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Afghanistan by Motorbike – Part 1

PakistanIt was 5 in the morning in the little Asian town of Herat, which lies just inside Afghanistan on the western border with Iran. It was the dawning of a clear day, and I was itching to get out on the road.

My Norton 750cc Commando motorcycle, nicknamed ‘Demeter’ (after the Greek Goddess of Life) stood in the morning sunlight ready to roll out into the Afghan Desert. She had already carried me from England, through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Iran. But there was somehow a mystery about today’s trip, 400 miles through a pure desert on a concrete road built by the Russians.

I had been advised to go in a convoy through this stretch en route through Helmund Province to Kandahar, but I was in no mood to wait for other travellers to rally together, and anyway I was used to being on my own now, and kick started the bike feeling a fresh excitement.

Demeter and I purred out of town into the wilderness. The feeling of ‘freedom ‘was overwhelming. The desert sun was warm and welcoming and I decided to pull over and redress for the occasion. I took off my shirt and shoes, and set off again wearing only a pair off shorts and a big set off headphones atop my mop of crispy hair … George Harrison‘s album “All Things Must Pass” rang out as I pressed the button on the cassette player strapped on top of my canvas back on the back rack.

This was what it was all about, Afghanistan at our fingertips, not a care in the world, with the mystery of the unknown out on the road ahead. On we strode, Demeter and I into the desert.

30 years on in ManilaHour after hour we hummed through the desolate, striking beauty of the empty brownness of the desert. Sometimes the road was Romanesque, and as straight as a dye, disappearing on the far horizon through a lightly rolling sand-scape. Then it would suddenly change into a craggy rockscape and wind up and down through the lowly cliffs of jagged rock terraces. Then without warning it was back to the straightness of an open space as endless as eternity.

The sun got hotter, and the road ahead shimmered in the haziness and the mirages of water pools, which became an entertaining way of conjuring up hallucinations controlled by the mind, but definitively ruled by nature. My body was by now a dark chocolate brown, having followed the summer sun continuously through months of travel. Dressed down to only a pair of shorts was no problem even in the scorching midday Afghan heat, since the breeze of forward motion was soothing, even in the dryness of the hot desert air.

The cassette played on and I was just settling down to a new track as I came down and out of a rocky crag. There in front of me was a ‘dead’ man lying across the roadway. Another man, evidently distressed was throwing his hands to the heavens and sort of dancing a lament, rhythmic like a Morris dancers jig, although he had no bells around his ankles….hang on a minute, it all seemed rather controlled, and his jig was looking quite professional. Demeter sprang into their view, and the growling classic sound of the Norton triggered an unexpected reaction. The jigger glanced, pranced then ran like hell for the edge of the road.

KarachiWithin a split second the ‘dead’ man was also up and running and they ran hell for leather into the deep desert sand. Speaking of leather, as Demeter and I cruised past I noticed the dancing man had a rather large leather camel whip gripped menacingly in his hand. Then the vision struck me, they were a couple of desert-muggers! A ‘dead man’ lying in the road would have stopped many a traveller eager to help in a desperate situation, but on this occasion a large yellow motorcycle swings around the corner, thunders towards them, and having had no previous knowledge of growling two-wheeled machines, they freak out genuinely and run for their lives.

Pakistan - Afghanistan - IranA warm flood of emotion filled my body, and I heard my gasp for air as I realised that I had just flipped through a potential disaster…avoiding the probable end of my dream to travel from England to South Africa on a motorcycle!

I then found myself laughing out loud, rolling the bike from side to side, shaking my head, pinching the air with my fist, and then singing along with George Harrison.

Demeter, George and I had just had a lucky escape. I pulled over after another 10 miles and danced my own jig at the side of the road. The feeling of ‘freedom’ was overwhelming, and I cupped my hands and screamed a call of delight and breathed a deep breath and called again – I was alive and the world was all before me! Then my body shook uncontrollably in retaliation, just as my screeching call echoed back off a craggy rock face, and caught me unawares. The hairs on the back of my head crackled and stood on end. I cringed then felt fulfilment. Life was indeed great!

I filled the petrol tank with the fuel in the reserve can, checked the luggage straps, and then cast my eye over the bike to ensure all was well. Demeter kick-started first time, and we were off again through the Afghan desert. George Harrison lent us his voice with “Plug Me In”. Demeter and I struck out for our destination to the town of Kandahar in the deep south of the Afghan Desert.

As we motored on I saw something quite unbelievable on the road ahead … but that is for another story!

This story was kindly provided by Bruce Curran.