"......My introduction to this lawless part of Pakistan was in a Sydney cinema we called the `flea pit`. My father, a big fan of Lauren Bacall, had taken me to see her and Kenneth More in the adventure film North West Frontier with a poster depicting the stars above a picture of the Khyber Mail.
Twenty years on, I am about to catch the legendary Mail, which is scheduled to leave Peshawar Cantonment at nine o`clock and to arrive in Landi Kotal, on the Afghan border, three hours later.
My companion is Habib Afridi, a member of the Adam Khel clan within the formidable Afridi tribe whose territory includes the Khyber Agency. He is a lovely man, tall and softly spoken, and I find it hard to imagine the Afridis struck such terror in British soldiers stationed on the Frontier. But they did. Attacking Landi Kotal in 1897, they defeated the famous Khyber Rifles, and only a counter-attack by 35,000 British soldiers, was able to retake the strategic site.
For our day out, Habib is wearing a grey *shalwar kameez while I have teamed a floral shirt purchased at Galleries Lafayette in Paris with fawn trousers. And naturally I am wearing my hat. But we have not chosen a good day for our journey up the Khyber. It`s the start of Eid-ul-Adha and hundreds of tribesmen are travelling home to walled compounds in remote villages.
Boarding at Jamrud, the gateway to the Khyber, I am swept along in an arsenal of Pathans waving guns, and hawkers brandishing cigarettes, sugar-cane and hard-boiled eggs. Chickens, even a cow, are bundled on board as we pull out of the station, with me seated in the LADIES ONLY carriage pretending I`m Lauren Bacall, and Habib riding in the front locomotive.
Our five carriages are pulled and pushed by two 1920s steam engines; two, because unable to turn in the narrow gorge, the front engine must run back to gain momentum when the rear one acts as prop. In one place, the ascent is so steep that all the passengers leap off and scramble up the hillside, to re-board when we steam into the station above.
The train traverses 34 tunnels between Jamrud and Landi Kotal, the summit of the pass, and seated in total darkness, with soot pouring in the open windows, I reflect on other rail journeys I have made. The Chittagong Mail in Bangladesh, the Nairobi-Mombasa Night Express and the Indian Pacific crossing of the Nullabor are memorable, but none matches the Khyber Mail for excitement.
In the longest tunnel, a prankster pulls the emergency cord, no doubt to frighten me, the only woman on board, but as we grind to a halt, the joke`s on him; at the last stop, I have run along the track to join Habib, and we can see by glowing coals in the furnace.....
Excerpt from Chapter 6: Travels with my Hat
90,000 words and pictures, for publication autumn 2010.