|Its bound to be a good trip. John Bantins on it and they would have laid on something special for him.
Whats he look like I asked.
Hes got a ponytail.
I bet hes sitting in first class, I replied, musing that Id cut my hair short more than a year ago.
I was sitting with six chirpy Cockneys, between the ages of 16 and 65, on a Boeing 777, and we were the first group of tourists to enter Saudi Arabia. The others obviously hadnt done much homework before booking, because they seemed surprised to find that they couldnt get a beer on the plane.
No alcohol of any kind is allowed in Saudi, unless you make it yourself and consume it in private.
We had all, it turned out, had trouble getting a visa from the Saudi Embassy. The tourist visa was something of an innovation and its officials in Britain insisted on following old rules. One of my passports had an Israeli stamp in it. This is said to be acceptable to Saudi now - not to its London visa office, it wasnt.
My other passport was too dirty. I guess they meant it had too many other visas in it. So I had to get a new book before I could clear that hurdle, and other members of the group had faced similar obstacles. Nevertheless, we were now on our way to dive with Desert Sea Divers, along with three French journalists on their way from Paris.
Desert Sea Divers had been working to get genuine tourists to Saudi for nearly two years, and they had finally managed it. In the meantime, they had been working a virtual two-day week, because their only client-divers were expatriate workers enjoying weekend breaks.
NO EXPENSE SPARED
This would have spelt business disaster elsewhere in the world but in Saudi things are different. It seems that there is so much oil money swilling around that capital investment comes free. The Dive Village was immaculately maintained, with air-conditioned bungalows as far as the eye could see, and well-tended lawns. The stage was set and only the actors were missing.
It was the same with the well-stocked dive shop and the amazing gym, in which I only ever saw one user, Sheikh Farhad. He owned everything here as well as hotels in Londons West End, health clubs, and many other businesses worldwide.
The dive boats included three thoroughly modern US purpose-built vessels with multiple engines (one had three) and jet drives. These were Pro 48s. With diesel at 5p a litre, fuel costs are not a consideration. The boats were still in the condition in which they had been delivered.
There was also a Chris Craft and a Swedish Storebro. So there was plenty of capacity, again waiting for the customers to arrive.
The journalists were secured in the luxury of the Dive Village, while the real tourists, to whom the name the Chirpy Cockneys had stuck, stayed at the Mövenpick Hotel in Jeddah.
There was cuddly Paul, with his long-suffering teenage son Christopher; Brian, whose monosyllabic contributions to the conversation always hit the nail on the head; Ian, whose hat gave the lie to the fact that Little Weed had been killed off with The Flowerpot Men; Norman, who was stunned each day to find himself waking up without a hangover; Mickey (they call me Mister Roach) with his Heath-Robinson underwater Polaroid camera; and Dave, who said: At my time of life its not worth buying new equipment and had obviously been saying that for the past 30 years.
I think Desert Sea Divers struck lucky with this bunch, because they were very resilient, had a great sense of humour, including the ability to laugh at themselves, and were all proficient and trouble-free divers.
Had there been a woman among their number, things might have been different. Saudi is not a place for women. The wives of some French expatriate workers I met told me that they were losing their identities because females are so helpless in Saudi Arabia. They have to ask a man for help with almost anything they want to do, and are not even allowed to drive.
That said, I would not want any woman I loved driving around Jeddah. Everyone has very expensive metal but they drive like seven-year-olds - too fast, and devoid of any sense of danger. Europeans equip themselves with 4x4s, more for self-preservation than because they have any intention of going off-road.
PARANOIA CREEPS IN
Jeddah is a city in which money is not a problem. There are extravagant works of art at every road junction. Roundabouts are decorated with real ships left high and dry. Ordinary Saudis live in homes that would cost millions in west London. Then there are the rich ones!
Eating out is easy, there are restaurants of every description. In public, women must cover themselves with a layer of black and it is something of a surprise to see them reveal all once inside the privacy of the establishment.
Shopping in the souk is interesting. It is neither as glittery as Dubai nor as traditional as Sana. Gold jewellery is very cheap but looks it. We went into one ultra-modern shopping centre which seemed to have been built around a very old lavatory.
A certain amount of paranoia is evident. As the first group of tourists, we were interviewed by the Jeddah English-language newspaper, which then printed an outrageous report that said we had decided to come to Jeddah instead of Eilat because we didnt like Israel. The writer seemed to think the Sinai was still part of Israel. The whole piece was nothing more than a cheap shot and bore no relation to anything any of us had said. Journalists!
I hope the Chirpy Cockneys find this article in Diver more accurate. However, being featured on the front page of Arab News ensured that they received top service at their hotel.
Desert Sea Divers is run by Greg Gillespie, an American brought in for the purpose. Im not sure his Texan wife Brenda, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Dolly Parton, fully appreciates the Saudi lifestyle. Then there was Eric.
Eric is half-English, half-Italian, was brought up in Nigeria, speaks with a Welsh accent and has a Thai wife and child. He came to Saudi with McDonnell-Douglas and has been there ever since. He speaks Arabic and obviously loves the lifestyle.
Eric was excited at the prospect of entertaining tourists, and bubbled over with enthusiasm. He did not appear to know much about diving but on one journey, when we were overhauled and intercepted by a Saudi gunboat, things were put in perspective for us when it turned out that the captain merely wanted to ask Eric out for tea.
So how was the diving I have dived the coast of the Sinai from Eilat to Sharm; Egypt from Bluff Point to Rocky Island; Sudan from Abington Reef to the southern Suarkin; the Eritrean Dahlak Islands and Yemen from the Farasans to the Hanish Islands. Yet all that diving leaves this great swathe of undiscovered coastline on the far side of the Red Sea.
The Red Sea has a prevailing north-west wind, which means that this coastline is exposed, rather than sheltered like the inshore reefs of Egypt. Boat rides tend to be uncomfortable, unless the weather is really settled. Similarly, this can upset visibility in the shallower waters close to Jeddah.
The coral reefs are immaculate once you get away from the immediate vicinity of the port. It is classic Red Sea diving. On the seaward side of the reefs the water is gin-clear and the only divers you will meet are the ones with whom you went there.
COME IN FISH 401
We dived at sites with names like Craggly Towers, so called because of its strange tower-like coral structures, and Champagne, named simply because it is the best.
Remember that with so few people diving, most of it has yet to be discovered. Desert Sea Divers tended to take us to places established as being good. We saw all varieties of hard corals and little sign of bleaching. The corals in turn attracted many species of butterflyfish and other coral-browsers which are becoming rarer in other parts of the world.
Soft corals grew only where there was some current. It is hard to describe the marine life without using words like myriad and profuse - its a fish-spotters delight.
A British couple from Jeddah are making it their lifes work to record an example of every specie in each of its minute differences. So far they have recorded 400 of the known possible 1200. It just goes to show how little there is for the expat residents of Saudi Arabia to do.
However, this part of the coast has one undeniable, possibly unique, resource for divers. While they were building Jeddahs international airport, the lights illuminating the construction works confused many ships captains inbound for the port. The rule was to stay in the middle until the helmsman saw two sets of lights, then steer left. Ships were sent into the reefs of the Eliza Shoals at a rate of about one a month.
Many were unloaded where they were stranded and then floated off. Others were not so lucky, took on water and slipped off the reef. Bad news for insurers but good news for divers.
Few of these vessels have been identified, and have become known by their cargo or the dive group that discovered them. So there is the Cable Wreck, the Pipe Wreck, the Toilet Wreck, the KLM Wreck (named after a flight crew which was diving it), Willis Wreck, Woodys Wreck and many more.
They all seem to have their bronze propellers intact and unsalvaged but then, why would a Saudi want a secondhand one when he can afford to buy 10 new ones
There is something magical about leaving a boat at the surface and finding a ship lying at the bottom. It is wonderful to see the metamorphosis from what has been a great loss to industry into a useful and beautiful gain for marine life.
The first wreck we dived, the Ann-Ann Wreck, is 110m long and lies upright at Abu Faramish Reef, with quite a strong current over it. Its stern is at 36m and its prow near the surface. A Chirpy Cockney found a fragment of plate with the shipping lines flag, giving locals the first chance of identifying it.
The Cable Wreck at 19m makes a nice dive. It is strewn with coils of cable which, although not attractive in the usual sense, seem to have made a home for many territorial fish.
Nearby are reefs covered in a variety of soft corals, vibrant in reds and pinks and purples. The Chicken Wreck lies in 15m, on its side and with an interesting coral-covered derrick. It is still strewn with plastic bags that contained the frozen chickens it was carrying. Bring up one of those and open it if you dare!
My favourite site was the Boiler Wreck, on which all but the bow (at 18m) has become incorporated in the living reef, leaving its two massive steam boilers standing proud. This very old steel wreck could be described as the most beautiful of locations. A regular current ensures a good supply of nutrients and a flourishing growth of hard corals in which it is engulfed. Like all the wrecks, it has its resident morays and a Napoleon wrasse.
Greg casually picked up a brass porthole, still complete with glass, that had fallen off it and was lying on the sand.
The Boiler Wreck can be found at Abu Madafi Shoals, which is a massive reef which forms a barrier to the prevailing wind. Naturally, the best diving is on the roughwater side. There is a channel through the reef, and when conditions are right this is the place to see pelagics cruising. I saw numerous big tuna pass by as I worked my way along the wreck.
None of these sites is better than those on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, but we never had to share a site with another boat, and only ever saw one as we left harbour. Some of the Chirpy Cockneys, those still using ABLJs, reflected that it was like diving in the Sinai 20 years ago. I suggested that it was a lot more luxurious. Either way, it was far from the madding crowd.
Abu Madafi is at about the limit of range for dayboat diving from Jeddah. The Saudi coastline stretches unexplored for another 500 miles, all the way to Aqaba in the north. But Sheikh Farhad has already commissioned the building of a 35m catamaran for liveaboard trips. I hope he invites me on it!
GETTING THERE: Flights to Jeddah. Visa applications are made through the Saudi host company. The cost is£36 from the Saudi Embassy in London. Your EC passport must have two clear facing pages and be valid for six months. Provide one passport photograph. Avoid presenting a passport which has an Israeli stamp in it.
DIVING: Desert Sea Divers charges US $66 per day per person to dive from one of its boats. The 11th person in a group goes free (argue among yourselves). A two-day/one-night trip costs $146. Alternatively, a group can charter the Pro 48s for $1333 per day.
WHEN TO GO: The Saudi Arabian peninsula is one of the few places in the world where summer temperatures exceed 50C. Lightweight clothing and head covering is essential. Sea temperatures range between 25-30C, according to season and depth.
ACCOMMODATION: Luxurious two-bed/bathroom bungalows in the Dive Village cost $48 per person per night, based on four sharing. Two sharing at the Mšvenpick Albilad Hotel costs $87 per night.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Saudi Under-water Services (fax 00 966 2656 1288) can organise a package. The Chirpy Cockneys paid£759 for flights and B&B for eight nights plus£265 for a five-day dive package.
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