Friday, 21 September 2012

Rawalpindi to Rawtenstall

On September 24, 1961 I was ready to start the 7,000 mile journey by motor-bike from Rawalpindi to the UK (After the Trivor expedi­tion). After ten days' preparation I had got the necessary visa for Iran, and what was even more vital, some money. I was at last ready to leave the peace and quiet of Colonel Goodwin's house, and face six weeks of hard, hot and dusty driving through eight different countries. I said farewell to the Goodwins, and to the one remaining expedition member, Geoff Smith, and with good luck wishes ringing in my ears drove out on to the road to Peshawar, my first objective, 105 miles away.

I have first to make a call on an RAF pilot I had met on the journey out by boat. He was stationed at Risalpar, a place just short of Peshawar. After three hours' drive, a signpost indicated a right turn, four miles to Risalpar. I soon found the camp and was directed to his quarters. Unable to attract any attention, I went to the bungalow next door, and an extremely attractive Pakistani girl informed me he had left for the weekend, and gone to Rawalpindi. After talking for some time she said that if I did not want to continue that day to Peshawar I would be quite welcome to stay the night with them. I did not take long to make up my mind. If I continued, I should probably end up at the Afghan border after dark and have no place to sleep. Later in the afternoon, her husband, a squadron leader in the Pakistan Air Force, returned, and fitted me out in more suitable dress for a drink in the mess.

In the evening conversation drifted to my plans for the journey home. I received many pitying glances from the company, as they began to fill me up with stories of murder and robbery in Afghan­istan. The appearance of a missionary, much to my relief, put an end to the topic and it came as no surprise to me later, as I had already discovered what a small world it is, to find that he lived only eight miles from my own home. I retired to bed slightly uneasy, already imagining myself going flat out up the Khyber Pass, with bullets singing past my ears. Next morning after a good breakfast, I loaded my belongings on the bike, and said good-bye to my hosts.

I was determined to spend the next night on Afghan soil. After I left Peshawar, the hills, through which the Khyber Pass goes, soon appeared through the heat-haze of midday. As I approached the Pass, I thought of all the violence this place had seen, though it seemed fairly peaceable today. It wasn't long before I was stopped at a road block, with a couple of guards loaded down with bando­liers of bullets, to discourage any awkward customers from forcing a way through. I was directed to a small hut at the side of the road and produced my passport.

"You have no frontier stamp," I was informed. It seemed one had to report to the police at the last town and obtain a stamp on the passport in order to cross the frontier.
I drove back to Peshawar, and soon found the police station, closed! This seemed to be unusual, the police station closed, so after a careful search round the building, I discovered a side door open and a miserable-looking fellow seated behind a desk. I produced the passport, and he disappeared into the chief office. One hour later I was heading back to the Khyber, a friendly nod at the road block, and I was entering the Pass on a good asphalt road, a thing I had hardly expected. Keeping a wary eye for snipers I stopped to take photographs and look at the badges of the many regiments cut into the rock. After passing several tribesmen with rifles walking along the road and not being shot at, I soon felt quite happy.

On arrival at the far end of the Pass I was halted at the Pakistan border. After a long business with papers I rolled up to the Afghan border 100 yards away. First they wanted the certificate of inoculation against cholera, as it seemed there was an epidemic on. After this the passport, carnet etc. Everything seemed to have gone off all right, when I noticed a clerk looking very intently at my visa stamp. I guessed what was wrong: it had expired. A few minutes later I was back on my way to Peshawar to book in at a hotel and wait for the Afghan Consulate to open office in the morning. By 9.30 next morning I had completed my calls on the Consulate and C.I.D. and was once more driving through the Pass, which by now seemed almost as familiar as the Llanberis Pass in Wales.

This time everything went smoothly and in no time I was humming down the road towards Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan 180 miles away, very confident of reaching it before nightfall. For the first fifty miles to Jalalabad there is a super highway, and stories of Russian and American roads being built all over the country came to mind. Then came the rude awakening; this super highway was replaced by what I would call a farm track. What I did not know, as I began picking my way through the pot-holes and boulders, was that it was going to take me something like three and a half weeks' tough driving to reach the 'farm'. By 5 o'clock I had crashed the bike once, bent the footrest, and toppled it down a sand bank trying to avoid a lorry. I looked like someone out of a flour mill, and had a terrific thirst. I unpacked the primus stove and made two huge brews of tea, then fell asleep on the ground sheet.

I woke early, and continued towards Kabul through a very impressive gorge, through which the engineers were building a reasonable road, but unfortunately they hadn't made a lot of progress to date. I arrived in Kabul around 9.30, and stopped to watch the traders in the market. The best thing to do seemed to be to go to the British Embassy, where I would be able to get the information I required.
The Consul proved to be an extremely nice chap, and his assistant immediately offered me some breakfast, a wash, and a couple of bottles of beer to set me in the right spirits.

After breakfast I inquired about road conditions and it seemed that I had arrived at the right time. The road I wished to travel on to Kandahar had just been opened that day- it had been closed because of the cholera epidemic. After the routine report to the police, I cashed some cheques in the bazaar and booked in at a reasonable hotel. By the time I had cleaned up in the shower, had a meal and the customary sleep in the afternoon, I discovered that I should be reporting to the Embassy for some more beer with the nice Consul.

After a very pleasant evening drinking and talking, I left the Embassy and discovered that the lights on the bike had failed. Having decided to accept the penalty for drunken driving without lights, I jumped on the machine and wove a course through the city back to my hotel and a clean bed.
After completing all necessary matters, like filling up with petrol and also the gallon can that I carried, I left Kabul wishing that I could have stayed longer. As the road might have closed again it was imperative  to leave at the earliest opportunity. This was the first really long stage of the journey, being 340 miles with no cities in between. I drove all day, being stopped at several road blocks and asked for my cholera certificate. The tightness of the regula­tions regarding travel during an epidemic was beginning to cause me a little worry, for several reasons. First, cholera inoculation needed two jabs and I had had only one; then, the certificate had almost expired; and lastly, I might catch cholera. Anyway luck held and by nightfall I had reached the halfway stage. After a cup of tea and half a melon, a gift from a wagon driver, I bedded down on the sand just off the roadside, only to be awakened by the intense cold during the night.

The next day I expected to reach Kandahar, though I knew I would be in for an extremely hard day. I was not disappointed; for a solid ten hours I bounced along the track trying to stay upright, sometimes in sand, at others in rocks or gravel. Just before dark­ness I had only eight miles to go when I had the feeling something had happened to the steering. A quick look revealed a broken rear mudguard. Far too much weight, something would have to go. It was too late to- start to rearrange the packing, so another night was spent in a dry river bed, the only disturbance being caused by some animal rushing past my head just after I turned in. The glimpse I had made me think it was a dog, or could it have been a wolf? Not being sure if there were wolves in Afghanistan I fell asleep still wondering.

After cocoa and a juggle with the kit I wobbled into Kandahar in the early hours. Several essential jobs required attention, so I decided to spend a couple of days in this city. After a clean-up in the hotel I took the bike downto a welder in the bazaar and had the mudguard repaired, then bought oil for the oil change now due, and returned to the hotel. In the meantime, two girls had arrived at the hotel, one from Oldham, some ten miles from where I live, and a girl from New Zealand, travelling together back to England. We combined cooking arrangements and I enjoyed several good meals. Hotels in these countries do not object to cooking in the bedroom. Two bottles of beer arrived, one each for the girls from a chap down the corridor who appeared concerned for them, though I think he became even more concerned when I downed both bottles before he could say knife.

The following day I spent on routine maintenance of the bike and visits to various offices for stamps in the passport or on the certificate. During the evening several motor-cycle dealers arrived, and began offering to buy the bike. Unfortunately there were too many technical snags, otherwise I would have sold the machine, their offers were very high and would have bought me a new machine with some to spare.

The next stage of 235 miles was reputedly the toughest, and so it proved to be, not that the road became any worse, but extremely hot and desolate; only towards evening, when nearing Farrah, did I see the odd village. There is one stopping place called Dilaram where one can buy petrol in tins if one is running short. Just as the sun began setting I pulled off the road and made camp for the night some ten miles from Farrah.

A call in the bank next day proved unfruitful, they refused to cash a travellers' cheque. Stopping only long enough to buy a packet of cigarettes I pressed on to Herat, arriving around 4.30 I searched out a hotel and within minutes of my arrival had been invited to dine with a Swiss couple in the evening. He, it seemed, was a geologist, and had been in Afghanistan for several years. He asked if I had come through Dilaram, and told me he met the famous Peter Townsend there, while he was making his round-the­ world trip. Also in the hotel were two English lads travelling back from Calcutta and later my two ex-girlfriends from Kandahar arrived by bus.

The following day I carried out the usual routine of bank and garages in preparation for departure next morning. I left early in anticipation of trouble at the frontier. I had been warned not to take food that had been opened as this would be thrown away by the Iranians at the border because of the cholera. The track became very sandy in places and I had great difficulty in crossing several troughs of sand. Midday saw my arrival at the frontier, the place seemed deserted. I eventually found the officers in charge asleep. They quickly clipped the necessary stamps etc, and returned to their cots. A mile up the road I encountered the Iranian border post. They threw away my water and several bits of food, and checked my cholera slip for the last time, then I was heading for Kalla Islam, the frontier town. Here I encountered a whole host of people from the hotel in Herat.

 Bon and Don off to Rhyl...or is it the Alps?

The last bus for the day had gone, so they were spending the night in a shed which was the town's hotel. I decided to stay the night and have a chat with English-speaking people for a change, and spent the evening drinking Coca Cola with an American who told me about the angry scene on the bus after one of the English girls discovered her camera had been stolen. Just when heads were about to roll a man cycled up and handed the camera over. How he came to have the camera in his possession was still a mystery.

On the journey from Kalla Islam I encountered my first bad `corrugations' which in no time broke the mudguard again. My English friends passed me later in the day on the bus, waving, then disappeared in a cloud of dust, and that was the last I saw of them. I arrived in Meshed mid-afternoon, and after deciding one hotel was too expensive I tried the usual trick of picking on a knowing-looking youngster and repeating "hotel". I was then taken through the town, and finished up at the same hotel. Tired out, I booked in, and after a shower and clean-up I had the mudguard welded; then set off to look round the famous 'Blue Mosque' and the bazaar.

Next day I picked up a student guide and made a tour of the city, buying several souvenirs, and a watch for £1 which I thought might just last the trip. It did, just! At Boulogne it packed up.
From Meshed to Teheran is 576 miles of horrible road; I expected to take three days for this leg of the journey. It did in fact take me four and during these four days in the saddle many incidents occurred, some amusing, some not. At my first stop the entire police force arrived at my hotel in dribs and drabs until finally the chief himself arrived to see this stranger in the town. I was at first rather angry with all the town in my bedroom, particularly as I had the front wheel off the bike trying to repair a puncture. Later it became so comical during my interrogation, that I found it impossible to keep a straight face. Many severe glances were directed at me, which only added to my amusement. Finally with a stiff bow I was handed back my passport and the room was emptied.

The following midday found me seated by the roadside in a particularly deserted stretch with another puncture. Deciding that it was useless to use the same rubber solution again, I thought I
would sit it out until someone arrived. Nightfall saw the wheel back on with the puncture repaired. Exhausted after my struggle all day in the sun, I slept at the scene of the mishap.
Deciding that the spare ferry-can of petrol was no longer necessary I threw it away, a good find for some wanderer. Pulling in at a small town for bread, I was immediately pounced on by the local bobby and while I was being once more interrogated, managed to have the mudguard welded again. At Damghan, my overnight stop in a cheap hotel, I traded a tin trunk for a decent job on my punctured tyre.

Ten solid hours driving brought me to Teheran on the first stretch of tarmac road for weeks. The ride from Meshed had taken its toll of me. I looked a very sorry sight, dirty, unshaven, face badly cracked with weeks of exposure to the sun, and extremely sore. Deciding on a fresh start, I called the inevitable stray over and was guided to an expensive-looking hotel. The apartment was luxurious, own bathroom and telephone and all the trimmings. After a good bath and a huge meal I passed into oblivion between spotless white sheets.
Next morning, feeling much fitter, but around three pounds poorer, I visited the British Consulate to learn the dos and don'ts for leaving Iran. After taking the camera for repair, I visited a park to watch some tennis, quite a change in this part of the world. Nobody seems interested in wasting energy on sports of any kind.

From Teheran 100 miles of tarmac road were a marvellous change after the 'track'. However, all good things come to an end, earlier than usual around these parts, and soon the track reappeared. While I was having a 'Coke' in a transport cafe a GB Land Rover pulled in, the occupants being an Australian and an Englishman heading for England.
I put my kit in the Land Rover and we drove along together until nightfall, then camped in the desert for the night.

Leaving the two lads to repair the three flat tyres they had inherited overnight, I pushed on to the next town to await them and do some shopping. Whilst I was waiting for them, the London-Bombay bus pulled in, spilling a crowd of young people out and filling the village with the sound of Cockney voices. Talking to one fellow I asked him how he came to be going to India. "Well I just got fed up, so I got on the bus at Hampstead Heath." "Got a job out here?" I asked, reminding him there is no dole in India. "No. I'll look around for a couple of weeks before I start work." A few minutes later they were gone, leaving me scratching my head.

Meanwhile, the lads were having the patches vulcanised at the garage down the street. While strolling around, one particular `nosy parker' who spoke a very few words of English began to annoy me. A fight looked like developing from the show I gave him, when I was informed that he was the chief of police, in civvies. After this I decided to leave town and drive slowly to allow the others to catch up. A mile from the town I stopped by a stream to swill the dust off the bike. About an hour later I saw the Land Rover approaching at a fast rate. I asked what the hurry was and they told me they had to make a run for it for refusing to pay the price asked by the garage man.

Later in the evening we arrived in Tabriz. A few inquiries soon had us installed in a reasonable hotel for the night. Next morning I said farewell to the boys, who wished to press on with all speed. The day was spent in collecting exit permits and in changing money, also maintenance of the bike. The rear mudguard needed welding again. On the way to the welder's shop I had a head-on collision with a cyclist. In view of the threatening crowd, and the fact that I had been going up a one-way street, I had to pay up a pound and try to look happy.

The next day I expected to reach the borders of Turkey. I left at seven and drove steadily until midday when I caught up with two more Australians in a van. Over a thick slice of bread and jam we decided to press hard for the border, as we were all rather fed up with Iran and Iranians. The scene at the border post made us think of a hotel in Paris, quite luxurious and full of tourists. The fabulous cars made us think civilisation had arrived.

True to form, trouble arrived in the shape of the passport officer, who went a little too far and began pushing people about. Unfortunately for him, none of us was in any mood, after a hard day, to be pushed about. He found himself in the unusual position of being an Iranian surrounded by a threatening crowd, and as this had never happened before he quickly disappeared into his office. It was too late to cross the frontier, so after a meal in the Tourist Hotel we slept in the yard on camp-beds.

Strangely enough it was our sparring partner from the previous evening who got us away one of the first in the morning. As soon as one entered Turkey there was a magnificent view of Mt. Ararat, 16,900ft. Seeing a snow-capped mountain after so much desert made me feel almost at home again. Although the roads were still unmetalled, there was a very marked improvement; also noticeable at once was the appearance of neat fields, and road signs. The most startling thing of all was that people were working. It was also nice to discover that the children didn't play the game of 'Stone the Motor-cyclist' as in Afghanistan and Iran.

A few miles into Turkey we came across our old friends from Tabriz. Over breakfast the idea of climbing Mt. Ararat was discussed, but after I submitted my estimate as to how long this would take from where we were, the subject was not mentioned again.
Expecting to meet up again at the next town we each departed separately, but it was the last I saw of either of them. That night I slept for the first time on grass by a lovely clear river with enough water in to completely submerge oneself.

During the course of the three-day drive to Ankara I went through the towns of Erzurum, Erzincan, Sivas and Kayseri; the country in parts became mountainous, with good scenery. My first encounter with rain occurred on the way to Kayseri, causing high jinks on the muddy road surface.
Ankara for me meant that I had successfully made the trip home and the rest was just a formality. I had been told by a couple travelling the other way that from Ankara to England one followed a tarmac road all the way. Having decided to spend a couple of days in Istanbul instead of Ankara I was soon using the power so long stifled in the bike. Whilst in Istanbul I went into a shop to change a rather large note into something small to pay a rascal of a hotel-keeper who was trying to cheat me. When the owner of the shop arrived he began to tell me how he had lived in London and for several years in Leeds, where he had attended the university. He took me in hand, and fixed me up in his uncle's hotel, then took me out to dine in a very smart restaurant where I had the best meal I'd eaten for over six months. As I was staying in the fairly rough quarter of the city, a cafe proprietor insisted that I leave my bike in the restaurant which enabled me to sleep easier, although it meant rising at six in time to pull it out before opening time.

After locating the Consulate and obtaining the Yugoslav visa I left Istanbul and headed for Bulgaria wondering what an Iron Curtain country would be like. I arrived at the border in the early morning and was refused entry on account of having no visa. I had been misinformed at the Consulate, and had to return to the border town of Edirne and obtain one from the Consulate there.

On entering Bulgaria I noticed at once how neat and orderly everything was, tree-lined roads with all the stones along the roadside painted white, all dead leaves swept into piles, an absence of advertisements. In fact it was like an army camp. People with whom I had contact were very polite and efficient, they almost seemed afraid to be anything else. Driving along these roads was in fact quite pleasant, mostly farming country on each side. One of the large towns, Plovdiv, seemed very plain; I can barely remember it at all. Unfortunately before I arrived at my hoped-for destination, Sofia, I had a back-wheel puncture: a nail which I had noticed embedded in the tyre in Iran eventually burst it. With the help of a passing motor-cyclist I was soon on my way to Sofia. This town I liked very much, clean with several very nice buildings, one in particular with a gold-coloured roof. An obvious foreigner walking around with a camera seems to give every policeman the idea that he's just found himself a spy. After several hours wandering and a meal I drove off to the Yugoslav frontier some thirty miles away.

This frontier crossing proved to be the stormiest of the whole trip. A huge fat Italian, obviously very wealthy, had all his money spread on the table, Canadian dollars, American dollars, and several heaps of other currency, all being meticulously counted by the officer. Unable to understand a word of what was being said, I guessed that there was a great danger of his losing the money, as he seemed about to blubber any second. Standing by the gate the customs officer gave me back my carnet and passport, then asked if I had any money. Thinking he intended to change my money, as did the fellow on my entry, I handed him about £3 10s. in leva. When no money came forth I asked him about it. All he said was "Confiscate" and as far as I could see, to him that was the end of the business. Roused to fighting fury by this cool cheek, I started a riot which finished with the guard running from the gate with fixed bayonet and myself cursing the officer and telling him if he touched me with it, I'd shove it up his waistcoat. Quite surprised that anyone should dare to say anything at all in this country, he wrote out an official form for me to draw the money from the Banc de Bulgarie in Erchard. Sure that no such bank existed, I drove into Yugoslavia still seething with rage. Ten minutes later a passing car flung a stone straight through my headlamp.

My first experience of a town in Yugoslavia put me on my guard against policemen. I was fined 10/- on the spot for a miserable parking offence. Determined the 'Big Brother' should get no more money for his next rocket from me, I drove very warily. The ride to Belgrade, some of the way on the 'Autoput', was quite pleasant, though not of any particular interest. Along the `Autoput' which connects Belgrade and Zagreb, I was travelling fairly slowly, looking for a good spot to sleep the night. I was surprised by a man in uniform waving me down. Thinking quickly, I knew that I was breaking no laws, so I stopped, with the engine ticking over. It was a policeman. "You are travelling too fast, comrade," he said in bad English. I shook my head and said "Autoput." He then made a sign which I knew at once: money. Shoving the bike into gear, I let out the clutch and drove off with him grabbing at my shoulders. With a good hefty hand-off I was rid of him, and motored down the road for a couple of hours at a steady 75 m.p.h.

A second 'Autoput' from Zagreb goes to Liubliana and here the countryside takes an almost Swiss look, small chalets and churches on the mountainside. Within a short time after leaving Liubliana I arrived at the Italian border, expecting both trouble from the customs and sunshine. I got neither. Almost casually I passed through the formalities, to be greeted by torrential rain which continued almost all the way from Trieste to Manchester. Three days later, after terrible weather and damp nights in hayricks, I landed in Dover after a very rough Channel crossing to be greeted by the report: 'Floods all over the country.'

A night in a transport cafe, a puncture on the M 1, and at midnight in teeming rain I stood outside the house I had left six months ago. A few pebbles at the bedroom window soon had Audrey, my wife, down to greet me with a pint of tea and a big fire. The date was Friday, November 4.

Don Whillans