Trials and tribulations always make the best stories, provided things all work out in the end.
London to Kathmandu was one of the first popular overland journeys and the route has an allure to this day. After years leading trips in Latin America I wanted a new challenge and this was it for me. The route took you through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, and then into Nepal.
At the time, our journey took us through the tribal lands of northern Pakistan, where the Taliban were starting to assert influence. While the Taliban was then mostly unknown to the wider world, this region of Pakistan is as old as time itself and ruled by local laws. Info gathered by previous groups, passed on and continually updated, warned us not to travel at night and to only camp in a police compound in town.
The first night of our three-day journey through the tribal lands we did as instructed. The local police arranged a guard who watched over us all night with an AK47. The locals crowded the front gate to get a look at this strange sight of 20-odd westerners travelling in some large truck and choosing to sleep in tents. Travel and wonder can be a two-way street more often than not.
We thanked our hosts and continued our journey towards Peshawar with one more night of camping planned en route. We stopped to have lunch and check our maps—paper maps—then continued looking for the next town with a police compound. Each town we passed was bereft of a police presence. The police were in the area more for show than anything else. Tribal lands = tribal law. The sun was going down and anxiety levels were going up as there were no more towns on the map. What to do?
I spied in the distance a half-completed building where I could hide our 22-tonne truck. We drove up the hill, and parked the truck like an elephant trying to hide behind a small shrub. We instructed the group to make no noise, light no fires, have a quick dinner, and then get to bed while the crew—myself and my co-driver—took shifts in keep watch.
You may look around yourself and see nothing around you but in a world with so much space there is always someone nearby. Westerners in the area were not generally liked. We had women in the group not dressed correctly by local standards, which would have been a full burkha, and we were camping on our own, not in a police compound. No more than 40 minutes passed before a group of locals approached us. I internally went into panic mode, thinking we may be in for trouble with disgruntled locals, imagining every local in the tribal lands carries an automatic rifle.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The locals in question were the owners of the land coming down to check out what was up. After some introductions, we were offered a warm welcome, two armed guards for the night, access to water and food if required—we declined as the trucks carried all our food and water—and the knowledge we can rest easy for the night, despite the fact that we were camping outside a police compound.
Why do I say “rest easy”? Because the owner of the land happened to be the brother of Pakistan’s president and he assured me that that status, let alone his status within the tribal lands, would assure our safety for the night.
Trials and tribulations always make the best memories and stories, provided all works out in the end, as is did this time.