"You'll be dining out on this boys' own adventure stuff for years," Prime Minister John Key promised as he waited with the media to be fitted with protection equipment in Dubai just before we left for Iraq.
I've been to many places with the Prime Minister. India, South America, China, Royal castles in Balmoral. They involve a lot of 'hurry and wait' - a term that originated in the military but also applies to journalists traipsing round the world after the PM. We get shipped into a place well in advance of the PM, wait until he arrives and then sit and wait again until his meeting is done and we can be hurried to the next place to repeat, ad infinitum until the plane leaves for home.
This time round we got shipped in a Hercules and the waiting place was the desert and involved heavy protection vests, helmets and an SAS escort.
There was indeed a 'boy's own adventure' aspect to it. It was the most intriguing trip of my life. The warnings of scorpions and rabid dogs. Guns are a rare thing in New Zealand and at first it was a shock to see such a throng of them. In Iraq they are like third arms, worn everywhere bar the shower.
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It was also a novelty being accompanied by the SAS, although of course they never admitted to being SAS. They are secretive and their identities protected. No photos, no full names. They follow orders, the media do not. They don't like questions and the media ask them. They are allergic to the media.
This time the media had its own allocated protection. We never found out what he'd done to deserve it, perhaps it was some form of training to withstand interrogation. It was certainly training in tolerance. It was unclear whether his role was to protect the media or to spy and ensure we did not go rogue. It was likely a combination of the two. We took it upon ourselves to expand his skill set. He became a gun-toting nanny. He got water, made wakeup calls, found toilets, carried gear, walked us to Ali's shop for the limited amount of retail therapy on offer at Taji, checked for snakes.
Our phones were confiscated so he was our sole means of contact with the outside world. He did not laugh when the shame-faced male television reporters had to put on makeup in front of him. We worried we had ruined him. At the end we apologised to his senior and suggested he might need retraining. We feared he would enter a terrorist stronghold and look for the ladies' toilets rather than terrorists.
While Taji was generally safe, there was undoubtedly concern about having Key stay a second night. This was not only because of the tweet by the Iraqi PM. The number of staff and visitors in and out of the camp meant the risk of word of his visit seeping out beyond the concrete walls was high. And if Key was a target, that put everyone with him and inside the compound at risk as well - including the very soldiers whose morale he had supposedly come to boost.
So there was the drama of extricating him in a sand storm - the unusual use of the US Army Chinooks in the daylight in a place where most flying is done at night in blackout conditions. There was the late night scurry by the RNZAF Hercules to get us out, complete with tactical takeoff, shooting flares.
Despite all of that, I felt in more danger the day after we returned to Dubai. I made the mistake of visiting an Ikea. Stuck on a relentless one-way homewares treadmill, I texted an SOS to a colleague: "This is a whole new hell. Worse than Taji" "Get out of there now," he replied. "We're at the bar."