Over 15 months, Heather travelled 42,000km through 19 countries.
The book is still on the Amazon best-seller list and includes an endorsement from Ted Simon author of Jupiter’s Travels which inspired Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor and Cheryl Strayed author of Wild.
Her second book, Timeless On The Silk Road: An Odyssey From London to Hanoi, is an extension of the African tour on the same Yamaha dirt bike.
After her African trek, Heather was diagnosed with HIV in London at the age of 30 and given five years to live. It was 1995 when death from AIDS is inevitable.
Instead of giving up, Heather rides along the fabled Silk Roads of antiquity to Australia, thinking it would be her last adventure.
From Chapter 15: A Moment of Madness, Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, while Heather was travelling with three Frenchmen from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan.
Together, the four of us walked into the Tajik border post, a small tin shack where it was standing room only. In the cramped confines, the heat was oppressive; none of the Frenchmen wore deodorant. A middle-aged man in a sweat-stained grey military uniform, the buttons straining across his round belly, sat behind the desk. Two other younger men in the same grey fatigues stood beside him. The only other item of furniture was a tall wooden cabinet. Behind the official was an open window, which framed a spindly tree. A small bird sat on a branch tilting its head inquisitively.
‘Passeports,’ he demanded, the sweat beading on his brow framed by a stock of thick greasy black hair.
‘You no cross. Pay one hundred dollar!’ he boomed.
‘We are transiting to Kyrgyzstan,’ Fabrice replied while Patrick and Frédéric vocalised their objection in French with a few phaws.
An evil smirk spread across the guard’s face that dropped as a series of folded bristly jowls onto his collar. ‘You pay. No cross.’
Fabrice stood his ground. Hands on hips. ‘We have permission to transit. We have a Russian visa.’ As if anything to do with Russia was still held in high esteem in this backwater of the former Soviet Union.
I kicked his foot and leaned close to whisper: ‘We must pretend we don’t understand.’
At this point, a vehicle pulled up outside in a cloud of dust. The Tajik border official and his two off-siders pushed Fabrice aside as they headed towards the door. We filed out behind them. The vehicle was a four-wheel drive with UNHCR emblazoned across its side. A huge man unfolded from the vehicle. He stretched to well over six foot and was enormous both in height and body width. Not obese, but his sheer size demanded instant respect. Proclaiming his support for refugees, he wore a black T-shirt printed with the words in white, ‘Einstein was a refugee’.
‘Where you from?’ he asked. We pointed to our motorcycles parked opposite saying France and Australia. ‘Long journey,’ he said nodding to me when I said I’d ridden through Africa. ‘I was in Rwanda. Very bad what happened there,’ he added and told us he was from Bosnia and stationed at Osh in Kyrgyzstan.
Since Soviet independence, Tajikistan had been gripped by civil war from infighting amongst its various clan groups, but foreigners were allowed to transit the stretch between Bekobod and Kulundu, a distance of about fifty kilometres. But we were not at this ‘official crossing’ for foreigners. Instead, we’d ridden over a narrow bridge to cross the Syr Darya and across a semi-arid plain; it was as if a finger of the Karakum desert had followed me all the way from Turkmenistan. I’d read that nearly 50,000 Tajik villagers had died from the fighting between the clan groups, leaving more than half a million refugees. Russia had stepped in, and around 25,000 of its troops were stationed in Tajikistan, effectively making it a Russian protectorate. This peacekeeping force also made it safe to transit into Kyrgyzstan as long as we kept away from the Afghan border where there were still skirmishes between the faction groups.
It made little sense as to why Stalin, back in the 1920s, had so unreasonably carved up the borders where three Central Asian nations met: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I could only assume it was to ensure the countries remained linked like the entwined fingers of lovers so they would forever retain a close and loyal bond.
‘Is there problem?’ the UN official asked the Tajik border guards.
‘Nyet. Nyet problem,’ the man in charge replied meekly.
‘It’s alright guys. You can cross.’ The Bosnian climbed back into his vehicle and with a wave, was gone just as suddenly as he had appeared. We all watched speechless as the vehicle disappeared in a trail of dust.
‘You pay,’ the lead official boomed from behind us. Then the three officials marched back to the tin shack. We followed.
‘Can you stamp our passports please,’ I asked in demure politeness pointing to our passports stacked on the desk.
‘No. You must pay five dollar.’
‘Okay,’ I said. At least the Bosnian’s arrival had saved us each US$95. The Frenchmen nodded, and we filed out of the hut to retrieve the money from our money belts so their prying eyes would not see our booty, especially Frédéric. He had told me he carried US$5000 in cash strapped to his belly. Fabrice and Patrick, I imagined, carried the same. ‘Aren’t you worried you’ll get robbed?’ I asked in disbelief when he’d told me. ‘This never leaves me,’ Frédéric had said patting his round stomach, his money belt hidden under his T-shirt with it all held in place by a wide kidney belt. It not only protected his kidneys and vulnerable insides should he crash, but also gave no indication that he carried a small fortune in a country where the annual salary was US$600.
Knowing you are going to die does strange things to your way of thinking, namely in the risks that you’d otherwise never consider taking. In the weeks that followed my HIV diagnosis, I rode around London with no regard for speed limits, road rules and consideration of other road users. Perhaps those vodka-infused days in Turkmenistan where I’d nearly come to grief several times while riding inebriated were also part of this disregard for my own safety. This wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just what happened. I was beyond thinking I might get hurt or I might die. What happened next at that Tajik border post, I can only think, had something to do with this unconscious death wish that occasionally took control of my behaviour.
But it was also a desire to seek approval, seek forgiveness from my father. The offer of a gift that would please him. A parting gift that was so significant that it may even go so far as to nullify the perceived shame I’d brought on my family. These were my distorted thoughts on that day.
When I’d walked into the hut, a grey Russian army cap lay on the desk. I’d picked it up, saying, ‘I give you ten dollar.’ The official sitting at the desk snatched it from me and threw it behind the cabinet. When he’d gone outside as the UN vehicle pulled up, I’d quickly retrieved it and stuffed it under my kidney belt and zipped up my jacket.
We paid our five dollars and with our passports stamped, were about to file out the hut, when the border official in charge pulled out his revolver and pointed it at Fabrice’s head. I held my breath thinking he’d thought Fabrice had stolen the cap. Patrick and Frédéric stood motionless beside me. Fabrice turned white. The two other guards smiled as if they shared a private joke. The Tajik with the gun flashed a demented grin, his finger on the trigger. Then he turned and fired the gun through the open window at a small bird sitting on the branch. It looked like the same bird as before. Unbelievably, it did not fly away. Like us, I expect, it was too shocked to move. The Tajik fired off another four shots, deafening us all in the tin shack, and still, the bird did not move. Only when it was quiet, and the Tajik had returned the gun to its holster, did the bird fly away. Without a word, we slowly filed out of the hut then ran towards our bikes.
Just as I was about to hoist my leg over the TT, the Tajik in charge stormed out of the hut, pointing to his head, his two assistants closely behind. I knew exactly what he meant, but the Frenchmen looked at him dumbfounded. I rushed back inside the hut, the Tajiks following close behind, but I reached the doorway first and knelt down near the cabinet and pulled the cap from under my kidney belt dropping it on the floor. The Tajik in charge grabbed my arm lifting me off the ground and shoved me against the wall.
‘Your cap. There it is. Remember, you threw it behind the cabinet.’
‘Duzd, Duzd,’ he repeated his face contorted in anger as he squeezed my arm. I assumed this was Tajik for thief.
‘Fuck off, you bastards!’ I screamed pulling my arm away and pushing past the three men like a deranged woman. ‘Go! Go!’ I yelled at the Frenchmen who sat astride their idling motorcycles.
The TT fired first kick. Pumped with adrenalin, I dropped the clutch and opened the throttle. The bike launched itself and me to freedom leaving the three Tajiks standing in a cloud of dust. I fully expected a bullet to lodge into my back, but no shot was fired, and yet again I’d escaped a respectable death. As I followed the Frenchmen, I realised I risked pulling them down with me. For their own safety, it was time I moved on.