26 February 2013
It's my second trip to Afghanistan and again, putting on my bullet-proof vest and helmet, my level of excitement goes from "Yee-ha! Freakin' awesome!" to "Um... Is this really worth it?".
About a week earlier, a staffer from the Defence Minister's office had asked if I'd like to cover Stephen Smith's trip. At Sky News we're all trained video journalists (no cameraman, no producer) so we're a desirable option as the "pool". It means just one seat in the chopper and only one person for the security detail to worry about.
Even though I'd been preparing for a week, I could only tell the few people who absolutely needed to know. That didn't include our producers in Sydney. Not even my mum. When I spoke to Defence staff on the phone I couldn't use the word "Afghanistan" or anything else that would give any hint that the Defence Minister was planning a trip. You never know who's listening, I was told.
To get there we flew overnight to Dubai. Defence Chief General David Hurley and several staffers were waiting for me when I got off the plane. At customs, we were ushered to the front of the queue and then escorted out the front to meet our defence chauffeur out the front.
We drive conservatively for Dubai (130kmh) to the Australian Base, known as AMAB (Al Minhad Air Base). Every day Several C-130 Hercules planes ferry troops and equipment back and forward between Dubai, Kabul, Kandahar and Tarin Kowt.
At AMAB we have 20 minutes to freshen up before it's time to leave.
We meet a few of the elite Aussie soldiers who'll be protecting us for the next few days. They're serious soldiers. They're well armed. And several are very large.
The flight is about 3.5 hours. We're sitting sideways on canvass bench seats. It's incredibly loud.
As we cross the border into Afghanistan airspace, we put on our vests and helmets. They're tight and very heavy. I wouldn't want to have to move very fast with them on.
The landing into Kabul is quick, but smooth.
I get off just behind the first soldier with camera in hand to shoot the Minister being met on the tarmac.
Then we're rushed onto a Black-Hawke helicopter waiting nearby, with rotors going, to fly into the Green Zone.
Once we get there, it's a great relief to get the vest off. A quick bite and we're off for a day of high level meetings, including a sit down with Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace.
As our armoured convoy sets off, I receive a rather frightening briefing about our plan of action should we come under attack from gunfire or a roadside bomb. It leaves me in no doubt about where I stand in the chain of command, but for security reasons, I can't give any more detail.
Our convoy drives through 5 checkpoints before the first meeting.
Salahuddin Rabbani is the new Chairman of the Peace Council, trying to negotiate with the Taliban. He's taken over from his father, who was assassinated last year by a suicide bomber who hid explosives in his turban.
I film the first minute of small talk - and then get ushered outside to wait as the real discussions get underway.
The next few hours is much the same. In and out of meetings, cars and convoys.
Then the big one. The Presidential Palace.
There'd been a mix-up somewhere along the line. The Palace hadn't been told I was coming along, with a camera. In the past, Al Qaeda have loaded cameras with explosives for assassinations, so the President's security men don't like surprise guests from the media.
The rest of the party go in the side gate. They're to meet Karzai's top advisor first.
Along with one of the Australian Ambassador's staff and one of our personal security soldiers, I'm taken to the front gate and into a 4WD driven by one of Karzai's men. He's a slick guy with good English.
But there's a problem. Karzai's man won't let our security detail go in with his weapon, no matter how much he tries to negotiate. Our protector is not really meant to let us out of his sight and he certainly won't be leaving his weapon behind.
Eventually, he agrees to let us go in alone, as long as we ring him as soon as we find the others.
I go in the first gate with the Ambassador's staffer.
At the end of a driveway, another gate. We're thoroughly searched. Our gear is sniffed by dogs, X-rayed and examined by sinister looking men in suits.
One of the gifts the delegation is planning to give to the President's advisor doesn't make it. The wrapping is torn open and the $250 clock inside is cracked apart, beyond repair. In hindsight a present that ticks wasn't the best idea, even if it did have no battery installed.
We're taken around the side and catch sight of our security team waiting outside. I make my phone call, we wave the soldiers goodbye and are ushered inside.
The grounds are big. I'm told it's beautiful and lush in Spring, but there's still snow on the ground, so the trees are leafless and the grass is brown.
We're taken to a room to wait, as Karzai's security men pace the floor or sip tea.
Then we're taken to another room. It's an empty dining room that seats 30. Intricate wood panelled walls. But it's seen better days.
Then we're taken upstairs. The hallway is crawling with Afghan men in suits everywhere, with bulges at their hips.
We wait. And then get it's on. I press record on the camera as me and 3 other photographers rush down a corridor and into the room.
Minister Smith is sitting facing the President at the front.
They're engaged in small talk about who likes hot summers or cold winters or something. I don't have time to listen.
I don't even stop recording. I just frame up as many shots as I can. It can be edited later. Turns out I have time for only 5 shots of less than 5 seconds each. I'm tapped on the shoulder and that's it.
I'm escorted outside to wait.
There are a few more meetings after that, but my mind is already on getting the pictures back.
Once we're back in the base, I have a quick bite to eat and start editing the footage.
I condense the day into 3 minutes of pictures.
Sending it back over the wireless internet will take time and every second I can shave off will save me minutes. I send it, but we're not allowed to broadcast anything until we're all safely back in Dubai. So I hold off alerting the Sky News team about the footage sitting on their server.
By the time I'm done, it's after midnight and I fall into bed.
I know the alarm will be going off at 5am to fly to Tarin Kowt and do it all again.
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