Christmas has arrived on Bastion…

It’s a quieter day in the BFBS compound today so we’ve pulled out the Christmas decorations and Mark, one of our engineers, has been busying himself with Feng Shui’ing the baubles and the lights. And a very good job he’s done too. Gini, our fantastic radio presenter pitched in with her Weiss PfefferNusse (delicious German Christmas biscuits) from one of her many parcels from home and has Christmas toons blaring for us to sing along to. Both are wearing the inevitable and very festive looking Christmas hats.

So we are now officially on the run-up to Christmas here and will do our best to spread some Crimble cheer to our fellow Afghanistan Tourists.

Mark has mentioned something about a real Christmas tree and glittering Christmas signs in the Danish part of camp…so we’re off to investigate and sabotage any attempts to outdo our valiant efforts…..but maybe we’ll stop for a cup of tea and a slice of Danish cake first…..

The Raptor – saving lives in Afghanistan

A device for photographing and monitoring insurgent activity is saving lives in Afghanistan. The Raptor, which is attached to the underneath of a Tornado jet, can take photographs and record information, which is then fed back to be analysed in order to protect troops on the ground. I went to meet the engineers from the Raptor detachment, to find out more about what this high-tech machine does.

 

Back to the Dust…

 

I spent my R&R enjoying runs around the fields of Hampshire in the mud, rain, and on one occasion surviving a rather biting hailstorm. So it was only natural that one of the first things I wanted to do on return to the picturesque countryside of Camp Bastion was go for a run to stretch my legs after the cramped journey back.

Clearly I have a memory comparable to that of a goldfish. There was a very good reason why my running habits had taken a dive here prior to their resurrection back home in Blighty over R&R.

I am now back from my 5 mile circuit feeling like some desert nomad. Only a desert nomad who went on a trek with all the wrong kit and sans camel. My eyelashes and hair have gone a pale shade of beige, my nose now houses enough sand with which to build a castle. As a result of breathing (heavily) through my mouth (partly the result of being unable to breathe through the sandcastle in my nose), I will now spend the next couple of hours chewing on grit and will not be in need of any dinner. There is more sand and dust on the inside of my socks than on the outside and my IPod is now ironically playing Faith Hill’s ‘Breathe’ over and over in a loop, probably due to the mound of sand now stuck under the ‘play’ button.

I am now off for a shower before I reveal any more embarrassing facts about the state of my nostrils or indeed my taste in music.

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.

Two Magic Letters…

There are two letters, or more specifically one repeated that are music to the ears of anyone who has ever done a six-month tour….R & R.

I have now reached almost my four-month point and today I fly out for a spot of relaxation back home.

Over my various outings across theatre, I have often asked soldiers what things they are most looking forward to when they go home on R&R. The answers are varied, but a theme they all have in common is just how simple they all are.

For one soldier from 2 Lancs, it was a pint (or six I suspect) down the pub with his mates. A huge mixed grill was top of the list for one of the airmen from the RAF Regiment. For a Gurkha from 1 Royal Gurkha Rifles, it was to celebrate the festival of Desain with his wife and children. And one officer from the Royal Dragoon Guards was looking forward to a smart meal and ‘a good glass of red’.

I’ve seen the eyes of quite a few grown men moisten at the mention of seeing their kids again; and some serious dog-lovers rave about their reunions with man’s best friend. Many are in desperate need of a haircut and many (and not just the women) are looking forward to a spot of pampering.

My plan for the next couple of weeks is not much different. It involves a large bubble bath, an equally large bucket of wine, a tasty meal eaten off a real plate with cutlery that ‘chinks’ rather than snaps in two, a run in the rain, and seeing my fantastic family – including one new nephew I haven’t met yet, and another due any day.

After spending months never feeling quite clean or rested, approaching meals as nothing more than an opportunity to refuel and for many out on the ground never being able to truly relax, it’s the simplest things in life that become sheer luxury and the light at the end of the R&R tunnel.

Under the weather in Helmand…

It’s an affliction not uncommon in these parts. Let’s face it there are just too many flies, too much dirt and altogether too much heat for our mountain of disinfectant wipes and hand-cleaning bottles to compete.

We all manage most of the time and it’s a wonder the thousands of troops stay on their feet. But stay here long enough and you eventually get caught out by those microscopic bacteria that then proceed to make a few days feel like very long and very painful and undignified years.

I succumbed at the beginning of the week. Went very grey one afternoon apparently and then my first 200m dash across the vehicle park and the road all the way to the ablutions became the first of many.

Five days, much feeling sorry for myself and half a stone later I am back on my feet – just. A good thing really as I think those around me are running out of hilarious banter revolving around the digestive system.

Sausage roll, chips and beans for lunch has gone down rather well and should put my newly-acquired skeletal look firmly back in its box.

I may have lost all dignity, self-respect and a number of dinners over the last few days, but I am proud to say (and you will be pleased to hear) I managed not to wipe out the entire BFBS team here, or indeed any (that I am aware of although there may be a trail in my wake) of our brave fighting boys who have enough on their plates without having to seek out the nearest portaloo in the middle of a patrol.

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.

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.

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.