Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Desert Of Death

Have you ever been so sick from food poisoning that you want to curl up and die, then imagine how you feel three hours into a trip on the road through the Desert of Death.

" The old Soviet constructed road to Kandahar is terrible and travel between the two cities ( Herat / Kandahar) can take up to 18 hours. The UN has applied a travel ban on this road from dawn to late afternoon, (particularly on the stretch through Helmend Province) as a result of Islamic guerilla activity. Check the current situation before travelling on this road."

We had finished shooting in Herat and our next destination was Kandahar the spiritual centre and capital of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Our two taxi drivers were confident that their trusty Toyotas were capable of the drive, which they said they did on a regular basis. But they did warn us that we would need to leave to be on the road before 4am so as to maximise driving in the cool of the morning before the heat of the day. There was no air conditioning in the cars and in fact a colander has less holes in it to stop the dust and heat coming in.

They warned us that the road would be bad in certain areas which turned out to the understatement of the year, within fifteen minutes of leaving the road became a dust bowl of destroyed bituman with more potholes in the dirt than flat road, all going well the drivers estimated 14 hours and that we would arrive before nightfall. This is an area were you do not travel at night for all the obvious reasons.

We split the team up with Greg, Joe and Lara in one car, with myself and our fixer Imtiaz in the second car. The first thing our drivers asked us was do we have any music tapes to listen to on the drive. The Taliban had banned all music with the exception of listening to the Koran, a copy of which our driver proudly held up and told us not to worry he had a Koran on tape for when we would be stopped by the checkpoints.

The Taliban set up checkpoints on the roads all over Afghanistan and would stop all cars to search for music, if they found any tapes they would destroy the cassettes by pulling the entire tape out and drape it over poles in old oil drums so that people could see that they were serious about stopping the scourge of music.

I would like to add a personal note that given the standard of music in Afghanistan that the Taliban were actually doing a favour to everyone by ridding the nation of bad music taste.

In these pre ipod days I always travelled with a compile of music tapes, which after listening to a hundred times became just as torturous as an Afghan Top 40 compile. But at least it was better than listen to the exhaust and engine straining thru the dust.

During the drive we went through about three of these Taliban Music checkpoints, and sure enough there was cassette tapes hung up proudly for all transgessors to see. In a fit of laughter we started to call these " Taliban Christmas Trees" and still to day we laugh about them.

The first few hours passed and eventually the drivers pulled into a couple of mud brick houses by the side of the road and proclaimed that this was the breakfast and prayer stop. You get used to drivers pulling over and stopping for prayers by the side of the road, if anything it gives you a chance to stretch your legs and ten minutes of peace.

The mud huts it turned out, were the Afghan equivalent of a Truck Stop, and as we sat in the dark room illuminated by a couple of of lamps, our hosts bought out traditional afghan tea made with milk and very sweet, then came the bread and two fried eggs.

For such little that went in, the mathematical equation did not add up because within an hour back on the road cramps and the uncontrollable urge to expel everfy body organ, not only hit me, but Greg and Joe also had an Alien growing in their guts.

Now the Desert of Death is not called that name lightly, it is the most barren inhospitable land I have ever been through, there is not a living thing for hundreds of kilometers, what passes for a road is elevated to avoid flash floods that happen on the two days a year that it considers to rain, the only saving grace is that this meant that there were culverts under the road and in our state it offered us the only place of privacy, and thus when ever we saw a culvert the taxis would come to a rapid stop and the three of us would fly out trying to hold our stomachs in for the dash off the road. And the sanctuary of the culvert, when we relayed this story to some people over the next few days they told us that we were the luckiest bastards alive.

As it turns out this entire stretch of road is one of the most intensively land mined stretches of road in the world, when the Russians were in Afghanistan they had a massive airbase at Shindead and as a result landmined the complete region. What happened is that the average Russian conscript did not give a damm about laying mines and would often just sweep aq cursory handful of dust over the top of the landmine. Then over the years when it rained the landmines would be caught in the stormwaters and be washed to .... yes you guessed it the culverts under the road, so the sanctuary of our inpromptu latrine was in fact infested with landmines.

To be honest we were by this stage so ill that it is one of those moments that you wish you could die, in more than one way we almost had our dreams come true. we all forget how many drugs we tried to get into our bodies to stop the lose of fluids because we still had over eight hours of misery to endure.

I remember virtually lying in these culverts amongst the remnants of others who had suffered the same fate and wishing the world would end, it was just a chance to get out of the heat of the sun that was by now really hitting bad.

The amazing thing is that Lara did not get the bug, perhaps it was that she had the good common sense not to eat when we did. However whenever we stopped we had to cover the car windows with whatever we had so that men could not look in, we even named the car she was in with Joe and greg and the Burqa Car. We had the luxury of stretching our legs and poor lara had to just sit and endure the sun in the Burqa Car.

Hour after hour we continued , my tapes had been played countless times to the point even I was bored with them and still the potholes rattled every bone in my body the heat started to diminish and we started to see signs of life. We were approaching Kandahar the heartland of the Taliban. Naturally we had no hotel or even any idea as to where we could stay. We decided to turn up at the UN house and see what they could offer and against all odds they had a guest house which was vacant and they offered us a room with air con, the only time we would ever have it in Afghanistan so after an incredible day of travel that amazes people to this day. We had driven from Herat across the Desert of Death and Lars from the UN even offered us a home brew beer, bathtub beer tasted good that night.

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