INTO THE STORM

From the party hedonism of Dubai to the checkpoint paranoia of Kuwait and then across the border into Iraq itself, war's always better on a motorcycle

Why do I find myself inbound to the Gulf just as 100,000 Coalition troops move on Iraq? Simple. I've never been to the Middle East before and figured now was as interesting a time to go as any. I also figured that trying to ride a motorcycle to the frontline would be a wholesome adventure. Back in 1970, Errol Flynn's son, Sean, took to riding the frontline in Vietnam on a Honda trail bike. Flynn was working as a war correspondent, and was eventually taken hostage and executed by the Khmer Rouge when he rode too deep into Cambodian territory. Still, I always thought the idea of riding into combat on a bike with a camera around your neck was wonderfully romantic in a disturbed, idiotic sort of way. And if the Son of Captain Blood could do it, I thought, by hell so can I.

Finding someone to give you a motorcycle--free of charge--to be ridden into a live war zone is tricky. I had basically given up on the idea and was preparing to buy one with my own money when a random e-mail to Trading Enterprises Honda in Dubai brought the most extraordinary response. "Yes, we can supply you with a brand-new Honda XR650, fully insured and with a Honda care plan, so if you get into any difficulty, you'll be bailed out." Naturally, when people tell you things that seem too good to be true, they either have huge clauses attached or are outright lies. But not in this case. I called the boss at Trading Enterprises, a personable chap called Rajesh, and he assured me that he was more than happy to provide me with a bike for my adventure, so long as I did a good story about the Middle East and didn't bring it back with bullet holes through the frame. I told him I couldn't promise to the latter, but he agreed to loan me the bike anyway.

Dubai is a party town. Lamborghinis and Ferraris cruise the boulevards, squadrons of beautiful women patrol the malls, the bars are full, and the nightclubs loud and varied. It's right on the sea, and ancient fishing boats called dhows chug through the city center, offset by the mirror-glass city blocks towering above them. I expected a city on the edge with thoughts of war, but you have to look hard to find it. "If local Arabs ask, tell them you are Australian," Rajesh suggests when I make it to Trading Enterprises. "At this time, it is better to appear neutral. The trouble with many of the Arab people is that open discussion about this kind of thing is impossible. If you are for the war, you are Pro-Bush. If you think the war is a bad thing, you are Pro-Saddam. There is no middle ground, so it is best to avoid the subject."

Suitably informed, I spend a couple of days tearing around the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) on one of their CBR600s. The climate out here is hot during the winter (80 degrees) and heinous during the summer (115 degrees), so the motorcycling season runs from October to April. CBR954RRs and CBR1100XXs are the bikes of choice. Suzuki and Kawasaki have virtually no presence in this part of the world. There's no comprehensive insurance, and the crashes (nearly all wheelie related) are continuous and expensive. "It's great for business but sad to see," Rajesh says. "We sold a CBR954 six days ago to the parents of this kid. None of them would listen when we told them he really needed a CBR600. And it came back on a trailer yesterday, all smashed up. It breaks my heart." Speaking of insanity, here are some basic rules you need to adhere to when riding a motorcycle in this part of the world:

1. Don't be tempted to race Mercedes with blacked-out windows. They will do 160 mph, then dive on their brakes just to frighten you. It does.

2. Keep your eyes peeled. The standard of driving in the Gulf, and especially farther north in Qatar and Kuwait, is terrifyingly hilarious.

3. Wear adequate clothing. Yes, it's 105-plus degrees, but getting one's naked forearms blasted by the sun and drifting sand at Big Speed is no fun.

4. Roads can and do end suddenly. Sheikhs get bored with the project they're financing, and simply stop.

5. Gasoline is cheaper than water. I was filling up the CBR600 for $0.80, truly.

I head west toward Abu Dhabi, the capital of the U.A.E. Moving into the outskirts, I'm popping wheelies and goofing around on the Honda. A Land Cruiser sidles up next to me and blows its horn. Everyone blows their horn around here, so I pay little attention--except this guy's a military policeman, and he's pissed. He gestures for me to pull over. I do, worried that I may be in a bit of trouble. "You know what you do wrong?" Even here they ask the standard policeman's question. "Er, no. I'm from England," I reply, as though this offers any defense for pulling honkers down the streets of Abu Dhabi. I give him my International Driver License and, unsurprisingly, he ponders this ridiculous British document for approximately three seconds before demanding, "Where is your registration for bike?" How do I explain that I'm a journalist on a loan bike? "You come with me to the station." They still execute people over the border in Saudi Arabia, and whippings aren't unheard of here in the U.A.E. I have no paperwork for the bike I'm riding, and make a quick decision--he goes one way, I go the other. I'm not hanging around in this part of the world to see what's coming, so I pin the Honda. So much for my day tour of Abu Dhabi....

The Gulf is 99 percent desert, and the off-road riding is heaven-sent. I spend two days with Trading Enterprises' sales manager and ex-desert-racer Rob Klugman tearing around the dunes on a CR250 motocrosser, getting used to the heat and sand for the journey ahead. I face-plant at least a half-dozen times, but chasing camels through the dunes is the most barbaric fun I've had in years. Talking of camels, water is a major consideration. "We have deaths out here simply because people forget to drink," Klugman says. "Because the desert wind dries your sweat almost immediately, you don't think you're losing that much fluid. But make no mistake, you're sweating buckets." More rules learned for what lies ahead: riding the XR650 north, toward Iraq....

I set off at 6:00 a.m. the next day on my Honda 650 for Qatar. The Saudis are absolute bastards when it comes to letting people--especially journalists--into their country, and the most I can wrestle out of them is a single-entry transit visa. This allows me to enter and exit their country just once, but to ride from Qatar up into Kuwait I am going to need another transit visa. Hoping for the best, I make the 150-mile trip down to the southwestern corner of the U.A.E. in good time.

The sun thumps down on my motocross lid as we approach the Saudi border near Sila. I consider taking a picture but decide against it when I see the rabid looks the Saudi border guards are giving to me and my XR650. They're very suspicious as to why a Westerner would want to be riding such a loud, red motorcycle to Qatar, and keep me sweating for two hours while they call various factions on various phones. Finally they allow me to pass and, with a final scowl and spit from the border guards, I'm off. Welcome to Saudi Arabia.

I'd filled up just before the border with the aim of leap-frogging the 70 miles across Saudi territory and into Qatar as quickly as possible. I knew I didn't want to be messing around in Saudi Arabia, and the story Rajesh told me of a desert rider dragged from his bike and kicked half to death just for being a Westerner rings in my imagination as I ride, head-down, for Qatar. The heat is oppressive, but I don't stop for anyone or anything. And so it is that soon I am greeted by the welcome sight of blue-shirted Qatari army border guards. As they check my papers for the bike, they are equally surprised by my appearance. "You are a crazy man. Why you do this?" But unlike the Saudis, they're at least friendly. Shambling, grubby and 15 years behind the glamour of Dubai, Qatar is full of grinning lunatics in crappy taxis. Admittedly, I arrive in the country at a bad time, as the sandstorms that wreaked havoc on the progress of the Coalition forces in Iraq have moved south and are hovering thick in the air like a huge blanket of pooh, sucking the color out of everything. On a bike you end up covered in a thick layer of ash--it's absolutely disgusting, and I head north, coughing and spluttering like a 40-a-day smoker.

Riding into Doha, the XR650 stands out like a bloody nose, and whole families stare as I pop and bang my way through traffic, covered from head to toe in filth. A few make reference to my riding gear--black body armor and desert camo pants--and ask if I'm an American or British soldier. I reply that I am neither, as it begins to dawn on me that this gear might not represent my wisest purchase. As I get nearer the war, so its effects are felt.

The Coalition headquarters for the entire war effort is based just outside Doha. The place is a veritable fortress called CENTCOM, and it's the heart of the war effort. It takes two days to sort my media accreditation to even be allowed near the base, and when my various press cards finally come through I jump on the XR and rock down to CENTCOM, where after leaving the bike out front, having my bags screened for explosives and X-rayed for weapons, then counterchecked at the secondary security gate, I'm allowed to board the minibus for the main complex.

This is it--the nerve center of the war on Iraq. Loads of important-looking Army types pace around at unbelievable speed while loads of self-important-looking journalists do the same. CNN, FOX, NBC, SKY, ITN and the BBC are all accounted for and diligently making frightfully serious reports on frightfully serious things. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks stamps past me in a cloud of crisp military efficiency. After a few fraudulent claims of ABC affiliation, I decide to check out the daily briefing and--maybe--get on television. I settle into a seat at the front and wait for the show to start. Two minutes later an irate redheaded woman from FOX tells me I'm in her chair and asks that I please get the hell out of it. I relocate to somewhere annoyingly far from the television cameras when Brooks bursts in.

The official press briefings given during Operation Iraqi Freedom are a lesson in teenage propaganda. "Look at this picture of a hospital and a building full of bad guys. Now look at this second picture--the hospital is still there, but the building full of bad guys is gone." General Brooks turns out to be quite brilliant at speaking loads and saying absolutely nothing. It's a technique I would love to learn for use on my girlfriend when I'm in the doghouse again, bamboozling her into submission with a barrage of words like "largely tactical," "upgrading to lethal status" and "hitherto under control of opposition forces." A dose of straight talk would be a treat, and today Brooks gives it.

Incredibly, I have a friend at CENTCOM. His name is Bill Mackinlay, and we grew up together. Mackinlay is an officer in the British tank regiment, the Scot's Dragoon Guards, but instead of driving tanks up at the front, he finds himself driving a computer down at the rear in the press office. I tell him about my plan to ride to the frontline, and he and other officers in the Army press room go faintly spastic. "This isn't a game," Mackinlay splutters. "People are dying left and right in Iraq, and there are certain people even in Kuwait who wouldn't think twice about shooting you and stealing your bike. It's the Wild West up there, and you're bloody mad to want to go. To try as a freelance journalist is bad enough, but to even consider it on a motorcycle is f*****g stupid. We lost five Italian and three Arab journalists just yesterday, held hostage by the Iraqis, and now they're in Baghdad. God knows what will become of them. If you get killed as a freelance journalist, no one will notice you are missing for days."

As encouraging as these words are to a simpleton such as myself, I do briefly question the wisdom of my plan. Make no mistake--I have rushed headfirst into this trip with little or no forethought. At this point I don't even have a visa to get me into Kuwait. My thoughts are cut short when an air-raid siren goes off at CENTCOM and people erupt in all directions, securing their breathing apparatuses and expecting VX gas missiles to hit the building. I stand beneath an air-conditioning unit, hold a paper tissue to my nose and ponder my fate. We all survive.

The next day, I get arrested. In fact, I manage to get three of us arrested--two soldiers and myself--and we're taken down to the station for questioning. The problem arises when Army photographer Keith Cotton takes a light reading on his camera as we're heading out to take some riding shots on the bike. We're outside one of the main U.S. bases, where photography is not allowed for security reasons. Some local Qatari soldier sees Cotton playing around with his camera, and whistles us over. "No photo. You give money," he rubs his forefinger with his thumb. Cotton squares up to him, and we're promptly escorted down to the local jail. Qatar is not as backward as, say, Saudi Arabia (where they still have public executions on Fridays), but whippings and beatings are still fair game in these parts. The soldiers graciously vote for me to take any shit that may be coming. In desperation, we call a major on base and beg for help. Local soldiers have no respect for troops of an equal or lower rank, but the appearance of a senior officer always does the trick. After two hours of sweating we sign a statement written entirely in Arabic, and we're on our way. I celebrate my freedom by watching Coalition fighters take off at night; an awesome sight as, afterburners ablaze, they plough vertically into the black sky, fully laden with bombs.

Riding the 100-mile sand dunes of Qatar is sheer poetry. You can ride along the main artery south toward Saudi Arabia, see them in the distance, turn off the highway and just blaze into the sand. The dunes tower above you and are crested with lips that plummet vertically down the other side. Anyone rushing to the top of a dune expecting a controlled descent on the other side is in for a rude awakening. I play here for hours as the big XR digs in, roosting sand behind me. Then I get it wrong and sail over the bars headfirst into deep sand. I struggle to right it quickly, knowing that it's drowning in gas and will be a bitch to restart. And it is--totally. After 20 minutes she remains utterly dead. Ten miles from the nearest road with no water, precious little gas left in the tank, a bike that won't start and night approaching fast (the sun drops like a stone in this part of the world at precisely 6:00 p.m.), I realize I might be in a tight spot. Just then, a local Arab rounds the nearest dune. He's been walking his dog (can you believe it?) in the vast emptiness of the dunes. He has water and offers it to me. "Bike is hot. Leave it," he says. This is good advice. I sit with him and we smoke and chat about the war. "War is always a very bad thing. Nothing good can come of war," the Arab, whose name is Karim, says. "Now, start bike. Say prayer to Allah, and it will start." I do, and it does--first kick. Karim grins and wanders off through the dunes with his dog. Nice work, fella. I salute you.

After four days, my work at CENTCOM is done. I've gotten a good handle on the course of the war, and apart from witnessing the opulent lives of big-media journalists and the rose-tinted spectacle of the war as delivered by official press briefings, there is little to see here now. The Saudis still won't grant me another transit visa, so I must ship the bike to Kuwait on the back of a fishing dhow--a diesel fishing boat that clunks along at 8 mph, if you're lucky. Gulf shipping traffic is massively restricted, as one dhow was recently caught trying to sew mines in the shipping lanes. The only captain willing to take me and my bike to Kuwait City wants $1000 for his services. We haggle for 30 minutes before agreeing on $400 round trip and an early morning arrival that will (hopefully) allow me and the XR to enter the country unnoticed. Obviously, any paperwork I have for the bike is staggeringly invalid in Kuwait. Also, there is the small matter of my lack of an entry visa for Kuwait. With 2000 journalists in the country, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information has decided, quite fairly, that it isn't going to issue any more. I figure that I'll work out what to do when I get there. Just getting in is the main thing.

The trip up the coast to Kuwait takes three days and is deeply relaxing. With the XR stowed at the front of the vessel and me sleeping on the open deck, it's all frightfully Robinson Crusoe. The captain--a 42-year-old Qatari man called Wazzan--is a cheery bloke whose English is considerably better than my Arabic. We talk mainly about the war. "[The United Kingdom has] always been seen as a safe country, a friendly country," Wazzan says. "For good or for bad, this is why it is often chosen as a final destination for many people seeking asylum. But now this is changed. People in this part of the world now see the United Kingdom as an aggressor along with the United States. Maybe bad things will come of this." The attitude about this conflict from the people on the street has been 100 percent against thus far.

We make it into Kuwait's Seif Harbor with little drama, save for a visit from a U.S. Navy patrol boat curious--but tolerant--of me and the bike. However, we're three hours later than anticipated, and it is 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The Muslim weekend is Thursday and Friday, so for the Kuwaiti Port Authority it is Monday morning, and they're wide awake. Wazzan and his crew unstrap the XR650 from its spot and we push it onto the jetty. I strike out for the harbor exit, nervous as hell about getting stopped and asked for paperwork, which I don't have for this part of the world. And to cut a long and agonizing story short, that's exactly what happens. The gate guards stop me and ask for every form of identification, and then some. I give them everything I have and am escorted at rifle point into a waiting room. A Kuwaiti officer comes in and wants to know who I am, why I am here, am I a soldier, why was I on the dhow, where is the motorcycle from, who sent me, where are my shipping forms--it is a bloody nightmare. Thankfully, eight hours later the faxed visa and my British passport prove enough to keep me out of jail, but they are not allowing the bike onto the streets of Kuwait City without the necessary paperwork. Rajesh speaks to them from Trading Enterprises in Dubai, but this is Kuwaiti turf, and the XR650 is impounded until such time as Trading Enterprises pays duty on the value of the bike, at which point it can be shipped back to Dubai.

I am gutted. I have made it into Kuwait, but the XR is firmly imprisoned, and that's that.

Kuwait City is a fast-paced town, nothing like sleepy Qatar. Gun emplacements and antiaircraft batteries line the streets, and there are checkpoints every two miles. The effects of the war can certainly be seen and felt up here. I rent a 4x4 to get around in and--after equipping myself with a total of five press passes--am all set to break for the border. The Kuwait-Iraq border, that is.

Getting across the border is next to impossible. It takes me three days and any amount of lying and cheating to get into Iraq while everyone else is trying to get out. The American soldiers at the main Safwan border laughed at me, my British passport and bravado, the Kuwaiti soldiers laughed me away from the border at Umm Qasar, and when I was laughed away from the Safwan crossing a third time I freaked out, jumped the border and got myself stuck in a Kuwaiti minefield. It ends up taking two Hummers full of officers and gesticulated "Go left! Go right! Stop!" hand signals to get me out. One hundred feet and 20 minutes later I'm whisked away for yet another military grilling.

I finally make it into Iraq by wearing an officer's shirt and beret and falling in with a squadron of engineers crossing the border. One of their corporals jumps into the passenger seat with me for added credibility. I'm in.

Driving through southern Iraq is tricky business.

You have to pick your way through obstacles not generally encountered on American roads: bomb craters, burned-out tanks, gun emplacements and burning oil pits. Wreckage is scattered in every direction--and then there's the smell. The smell of dead things, in some places overpowering. If you're unlucky you'll catch sight of the odd charred thing sticking out of the ground. Enjoying their new-found freedom, the locals potter around amidst this carnage, waving at me and giving the thumbs up as I pass. I take the turn for Basrah and am greeted by scenes of complete lawlessness. Traditionally an anti-Saddam city, the place has been left to ruin over the years. Whoever described it as "the Wild West up there" was spot-on, as thousands of Iraqis wander around aimlessly. It is not a pretty sight, and it's putting the zap on my head. Just then, a Bradley tank rattles 'round the corner and I manage to flag them down. "Dude! Where the hell do I find the regiment headquarters round here?" I ask. "God knows. We're from the airport. If you're looking for the press, they're all down in Umm Qasar. Just follow this road south and you'll hit it."

After driving 70 klicks it becomes apparent that I haven't set off in the direction of Umm Qasar, but instead in the direction of the Al-Faw peninsula to the very east of Iraq, next to Iran. Nice one. I am now lost, without any sort of map, with the light fading. Even by my standards this takes some doing. Another 70 klicks back the way I have come, and the prospect of running out of gasoline in the middle of war-torn Iraq is not pleasant. Retracing my steps toward the airport, I come across a convoy of the 28th Squadron of Gurkhas. "You from Motorcyclist magazine?" they ask, apropos of the markings on the side of the jeep. "Freelance--working for a bunch of people including them," I reply. "Well if you're from Motorcyclist, you're welcome to stay the night with us." Saved!

The next day I wander into the Desert Rats' headquarters and find Yankee Company. They've made camp in an abandoned Iraqi marine base, complete with 15-foot high Saddam portraits on the walls. Y Company invites me to stay over at their place for a few days and go on patrol with them. "Have you got a weapon?" one of the lads asks when I roll into their base. "If you're mad enough to be driving around here by yourself, you'd be well advised to carry a bit of firepower. There's a stadium in the middle of town with loads of stuff in it. I advise you go and get something." The arms cache is easy to find thanks to the stadium lights. I walk inside and find a locker room stacked full of guns and ammo. I grab a clean-looking AK47 and a couple of clips and sling it on the passenger seat of the jeep. God knows if I'd ever actually use it, but it's comforting insurance.

I manage to blag a patrol with the tankies of the Queen's Royal Lancers, and at 8:15 a.m. the next morning my lift--a 70-ton Challenger 2 main battle tank--clanks up the street. The boss is a corporal named Tony "Mouse" Uprichard who works in a music shop selling electric guitars in his spare time. "Taking the bridges into Basrah was the most amazing thing," he tells me on the intercom over the din of the 20-liter, 1200-hp turbocharged V-12 Perkins diesel. "It was proper action. We've fired 300 rounds from our tank over the last couple of weeks. In training you might fire 50 over two weeks. The buzz was acquiring live targets, going through buildings and using the tank properly--absolutely mental. Wouldn't want to do it again, though." "How tough is the tank?" I ask as we head out of town, the Iraqis waving and then leaping out of the way as the Challenger passes. "Tough as hell. One of the lads in C Squadron took seven RPG rounds, they just bounced off the turret. We took a couple and hit a landmine. Sounded like the biggest sledgehammer in the world was pounding on the outside, but all it did was crack the track." "Do you have anything like a CD player or air-conditioning for creature comforts?" And with that, Mouse reaches down, rummages for the play button, and Wagner comes crashing over the headphones. I can't bloody believe it--these guys are Colonel Kilgore....

Ten miles later the driver offers me the helm. The Challenger 2 is semiautomatic, so there's just a large brake pedal and a regular accelerator. I gun the engine, stick it in top gear and floor the pedal. The 70-ton monster lurches forward and we gather speed. "OK, take us right," Mouse's voice crackles over my headset. I spear the Challenger off-road, flattening a barrier and clipping a wrecked car as we go. "I'll give the Iraqis their due--they tried," Mouse says as my battlefield tour with a difference continues. "They had shit equipment and no training, and they gave it a go. We ended up driving along the main artery into Basrah at night and knocking them out where they stood." The tank crashes relentlessly on, but all the time the laser-stabilized 120mm gun above my head remains utterly straight and true. I almost feel sorry for the Iraqi crews in their ancient Russian armor. They must have shat themselves before they died.

And just like that, the next day I'm outta there. I had an extraordinary time in Iraq with the Desert Rats and the lads of the 7th Armored Brigade. As I drive out of Yankee Company's headquarters a kid hands me a torn black-and-white poster of Saddam. "Where you from?" I ask. "Baghdad," he replies, "but now the war is over!" he grins at me. "Maybe," I say, and drive off into the sunset.



Thanks to: Trading Enterprises (00971 4 2954246) for loaning me their brand-spankers XR650. Check out their Web site at www.tradingenterprise.com. Thanks to the lads of Yankee Company First Fusiliers for putting up with me, the 28th Gurkha regiment for saving me and the chaps of B and C Squadron Queen's Royal Lancers for showing me the inside of their tanks.

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