Herron back home from holiday...Luggage still on world tour!
After a busy year which saw the drive for an elected assembly defeated in the North East; councillors being found to have breached the Local Government Act 1972; the unelected assembly forced to split from the Association of North East Councils; the Bill of Rights challenge to the parking regime to expose the flawed Metric Martyrs judgment; creating the 'No' campaign against the European Constitution; a military coup in Brussels and Westminster with our AdVan and much more... it was decided the Herron should have a holiday.
Usually holidays are a time to wind down and relax. This one was to be no different...or so I thought...despite the fact that the garage which was replacing my radiator ordered the wrong one the day before I was due to fly leaving me to travel to Manchester airport in a loan car. No problem.
On my own for the first time in my life (my son and other family members were joining up after cruising the Nile) I thought that the Red Sea would be an ideal place to catch up on a few dives and chill.
However, 24 hours after an uneventful arrival the bombs went off in Sharm El Sheik setting tourists into a state of panic. Phone calls came in to the mobile checking on my whereabouts. Luckily I was a few hundred miles away in the resort of Hurghada. Everyone back home was reassured. Everything was fine. I am a firm believer that when your number is up, it's up, and as I will detail, after this holiday I think it's not my time yet.
Coming from the city of Sunderland where there have been over a dozen fatal stabbings and shootings in the past twelve months, the threat from terrorists is statistically so remote in comparison the Foreign Office should put out a warning to tourists not to visit Sunderland!
Some were concerned about sharks. Again, statistically, there is more chance of being killed by a falling coconut than a shark...plus there were more 'sharks' above the water trying to fleece unsuspecting toursist than there were below the waves.
The first few days were problem free. Perfect diving on coral reefs with fantastic underwater flora and fauna. Sipping beer on the beach as the sun dropped below the horizon. Crystal clear night skies and shooting stars.
The first 'experience' was an 'out of air' on a wreck dive. The wreck in question was a British ship, the Thistlegorm, sunk in 1941 by a long range German bomber out of Crete. The dive had been uneventful until we attempted to reach the ascent rope away from the wreck. The 20m or so swim in horrendously strong currents resulted in 3 of the 6 divers in the group (including myself) being out of air. At one point there were three of us sharing one tank at 15m. Panic results in drowning. No-one panicked, even when we reached 5m to do the safety stop to avoid decompression illness and the boat skipper had not dropped the emergency tank and two regulators. We managed with the air we had. Once we all surfaced one of the German divers told us that the year previously a freind of his had experienced the same.
His 'buddy' panicked.
The dive on the afternoon was straightforward and we went through the ship's hold containing motorbikes, boxes of ammunition and even hundreds of pairs of wellington boots...all still where they were 64 years ago and still intact. I did notice however that a couple of the armoured vehicles tyres were a bit flat.
A few days later a severe bout of food poisoning wiped me out for a couple of days...something experienced by every other guest at the hotel.
"Shit happens" was the travel reps philosophy...and it most certainly did!
Back in action and on the dive boat (a 45ft beast of a thing) we were steaming towards a reef at a fair speed. A couple of dive boats were already at anchor with snorkellers in and around, divers preparing to enter. I was sitting up on the sundeck some 10ft away from the skipper, turning my body from pale blue to off white.
The skipper's panicked cry, although in Egyptian, would translate into " Oh f***" in any language, as he held the gear stick in his hand...some two feet clear of its housing.
His twelve year old son grabbed the wheel with white knuckles showing as the skipper fled below deck and into the engine room to knock the boat into reverse manually. Unfortunately it happened after and not before the collision. The screams and the sound of splintering wood and twisting metal as we hit the first boat broadside increased as we bounced off and hit the second. Unbalanced bodies in their dive gear fell on the decks and into the water. Our boat managed to avoid being grounded on the reef by a fraction. Luckily there were no casualties...not even our skipper who had to avoid flying Egyptian Coke bottles. Our boat, the aptly named 'Pirate 3' suffered slight paint damage. The others were quite badly damaged. I think insurance details were exchanged in a high pitched 100+ decibel exchange. It was decided that it would perhaps be best if we found another reef to dive that day.
The family arrived and we had a wonderful, uneventful time...each one catching the squits on different days. My son qualified as a Scuba Diver in between visiting sick relatives.
A couple of days later I made my way, on the wrong coach, to Hurghada airport...which appeared to have been built by Friday afternoon builders. It was inhabited by a cacophony of what can only be described as experienced scam merchants...even the cleaners were at it holding out their hands demanding money from anyone wishing to use the filthy toilets. Coming from our over-regulated little island where anally retentive bureaucrats prowl over the smallest indiscretion by traders, they would have had a field day and would have been able to produce an offence list that could have kept a thousand of them in jobs for life. Even the duty free shop was at it, scamming the unsuspecting punters by pricing in dollars but using a euro exchange rate to convert to Egyptian pounds. I paid in dollars.
I had a foreboding that the holiday was far from over. We filed through security. Offensive items were deposited in a large perspex container...not quite sure what type of terrorist would wish to attempt to hijack a plane with a toothpick, a pair of plastic scissors or even a toe nail clipper.
Armed security manned the x-ray machine. Bags were screened with watchful eyes...unless a babe was walking through (for 'babe' read anything 16-45 years old with breasts and legs). Security lapses every few seconds!
Our plane to Manchester. Was sat just outside. Our departure time came and went. After half an hour an announcement came over the tannoy system...
"The plane is delayed 2 hours. There is a serious problem with one of the engines."
I am sure that those a little fearful of flying would have perhaps have preferred an announcement along the lines of, 'the plane has a slight technical fault.'
An engineer was to be despatched from Cairo. I imagined the guy in overalls getting on a plane with a Philips scredriver and an adjustable spanner in his pocket.
I knew that this plane was going nowhere.
I opened the next can of beer.
After two hours the announcement came..."The engine cannot be fixed. We are putting you up in a hotel. Your luggage is to stay on the plane. Coaches will be here in an hour or so."
I opened my fifth can of beer.
Then a call went out..."We have one seat available on the flight to Gatwick. Could any passenger from the Manchester flight wishing to go home please make their way to the desk."
Literally five minutes later I was on the plane. Five minutes after that I was airborne. Don't worry about the luggage.
In all there were 18 passengers who had transferred over.
Their fun had not even started! For me...I knew what to expect. When human beings have to deal with contingencies...the problems start.
We landed at Gatwick after 6 hours. We were told to expect a luxury coach which would take us to Manchester. We stayed behind on the plane to wait for our 'liason officer.'
We got Richard Took. His appearance did not instil confidence for a smooth transition. Untidy appearance, unkempt hair...but a luminous yellow jacket.
"I will take you to baggage reclaim, then we will go out front and there will be a luxury coach to take you on your forward journey to Manchester airport."
It was pointed out to Richard that there was no luggage. We had all got on the flight with minutes notice. However, he was adamant. I sensed deceit at play. Excel Airways had 6 hours to put a contingency plan in place. I sensed chaos...lack of information always gives that indication.
After half an hour in baggage reclaim Richard conceded defeat.
"I am going to take you to the bus out front where we were to be met by someone from Customer Relations."
I had already picked up on Richard's evasiveness.
"There is no luxury coach Richard, is there? I believe that you have been stalling for time."
We got out front. No coach. No Customer Relations person. Richard handed out business cards with the telephone number for Customer Relations. He denied that he had said that there would be a human being! He blamed it on the passengers who were tired and stressed after such a long journey. We must have misheard. His patronising attitude caused a few raised voices. He asked for back-up.
He was, by his incompetence, turning a difficult situation into a potentially explosive one. Some of the sixteen passengers had small children. No-one had been offered drink or food. We all stood and waited.
I asked Richard if he had a full list of the names of the passengers. He did not. Nothing had been faxed through.
At a time when the country is on a state of high alert due to the threat from terrorism, Excel Airways had brought 16 people into the country and had no record of who they were. In the confusion at Hurghada, which could have been engineered, forged passports could have been used. I was comfortable in the fact that this was highly unlikely as most had beer bellies, tattoos and Man U shirts...the men were pretty much the same!
A fifteen seater minibus turned up. The sixteen passengers looked at each other.
Ten resigned and weary passengers gave up and went on the minibus. The rest dug in. Richard admitted that it was a shambles. He admitted that no-one would be available at Customer Relations until Monday.
He was given an ultimatum.
Our Mercedes taxi overtook the minibus some 40 minutes later.
I arrived at my vehicle at 6.30am, some 15 hours after leaving the hotel...the three hour drive home was a doddle.
As I write, five days later, after spending time in between speaking to machines, my luggage has just been located, along with my first human to human contact...in Manchester. My telephone numbers, which had been handed to Richard Took in Gatwick Airport with the promise of an update call on Monday, must have disappeared somewhere in the Ex Hell Airways system.
Dare I hold my breath waiting for the overnight courier to deliver? Or should I buy another pair of underpants?
Would I recommend Ex Hell Airways? Of course...providing it was for a charter flight for the Government.
Glad to be back at work for a rest.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
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