To most riders like me, a ‘dangerous’ experience involves a slippery road, a blown tire or a malfunctioning motorcycle. To round-the-world riders it can involve a far more direct threat – namely a bullet somewhere where it will hurt, or worse.
I have looked down gun barrels a few times during my travels. I have also had a bayonet stuck into my back, though not very far; just enough to draw blood. Probably the likelihood of this kind of encounter is somewhat less today than it was in the late 1970s, but I suspect the road is becoming more dangerous again. Armed unpleasantness is growing.
Oddly enough, the closest (I think) I have come to really collecting a bullet was in the United States. Three of us were looking for airborne history, either in the form of museums or open-air displays of aircraft. We were in California and decided to take a look at Edwards Airforce Base. The base has a small but interesting display of retired planes outside its gate, and we wandered around those for a while before deciding that for a place of its size, Edwards surely had more aircraft on display.
We rode up to the gate and asked. The bloke at the little window tried to be helpful but we must have struck a communication problem of some kind because the guard who shared his office stepped outside and unslung his firearm. He also told us in no uncertain, though still polite, terms to take a hike.
I do not blame either of these blokes; we were very much an unknown quantity, and if there is one thing the military does not enjoy it is unknown quantities. So we were – as I said, reasonably politely – told to turn around and leave. I could see a roundabout a little way ahead, so I rode down there, turned and rode out. My friends told me later that they had heard the click of the safety on the guard’s weapon being unlocked just as I turned to come back.
Had the roundabout been a few feet further away I might well have received the benefit of a few well-placed rounds in my back. In retrospect, I would have deserved them. When the man with the gun says ‘turn around’, you… turn around. You don’t ride to the next roundabout.
The scariest experience I actually knew about at the time happed in Malaysia. Apparently, the communist guerillas had struck at a remote police station during the night, so of course two Australian motorcyclists on the main road were prime suspects. We were pulled up at a roadblock and searched. No big deal, similar things happened to us a few times. But I clearly recall the wide, terrified eyes of the soldier who was pointing an Armalite at me from some three feet away. He looked about 14 and in immediate danger of soiling his uniform pants.
I understand that despite their small caliber, Armalite bullets make quite a nasty hole in you. We eventually convinced our teenage interrogators that we were harmless and rode away, still imagining several rifles tracking us.
In Thailand a few years earlier, I was stopped by a heavily armed band of what later turned out to be terrorists. They did not terrorise me, just looked at my papers, scratched their heads and let me go.
I think I have written about the Serbian officer who justified my speeding fine, allocated according to a retired hairdryer posing as a radar gun, with his automatic pistol. That was unpleasant, but all he wanted was money, so it was not really serious. The bayonet episode happened when I brushed off an Afghan soldier’s order to move along. He was nice enough not to shoot me.
Back in the early ‘70s, I was camped on the beach near the southern Turkish town of Silifke with a bunch of other reprobates, waiting for the Iranian border to open. They were having a celebration, something like 3000 years of being Iranian, and did not want disreputable people like us hanging around and making the place look bad. As if.
One evening a couple of us had strolled a little further down the beach than usual. We came around a little headland and found what looked like half a dozen olive drab landing barges being loaded with, well, something. We also found a couple of soldiers who wasted no time in apprehending us with what I think were Steyr rifles. Fortunately, most Turks I have ever met seem to speak at least a little German, so I was able to ask the equivalent of “Nyaah, what’s up, Doc?” in the language of poets and thinkers and be understood.
“Du dies nicht sehen,” said one of the soldiers. “Nichts. Nichts.” Nothing, nothing. We were only too happy to agree that we had seen nothing and turned around for a carefully measured walk back around the headland. Next morning, the café proprietor where we usually had our morning coffee laughed when I brought up the subject. “They are sending guns to Cyprus. They would not hurt you. It would cause… problems.”
I see I have not mentioned the Jawan guarding the crossroads at the beginning of the Indo-Pakistani war, or the policeman with his sidearm in North Africa or… well, let us just say I have seen enough guns. There are dangers enough without them.
(Just a quick note: this is not intended as a diatribe against guns; it is just my reaction to having them pointed at me.)
(Photos The Bear)