One if by land… (Fiji)
As a youth, I read so many Frederick Forsyth thrillers that I long thought it would be cool to be caught in the middle of a coup. Not that I had a deathwish or wanted to streak in my undies from my hotel towards a hovering helicopter under a hail of gunfire, but the notion of lying on the plush carpet of my air-conditioned upscale hotel room, coolly sipping Perrier and eating chocolate-covered strawberries while all hell let loose outside did have more than a little appeal.
Once I began travelling, I realised that my lust for that particular brand of excitement was rather misplaced. My more practical side tended to dampen my irresponsible enthusiasm with thoughts of the cost of emergency repatriation, the struggle to replace an abandoned passport, the inconvenience and expense of losing all my luggage and possessions and the genuine risks of such danger
So you can imagine my trepidation when on two occasions I very nearly did find myself caught in coups.
The first was in Kenya. I had been on safari for several weeks and was returning to Nairobi for a good wash, soft toilet paper and the ability to properly clean my ears. As we approached the city we encountered a police roadblock with a spiked chain stretched across the hot tarmac and a few heavily armed officers watching us warily. While they inspected the vehicle we learned there had been an explosion at a construction site. The president was overseas and there were immediate fears that the blast marked a coup. The army was mobilised, sensitive sites secured and a curfew imposed. I am sorry to say that I found it all rather exciting…until I remembered that my hotel was beside the radio station which would certainly be a hot spot during any uprising. My enthusiasm evaporated quicker than a punctured balloon. Fortunately, the fears amounted to nothing and I left unscathed the next evening.
The second close call was too close even for a wayward wanderer with a vivid imagination and a deranged sense of romance.
I had arrived in Fiji to news reports of a growing disagreement between the president and the leader of the military over a planned amnesty for those who had led a coup several years earlier. The military declared that any such amnesty threatened the security of the nation and they would do whatever was necessary to ensure peace and stability. The two sides lined-up nose to nose…so I resorted to extreme measures and stocked my mini-bar with bottled water and chocolate.
Over the coming days, the tension mounted. Fijian news was full of pictures of the military in full combat gear on ‘manoeuvres’ well beyond the confines of their barracks. Late one evening, there was a report of military vehicles surrounding the house of an outspoken government minister. The police were dispatched, and the armoured vehicles trundled off before they arrived. I bought potato chips and fruit.
This was getting serious.
The following day, the president was due to visit my hotel for a conference. It was obvious that the fragile causeway that linked the hotel to the mainland would be blown-up by helicopter gunships during his visit, he’d be whisked away by Ninjas and the infinity pool and breakfast buffet would be subjected to martial law.
I began to dig a trench beneath my bed and applied camo make-up to my cheeks.
The president arrived at the appointed time. He came in an impressive motorcade of two very ordinary 4WDs and had doubled his security detail to a pair of very large men wearing sulus. He made the rounds, shook a few hands, stayed for dinner and then drove back to the capital. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief and headed for the bar…or back to their bunkers.
Eighteen months later the military did stage a coup, the same president was ousted and the same head of the military took power. There was great uncertainty and moderate mayhem for a few days, but thankfully no bloodshed. The television news featured film of bedraggled tourists mobbed by journalists as they arrived home from the besieged country.
Although now well-travelled, experienced, practical, sensible and mature, I must confess that part of me watched it all with perhaps the merest twinge of jealousy and adventure-envy!
Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008