A Patch Of dust That Changed History

Battlefield tour Isandlwana-Ward

A patch of dust that changed history

The notion of a ‘Battlefield Tour’ may evoke stuffy old historians going into intricate detail about some long-forgotten battle and a load of incomprehensible jargon. To many it is a niche pursuit solely reserved for military types, collectors of antique weaponry and nerds. Even to those who have previously ventured out on one – or been compelled to during their studies – it may mean disembarking from a perfectly warm and dry coach to stand around in a muddy field before being asked to conjure out of the grey drizzle of a Belgian farmer’s field ‘columns of tanks’ and ‘Battalions of advancing troops’ effecting ‘flanking’ movements into the enemy’s ‘rear guard’.

I am a military spotter, have a passion for history and an unhealthily creative imagination. So even driving rain, the cold and an unhelpful Belgian farmer would be unlikely to put me off. But for those who do think battlefield tours are all a bit of a waste of time, dull or irrelevant, I would say you have not been to Fugitives’ Drift in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Take away the term battlefield tour, take away the dusty books, take away the military jargon. Replace them with exceptional stories of bravery, superhuman survival, incredible odds, superb military tactics, costly errors, leadership, pride, insubordination, alleged cowardice and unimaginably savage violence. On both sides. At Isandlwana, a force of over 1200 British troops – an entire battalion – was wiped out by the Zulus, “savages with sticks”. The latter only hours later, saw just 140 British soldiers, many sick and wounded, successfully hold their small missionary post, fending off repeated attacks by up to 3000 Zulus.

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The tiny and isolated post – Rorke’s Drift – held by 140 British against 3000 Zulus

Our guides transported us to 19th century South Africa, and a dusty brown plain in what was then on the border of Natal and the kingdom of Zululand. They told us the stories of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

We were plunged into the period, the political tensions and were introduced to the characters one by one. We felt the unbearable heat of the woollen ‘red coats’ and the excruciatingly ill-fitting steel-capped boots. We stood on the spots where hundreds of men fell in the space of minutes, skewered by Asagai spears or exploded by the then state of the art Martini-Henry rifles. These battles had more drama, colour and highs and lows than the very best Hollywood blockbuster.

We delved into the context, the repercussions and drew out the important lessons in history that are still applicable to the complicated, violent and messy world we live in today. The stories reminded us of the power of the media – even back in the 19th century – to influence the public’s perception of a war fought thousands of miles away. We heard witness contributions from both the British and Zulu sides, and extracts from the press articles and historical reports written in the months following. These highlighted the bias and inaccuracy – and national pride, political influence and selective memory – that creeps into chronicles of historical events.

Beyond the political and military story, we were introduced to the soldiers and warriors themselves, through their oral testimonies passed down through generations of Zulus, and through the desperate final lines scribbled to mothers and sisters back in Britain. They were young warriors who had to blood their spears before they could hope to attract a wife. They were terrified 19-year old boys barely out of training, thousands of miles from home, battling disease, a climate and an environment they could never have imagined.

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Rorke’s Drift

Thousands died on the field of battle, fighting literally to the death in hand-to-hand combat as they clambered over the bleeding corpses of their friends and colleagues. Those lucky enough to survive on the British side went home to a nation that had barely heard of Zululand or Rorke’s Drift, much less of the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana. They went home changed men. Many would never recover from the apocalyptic scenes, the stench of rotting human flesh, the sight of the unstoppable ‘black wave of death’ careering down the hill or the blood-curdling fear of facing a painful, savage and bloody death again and again over hours and hours.

The formidable Zulus – the greatest warriors in all of Africa who towered over their red coat counterparts – lost thousands more men and just hours after a momentous victory at Isandlwana, would have their battle honour crushed at Rorke’s Drift. Their home and kingdom would be forever changed by the invaders in subsequent battles; invaders who had no real interest in Zululand other than to chalk up another conquest.

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Modest and beautiful: a rare Zulu memorial to those warriors who fell at Rorke’s Drift

I would challenge even the most hardened soul not to have a lump in their throat by the end of the tour. The haunting recordings of Zulu songs and British marching bands accompany you as the open safari Land Rover rattles across the gravelly uneven ground to the different vantage points and key areas of the battle. To the spot where the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses in history were earned – the highest award for valour in the British Army to this day. To the ridge line where thousands of Zulu warriors lined up with their shields and spears stamping their feet in deafening unison, before moving as one onto the ill-fated British line of defence. To the missionary house under siege and ablaze, where one man ground his fingers down to the bone scraping through mud brick walls to carry his injured comrades to safety. The unnamed and last red coat left standing at Isandlwana who from his hiding place in the rocks picked off as many enemy as he could with his remaining bullets, then watched as his boyhood friends were hung from meat hooks, disembowelled and left tasting their own testicles. The feathered barefoot warriors who could outrun cavalrymen on their horses and charged unfalteringly into an unrelenting barrage of lead.

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Painted cairns litter the Battlefield of Isandlwana – each representing the exact spot where soldiers fell and were buried

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are tiny battlefields in the middle of the vast plains of what is now Kwazulu Natal, the peppering of painted white cairns, humble monuments of remembrance and a small museum the only signs left of the carnage of the 22nd January 1879. But they were momentous events in history: they played a key part in changing the face of South Africa as we know it today and the Zulu legacy. Isandlwana would be remembered as the greatest ever Zulu victory, and one of the worst defeats in British military history. The battle of Rorke’s Drift still boasts the highest number of Victoria Crosses awarded – eleven – in one single battle. After the carnage of the battle of Isandlwana, Britain would no longer send men under the age of 18 to war. But they were also battles that could and should have been avoided, invasions across territories that were not sanctioned by leaders or politicians on either side. For Britain, it was war waged when heavy losses were already being suffered on another front in Afghanistan. And it was a mission launched out of contempt and with a lack of cultural understanding of their enemy. The aftermath was a political cover up of the defeat at Isandlwana and a contrasting over-hyping to the press of Rorke’s Drift. Mistakes we continue to make more than a century later and lessons from which we must learn.

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Buffalo river, a raging torrent (at the time) in the path of the few surviving British on a desperate retreat from Isandlwana, which claimed dozens of lives

But the political and military lessons should never tarnish the undeniable and incredible courage of the British soldiers and Zulu warriors who took to battle that day in 1879 and the thousands of men who gave their lives for their countries and comrades without hesitation.

You come away from Fugitives’ Drift informed by the history lesson and intrigued by the political machinations of the day. But most of all you are moved and inspired by the ordinary Zulu and British men who marched to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and displayed unparalleled courage, resilience and dignity.

(our trip was booked through AfricaAndBeyond.co.uk)

 

An Unspoilt Nature Paradise in KwaZulu Natal

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Rocktail Beach

The single-lane tarmac motorway runs almost exactly South to North, carving a straight line through small towns, villages and (very) isolated service stations with an incongruous bright red ‘Wimpy’ or ‘KFC’ sign protruding out of the bush. The ‘N2’ follows the coastline towards the Swaziland border and took us to our turn-off for the Maputaland Marine Reserve and our destination for four nights, Rocktail Beach Camp.

Off the main road, we were directed down a gravel road with surprisingly green and lush bush on one side and tall forestry blocks on the other. We had been instructed to park up at a place called ‘Coastal Cashews’ and wait for a 4-wheel drive to pick us up. A few kilometres down the track and a large brown sign outside a cashew plantation took us to our parking spot under an awning behind a barn and next to a row of tractors.

We emerged into the sticky heat from the luxury of our air-conditioned rental car and were soon met by Abi, one of the team from Rocktail Bay. Having hauled our luggage and us into the back of the open-topped safari truck, we set off further down the gravel road. The gravel gave way to yellow sand as we travelled deeper into the forest and towards the sea. After about half an hour, we pulled up to a small sign: we had arrived at Rocktail Beach Camp.

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View from our treehouse

Natalie and her husband Willem welcomed us off the truck and led us up the stone steps into a small clearing with a bright blue swimming pool, a few sun loungers and a thatched open dining area that led into a bar populated with comfy sofas and glossy marine life coffee table books. They apologised profusely that our ‘room’ was the furthest away up in the treetops. It was rather secluded as it was the honeymoon suite and did we mind being upgraded? The ‘room’ was more of a tent-cum-house on stilts. The pathway through the woods led us up the hill through the woods delicately lit at regular intervals with forestry lamps, and eventually onto a deck that wrapped around a thatched house. The deck was level with the treetops, affording a breath-taking view across the forest and out to sea. The ‘room’ consisted of a living room, complete with tea and coffee making facilities and a complimentary decanter of sherry, a bedroom with a bed big enough for a family of five, and a shower room in between – also big enough for a family of five. The panorama across the ocean was uninterrupted across all three rooms, with a series of glass and mosquito net panels across the front. Standing in the shower while trying to spot dolphins jumping became a particularly entertaining pastime, but one which was not conducive to short ablutions – a requirement in a nature reserve suffering from a drought.

As is the African weather’s wont, the skies went from bright blue and sweltering sunshine, to torrential steamy downpours and back again in a matter of minutes. Whatever the weather, the beach – a 10-minute walk through the forest – was spectacular. Quite literally not a human being to be seen on it as far as the eye could see. The waves crashed up the fine yellow sand, disturbing the odd Red Duiker (a diminutive bush buck) that had strayed out of the treeline and sending the small Bambi-like figure scampering back over the dunes.

Our hosts could not do enough for us – insisting we have lunch on the beach on our second day. We expected a picnic basket and a couple of bottles of beer. We got a feast of cured meats, cheeses, pickles and homemade bread. With it came an overflowing basket of fresh fruit and a cooler box filled to the brim and topped with a surprise bottle of bubbles. The spread was carried onto the beach for us, laid out on a tablecloth, salt and pepper sellers, champagne glasses and all. We were then left to our own devices – finishing off a perfect and utterly undisturbed afternoon by body-surfing the incoming tide like teenagers – until the leftovers were spirited away again and we wandered back up to the camp on the forest track.

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Lunch on ‘our’ beach

We could not visit the Maputaland Marine Reserve in the summer season without going out on a turtle drive. Between November and March each year, hundreds of turtles make their way into the bay and lay and bury their eggs on the beach. The numbers had dwindled but thanks to a wildlife conservation project, they are booming once more. We set off with our turtle guide at midnight, driving along the beach looking out for the tell-tale signs of turtles emerging from the waves. We passed a number of flipper tracks before stopping by what was the jewel in the crown – a rare Leatherback turtle – the largest species in the world. It had laid its eggs and was busy scuffing up sand with its enormous and powerful flippers. Our guide straddled the beast to measure it– a whopping 1m60 long and 1m20 wide. We did not stay long, leaving it in peace to complete the burial of its eggs and make its way back into the water. During our outing we also spotted the smaller and more common Loggerhead turtle and watched quietly in the darkness, swatting away thousands of tiny flies buzzing around our heads, while it laid egg after egg into the deep hole it had excavated. An unforgettable sight and one which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Reserve.

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Measuring the huge Leatherback turtle

We did not get around to snorkelling on the nearby reef during this visit but that leaves us something to do next time we visit. Other guests were drawn to what we hear is exceptional scuba diving with a wreck to explore as well as the unpolluted reefs.

The area is a rare unspoilt and unpopulated tourist destination and huge work has gone into the preservation of its beauty and its flora and fauna. It seems perverse to encourage people to visit as it is precisely its seclusion and remoteness that is appealing. But if you are up for peace and quiet, a privileged insight into nature going about its business undisturbed, and do not balk at the prospect of being cut off from the outside world, then this is the place for you. Natalie and Willem and their team go to every length to make your stay as perfect as possible, while giving you the space to feel like you are all alone in your own personal paradise.

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Our own personal paradise

The idyllic setting and relaxing stay made it all the more difficult to readjust to everyday life back in grey and wintry UK. Three days later I am still in denial, reluctant to discard my flip flops. But the onset of frostbite and odd looks from Christmas shoppers are a price worth paying for the pleasure of clinging on to the utter bliss of Rocktail Beach Camp for just a few more days.

(our holiday and itinerary was booked through AfricaAndBeyond)

 

A Hidden Gem in Residential Cape Town

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A Christmassy Cape Town by night

Tucked away up a quiet leafy residential street in Cape Town, we nearly drove past Four Rosmead boutique hotel assuming it was one of the many white-washed gated private properties in the affluent hilly district nestled under Table Mountain.

Its unassuming but polished exterior is reflected in the discreet and immaculate interior of the property and its warm and welcoming staff. We were greeted with the warmth of familiar guests returning to their country retreat. We were led through the comfortable sitting room complete with fireplace and complimentary evening drinks tray and out onto a balcony overlooking a walled garden. A handful of rattan loungers were arranged over a gravel suntrap near a small swimming pool, opposite which was our room. Four Rosmead has generously upgraded us to a suite – a huge living room with kitchenette, bedroom and vast bathroom – with its own private sunbathing area and outdoor shower. There were building works going on in adjacent properties but they were confined to a few hours during the day, during which time we were exploring Cape Town and the surrounding area.

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A welcome cup of tea in the haven of Four Rosemead

Breakfast was plentiful and freshly prepared to order. Dinner was available on request, although we chose to eat out on the V&A Waterfront one night and had the inevitable ‘braai’ with family and friends the other.

Four Rosmead is a small and cosy setting in the hustle and bustle of Cape Town. The owners and staff clearly take great pride in delivering a personal and exclusive service while making guests feel at home in the cosy surroundings. The attention to detail, beautiful setting and quality of the service are what makes Four Rosmead a hidden gem: easily accessible to the shops and sights of Cape Town, but secluded from the hustle and bustle after a busy day exploring the South African city.

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A South African protea – the national flower

An African Thunderstorm

African thunderstorm Rorkes Drift

There’s nothing quite like an African thunderstorm.
In the UK we are treated to grey skies and clouds that can’t seem to make up their mind if they’re just going to float above us indefinitely, push off to Belgium or be decisive enough to whip up something spectacular. More often than not, they decide to hang there and spit on us for days at a time – the kind of rain dubbed ‘miggie-pis’ (pronounced mihhy piss) by my Zimbabwean husband – then sit around some more before the next half-hearted offering.
In Africa there’s no pussy-footing around. The flamboyant display arrives unannounced in between two stretches of scorching sunshine and bright blue sky. It makes a brutal cacophonic entrance then deafens, blinds and blows you away. The only warning is a subtle smell of damp in the air and a quietening of birdsong. If your nostrils and ears are tuned, you may have just enough time to find shelter and move the ‘braai’ under cover.

African thunderstorm threatensAfter a short spectacle, the billowing clouds, torrential rain and deep drum rolls of thunder are gone. Blue sky and bright sunshine return. The ground sizzles and lets off steam, grateful to have had its thirst quenched even for a minute. The birds re-emerge from their hiding places and resume their chattering. The braai is nonchalantly rolled back out into the open and smoke rises off the coals. As the sun turns a deep shade of orange there is no more than a wisp of cloud high in the sky. The silhouette of a lone tree appears on the horizon as steaks the size of suitcases are laid across the grill. The only remnant of nature’s onslaught is the perfume of wet jacaranda tree flowers competing with the cooking marinade.

After the storm

A Jordanian Adventure

SAIF AL ISLAM GADDAFI – MY TRIPOLI TOUR GUIDE

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Nathan, Saif, Lisa and I return from our tour of the city

Saif al Islam was fashionably late. So fashionably late in fact, that we had got more and more comfortable in his suite as the minutes ticked by. We were wondering if he would actually turn up when he suddenly appeared in the room unannounced. We shot guiltily out of our seats, although I am not sure why since we had been let in by his security guards and he was expecting us.

Nathan the cameraman and I had had ample time to nose around – ostensibly setting up the lighting for the interview – while his secret police stood around the doorway with scowls on their faces and bulges in their dark leather jackets. The living room was the height of decadence, with gold brocade sofas carefully distributed across the shiny parquet floor to be shown off to best effect under the discreet spotlights in the ceiling. Chaises longues covered with plush burgundy cushions occupied corners, accessorized with delicate dark wood occasional tables and standing lamps. Although seemingly designed to mimic a period style cosy reading corner, it looked more like an expensive furniture show room and there were no books in sight. Nathan and I took pleasure rearranging the furniture to suit our purposes, upsetting the delicate feng shui in the process. Lisa the correspondent and I had read that the rest of the suite included a jacuzzi and an intriguing-sounding Finnish bath somewhere too, although none of us dared venture that far into the lair.

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Gaddafi’s army on the streets

Colonel Gaddafi’s son was dressed in ‘skinny’ jeans, a casual rumpled checked shirt and trendy trainer-esque shoes. He was clean-shaven, his hair closely shorn and sported expensive looking rimless glasses. He had everything of the cosmopolitan jet-setting playboy about him, relaxed and smiling – seemingly without a care in the world. He oozed confidence and a certain ‘ownership’ of the situation and circumstances. But if you had been asked to guess at his background or position, powerful son of an African or Middle Eastern dictator would not have been your first choice.

It was 3rd March 2011 and barely a fortnight into Libya’s revolution. The Regime was still feeling strong; the Gaddafi family still very much in charge. We were ‘guests’ of the regime; fed propaganda, and at this point gently imprisoned in the 5-star Rixos hotel in the centre of Tripoli and ‘invited’ to be escorted to events set-up by the regime. This was before Gaddafi’s closest entourage became aggressive, before their desperate attempts to cling onto power translated with the foreign press into overt intimidation and monitoring.

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Hosted as guests of the regime, Gaddafi supporters mysteriously ‘appeared’ everywhere we went

The interview had been a coup and one we had secured by literally loitering outside the doors of Saif’s suite and badgering his entourage. It was the first interview given by Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and his most media-savvy and cosmopolitan son. Saif had studied at the London School of Economics and had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy as a student. Now he was back in Libya alongside his father, running his media campaign at a time when the country looked to be heading in the same direction as Tunisia and Egypt before it – adding another uprising to the so-called Arab Spring.

Saif did not seem unduly concerned that his father’s empire might be about to come crumbling down around them and his legacy with it. He humoured us as we asked pointed questions and laughed off any suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi was losing his grip after over 40 years in power.

Lisa then asked him why every journalist invited into the country was effectively imprisoned in this luxurious spa hotel. Was it because he and his father did not want us to see what was really going on? What of the demonstrations on the streets we were hearing about? And the youtube videos purporting to show violence bubbling in some districts of Tripoli?

His response was a dismissive wave of the hand as if swatting away an annoying fly, followed by a magnanimous sweeping gesture and with the lightest chortle:

– “You are free to go wherever you wish! You can see whatever you like, we have nothing to hide.”

– “You are not in prison here!”

Lisa grabbed the opportunity:

– “So prove it.”

His bodyguards looked uncomfortable and one of them shuffled in his chair, scraping the legs across the parquet floor. Saif waved them off. He was enjoying this.

– “Prove it. In fact, why don’t you come out with us, show us your city.” Lisa insisted.

– “Of course! No problem, we will organise it.” He said.

Lisa was like a dog with a bone. If he left the room, we would never get the chance again.

– “9 o’clock tomorrow morning? You’ll take us to where we want to go in Tripoli”

And before he knew it, he had agreed. Much to his bodyguards’ alarm.

We never expected Saif to actually turn up the following morning. But he did. Colonel Gaddafi’s son arrived with a flourish. His cream armoured car, closely followed by an identical SUV with bodyguards on board, was waved through the gates by the armed guards. The mini convoy sped down the long driveway flanked by towering lush bushes and manicured flower beds towards the grand pillared entrance of our palatial prison. As the cars came to a halt beside us, bouncing our reflections back at us in the bullet-proof glass, Saif al-Islam hopped out of the passenger seat and greeted us warmly. He remembered our names and joked as we got in “you don’t have any guns with you do you?”

Journalists who had been hanging around in the lobby were left open-mouthed as Nathan, Lisa and I clambered into the armoured car and drove off. Nathan filmed Lisa and Saif’s conversation from the front passenger seat and, squeezed between Saif and a side window in the back, I filmed shots of Tripoli and close-ups from an alternative angle, so that we could edit it later as a standalone exclusive interview.

Saif had no prior knowledge of where we wanted to go and playfully left the itinerary in our hands; instructing his driver to take us where we wanted. We chose the districts of Fashlun and Tajoura, both suburbs of Tripoli where anti-Gaddafi feeling was rumoured to be taking hold.   I have to be honest, there was no sign of unrest or evidence of the regime using violence to squash public discontent. We were only in any one place for a matter of minutes so who knows what was going on under the surface. It was clear though that Saif’s armoured SUV was recognised immediately wherever we went.   But Gaddafi did not bat an eyelid when we asked him to pull over and get out for a walkabout on the main street of Fashlun. And no sooner had he emerged from the armoured car than he was surrounded by supporters waving pictures of his father, and lunging at him to shake his hand.

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Saif goes on an impromptu ‘walkabout’ on the streets of Fashlun

On this occasion we could not accuse him of having set it up and if the people coming out of their homes to greet him – who arguably could just have stayed indoors – were doing so out of duress or fear, they were hiding it well. He was by no means mobbed, we passed through quickly and this was just one road in Tripoli on a single day in March 2011.   I am not suggesting that this represented a country’s support or indeed that this meant Saif al Islam was loved by the Libyan people. Indeed, a matter of days later we would witness demonstrations and riots in Fashlun and Tajoura for ourselves. But he had done what very few leaders and commanders I have worked with before and since would dare to do: he had taken a big risk with the media and brazenly pulled it off. As far as public relations exercises went, it was an impressive display.

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The uprising Saif denied was happening – a captured tank in Zawiya

As Tripoli fell to the rebels in 2011, Saif al Islam was pictured smiling broadly – reportedly still in the capital. Sitting in an armoured SUV, he wagged his index finger – a gesture that had become a trademark during his rallying speeches – warning that the Gaddafis were not done. When he was tracked down just over two months later by rebel forces, he was pictured with a bandaged right hand. Although official reports said the injuries were sustained before capture during a NATO air strike, others suggested his rebel captors had tried to chop off the offending digit to silence its wagging once and for all.

That was nearly four years ago. Last week, after a trial that lasted nearly 18 months, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al Islam to death by firing squad.

But he was not in the courtroom. He was in a jail over 100 miles away in a town called Zintan. His captors are refusing to hand over their prize to the government in Tripoli. That government in Tripoli is locked in a power struggle with another government based in the Eastern city of Tobruk. The initial optimism after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 for a united and democratic Libya is long gone. The country has descended into civil war with ISIL fighters reportedly cashing in on the chaos. It is hardly surprising then that the verdict has garnered more column inches in the international community than it has in the country itself.

International organisations focus on reports of torture, human rights and the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Libyan justice system. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears with Libyan leaders battling for survival and fighting each other. And in practice, a sentence passed down by a court that does not hold the prisoner, and with little real control over the country it purports to represent seems somewhat academic. Most Libyans have more pressing worries than the fate of Saif al Islam anyway.

I remember the once grinning, defiant playboy cum aspiring leader. I reluctantly found him educated, eloquent, convincing and even charming. He made the mistake of believing his own hype. When trusted confidants and government ministers defected to the West like rats leaving a sinking ship, he laughed. As his people rioted in the street, he dismissed them. He ignored the most blatant signs that his time was up. It was the behaviour of the most arrogant of men. So it is difficult to imagine how he feels now: dressed in grubby prison overalls, sitting in a dingy cell in Zintan, with his home and country in a violent semi-anarchic chaos. His own arrogance robbed him of a chance to start a new life abroad. His captors now deprive him of the chance of a martyr’s death. And the people of Libya, many of whom used to cheer his name and many of whom thought he heralded a new era for their country have expressed barely a passing interest in his fate.

GOODBYE HEATHROW TERMINAL 1

Airports are loud, bright, busy places where no-one and nothing stands still.  Of all these beasts, the ever-improving, ever-expanding London Heathrow was, until last year, the busiest in the world. 24-hours a day, sombreros, flip flops and tanned limbs jostle with skis, puffer jackets and woolly hats. Ibiza party-goers gulp pints of lager at dawn in the ‘olde English pub’ style drinking holes, honeymooners sample bubbles and caviar perched atop the chrome stools around the minimalist shiny glass bar at the pretentious but delicious seafood stand. Babies in the wrong time zone scream while harassed parents with ruffled hair and a dazed look trail battered suitcases and pushchairs piled with cuddly toys, Louis Vuitton matching luggage gets wheeled across the concourse on a trolley while its owner teeters through Duty Free in the highest stilettos and ‘Jackie O’ style designer shades en route to the executive lounge.

Heathrow’s terminals have borne witness to heart-wrenching goodbyes, obscene mementos brought back from far-off tourist traps that never look quite the same when they get back home, unbridled screaming matches between tired travellers in a multitude of languages, tearful reunions and joyous departures to long-awaited sun-drenched destinations.

So it is sad to watch one of these behemoths be put to bed. Terminal 1 has just days before it is closed down. And demolished. It’s making way for further expansion and no doubt more caviar stands in the gleamingly new Terminal 2. It apparently has aspirations to match the retail and hospitality experience that is currently Heathrow’s T5. I can’t say I blame it – I’ve on occasion almost missed my flight I’ve been so busy enjoying the trappings of the British Airways hub and dancing across its vast shiny hangar-sized concourses. Which terminal wouldn’t want to be T5?

In fact, I have become so familiar and attached to my T5 ‘experience’ that on a recent trip to Jordan, I turned up there on automatic pilot assuming my British Airways flight was there waiting for me. It was news to me that some (or just that one, I think) BA flights still depart from Terminal 1. So that was how I came to see the old lady in her final days.

After a mad dash on the transit shuttle, we emerged from a lift into a dark and unoccupied check-in hall. I thought we had accidentally been ferried into a parallel universe like the ones in films where everyone has disappeared and the protagonist is alone on the planet running around in the deserted school corridors and shopping malls of his life. I might even have seen some tumbleweed but I can’t be sure.

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Terminal 1 Check-in hall – where is everyone??

I self-consciously walked across the huge hall up to a line of unmanned check-in desks, almost walking on my tip-toes to try and dampen the single echoing sound of my flip flops slapping the floor.

One lady in a stretched and faded British Airways navy blue uniform (the new crisp tailored ones must be reserved for the high-flyers in T5 – excuse the pun) had been left behind by the invading aliens, ostensibly to provide a semblance of normality.

She smiled and was cheerful, over-compensating I thought, for the deathly quiet, or perhaps just relieved to be getting the chance to speak to another human-being during her shift. I almost asked her what she had done to deserve to be sent to what seemed to be Heathrow Airport’s most remote outpost but decided it would be mean to rub it in.

Security and passport control went by so quickly I almost felt guilty for not giving them more to search through after they’d gone to the trouble of turning on their machines and lining up the plastic trays for me to choose from.

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London Beefeater welcomes no-one in particular in darkened arrivals hall

By the time we returned to Terminal 1 two weeks later, I really did think our captain had parked his aircraft in the wrong place. First off the plane, we strode down dark corridors. The life-size Beefeater and London Taxi driver welcoming us into the UK from the billboards were left waving at nobody in particular. I almost walked straight through passport control, barely noticing the diminutive Customs and Excise lady nodding off at her terminal.

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“Reclaim Closed”

The whole place looked like closing time in a shop, where the tills have been totted up, they’d rather you didn’t buy anything thank you and could you please just go home. We followed the half-lit yellow signs underground to the baggage collection area to find silent carousels stationary and all signs showing an apologetic “Reclaim Closed”.

As I typed texts into my phone absent-mindedly, a sign flashed up suddenly announcing “Reclaim 1” for my flight from Amman. But like a ghost house in a movie, reclaim 2 behind me whirred into action inexplicably, with a steady thump thump thump of rubber catching on the worn rivets in the mechanism.

No sooner was my suitcase catapulted onto the deck, and I was out of the “Nothing to Declare” channel in a shot, seeking daylight and normality, and to reassure myself that the world had not ended during my time within the grey walls of Terminal 1.

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Arrivals and baggage collection

London Heathrow’s Terminal 1 will close at 21:15 on 29th June this year. It has served us for almost fifty years, starting out as the biggest short-haul terminal of its kind in Western Europe. Opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1969, it is somehow fitting that it should be replaced by the recently opened and now expanding Terminal 2, the ‘Queen’s Terminal’.

The Entitled Waitress

We’ve all met her, she’s that waitress or shop assistant who behaves as if she’s doing you a favour to even acknowledge your presence, despite the fact that she’s employed to serve customers.

I did my time behind a fast food counter as a teenager, suffered the indignity of the candy cane uniform on minimum wage as an usherette at a theatre when I was slogging it out as a professional dancer, and graduated to silver service waitressing at black tie events to make a bit of extra cash during my law studies.

I had my share of rude and condescending idiots, of gropers, and of people who simply wandered through me as if I was invisible or simply too lowly to acknowledge.

Throughout, I gritted my teeth, maintained a polite tone and a smile and stuck to the motto “the customer is always right”. Almost always. Just once, someone went too far and the gentleman in question found himself wearing the bowl of soup he had ordered. I had tripped, obviously, so I apologised profusely and offered to pay for the dry cleaning (on behalf of the pizza restaurant I was working for) over the cheers and guffaws of my waitressing colleagues.

So I am very sympathetic to staff in retail and hospitality who work long and tiring hours, get paid peanuts and often get little thanks for what they do. As a result, I always go out of my way to be a polite, friendly and patient customer. Seriously, you would have to wipe my food on the floor or visibly spit in my soup for me to dream of complaining to the chef or the management.

I had some time to kill in between meetings near Sloane Square in London so decided to select a café where I could sit quietly on my laptop with a cup of tea. The outside was, as you’d expect in this area, expensively welcoming; the name of the café scribbled in trendy handwriting across a plush awning suitably shielding would-be patrons from the torrential rain, while they perused the menu displayed in a glass case by the door. It had an area laid out with floor-length crisp white tablecloths for serious diners but also an alcove where coffee and snacks were the order of the day. Perfect.

Or at least it would have been if the young Sloane in the apron with a notepad and pen in her hand had had any intention of prising herself away from the stubbly Mediterranean beefcake manning the bar to take an order. I soon realised there were already three people seated in the alcove, on a sliding scale of frustration from mild annoyance to about-to-throw-cutlery-at-her, waving for her attention. Every now and then in between gazing into Eye Candy’s face and giggling coyly, she would do a scan of the room as if checking for new customers or tables to clear. She managed that aloof middle-distance stare that pointedly avoids eye contact with anyone and remained blind to the ever-more frantic gesticulating of the businessman in dire need of his morning espresso and the painfully elegant couple on their way back from the gym looking to refuel on one of the green kale and edamame bean-based smoothies on offer.

A full 20 minutes later, the delicate velour stools scraped unceremoniously across the floor and their occupants stormed out of the café loudly complaining about the lack of service. The Entitled One was buffing her nails on her apron and barely noticed.   Having caught her eye three times without so much as a kettle being boiled, I decided on a different approach and was determined not to give up.

I wandered up to Eye Candy who was drying glasses behind the bar, apologised for disturbing him and asked innocently if there was anyone actually serving the tables in the cafe area (the undeniable decorative value of the Entitled One notwithstanding) and would it be possible please to have a pot of tea (sometime before Christmas). Eye Candy shot a dark accusing look at the Entitled One, before turning back to me and apologising, oozing charm and a thick Italian accent. With an unnecessary flourish of his tanned arms, he had a pot of tea and plate of macaroons (the latest in biscuit trends) set out for me before I could get back to my velour stool and sit down.

The nail buffing stopped abruptly and the Entitled One’s vacant eyes darkened as a petulant scowl spread across her pretty face. With more energy and purpose than I had seen her display since I had walked in, she marched over and announced “actually that’s the job I am supposed to be doing” and stood there looking pleased with herself. I am not sure what she was expecting me to say and I didn’t have the heart to come out with the numerous sarcastic comments I had on the tip of my tongue (most inspired by Julia Roberts’ killer lines to the shop assistants on Rodeo Drive in the film Pretty Woman).

Well, at least behind the vacant superior look, she knew what she was supposed to be doing, even if she wasn’t quite prepared to do it just yet. I hoped for her sake she’d realise before too long that the more pride she took in her job and the harder she worked, the more likely she was to get the respect to which she so clearly thought she was entitled. Otherwise she’d be left with highly buffed nails, a well-sculpted mask of disdain and her unused notebook, wondering why the rest of us were ignoring her as we got on with our lives with a please, a thank you, and a plateful of macaroons.

Not a New Year’s Resolution

It felt as if the cheeks of my backside were bumping against the backs of my knees, as if my post-Christmas muffin top had not quite set and would pour over the elasticated waistband of my running leggings, but I did it. I went out for my first run of 2015. I say run; it was really more of a shuffle or a ‘joggette’. To be fair, it was my first bit of real exertion in a while. The chest infection and hacking cough that had been hanging on since early December were still lurking in my lungs on the uphills, threatening to explode messily and alarm passing dog-walkers. The neck and shoulder muscles that have set like concrete after years of extreme activities started screaming after just a few miles (who am I kidding – a few metres), and the large piece of Christmas cake I had hoovered down earlier in the afternoon almost made a colourful reappearance due to the excess of effort.

Now the trick is not to allow myself to feel disproportionately virtuous for my small trot around the block and justify rewarding myself with a large amount of snacks or wine. I cannot keep wearing the same pair of (baggy) jeans forever – they will eventually leave home of their own accord if I do not wash them – and one of these days the cold weather will be pushed out by a glorious summer (I am trying to think positive) and I will have to peel off the clothing currently camouflaging my hibernation layers. So when I am tempted by steak and chips with a nice glass (or three) of Rioja, a cream pasta with yet more red wine, or a gluttonous portion of Nandos chicken, I will remind myself that even though I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, what I will call my 2015 ‘reboot’ of that relatively healthy lifestyle I used to have, must continue.

I tell myself that as I get back into it, I will start to enjoy my runs around the local countryside, sucking up the vitamin D as the days get longer and stretch into balmy sunlit evenings, silently scoring the immaculately English country gardens as I pass their green-fingered owners pruning and trimming the spring flowers, and slowing to quietly observe the families of deer foraging in the woods. I tell myself that at the gym, I will be able to enjoy the smug feeling of still being there punching and whooping my way through Body Attack classes when the New-Year-resolution-joiners of 2015 have long lost interest and torn up their membership.

But most of all, I tell myself that as I get back into it, I will start to feel the cheeks of my backside returning to their rightful position, the muffin top melt away and my breathing calm to a more dignified wheeze. I will then genuinely be entitled to that steak and chips, that glass of wine (or three), and the leftover Christmas cake that I have yet to hoover up.

A window into Iraq

First published in Soldier Magazine in Jan 2008.

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Back at base camp: Capt Lorna Ward and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) at the COB outside Basra

OVER the past two months I have been living a very different existence from usual. There isn’t really a typical day on the flagship Live at Five show on Sky News where I am a producer, but it is a long way from the British Army’s base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where I am at the moment.

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Patrol break: Capt Lorna Ward (centre of picture) and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with 1 Scots, US and Iraqi troop

As a Territorial Army officer, I was mobilised in October 2007 to deploy to Iraq as the commander of the Combat Camera Team. Essentially the team provides in-house broadcast and photographic output of the activities of the British military in Iraq. In a country where few foreign journalists have the ability to get out on the ground, we provide an essential window into south-eastern Iraq.

Providing footage and access to troops on the front line is vital so that people not just in the UK but all over the world can see what we are doing and how – and why – operations are carried out. But it is important to point out that this is not about propaganda. We aim to provide objective coverage, albeit from a UK military perspective, of what is really happening on the ground.

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In the thick of it: Capt Lorna Ward (centre) and Cpl Andy Holmes (left) on patrol in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with a member of 1 Scots

Since arriving out here we have deployed on and covered all the operations, while dealing with the hazards associated with service in the Iraqi theatre – roadside bombs, rockets and bullets. So far we have managed to get video footage and/or stills into the national press on average once a week.  Our words, pictures and videos are also featured on a daily basis in specialist publications, as well as in UK local, regional and military media outlets.

It’s been a very busy few months and the team is now past the half-way point of the tour of duty.  There have been a few close shaves but morale is high and our tightly-knit team is having a ball doing the job it has been trained for and providing an important insight into the on-going, if changing, role of UK forces here.

With the run up to Christmas we had our hands full with charity runs, carol services and hundreds of messages from the troops, which we sent back to print and broadcast outlets. On top of the normal festive messages, we covered visits from Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as the handover of Basra Province to Iraqi control.

Christmas may be over but the pace of life here is still intense. The team and I have just got back from Baghdad.  We were based in the ‘red zone’ and went out on dismounted patrols with the joint US/UK Military Transition Team and the Iraqi Army in the volatile, divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid. Not only is this a first for a Combat Camera Team, it is a rare experience for any British troops, the vast majority of whom are based in Basra.

The challenge of working in the field, writing copy, editing pictures and distributing stories takes on a whole new meaning when you are in the middle of the desert, eating rations, living out of a backpack and dodging rockets. Add to that the nightmare of communications and accessing email, it’s easy to see why this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, as an ex-Regular soldier, it has to be one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever undertaken.

The Media Operations Group is a specialist Territorial Army unit that provides operational capability and training support to the Armed Forces – wherever they are deployed. Our role is providing the expert knowledge, experience and equipment, to create an effective link between the military, the media and the public.