The marathon journey home…

 

1000 on a hot and dusty Wednesday morning.

We all set off looking quite fresh and chirpy considering it was the middle of the night, but then we were excited at the prospect of going home – whether on R&R or at the end of a long tour.

By the early hours of Thursday in Bastion departure ‘lounge’, the brew kits had been pillaged, the Kitkats were sold out in the little snack bar, and even re-runs of Top Gear on the BFBS TV screen were no longer holding people’s attention.

Just in time, the oft-mentioned ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ was bellowed across the hall and we were on our way out to the mine-taped pen on the airfield eagerly awaiting the loud hum of props and the welcome sight of the green belly of the Hercules ready to swallow us up.

A short half-hour later in the middle of the night, we landed in Kandahar. After disentangling our identical bergans and bags and humping them onto the coach, we were shipped through the darkness to a row of tents. Then another ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ brief before being directed by torchlight to a large collection of camp beds. Time to get our heads down for a couple of hours.

Thursday…. Daylight brought another ‘sirs, ma’ams etc’ brief.

A day of sitting in a tent watching DVDs and drinking tea was punctuated by our first reporting time around lunchtime followed by a second well after dark.

Eventually, locked and loaded onto the ageing Tristar, we trundled along the runway in the very early hours of Friday morning and back up into the skies of Afghanistan.

Friday….with dawn breaking over the Middle East far below, the never-ending supply of orange squash was interrupted. Trolleys were wheeled down the aisles laden with cans of beer. Safely out of Afghan airspace, we were treated to a celebratory can of ale each, courtesy of the generous people of Britain and some of our best-known breweries. Refreshing and symbolic, but somewhat unorthodox when served with our breakfast of omelette, sausage and bacon. But I didn’t see anyone complaining.

It wasn’t long before we were welcomed onto Cyprus soil for a quick refuelling stop, then herded back on board. So close now, not one of us was sleeping. As we got closer, we all craned out the windows for our first sight of Blighty.

Grey, rainy, lush, green, busy, traffic – it has never looked quite so appealing.

48 hours, 15 cups of tea, 3 aircraft, 7 coach and car journeys, a handful of wet wipes and one can of lager later, our dishevelled bunch arrived slightly less fresh, a tad less chirpy but no less excited to finally have made it home in one piece.

Now it’s off for a bath, crisp clean sheets and that bucket of wine I’ve been promising myself. A long journey perhaps, but thoroughly worth it to finally be home.

The BFBS Tea Party…

 

A First. We have had a proper day off. Glorious. There was a lie-in, there was a spot of reading, there was a spot of cricket-watching. Ok, so if I’m honest, there was a spot of planning and some phone calls done too but only minimal work overall today.

And the day ended with a sociable evening. The BFBS clan gathered in the balmy evening air under the stars, around our station manager Paul’s tea set (no really, it ‘chinks’ and has a diminutive milk jug and everything). The tea (so proper it needed a strainer) was flown in all the way from Sri Lanka, courtesy of our friend the head chef in the cookhouse, Jabir, who’s just come back from visiting his family (and shopping for tea for us) on leave. The liqueur chocolates were carefully placed in an embossed dish. Radio Presenter Simon cracked out a cigar… suffice to say that if there had been cucumber and bread available, Cath and I would probably have been cutting off the crusts, and piling dainty little sandwiches on top of a doily.

…..A spot of civilised Tiffin in a very rough and uncivilised world of helicopters, grim news across loudspeakers and a permanent state of sweaty grittiness. Delightful.

Powerful little pooches…

 

It is incredible what we do just to get a story. I thought I was going along to film an interview about parcels that had been sent from kind people in the UK to the military working dogs that do an incredible job out here in hot and horrible conditions.

How I landed up in a ‘fat suit’ running for my life is still a mystery.

Our lovely radio presenter out here Rachel and my compadre Cath decided to have a go and came out laughing and smiling. Peer pressure soon had me angling my squat and boney frame into the suit – which is not unlike those sumo suits you get at parties only without an outline of bottom and rolls of fat drawn on the outside. This suit means business.

While I was being fitted (distracted) with the helmet and face guard, I overheard a faint shall we get the second one out; that would be fun…

…..the second what??

I turned round in the middle of the dusty square to find not only Zeus (very aptly named) straining on his handler’s lead and growling provocatively at me, but also Devil (even more aptly named) straining on his lead.

Hang on. Rachel and Cath got ONE dog. A conspiracy against the smallest person in the gang.

 

But it was too late, I was being instructed to taunt the dogs (they didn’t look like they needed it to be fair), then run away (about 20 feet away there was a 6-foot-high fence so I was onto a loser there from the start but didn’t want to state the blindingly obvious).

So in a blur (and because my pride would not allow me to chicken-out), I waved like a lunatic, gave the monsters my best growl and ran for my life.

Zeus in hot pursuit

Well, I say ran. In that suit, it’s more of a giant-penguin-waddle. No chance.

One pair of fangs brought me down with a thump and got well stuck-into my wrist and forearm. I followed the instructions of the handler – “keep trying to get away!” – and then felt a second almighty gnash in my upper arm. The next yelp was mine.

good dog

I’m now nursing a large purple bruise and neat jaw outline around my bicep. I’d like to say that the other guy came off worse but I’d be lying. Suffice to say, I’m glad Zeus and Devil are on our side.

And in response to Cath’s quip about the reasons behind the two-dog-conspiracy: I’ve got your number dog-loving-Brazier, I know you had a quiet word to take out the cat-loving-Ward.

Am off to plot my revenge….

A romantic tryst….or…

Moonlight, the light touch of hands, a gentle breeze….All the ingredients for romance….or so you might think.

It was in the early hours of the morning. We were standing in line, waiting to board a helicopter bound for Camp Bastion. Leanne, our media operations escort was in front of me, Cath was bringing up the rear.

In came the Merlin and as the ground crewman wafted his fluorescent stick, we dutifully marched in our tidy little queue up to the rear ramp and made our way to the deafening sound of the rotor blades into the belly of the aircraft.

During the hours of darkness, no doubt in order to avoid passengers inadvertently looking for a seat in the cockpit or doing a face-plant into the pile of mail bags, the RAF do allow some light inside the helicopter. Blink and you’ll miss it though; it’s switched on for just long enough to put your bags down on one side, turn round and register which empty canvass seat you need to make your way to. At that point you are once again plunged into darkness.

Leanne, Cath and I had got to this point in the proceedings. Bags down, seat clocked then scramble over to them before the lights went out.

Following a rather undignified bump of bottoms, we settled into our seats then started ferreting about for the seatbelts. And it would be the aircraft with the most complicated Formula 1- type harnesses wouldn’t it? Not for us the straightforward lap belt. Oh no.

I located three of the four straps but couldn’t for the life of me find the fourth. At this point in the moonlight I spotted a very self-satisfied-looking Cath putting the last tightening touches to her straps and casually gazing out of the aircraft at the world below.

Leanne and I meanwhile fumbled away and finally found not our seat belts, but each other. We are both happily married to our respective husbands so the moment passed without so much as a sigh. After an awkward moment of holding hands, we untangled the mess of straps and at about 2000 feet, eventually got ourselves secured in place.

Thankfully, only the moon was witness to our embarrassing moment of not-very-warry-helicopter-passenger-ineptitude, so we both adopted the nonchalant frequent flyer’s distant gaze and settled in for the ride back to Bastion.

My first Husky ride…

 

I had always associated huskies with snow, adventurous treks across arctic landscapes and echos of ‘mush’ and enthusiastic yelps bouncing of walls of icy ravines.

From now on, they’ll have entirely different connotations.

My partner in crime Cath and I were having a bit of ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ moment on one of our recent trips outside the wire, being bundled from one form of transport to another en route to a remote patrol base…

A bumpy ride to the HLS (well, technically two, since our first was aborted due to a total lack of available helicopters anywhere in the vicinity) was followed by the now-familiar swerving around the skies in darkness in a Merlin helicopter.

Next I had a moment of dusty and very noisy nostalgia, with a road move in a Warrior courtesy of the boys from 2 Royal Welsh – nostalgic because I spent quite some time on Telic 10 with the same soldiers racing across another dusty desert in the same rumbling armoured vehicles.

But then came the piece de resistance. My first experience in a Husky. It’s one of the newer armoured vehicles in theatre and very comfortable it is too. Properly cushioned seats with racing-driver-type seatbelts (which are a bit of a challenge when one is attempting to do them up while bumping along an Afghan road plunged in darkness). The set-up inside reminds me a bit of a Humvee, but with a bit more head and leg room (not that I really need much of that if I’m honest) and less noisy. As we trundled along the roads from Lash to an encampment surrounded by ‘Hesco’ protective barriers somewhere, erm…else (it was dark, we debussed and re-bussed, it was a blur of Afghan countryside), I felt snug in our Husky, was offered in-‘flight’ beverages by the ‘top cover’ chap (bottle of chilled water), and was entertained by the 1 Scots Guards banter.

So I no longer think of Huskies as furry, blue-eyed canines, but as safe, friendly hunks of metal to travel around in.

Where can I get one?

A yodelling beaver…

Yes, you heard right. Earlier this morning, one of our radio presenters out here, Rachel, was having a stand-off with the studio’s technology and came out looking a little down and not very happy with her show. I decided to give her a quick blast of my newly-acquired yodelling beaver. It worked, cheered her up a treat and she’s back to her usual smiling self now.

I now should explain myself so as to avoid misunderstandings or indeed a P45 making its way through the BFPO system to my dwellings in Camp Bastion.

On my return from a very successful trip to Kabul (notwithstanding my encounter with Jamie Oliver on the 14th below) – the stories from which you can follow on British Forces News and across the airwaves – there was a parcel waiting for me from home. Very exciting.

It was from my twin brother and his partner. I was editing all day and put it to one side to open in the evening as a treat. Very excited all day at the prospect. Very excited indeed. (you have to understand these small joys in the context of our existence on tour).

So after a long day of going through our soon-to-be-award-winning footage gathered in the capital, I snuggled up in my bed last night and tore my way through the parcel tape and opened my box of goodies….

In amongst packets of beef jerky, Japanese rice crackers (perfect antidotes to Jamie Oliver’s televised cordon bleu cooking), jelly beans and some of my most favourite toiletries was….wait for it…..a yodelling beaver.

He’s about 20cm tall, he’s sporting lederhosen and a natty hat with an edelweiss motif. He’s from Austria you see.

And the piece de resistance….he’s a rather accomplished accordion player. Oh yes, he has an accordion. And with one deft press of his left foot, he breaks into a traditional Tyrolean tune on the instrument.

It seems my brother smuggled the castaway through customs from one of his recent business trips to Austria and decided a short spell in Afghanistan would do him good. See the world and all that.

My furry friend now has pride of place in the office and his left toe gets a press every time morale takes a dip.

So it’s chuckles all round and a big thank you to my guardian angels back home and their fantastically thoughtful parcels!

Beef jerky and a Kit-Kat

There’s nothing quite like watching Jamie Oliver cooking up a storm in rural France when you’re banished to a big white tent in Afghanistan for five hours in the middle of the night….

Picture the scene….I’ve just polished off a packet of beef jerky and a tepid cup of grey tea and, having not had dinner, am feeling somewhat peckish. It is nearly midnight so I should by rights be heading off to bed and looking forward to breakfast (not that my life revolves around food you understand).

I am, however, sitting in the departures ‘lounge’ (read tent) in Camp Bastion, with another 3 hours’ (of five) to wait before my first class (read Hercules) flight to Kabul for my city break (read foot patrol and aid distribution).

I should be keeping my mind off my rumbling stomach with the third series of ‘Spooks’ which is sitting waiting to be watched on my laptop. I have cunningly kept my laptop with me. But, not so cunningly, my headphones are uselessly languishing in my bag on a wooden pallet covered in netting waiting to be loaded onto the Hercules. As my lack of cunning dawned on me earlier, I decided I was too embarrassed to go back through ‘security’ (read x-ray machine in other tent surrounded by bollards) to ask to take them out.

So I am now reduced to whatever happens to be showing on the communal BFBS TV in the aforementioned ‘departure lounge’ (again, read tent). Cue Jamie Oliver on one of his culinary extravaganzas around Europe. Today it seems he’s made his way to somewhere in the South of France.

…He’s now cooking duck on an open fire and has been making deliciously fluffy (or so he tells me) rustic bread. To be honest, I was a drooling mess as soon as the sizzle of olive oil hit the pan. I’ve tried to look away but it’s no good, I am mesmerized.

He’s just stopped at a quaint little café for a few chunks of local cheese, some ‘charcuterie’ and a chilled beer, I have to take myself away or I will start licking the screen. Cue a trip outside the ‘departure lounge’ (still. a tent) in the dark to the aromatic portaloo while being deafened by a combination of helicopters, land rovers and a C17 (why can’t I have a green boarding pass?). This should bring me back down to earth.

Back inside now and have banished all thoughts of dinky little cafés in rural France….nice wine and fantastically smelly cheese.

Or so I thought….

Jamie’s now adding the finishing touch to the ‘succulent chargrilled steak’ – a ‘crunchy fresh salad drizzled with vinaigrette’……

It’s no good.

I am now licking the screen.

Next time I’ll remember my headphones.

Lorna

P.S – Five hours, beef jerky, a kitkat and screen-licking public humiliation…only to be told the aircraft has gone ‘US’ (unserviceable to you and me) and we’ll not be flying tonight. Fabulous. Just fabulous.

RV (rendez-vous to you and me) same tent, same screen, tomorrow night then.