
Then the flight is delayed.
A little later, the first fist-fights break out.
But all good things must come to an end, and the flight is eventually called. As the aircraft takes off, the tannoy bings.
Welcome aboard Cattle Truck Airlines Red Sea divers homeward-bound flight. For your comfort and convenience, we are about to check that you have all correctly decompressed, and have completely off-gassed. We will do this by reducing cabin pressure almost to zero, and lowering the partial pressure of oxygen to life-threatening levels.
Should you experience any symptoms of decompression sickness, please tell any of our friendly and helpful cabin staff and we will be pleased to move you to an area where your screams will not disturb your fellow-passengers. Thank you for choosing Cattle Truck Airlines and we hope you fly with us again next year.
The sad thing is, you probably will. And so will I.
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