Friday, September 04, 2009

The SS Thistlegorm

I awoke in a mildly confused, languid sweat. A short moment of "where am I?", followed by satisfied realisation as I sat-up and soaked in the refreshing breeze. With the sun rising I was yacht-borne, heading up the Gulf of Suez with blazing Egyptian desert hills rising to the East and the West.

With the sun now someway up in the sky, we reached our destination. Down below, through calm turquoise waters it was visible. A 5,000 tonne 130 metre wreck famed amongst divers the world-over. The SS Thistlegorm.

The armoured-freighter was sunk in October of 1941 by German bombers while transporting military equipment to the British Eighth Army in North Africa, sadly, with loss of life.

It sank to 30 metres, nestling on its hull as if still afloat, hidden from the world until discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the early fifties. For another forty years it was left to its own devices gathering resident sea-life until rediscovered by the diving community. It has been a Mecca for recreational divers ever since.

Last minute checks, plunge and descend…an eerie experience as you glide down towards this massive object surrounded by the open sea. The scale of the ship imposes itself ever more as you come near. It looks so unnatural and yet, as you approach, the gathering coral covering and resident fish community show it is being naturalised before your eyes.The ship is largely intact except for a mangled pile of metal at the stern where the bombs hit. We neutralised our buoyancy just above this memory of carnage and, with the innards of ship rising above, made our way across the ship. Staring at the entanglement below and to the side, the eyes suddenly picked out tank tracks. On its back amongst the entanglement, there was an upside down Bren Gun carrier (effectively, a tank). Again, so out of place, so strange.Around the side we went, past long-dormant, sizable propellers and then back along the high side of the ship, dolphin kicking on my back with the current. As is the mind's way, it relaxes, but is interrupted every so often by a shrill of excitement, in this case triggered by the reality of the large riveted sheets of metal towering overhead.I start noticing the variety of fish. Sea anemone poking their heads out of their tentacled homes and a crocodile fish lurking on deck. My eyes had a double-take as we drifted past and beside two trains still on their tracks. How they did not topple off as the ship went down is a mystery to me. Then, for the first time, into the ship itself. Over the cargo-bays full of vehicles largely obscured by shadow and into the bow. A door enters into a small room, through and out a top-hatch. Then up, over the prow, looking a long way down to the sea-floor and back, hard against the current. We ascended elated.

On the surface you could not wrench the grin off my face with a crow-bar. Excitement and stomach churning anticipation, we were soon heading back into the depths. Descending to the same site of metallic carnage, this time we entered the very bowels of the vessel from where they had been scythed open by the blast. Like nothing else I have ever done. Gliding up past and over motorcycles, armoured vehicles and trucks, intact even down to the windscreens. In the riveted nooks and crannies of the hold, our torches showed up various bits of equipment, clothing and ghostly white fish with large staring eyes.

Up to the next level, and more of the same. Some tight squeezes in the openings between the levels and where the vehicles are a tight fit. Then into the living quarters. A bathroom, the galley and the captain's room. Rolling time back in the mind, a peculiar sensation. Before the divers' bubbles percolate out through the slowly rotting shell of the ship, many are caught under the ceiling, forming a "dry" area. A cheap thrill in sticking my head into one of these giant bubbles. Distinctly odd so far beneath the surface.

Eventually, like all remarkable things, the penultimate dive of our trip had to end. A safety stop surrounded by a shoal of inquisitive fish and back onto the boat.Sometimes, rarely, you do something that really is it. Not just good, great, whatever, but so bloody fantastic that, in it, you are lost in a world of excited contentment, and for ever after it, your mind is drawn back to just how good it was. That my friends was diving the SS Thistlegorme.

Ras Mohammed to home

With seriously contented grins all round, we sailed back down the coast basking in the heat. A final dive in the Ras Mohammed National Park beckoned to send me home content - well, to be honest, I was already more than content, but you know what I mean. Dolphins were spotted by the dive-site and we kitted up in a jubilant hickledy-pickledy rush. Crash in to the water for one last time. My head immediately searching, left, right, up and down for those most playful of mammals. Gone.

A quad testing swim against a contentious current graced us with a great variety of sea-life. Nutrients are aplomb in this channel and accordingly everything is BIG. BIG tuna, BIG travelli, BIG barracuda, Big blow-fish and GINORMOUS moray's - I've seen them longer, but never as fat, there were three of these dark coloured mother's with a head bigger than mine. Huge shoals of fish surround us in all directions. Past a toilet ship wreck (literally a ship was wrecked carrying toilets), a top-sighting of an Indian eagle-ray in between two blue-spotted stingrays, and a neat right-angle swim-through to say goodnight.

A beer, a hookah-pipe, home and happy!

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