Above the water Sharm el Sheikh would not be my destination of choice. It is a mushroom resort, one that sprang up to serve the tourist industry where no settlement was before. It feels artificial and soulless with no permanent community. But slip beneath the waves of the Red Sea and you enter a whole other world. One of peace and calm and beauty, far away from the unbearable 24 hour heat, the dust and the politics.
For two weeks in June 2008 we were lucky enough to spend every day exploring the secrets of this underwater paradise. Our visit coincided with a plankton bloom which brought giant visitors from the deep and stirred the resident wildlife in to a frenzy of activity.
Photography underwater is much more difficult than on the surface; everything is moving, distance and light are distorted, the red end of the colour spectrum is dulled, the rules of composition are changed. These challenges help to make the successful images all the more precious, hard-won memories of experiences not to be repeated.
There are three types of travel destination. First is the regular friend, that resort or city that we keep coming back to, where we have seen all the sights. We’ve done it before so there’s no pressure, we can take our time, relax. The second is the place we intend to return to. There is unfinished business, more to see, experiences untested. We have no immediate plans to visit again but it’s on the agenda. There is no reason to think that we won’t be back. Usually these are short-haul destinations, cities we know we are likely to be passing through in the future. There is no regret at leaving, we’ll see each other again. The third are the once in a lifetime trips. Perhaps the location is far away, perhaps it is difficult or expensive to reach. Every minute we spend there is tinged with the sadness of knowing that it won’t be repeated.
Usually when we travel we know which of the three we are headed to. We have time to prepare ourselves accordingly. As a species we are not keen on reminders of mortality and so we gravitate to regular destinations, to open doors, to promises of return. It takes extra mental fortitude to so somewhere knowing that this is it, our one chance.
It is, therefore, a little unsettling to realise, retrospectively, that somewhere you assumed you would see again, you probably won’t. This is true for me and Sharm el Sheikh to which, currently, no UK commercial flights are available. Sadly there appears no sign that the difficulties facing the region will be resolved any time soon. There are, of course, far more tragic and far-reaching outcomes to this conflict than limitations to travel for the privileged tourist. It does us good, every so often, to be reminded how lucky we are and that we should not take anything for granted.