It's a year since my first open water dive, and I'm planning to reach 100 dives in that time. And doing three dives today will make that happen. On the way, there is fish feeding

and something hiding.

Posted Thu Feb 3 00:00:00 2011 Tags: KSA

Our receptionist tells us us there's no diving in Haql, with it being so close to the Jordanian border. He's not right, but we don't know that then, so we go straight to the border. It's a confusing jumble of small offices, with no obvious starting point. We pick one more-or-less at random, and get sent somewhere else. The somewhere else sends us over to another place, where the process grinds into motion. One of the offices contains an edition of what appear to be the Saudi Customs Official Magazine, which has an article with photos of notable catches. The most bizarre (to me) is a car with the entire engine bay filled with cans of Heineken.

We're transferred smoothly from office to office to perform each step of the procedure which will allow us and the car to cross from Saudi Arabia into Jordan. The border and customs people are all pretty warm and open, if a little surprised to see a Briton, an American and a Finn driving a Jaguar to Finland. The whole process takes less than an hour and we're soon on our way into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The Jordanian side of the border is a little more painful. Getting visas and getting through passport control happens reasonably efficiently, but the car is more of a challenge. There are all manner of reasons why it takes a good four hours, many of them the computer's fault.

The Jordanian coastline appears to be mostly industrial from our vantage point on the road. Our hotel (a PADI five star resort no less) is just a couple of miles from the border up a hill, a little way out of Aqaba. We start our exploration of the town with the discovery of a Genuine English Pub called the Rovers Return.

Posted Sun Jan 23 00:00:00 2011 Tags: KSA

Today we're heading north from Yanbu for some diving in the middle of nowhere. This stretch of coast is reportedly all good diving if you can get to the shore and march over the fringing reef. Lead by our boat driver from yesterday, we roll up at a stretch of coast accessible due to having a cement factory. There's a coastguard station nearby, so we rock up and do the needful.

And they turn us down. About a year ago, a couple of locals borrowed a mate's diving certification and went out with one tank and reg set between them. After they came back dead, the coastguard decided diving was too dangerous. They send us a mile or so down the coast, for safety's sake. The coast road is the traditional unsealed corrogated dirt track, fine for our DM's pickup, but not really suited to our conveyance, a Jaguar S-type R.

The trek out over the gnarly fringing reef with full gear on is hot and painful on the feet. It's a nice enough dive in the unspoilt water. Short on creatures, but it's pretty fun to know that we're probably the only people to have dived here, ever. We have a short surface interval before moving a little way down the coast for another go. Again, just a few larger fish in the clear water, but still a great opportunity to dive somewhere unique.

After we finish our dive, we turn north again to find a site for tomorrow's outing. We're interested in diving the Saudi side of the Gulf of Aqaba, and we have a tip for someone who can help us in Al Bad, which is right in the north. It's going to be a long drive, so we get cracking without too much delay.

By sunset, we've reached the town of Al Wajh, where we find bizarre bread-based local street food and spot a woman behind the wheel of a jeep.

The rest of the drive stretches on interminably under we get to Al Bad in the north of the country. I wake up as we're driving around the town in the middle of the night. It's becoming apparent that we've been given a bum steer - there's no sign of a hotel or a dive shop in the small town, and we reluctantly take the decision to journey on to the larger town of Haql.

Just outside of Haql, we come across a beach resort offering accommodation. It's after two in the morning when we finally get our heads down.

Posted Sat Jan 22 00:00:00 2011 Tags: KSA

Friend Ollie has decided that it's time to leave the Kingdom, and furthermore that the only sensible way to do it is to drive to Finland. Naturally, I'm looking forward to see how that goes, so I'll be accompanying him as for as Amman. (Spoiler: it doesn't fall apart until after I've left the party).

The start of the trip is actually at a beach in Jeddah, for diving. At the end of the day, we get in the motor for the three hour drive to Yanbu where our hotel awaits.

Look, there's a reason the Mövenpick in Yanbu is mostly empty, and it's not the moat. The service here is horrible. They refuse to honour the deal we booked and fob us off with something substantially more expensive.

We've got a dive trip organised for the morrow (who'd have thought it?). The opening entertainment appears when we come across a barge. They're charged with laying a temporary buoy with no nav or depth sounder to position it. After our captain helps out, they drop it upside down. We grab it and right it by towing it around in circle for about ten minutes.

Dive one is at Caesarian Reef. The 26 degree water is properly chilly. It's a brutal bash into the current, giving us only 33 minutes of air. The water is clear, although the wildlife is elusive.

The wind and waves settle for dive two, which is more of a problem because doing less exercise means I start getting colder. The pinnacle isn't much to write home about, and by the end of the dive I'm vowing to invest in a wetsuit. The other diver here without one (and it's total coincedence he's a Scot) makes the same decision.

Our dive buddies for the day let us know of a restaurant, and we ask for the hotel's help to reach it. Sadly, they decide to mislead us about the distance and the cost of taxi there in a transparent move to keep our spending at the hotel. It's actually dead easy, and we're soon nomming on industrial-strength curry.

Posted Fri Jan 21 00:00:00 2011 Tags: KSA

Another outing on Khalid's boat to do the wall dive. On the way out we stumble across a pod of at least 40 dolphins. They're a little wary of us as we jump in the water, staying a respectable distance beneath us. That all changes when Chris pops a freedive. The dolphins reevaluate our abilities in the water and scatter.

The diving at Rabigh is as spectacular as usual, the highlight is a cleaner wrasse taking exception to my personal hygiene and having a go at cleaning my leg.

Posted Fri Oct 29 00:00:00 2010 Tags: KSA

Two dive outings this weekend. Yesterday was the turn of the small boat which takes about four people. Dive one on the Cement Wreck, one of the many victims of Jeddah's reef system. It's a 50 year old steam ship which went down carrying cement which has now solidified into what looks like a stack of slightly uncomfortable pillows.

The stern and prop are largely intact and make for an interesting swimthrough. Finds include a blue-spotted ray and a moray lurking in a pipe.

Dive two at Rose Reef, and our DM decides it's going to be a circumnavigation. The distance is about at the limit for one tank. Naturally we start into the current. By the halfway point we've been battling upcurrent all the way and tanks are starting to look low. Thankfully, it's all downcurrent from here and we drift slowly back to the boat with just about enough air.

The boat driver is a former Thuwal fisherman, and it's fairly evident that he enjoys having a new boat to play with. He doesn't mess about getting to his destination - just leaving the coastguard station he has the boat up to 33 knots before it's left the harbour.

So today we have another outing, this time on the Manta. We're starting, again, with the Cement Wreck.

At least in theory. What actually happens is that we get the briefing, jump in the water and spend 37 minutes diving on a non-descript reef which doean't contain a wreck. Asking a GPS later reveals that the boat driver put the boat in completely the wrong place.

So dive two is the second attempt at finding the wreck, and it goes a little better.

Posted Fri Oct 8 00:00:00 2010 Tags: KSA

Seven o' clock is holiday o' clock and I drag myself out of the comfort of my bed in order to put the last bits of packing out of their misery. I'm paying for using the wee hours to watch the remaining episodes of BBC Scotland's regrettable drama; The Deep. I will never get those hours of my life back.

My driver is as ever ten minutes early, and we're soon tooling down the highway towards Jeddah to the musical stylings of The Cranberries. I'm foolishly hoping that Jeddah airport will be in its usual state for the sort of 7am flights I normally get to the UK, when my front door to the departure lounge takes about an hour. But I've allowed three.

I'm not right. And how.

The Egyptair check-in desk is the sink for non-linear queue topologies worthy of a PhD. The queue bifurcates and merges, sources and sinks people from all three ends and succeeds in spending at least half an hour with the same number of people in front of me, despite a gradual stream of passengers actually managing to check in. And the levels of luggage some passengers are attempting to check in are phenomenal.

So much for check in. Passport control and security exact their share of the time, and by the time I reach the gate, it's reading "Boarding". Although that's not true, obviously.

After the traditional bus ride out to the plane, and the slow procession up the stairs, the wafts of cool air reaching me from the plane come as a blessed relief from the Saudi sun. Eventually I reach my seat, uproot the squatter, and flollop into it. Seat assignments are more of a guideline in this part of the world.

Egyptair has good seat pitch and no in-flight entertainment whatsoever. The food is just about good enough.

The screens showing the time remaining gradually count down as we near the end of the first leg at Cairo. As the plane comes to a complete halt and the captain switches off the fasten seatbelt sign, I'm barged by a chap who thinks he has a connection leaving in half an hour. He hasn't heard about the last-minute change to Egyptian daylight saving time. I leave him to the Sysiphan task of elbowing his way to pole position.

After an hour and a half in Cairo with Beer, the bus takes me out to the second leg without the aid of airconditioning. It's gracefully disintegrating, and appears to have come in off the street.

The flight is uneventful, and the Embraer's power is evident in the unfussy takeoff and landing. Signs of Malta's EU membership are obvious as I breeze past the line of Egyptian passengers at passport control by taking the EU passport holders aisle.

The first bus I see outside the airport turns out to be for the capital, Valetta, and it takes me on an only slightly roundabout route for the princely sum of 50 eurocents. The Osbourne Hotel is my destination, and it's easy enough to find, check in and leave again to explore the city.

I end the evening sitting in a cafe overlooking the Grand Harbour as the sun sets and the last yachts make it back home.

Posted Sun Sep 5 00:00:00 2010 Tags: KSA

Another weekend of diving. Who could have predicted that?

On Thursday a small group of us heads back to Rabigh for another outing in Khalid's boat. Our first outing is the pinnacles site, a string of coral outcrops leading off a small reef. The coral is lovely - there are some spectacular fan corals - and the pinnacles support a wide array of reef fish and other sealife.

The second dive starts inauspicuously - I lose my mask and snorkel on entry, and I'm too inept to recover them quickly. We're at the wall site, so the bottom is a long way away and they sink without trace. I have to borrow Khalid's mask to continue the dive.

It's a pleasant enough outing, but it's annoying to lose what was a pretty well fitting mask. Apparently, the tell-tale sign of a regular diver is that they hate their mask, so I was pretty lucky to pick up a reasonable one first time. It's particularly bad timing because I'm off on a diving holiday in a few days.

On Friday I'm out again, on the KAUST boat. They have a fairly limited number of sites available to them, and their dives are a little short. My rented mask is annoyingly prone to fogging, so I end up having to keep enough water in it to wash the fog away.

Posted Fri Sep 3 00:00:00 2010 Tags: KSA

Teaching has started, and suddenly the previously empty campus is crawling with people as students and faculty come out of the woodwork. The temperatures have been reaching mid-forties during July and August, with high humidity, so the student population and many of the faculty have chosen to find somewhere cooler to be. The result has been that we support staff have been living on a relatively empty and lifeless campus. But it's not really until everyone reappears that I notice how quiet it's been.

They've returned in the middle of Ramadan, which may come as a shock to any of our students who haven't previously lived in the Islamic world. The only place open for lunch is the canteen, every other food outlet is closed during the day, including the life-bringing coffee shops. I've very lucky to be spending part of my time working for another group which owns coffee-making equipment.

Most fasters cope by staying awake between the evening meal at sunset and breakfast shortly before dawn. Muslims typically work short days during Ramadan, going home to get their sleep in the afternoon. This means the campus is full of life late into the evenings. The University puts on a series of events at night to mark the month, and all the shops open later, some of them extending to 24 hours.

I'm off into Jeddah this evening for a bit of shopping. Being Ramadan, the streets are going to be very busy, late into the night. We've decided to hire a driver for this trip, and it turns out to be exactly the right decision. Just getting through Jeddah in the early evening is a slow process. We're hoping to find at least one of our destinations open at this hour, but no such luck. Ramadan means that not only do the shops close later, they also open later.

The accident happens on the way to Ikea. We're in stop-start traffic. Our driver stops a little harder than the bloke behind and we collect him. Our driver makes the mistake of getting out and checking the damage, which allows the fellow behind enough time to skip out and stand in front of our car while he phones the authorities.

We're theoretically losing valuable shopping time here, so a couple of us flag down a taxi to get to Ikea while the rest of the party wait for the police. I hear the story afterwards. The traffic police eventually turn up, confiscate all the driving licences in sight and tell everyone which police station to go to.

Once everyone gets there, they listen to a couple of stories, point at a couple of drivers and say "You can go". Our party is one of them, so that's the end of the story. In the meantime, we're still sat outside Ikea until 9pm waiting for it to open.

We continue to crawl around Jeddah, visiting our various destinations, until we finally finish after midnight. There's a long crawl across town to reach the highway before we can complete the hour long trip home, but I don't think any of us are left awake to notice.

Posted Tue Aug 31 00:00:00 2010 Tags: KSA

A week ago I lost my wallet. A pretty troublesome occurrence anywhere, but just that much more complex in Saudi Arabia. For a start, half my bank cards are for British banks, so I have to cancel them and work out how to get replacements out here before I go on holiday in a week and a half.

More importantly, my residence permit is in there. I put off doing anything about it for a few days, but after a few days without any sign of the wallet it becomes fairly necessary. Government Affairs is happy to explain the process. First I need to give them 100 Riyals, and they'll put an advert in the paper telling the world that it's lost. Then they'll need 1500 Riyals for a replacement, which is a pretty handy amount of money. About 250 pounds. There isn't very much I can do about it, so I kick the process off.

I get one replacement card by FedEx, and another by colleague courier. My Saudi bank completely fails to get their card to me.

Then today, I get collared in the canteen by a delegation of catering supervisors. The catering manager welcomes me to his office and happily hands my wallet to me. It seems he found it shortly after I lost it, and responded by putting it in a drawer and asking his minions to look out for someone who looks like the photo on my ID card.

It's a relief to have it back, although it would have saved me a fair amount of stress and money if he'd just handed into security. Reading between the lines, it looks like he wasn't confident that security would react well to the news that he had someone's wallet.

My last job is to let security know that I've found it and that they can stop searching. They misunderstand me, and open up their drawer of wallets and start offering them to me. I have to politely decline.

Posted Wed Aug 25 00:00:00 2010 Tags: KSA