Tony Wheeler: Dangerous Travel

“So what’s the most dangerous thing that’s ever happened to you?”

It’s a standard question. The only one that’s even more regular, and I dislike even more, is “what’s your favourite place?”

I guess it’s a legitimate question, if you write a book called Bad Lands, travelling along George W Bush’s Axis of Evil – the Iran, Iraq, North Korea trio – and then a selection of other ‘bad’ countries it seems inevitable that something dangerous should happen. If you follow Bad Lands with Dark Lands surely there must have been more dodgy events?

Truth to tell there have been a few. In Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker’s gonzo-journalistic account of seven years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, she pinpoints one day when everything started to go wrong with the US intervention in Afghanistan: 29 May 2006. And where was I on that day? Right, I was in Kabul. Taking shelter, as it turned out, in the British Embassy as the bullets flew in the riots out on the streets. The high point of the day? As we sat around in the embassy gardens drinking tea and listening to the news we heard that over at the US Embassy the staff had retreated to the safe room deep in the bowels of the embassy with the perimeter guarded by marines. Meanwhile out on the British lawn it was ‘pass the tea please.’


Getting in to Iraq at the time of my Bad Lands travels required either clearance from the US authorities, who decided who could and who couldn’t visit the country, or quietly crossing the border into the Kurdistan region from eastern Turkey. So I flew from Istanbul to Diyarbakir, came out of the terminal to the line of taxis and said ‘Iraq please.’ And off we went. I’d been warned to ask for ‘Iraq,’ not for ‘Kurdistan.’ The Turks don’t like to think it might be a separate country.

My more recent Dark Lands travels also featured a few interesting incidents. I got stoned – with the thrown variety the book cover blurb helpfully explains – in Palestine. And ticketed for speeding in Zimbabwe: all very friendly, it only cost me $10, they let me try the radar gun out on other passing cars while they wrote out the ticket and a female police officer in the group offered to leave with me right away if I’d marry her. They weren’t quite so friendly when I got ‘arrested’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo although nothing is really certain in DRC. Afterwards I wasn’t even sure if I’d been arrested, just a little visit to the Kisangani police station where it was hoped the Mzungu might hand over some cash.

I did get mugged for real – with a knife – in Bogota, but I’d had no trouble on three previous visits to the Colombian capital and you can get mugged anywhere, I’m kind of amazed (touch wood) that I’ve gone through life without it happening to me more often. And I didn’t lose much. In fact my most nervous occasion on my Dark Lands circuit was on the little boat trip from the northern Solomon Islands to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. I’m never happy out to sea in small boats with small outboards. I’ve met too many Pacific Islanders who just ‘drifted away’ when the outboard shut down or ran out of fuel. I’ve never liked the idea of drifting across an ocean for a few months, living on raw fish. It didn’t happen on this occasion, the outboard ran perfectly all the way.

No, if there’s one lesson I’ve learnt it’s that things are never as ‘dangerous’ as the scare stories would like to have us believe.

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