Sunday, 26 September 2010

On the way to.... Tora Bora, at breakneck speed.

Four years ago, on assignment for the Sunday Times Magazine, I had the rare and almost certainly unrepeatable experience of visiting the mountains of Tora Bora on the border between Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Specifically we were to visit the abandoned camp where Osama Bin Laden had made his stronghold and from which he had escaped in the closing weeks of 2001 to the spectacular fury of the coalition forces who hunt him to this day.

Loaded-up with what seemed like enough fighters and weapons to start a decent-sized war, finish it, enforce the peace and then start it all over again, we set off for the place where the road would run out and the walking begin.

Flat countryside gave way to foothills and winding tracks which in turn became narrow barely navigable pathways around the outside of the mountains with precipitous drops on our left and sheer rock-face on our right.

Naturally, it was at this point that our driver sped up to around 70kph on the bumpy gravel track and we started to barrel along in a kind of unguided relentlessness that was really fantastically unpleasant.

Long-time partner in misadventure Charlie Alpha, raised her voice to be heard above the revving engine and asked why it was quite so important that we go this fast. The commander in the front seat smiled, turning backwards to face us and, pointing to the road, he said, "chakria Al Qaeda" (Al Qaeda street).

"This stretch of road, we do not control," he continued, "if we go any slower we will be attacked."

With repeated stabs of his fingers and a curious reverse clap movement he made the international hand gesture for gunfire and large explosions.

We got the message.

So there it was, the simple choice between being attacked or plummeting hundreds of feet to certain death. It was a marginal call, but not ours to make so we braced against the roof of the car to stop ourselves being launched upwards to a spinal injury by every pothole, and held on until we were through the danger area.

As we started to wash off some speed, the road opened up and we caught the first uninterrupted view of Tora Bora. Charlie wound her window down and we snapped away like tourists passing the Acropolis.

Both of us marveling at our driver's skill, remarking (somewhat sarcastically!) upon what a travesty it was that there were no Afghans driving professionally on the World Rally circuit and both trying desperately to ignore the fact that in a few hours we would have to make the return journey, probably in fading light!


Drew Gardner said...

A reminder of what it is like to be a 'real' photojournalist

Quite an adventure

I'm very envious of you!



Justin Sutcliffe said...

Those were the days indeed. The last fruitful trip with Charlie Alpha. Madly enough the district Governor had the idea that he was going to convert Tora Bora into a theme park and GOLF COURSE!!! The fact that you had to drive like a total bastard to get to any resort had not really occurred to him! Happy days.