Sunday 17 August 2014

I Still Like Magic Malta (2013)

Having revisited Malta from 2012, I find myself thinking back to 2013, when I headed off to the small island in the Mediterranean with a different bunch of divers, since the Dive Centre trip was full. As I make a point of remaining uninvolved in dive centres politics (it's one reason I will never be a Divemaster or Instructor), this did not cause any problems. Again, the memories have boiled down to the following....

  • Driving the most knackered-looking Jeeps in Malta. I don't normally drive overseas, and I've never driven a Jeep before. My confidence was not improved when I realised it had a manual choke, which I have never seen before in my life. On the other hand, in fairness, no-one is going to rent a good Jeep to divers, who will only drive it down muddy paths and sandy beaches, and cover it in dripping wet dive gear. Eventually, I did get the hang of pulling the choke out when starting it, and managed to master planning turns some time in advance. (At least our Jeep did start after about three tries. Another group had a Jeep that had to be push started by driving it in circles round the car park near the hotel, cheered on by the watching divers, with another Jeep pushing it along until the engine turned over. Pure Chuckle Brothers.)  Fortunately, the great thing about driving in Malta is that if you drive like a maniac, everyone just thinks you must be a local. As I parked the Jeep at the end of my first day driving it, someone asked if I'd locked the steering wheel. I replied that I didn't know it had a steering lock. I was told to look under the driver's seat. Under the seat, there was a thick length of chain bolted to the Jeep's floor, and a huge padlock. I stuck the chain through the steering wheel, padlocked it, wondered briefly who on earth would be desperate enough to nick this Jeep, and went off for a pint.
  • Learning that how fit someone looks, or is, doesn't necessarily mean you can guess how fast they'll go through the air. I had one buddy who was slim and went dancing for a hobby, but still sucked down air like a thirsty man with a pint of cold beer. After we ended up with him "borrowing" some of my spare air (via the spare "Octopus" mouthpiece on my tank), as we headed back from having not seen the Um el-Faroud wreck due to his running low on air, we agreed that henceforth he should have a 15L tank. He got one, we paid a man with a boat to take us out to the wreck the next day, and all was well. (Except that we managed to miss the entrance to the harbour with the exit steps, and had to surface and swim back to the steps. Few experiences quite match the unique sensation of surfacing in a unfamiliar sea with no boat cover and thinking "Bugger, I don't recognise that very steep cliff AT ALL". Never have I been so glad to see a fisherman, who took a minute off from catching grouper to wave an arm in the direction of the harbour. It took fifteen minutes' swimming, but that could be worse.)
  • We couldn't dive the Blue Hole as the water was too rough, so did the Inland Sea of Gozo instead - the one with the tunnel. We carefully made a plan; swim through the tunnel, stay at 30m, and explore the ledges on the other side before heading back. We got through the tunnel, and everyone - whether through narcosis or over-excitement - completely forget the plan and started chasing a grouper deeper into the sea. Outside the tunnel, the sea bed slopes away and keeps on sloping; it's a popular site for technical divers, and it is here that the Savage Toilet of Gozo was encountered. The sea bed drops to 60m, so this was not going to end well if people went deeper. I actually managed my deepest ever depth on this dive. It would have been nice to have planned that, rather than have it be the result of dropping deeper quickly to avoid getting kicked in the head by a grouper-hunting diver! After that, I decided the best thing I could do was not make things worse, and level off at 30m whilst my Divemaster buddy G went off to round everyone up, check the air, and herd them back through the tunnel. G did his thing, then started looking around frantically. I realised he couldn't see me as I was directly above him, and got out my trusty rattle. I rattled away, he looked up and spotted me, mimed wiping sweat from his brow, and we headed back through the tunnel. It was actually a good dive - the Tunnel is world-famous. We headed through it, pausing for a safety stop and a few last grouper photos. As we surfaced, there came the plaintive wail from behind me "Has anyone seen a GoPro? Mine's not on my mask any more..."
  • Hunting for a GoPro camera not much bigger than a box of matches, in a very large inland sea with the visibility of sandy milk. As G said afterwards, if we had come straight out instead of searching, the next result would have been the same, except we'd have had time for an extra cup of tea and some more chips. On the plus side, I did encounter another grouper which posed happily for me, so the search wasn't entirely wasted.
  • Waiting patiently in the tea shop for the two divers who had tried to dive the Blue Hole to return. One of the golden rules of diving, and life, is "Don't go anywhere you can't get back out of". They had got into the water with us, swum round to the Blue Hole, realised the conditions were too rough to actually get out of the water, run low on air, and had to surface swim all the way back round to the Inland Sea. It took them an hour. We were pleased to get them back safely - and they were known as "the swimmers" for the rest of the trip.
  • Diving the Karwela, a wreck on Gozo I didn't see last time around. The Karwela is one of three wrecks off the coast of Gozo near the main ferry terminal. The most famous sits next to the Karwela; it's the Xlendi, which is very pleasant if you like looking at the bottom of a ship - it turned over on the way down. The Xlendi is just about diveable for a recreational diver, but it's mostly popular with techies, who like to take several tanks, a compass and a reel of navigation line down there, and go have a poke around inside it. The advantage of this is that the Karwela is dead easy to find; you just swim out, put your face in the water, and swim along following the steady stream of techie divers underneath you swimming out to the Xlendi. That was a really, really fun dive. 
  • Attempting to get the most knackered jeeps in Malta up the very, very steep hill track that leads to and from the Karwela dive site. We got the most experienced driver, R, to take over for this bit (he was excused driving duties for the holiday on the grounds of it being his day job as a taxi driver). The only way to do it was the classic "put your foot down on the flat to get momentum, and DON'T STOP" - not easy on a steep hill with three divers plus all their gear. On the other hand, we did laugh ourselves silly as the two lads in the car in front of us tried three times to get up the hill. Eventually, they rolled the car back down, one of them got out, and the other put his foot down. The car got up the hill, pursued frantically by its former occupant (possibly having visions of walking back to the ferry terminal).
  • Meeting Big Sy, a cheerful fellow with a full-face diving mask, the build of a rhino, and the amiable personality of a man who goes through life knowing that everyone who might cause him trouble takes one look at him and realises that he could probably put his thumb on top of their head and push them effortlessly into the ground. Big Sy was (is!) a very good diver, and provided one of the more memorable moments of the trip. As we circled the Coralita, we found an octopus, which darted under a huge rock. Big Sy took a look at the rock, shrugged, picked up the rock, and threw it to one side. I swear til this day that the octopus looked surprised.
  • Diving the X127 / Coralita. We were there in November, not October as in 2012, and the weather was getting rough. On the final day, we stood under the dive shop awning, peering out at the torrents of water and pondering what to do. Some peeled off to spend the day in the pub. The rest of us decided to get one more dive in, and headed off to the only site we could get into - the Coralita. This small landing craft sits at 20m inside Valetta harbour, where it was sunk by the Nazis. To get to it, we had to battle our way through the floods, caused by some truly torrential rain. It was the first time on Malta I'd been really grateful for the Jeep, which ploughed through the water as though it was nothing, whilst around us cars floundered. The dive was a good 'un, with plenty of fish, along as we shivered our way through getting changed in the wind and rain, it was weirdly reminiscent of diving back home. Just like being back home, we remedied the cold with a hot chocolate and a sandwich at a nearby cafe, where I pulled out my Malta dive guide, looked up the wreck, and made a nice realisation. The X127 had come from the same place we had. It was built in Tyneside.

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