Adventures: In the Clutches of Afghanistan

"Do you have a revolver for the wolves?" the villager asked. As we were pumping petrol from a rusting 44-gallon drum at the time I had put it down as an attempt to make light conversation. In Afghanistan, casual chats are often about guns, violent death or diarrhoea.

Right now, the question could not be dismissed so readily. We were exactly in the middle of Afghanistan, standing on a featureless plain with the horizon only broken by a smudge of mountains to the far north. Our little plastic blue tent was the only landmark a marauding wolf would see. As a camp site, it left everything to be desired. But we weren't here from choice.

The track in front and behind us was impassible. In fact, it was a slick mud bath with a frictional coefficient of zero. That was largely irrelevant to me in any case - my motorcycle clutch had burned out less than an hour ago. The engine was no longer linked to the rear wheel so I was going nowhere. Our cheery arms dealer had mentioned that we were likely to be the last vehicles through for a few months as the winter snows were due and they would close the passes until the spring thaw. We had no food - and no revolver. We didn't have any money either but, in the complete absence of shops, buildings or people, that wasn't an immediate handicap.

And it was still raining.

As in a Shakespearian tragedy, the seeds of our current predicament had been sown a few days earlier - then multiplied. I made the mistake of looking at a map. It was one I'd bought in Sydney eight months earlier, just before we packed the motorcycles in a crate bound for Singapore. The year was 1976.

So the map was a bit dog-eared when I spread it on my bed in a fleapit hostel on Chicken Street, Kabul. Trevor, my travelling companion, walked over to look.

"We've both been complaining that most Asian highways are too good, too civilised and too boring. Right?" I declared. "So let's avoid the main highway through Kandahar and Herat and into Iran. There's a track marked here that goes straight across the country and it's marked as 'scenic'."

By this stage of the journey, Trevor and I didn't always see eye to eye. We were bound together because it's virtually impossible to solo motorcycle in these parts - leave the bike unattended to see if there's a room at an inn and it'll be stripped when you return. After many months on the road it was rather like being married with none of the advantages.

But this time there was no argument. "Sounds like a great idea to me." Trevor said "And it will get us away from the crowds."

It did. After we left Kabul, the first town was Bamiyan, 250 kilometres away and nestled within the folds of the savage, toothed Hindu Kush mountains. This is a beautiful valley dominated by two ancient and colossal Buddha figures set back into the cliff face. We stayed in a caravanserai and spent a couple of days exploring the archaeological sites and begging at the bank.

By the standards of frugal budget travellers we had plenty of money. Unfortunately, it was in the form of travellers cheques. Because the local manager only learned of exchange rate movements when a letter came through on one of the infrequent buses, he had a policy of only exchanging $20 per person every two days. We were spending about $6 per day so cash was amassing very slowly. On his vague promise that there was almost certainly a bank in the next town of Chaghcharan, we set off for the interior.

In following days, we rode past the ruins of elaborate mud forts, saw scenes of incredible desert beauty and dined with a tribe of Kuchi, the nomads of central Asia. When Afghanistan becomes accessible to visitors again, I'll be back to see Band-i-Amir. The name means "string of pearls", a good description of these azure blue lakes in the desert. Welling up from subterranean streams, the water leaves a mineral deposit that has become a wall. The lakes are now like bathtubs looming more than 20 metres above the valley floor.

Turning our back on this valley with regret we entered the mountain passes. Trevor's motorcycle, a highly tuned and temperamental Honda started gasping as we rose higher. For the ultimate summit, we had to push his unladen bike to the top then went back and carried his bags up. The highest point was marked by the skeleton of a camel that had had a day even worse than ours.

Riding down the other side, it seemed like all our troubles were over. It even started to rain lightly which settled the all-pervasive red dust. But once Nemesis has you in his sights, he's reluctant to let go. A few minutes later I found that it didn't matter which way I pointed the bike, it went straight. The brakes had no perceptible effect either. I finally wobbled to a halt and turned around in time to watch Trevor and bike pirouette down the road to end in an untidy heap at my feet. When we looked at the bikes, we found that the spaces between the wheels and mudguards were packed solid with wet clay.

That's when I made my big mistake. Despite the fact that the next traffic was probably a few months distant, I decided to push my bike off the road, using engine power to assist. In those three metres, I burned out my clutch.

So we were in the middle of nowhere and looked like being there to stay. That wasn't the end of my worries. Before I crawled into my sleeping bag I took my roll of toilet paper and sought a wolf-free patch of solitude. Dark liquid and white solid revealed the hepatitis that I thought I'd left behind in Kathmandu was back.

The next day dawned bright and clear and the road had dried completely. Unfortunately, my clutch hadn't miraculously healed itself. Still, with a sense of optimism we slowly set forth, Trevor towing my bike.

About 20 kilometres down the road, we came to a tiny village. Fortunately, it had once had some oranges delivered in a cardboard case. If it weren't for that my bike would probably still be there. I laid the bike on its side (to preserve the engine oil) and cut the case into doughnuts and packed the clutch with cardboard. Meanwhile, Trevor bought some petrol from another villager.

So, under my own power and with a full tank, the journey continued. However, it wasn't a case of "they lived happily ever after".

Now my clutch was permanently engaged I had to run to start the bike and couldn't readily stop it. And the hepatitis left me so weak that I couldn't hold the bike up when I did stop. The road became a track, then a trail, then entered a narrow defile and became merely a rocky creek bed. This was rough going - one day we rode from dawn to dusk to cover 24 kilometres.

There were several hundred deep river crossings between us and the highway at Herat. I couldn't stop to pick a path and so had to charge in and hope for the best. It sometimes worked out. But there were many times when I fell off in the river. Once I was trapped under the bike and in my weakened state, couldn't escape. The bag on my petrol tank (with my camera, passport and money in it) came adrift and started floating downstream. Trevor had to chase it before returning to rescue me.

We had completely run out of cash buying the petrol - and the bank at Chaghcharan had been a myth. So hunger pangs distracted us from fully appreciating the minaret of Jam, a monument so remote that it was only first recorded by archaeologists in 1958. But there we met Elizabeth and Annette, tourists from Paris and Karlsruhe respectively. They fed us, gave us whisky, provided a place to stay and lent us money. It was to be a year before I arrived in Paris to repay the loan.

Their generosity was the turning point of the trip. Bolstered by their good wishes - and their food - we found the road improved, the locals more friendly and the nightmares receding. Of course, their money also paid for accommodation in a dirty desert lodge where some pilgrims on their way to Mecca wanted to throw us out as infidels. One true enthusiast wanted to stab us, but was discouraged by his friends. This final dramatic night was a minor sensation compared to the moment the next day when we rejoined the highway and our dusty tyres touched tar again.

Although there were still a thousand kilometres to endure before I reached Teheran, a Yamaha dealer, and a new clutch, this was the end of the full time drama. A lesser thrill was coming into Teheran during Friday peak hour. That's rather like an aggressive version of Bangkok traffic - or Rome's rush hour in fast forward. Still, we blended. I couldn't stop; no-one else wanted to.

There was a moment in the middle of Afghanistan when we realised that the odyssey didn't have to have a happy ending. Indeed, an adventure is often merely a disaster you live to tell about. Two decades later, I'm now contemplating doing the trip again. This time I'll take a spare clutch. And I know where I can buy a revolver for the wolves.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd