“You have to be taught this stuff, that mountains, and rivers, and trees, in this order, are nice.”
– Billy Connolly
You see pictures of these places, of Arizona, or southern China, or central Australia, and they’re beautiful. And you go there expecting to feel a certain way, to have this reaction, to be moved by it. Shamelessly ungrateful as it makes me feel, though, I never was. They are beautiful, of course they are, but I never had the reaction to them that I thought I would have. It was like learning an instrument and wanting to discover that this was the thing you were born to do, that you are one of those people who finds something transcendent in this process, but ultimately it’s not, of course, and you aren’t. You’re just a kid making a some music. It’s fine, but it’s not life changing. Does everybody have that experience as a teenager, that search for the thing that you will finally feel at home with? I’m not sure.
When I learned to dive, it was just something that I thought would be fun. I’d always liked fish, when I was a kid I loved going to the aquarium a few suburbs away and seeing the moray eel in its huge tank in the centre of a dimly lit room. It was alien and somehow special, nothing like a dog or a cat, something altogether different. Otherworldly.
Unless you are an astronaut, or a base jumper, diving is the closest you can get to flying. Base jumpers fall at terrifying speed and then at slightly less terrifying speed; we float. Breathe in, you’ll rise. Breathe out, you’ll sink. This is the thing that makes diving so strange when you start – for the first time you are able to move in three dimensions, up and down as easily as any other way. You flap and flail trying to get used to it, but slowly you do, and it becomes normal. It is slow, and quiet, and wholly unlike walking or running or even swimming. I don’t know if it’s evolutionary, or embryonic, or simply imagined, but it often feels more natural to me now than movement up here. It’s easy. It becomes meditative, somehow. It is quiet down there in a way that it is never quiet up here.
The first time I dived a shipwreck I had the feeling of seeing something secret – something familiar, but which should no longer be accessible. I suppose most people have seen the submarine footage of the titanic, this ghost ship which should be beyond our reach, and yet, there she is. Chandeliers, ballrooms, plates still stacked in cupboards. Right there. It’s the same feeling one gets in abandoned buildings, this sense of being let in on something. I find this feeling in caves as well, some of which are the most beautiful places I have ever seen. They are like nowhere else on earth. I don’t know how to tell you.
I am at the absolute beginning of this sport, and even so, I have been in places that probably only a few thousand other people have seen, if that. It sounds like a lot, but on a planet of six billion, it’s not really. 25,000 people climb Kilimanjaro each year. We are everywhere up here. I am the low risk end of a high risk sport. I look at the people at the far end, decades ahead of me, and I am chilled by what they have to do to reach the places they are finding ways into. At the same time, I think I understand the impulse. Base jumpers fly. Mountain climbers stand on the roof of the world. We see the earth’s last hidden places. Of course we take the risks. Of course we do.