I have vague memories as a teenager of thinking that horse riding was one of those things that I would love to try, because there was a chance that if I liked it at all, I would love it. Rather like skiing (which I have never tried), diving and flying. However, it suffered from the thought that it was too expensive, and I might be happier not trying it at all if that was the case. So I grew up with an unquantified desire to learn how to ride, but no pressing urgency to do so.
It got to the point that I would remember this every couple of months, more and more frequently; I even agreed with Liz that we ought to try to learn together. Eventually, Liz became pregnant with David, and was schedule to make a business trip to Israel in a few more days for a couple of weeks, so I just booked myself for a evaluation lesson at a small stables in West London near where we lived (Wyncote Farm).
The experience was great. I loved it. For the next couple of years, I took lessons at Wyncote Farm and entered their competitions (show jumping, dressage, a one day event, etc). I would typically have two evening lessons a week, and a weekend hack every couple of weeks.
One advantage of my iterant lifestyle was that if I would be away over a weekend, one option for me was to book a hack (or outride, or whatever they called it) wherever I was staying. There was one stables just north of Johannesburg that I used to frequent. We had some great hacks, riding along river beds and jumping cross country jumps out in the veldt.
Later, I found that Wyncote, alhough good for a beginner, wasn't of a high enough standard, so I shifted most of my lessons to Patchetts Green. Moving to Saudi caused me a few problems, though. I couldn't ride while I was living out there, so when I came back for holidays in the UK (typically a month a year) I would have daily lessons until I was back up to the same standard as when I left, and then drop back again.
When I came back from Saudi I was at first too poor and then too busy to restart riding. Curiously enough, it was the exact day that I lost my job at CKS that I started riding again, this time at Snowball Farm in Burnham Beeches, close to where we now lived. I rode with a good group of adult riders on Thursday evenings, went in for all of the local competitions, and did some jump judging on their cross country course. Now I was capable of coming in the first couple of places in the dressage, whichever of their horses I rode.
One of the highlights for me at this time was a brief trip to a TWH (Tennessee Walking Horse) Stud in California, near San Francisco. This was arranged for me by a friend from the HORSE forum on Compuserve. I was at a NeXT conference in San Francisco, and took a day out to visit another Compuserve friend who lived in Bolinas, in Marin County, and we went along together.
I had to stop riding once more when I went out to work in Houston for a couple of months. I didn't restart when I got back (too poor and too busy, again), and now I'm considered too heavy (i.e. over 14 and a half stone) to take lessons anywhere they don't already know me.
I hope to start again soon, but in the meantime both David and Andrew are learning to ride, and I have to take my vicarious satisfaction from that.
Diving was one of those things, like riding, that I knew I had to try. I might like it or hate it, but I wouldn't feel entirely happy until I'd done it.
My first real opportunity was on a holiday in Mauritius, in '85. I had to make a business trip for a week to Johannesburg, and I planned to take Liz and David with me. I thought I'd try booking the trip to Mauritius as a vacation package from a travel agent in Johannesburg, as the round trip business class air fare would cover the economy trip for all of us. This turned out to have been a great idea, as the agent was happy and surprised to be getting business from an overseas customer. It was also cheaper.
The hotel would let us book diving classes and short boat trips, so I booked both Liz and I on a class. This was a typical short session in the hotel pool, once around with a tank on; not really adequate by official standards, but not entirely careless, either.
Liz didn't take to it, but I did. The difference was the feeling of breathing with water on our face; I felt it exhilarating, and Liz felt oppressed.
So I went out on the boat trip alone. We went in a small open boat, outboard powered, to just inside the barrier reef that encircles Mauritius. I don't remember much about it, except that I enjoyed it. One small point that sticks in my mind: we didn't use a BCD at all, just lead weights.
Two years later (mid '87), when I moved to Saudi, there wasn't much else to do apart from diving. I signed up for a PADI course at a dive shop in Al-Khobar with an instructor who was working for the Royal Saudi Navy in Al-Jubail. He was a Vietnam veteran Seal, and was slightly deaf as a result of having been blown out of the water a couple of times. His last assignment had been in Libya.
The course was pretty good, lots of diving theory and practice over a six week period, with two theory sessions a week, and usually one pool session. There were two dhow trips at the end of the course to get in our qualification open water dives.
I had bought my own gear by then. BCD, weight belt, a single tank, regulator and mouthpiece, pressure gauge, plus the usual fins mask and snorkel. I used a wetsuit that I had bought some years before for windsurfing, and a pair of Dunlop Green Flash tennis shoes that were already old. They were great shoes; lasted for over ten years, and only ever used under water. My only addition later was a lycra skin.
Diving in Al-Khobar, despite being on the coast, wasn't as simple as it sounds. The best option was to book a dhow trip from Al Jubail (an hours drive up the coast). This would take a group of divers out to a couple of small islands in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. The Gulf itself is very good diving water, but it is perfect by a long way. A lot of sections are quite muddy, and it is very shallow, unlike the Red Sea. Coastal diving isn't much approved of by the Saudi authorities, either. The alternative was to dive from the beach in Half Moon Bay, just south of Al Khobar. The Bay is mostly enclosed, and very shallow, being 10 to 30 feet deep at best. The beach is also very popular with the local communities. As a result, it is murky and very saline, enough to burn your eyes if they are exposed to it. Night dives were only really practicable from this beach.
A couple of times I was able to take my kit with me to Jeddah, and dive with some contacts there. I used to stay in the Movenpick Hotel, half way between the town and the airport. They had a private beach a bit further up the coast that you could safely dive from. The beach itself was good quality coral sand, leading in to a shallow lagoon (knee-height) that lead out about 50m. At that point there was a wonderful coral wall that you could follow down as far as you wanted to. I normally would coast around at between 40 and 50 feet along the wall. Clarity was incredible, far better than anywhere else I have every dived.
The dhow trips to Al Jubail were usually coordinated with the group of people who dived with my original PADI group and instructor. As it happened, most of them were Americans working for the Embassy in Dhahran. The sort of people who, if you asked what they did, replied "we just work at the Embassy". There would be a lot of horseplay out of the water, but as soon as you got the signal to kit up, they were incredibly thorough and professional. I can't imagine a safer group to dive with.
We were eventually able to plan a couple of weeks holiday for the family, and I was keen on trying the Seychelles. Flying from Saudi meant that the total cost was actually no less than booking a package from the UK, surprisingly enough. We stayed on the West coast of the main island, Mahe, in a hotel with an attached dive operation. I arranged one or two tripe every day. I would happily do this again, any time.
I was at a sales conference in Cyprus when I had my only experience of diving in the Mediterranean.
That's it. I haven't been diving since returning from Saudi; the idea of cold water diving doesn't appeal to me at all. I sold my kit in Saudi before we left, but one day, I hope to return.