The Afghanistan/Iran frontier, 1973. Even at mid morning it was hot. We’d already wrestled with the Afghan border formalities and ahead lay the Iranian customs post. After crossing no-mans-land I drove the Thames Transit with its handful of passengers into a large yard, to be confronted by an official who indicated that I had to park in line abreast with the vehicles that had arrived before us. Don’t come too far forward, stay in line, stop there!
We tumbled out, exposing ourselves to the fiercely hot sun. I looked across to my left noting that the drivers of the other vehicles were unloading their means of transport, clearing them completely and laying all their contents – cases, toolboxes, baskets, bundles, barrows, whatever they were carrying – into neat rows in front of their cars.
I ordered my passengers to follow suit; everything out. In the roof boxes of the Transit we had food, vehicle spares, fuel cans, spare tyres, personal belongings, and those items needed for our five month run from London to Kathmandu and back. I remembered to pull back the door lining where, in an effort to save space, I’d taped some spanners against the metal. We couldn’t be seen to be hiding anything.
Everything was laid out like a military kit inspection. Now we waited. Again I looked to my left; three or four vehicles away the Iranian customs officials were combing through some victim’s belongings. We waited.
Minutes crept by at snail’s pace. The sun climbed higher and must have been approaching its zenith by the time the officials ambled towards two German lads and their Volkswagen Beetle to my left. The customs men methodically pored over the Germans’ belongings. One could sense the relief the pair felt when eventually the first part of the ordeal was terminated. Surely the customs men were searching for drugs?
We waited. With my passengers it was almost a case of “Stand by your beds!” as we were instructed to position ourselves next to our own belongings. They rummaged through our baggage; the term “going through with a fine toothcomb” couldn’t have been more apt. Eventually we were through. The first hurdle cleared. My passengers repaired to the customs shed to present their papers and documents; I had to follow the Germans’ VW and drive my beast towards the vehicle pit. Whilst one official climbed under their car to continue his inspection another stalked around it tapping the bodywork.
What happened next beggars belief - more than 40 years later I can still vividly picture the horror on their faces and hear their anguished cries: the customs man tapped, moved along, tapped moved along, tapped … and then went back to tap the same spot again. Without warning he leant across, picked up a power drill and bore into the rear right mudguard! The Germans screamed at the officials but the latter seemed unfazed. I was sitting in my Thames, next in line. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I’d just witnessed.
I can’t recall what happened to the northern Europeans – I seem to think they were ultimately given the all-clear, ushered off the inspection pit and told to report to the customs shed with their passports. My heart went out to them as they moved their car off the pit and I drove onto it, apprehensive.
I managed to get my Transit through unscathed, parked it in the courtyard and joined my crew. In the overcrowded room there was a long, long line of travellers waiting in the oppressive heat to have their papers stamped. After what I’d seen I wanted to leave this dreadful frontier post; I walked up to Esme, our oldest passenger – a dear lady from Scotland – and asked her if she was capable of manufacturing a migraine! She winked, and placing my arm around her I walked my patient through the buzz of humanity towards an official who appeared to have some rank.
Esme deserved an Oscar for her performance. The Iranian took the pile of passports I was holding, waded through them and soon they were processed. We walked our worthy Scot to the Transit and under the eyes of the border guards sat her gently in the back. As we cleared the Customs gate my passengers burst into applause – well done Esme! The dear old lady from Oban leaned forward and quietly asked if she could have some water as she now really did have a migraine!