The importance of not being arrested!
I’ve spent the last few weeks fine tuning my trip list of paraphernalia for a forthcoming Sahara expedition. It’s a pretty comprehensive list that I refer to in the weeks prior to departure. I find the list gives my brain space to concentrate on the immediate problems, whilst leaving the more prosaic matter of packing spare pants to last minute list referral. A quick scan through the list the week before confirms that I know where to lay my hands on it’s contents and anything missing can be bought or borrowed. It is always my intention that this aspect of planning ensures the minimum of inconvenience when deep in the heart of nowhere.
One thing that it is impossible to plan for is what to do when arrested. I’ve had the misfortune to gaze down the wrong end of a Kalashnikov a few times. I have always found that smiling and looking a gullible idiot helps. An expression that comes quite naturally to me. In my head, mild panic is overwritten with the mantra that the AK47 may be the most successful machine gun in history, but until he pulls the trigger it is no more than a collection of inert pieces of metal.
The biggest catch of arrests was on a trip in 1995 retracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great across Turkey. I chose the route of the Macedonian conquerer mainly on the strength of his title ‘the Great’. A title that is unlikely to stick to any ruler again. ‘Tony the Great’? Can’t see it somehow. In his conquest of Asia, Alexander marched from Macedonia across Turkey and on to the Hindu Kush and beyond. I planned to do the Macedonia to Turkey leg and Land Rover lent me their new Range Rover to cover the 9000 mile trip.
To start from Alexanders birthplace in Macedonia meant crossing Serbia, a country then at war. Fortunately, there was a ceasefire coinciding with my trip and after a non-stop belt across Serbia from Hungary I arrived at the southern border. As I inched my way through customs, smiling at officials, getting things stamped and handing over various incomprehensible forms, I finally had the last checkpoint within sight before the comparative safety of Macedonia. It was a military checkpoint manned by two swarthy, unshaven, Serbia army guards, AK47’s slung over their shoulders. They stopped me and took my passport. Flicking through the pages, they demanded $2000 for the Serbian Army! I pleaded that I had very little money, which was unconvincing sitting in a brand new Range Rover. They wandered off, clutching my passport, then gestured me to join them in a dusty little office where they went through every detail of my trip. I was then allowed to return to the Range Rover, but still minus passport. Minutes past before they both came back, leant through the passenger window to again, ask me for money, but put my passport on the dashboard while they discussed what to do next. Seeing the Macedonian border just 100 metres away I reasoned that they were unlikely to open fire so I started the engine, slipped it into gear, got my head down and drove! The only sound was me missing second and the graunch of gears as I coasted to safety!
I had been filming my trip on video and found it convenient to mount the camera on the dashboard, shooting through the windscreen and adding my commentary via a remote microphone clipped to my shirt. This also doubled as a video diary for future articles. It came as a shock to be pulled over by the police in southern Turkey who pointed at the camera and asked me to wait until the army arrived. Within minutes and with a sense of great urgency, two army 4x4s pulled up and a young officer hopped in beside me gesturing me to follow the others. We drove to an Army Barracks and I was ushered into a featureless room and offered a seat. My guard spoke no English and my Turkish was pretty limited. ‘Why have you arrested me?’ was not in my phrase book.
After a couple of hours, in which my temperature went from hot and sweaty to cold and clammy, a superior office arrived and I was taken into his office. We soon established that we both had passable skills in French and he seemed to relax, which put me at ease. It turned out that my camera had been spotted as I drove past a military base which clearly had ‘no photography’ signs. I showed him half an hours worth of my video diary and he seemed satisfied and was clearly relieved I was not going to show him any more. He summoned a guard and ordered food, which we ate in his office discussing how pretty French girls tend to be. A subject he clearly relished stuck in this isolated barracks outside a small town in rural Turkey. My gullible idiot smile had got me out of trouble again and the rest of the trip passed without incident.
Toby photographing the new Range Rover with suitable rustic Turkish props.
The new Range Rover caused a stir in remote towns in Turkey.