By JIM EAGLES

Alan Gibbs is one of New Zealand's richest men, worth more than $300 million according to the latest NBR Rich List, and he has always been something of a trailblazer. Gibbs was one of the founders of Act and he was recently in the news through the launch of his Aquada aquatic sportscar. This summer his pursuit of the unusual and the interesting took him to the war-torn country of Afghanistan.

Why Afghanistan?

I've always thought Afghanistan would be an interesting place because it's such a traditional crossroads for Asia. And I've always had a fascination with ex-communist countries and countries that have had social crises.

A lot of my travel involves trying to get inside societies that have been through trauma, particularly communism, and for example I've been to North Korea, Cuba, right through Eastern Europe, Albania, Croatia, Sarejevo, Bosnia, the Baltic states and to Russia several times.

How do you get there?

It's ridiculously easy. We flew in from Dubai which has direct flights pretty well every day to Kabul. Getting a visa was also terribly easy. They're pretty happy to get anyone.

Mind you, you fly on an Afghan airline, Ariana, which has the oldest jet planes I've ever been in. The seats don't work and I don't know about the rest of it, so you really have to be someone who's willing to put yourself in fate's way.

Kabul Airport is covered in crashed or bombed Ariana planes and old Russian helicopters all smashed up. I think Ariana has more crashed planes than flying ones. It's not an environment to make you feel that everything's been serviced according to the book. The United Nations people who work there are not allowed to fly by this airline.

What did you do on arrival?

Kabul is one of the dirtiest places on Earth, but they've got one of the best taxi services in the world, at least in terms of numbers. Public transport is non-existent but they've brought in lots of cheap Japanese cars - pretty derelict things - about 30,000 of them, we were told. So we got a taxi from the airport.

There are no telephones working in Kabul and we couldn't make a booking for accommodation. We had the name of a guesthouse and we just turned up and it turned out they were booked out by an NGO (aid organisation).

So we found another one which was pretty grotty. Concrete rooms with a bed in them and a big pile of dirty blankets, a dirty lavatory in the hall, and that's the top standard of accommodation.

We did manage after two days to get back to the hostel we went to first and that was a bit better. But it was pretty basic, electricity goes out frequently during the day and there's no hot water.

Fortunately we didn't stay in the Hilton - which I suppose is a bit better, though it's pretty rundown, too - because it got the front blown off it while we were there, though no one was killed.

What is Kabul like?

Everything in Kabul, the old palace, all the original main part of the city, was bombed flat in the civil war after the communists left. It was absolutely tragic.

Great avenues eight lanes wide with rows of trees are now just dirty dusty tracks with all the buildings on either side of them destroyed. The infrastructure of the city has really been totally destroyed.

Any public buildings that are there, and the places where the international organisations live, are surrounded with monstrous reinforcements, ugly great constructions of wire and rocks and concrete.

Lots of the suburbs are still there though. Most people in Afghanistan live in a compound with each home surrounded by walls at least 3m high, because the women are not allowed to be seen, so their whole lives, unless they're in the market, are essentially spent in the garden. So when you fly over Kabul what you see is basically all these compounds.

What about outside Kabul?

We found some local fellows who took us up the Panjshir Valley where a lot of the fighting occurred and where Ahmad Shah Masood, their most famous warrior, based himself, and they had huge battles with the Russians.

It's a very narrow valley, very long, about 50km, with lots of other valleys running off it, and fantastic guerrilla country.

There's a narrow entrance, only about 50m wide with towering great cliffs, which makes it like a fort.

We wouldn't have got in there but for these Afghan fellows who were born there and who managed to talk our way past the guards on the roadblock at the entrance. The locals won't let visitors into the valley at the moment.

It's very beautiful in there. The whole countryside is littered with Russian tanks and military equipment. But there's a river running through it and there are villages all the way up - very, very lovely in a romantic traditional way, with crops up the hillsides, and little farms being ploughed with oxen and mules.

Can you get further afield?

We chartered a Russian helicopter, owned by some guy who was contracted to BP, and flew over the mountains to Bamiyan, which is where the New Zealand troops are. They were extremely hospitable and acted as our hosts for a day.

Bamiyan is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is truly stunning.

The people all live in these compounds, just like the ones in Kabul but much bigger, ranging from one to five acres (0.4-2ha), completely surrounded by walls. Some of the walls would be 7.5m high and in each of the corners of a lot of them there would be these defensive towers, just like medieval fortresses.

The farming is all terraced with the fields shaped with the lie of the land and running up the side of the hills.

In the middle there's a steep hill that I believe used to be a base for Alexander the Great, among others, because the valley has been a historical centre for centuries, it's right on the trade routes, and has been fought over time and again.

There're literally thousands of Buddhist caves, mostly down one side of the valley, many with icons or little worship places. And there are the two huge Buddhas - or they were huge before the Taleban blew them up - with more big caves behind them.

Then you've got these amazing hills on either side of the valley which have got all these different-coloured sands. And then there're the mountains behind that. Absolutely stunning spot.

And after that?

After Bamiyan we flew to the north to Mazar-i-Sharif where we were guests of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, who was one of the people the United States gave money to in the war against the Taleban. We just knocked on the gate and one of our group was recognised so they let us in and we spent four or five days as his guest. And that was just absolutely off this planet.

This fellow had a visitors' compound where we stayed, which was like a big hotel with about 20 elaborate bedrooms in it for his guests, all decked out in some strange style, all lavish and over the top, and all dirty.

Then he had an entertaining compound with fountains and pools and a huge building about 15m high, all glass-fronted, sort of like something out of Arabian Nights, but in the worst possible taste, covered with great columns and with mirrors let into the walls.

There's a great big swimming pool in there and he entertains on the edge of it.

We were the guests at a dinner where he also had the richest man in that part of Asia, who was courting him and had bought with him a rock band and a magician and a raconteur and about a hundred varieties of vodka, and the Ambassador from Russia, the Ambassador from Turkmenistan and the Ambassador from Uzbekistan ... and us.

It was like an ancient medieval court and it ran exactly the same way.

This fellow sits there all day - this was a particular time of year when they all go and visit each other's houses - either in a huge room or in this great garden with the fountains, receiving delegations of elders of different tribes.

They'd sit around and tell stories and joke a lot and maybe they'd ask for a bit of help but basically it's just renewing relationships. They just came and paid court to him for an hour or so and then went on their way and the next lot arrived.

Did you see much local life?

While we were up north we went to a game of buzkashi where they're all on horses and they try to get hold of this calf's body and deliver it from one end of the field to the other. This warlord, Dostum, and all his lieutenants competed and there were literally thousands of men watching.

Dostum also put on a fight, with their local mixture of kickboxing and wrestling, in a big amphitheatre place packed with at least 10,000 men. It went on late into the night and he handed out all the prizes.

Then we were invited to this wedding where we didn't see the bride at all. We just dined on the most amazing food and mixed with the men. Apparently a wedding went on somewhere but you never get to see that because you're not allowed to see the women. There wasn't one woman in any context, serving or anything else, and the guys all danced with each other.

What did you eat?

The basic food is rice, raisins, fruit and a little bit of meat, all eaten with your hands.

But in these high-class feasts they dispense with everything but the meat. And they had every sort of meat you could think of, deer and sheep and pigs.

You think you've had more than you could ever eat and they'd bring out another carcass and you'd tear it up with your hand and eat it. And, of course, they're not supposed to drink but at this level they drink vodka like water.

What's the situation of women there?

Men and women are completely separated. At all the functions we went to, there wasn't a single woman apart from my daughter, who was treated as an honorary man.

Despite the fact the Taleban have gone, the whole time we were there we only saw two women who were not totally covered up.

One of the most liberated women in Afghanistan, about 40, very intelligent, speaks very good English and runs this women's welfare league, she wouldn't shake my hand because if she did she mightn't be able to get married. That's the sort of fundamentalist culture they have.

How would you assess the political situation?

It's all tribal. Dostum's head of the Uzbeks. The guy down the road, he's Tajik. And that's how it works.

The country is deeply divided tribally.

They all think of themselves as Afghani, they don't want to be part of Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan ... everyone sees their first responsibility as looking after their own.

They're going through a charade for the international community but I can't see any chance of a genuinely democratic society.

They just want one strong person, one bully rather than a whole lot, to protect them. So as long as someone like Dostum doesn't get too oppressive they're prepared to give him lots of accolades in return for protection and no doubt pay quite a lot of taxes for the pleasure.

How expensive was it?

If you wanted to live like the locals and buy the sort of food they eat at the markets it's incredibly cheap. Even hiring a helicopter was about the same price as in New Zealand.

But as soon as you want reasonable accommodation or something Western it's expensive. I think even the terrible places we stayed at were about US$150 ($232) a night.

There's two price structures: one for locals and one for the UN and the NGOs who are working there.

So how would you rate it as a place to visit?

For fascination, extremely highly. It would have to be one of the most fascinating places I've ever been to.

But for people who want to sleep in a clean bed and don't like to be covered in dust and dirt and don't like flying in decrepit old planes and old helicopters or cars that break down every 500m it's not the place.

When we got there tourists were unknown. I was a bit surprised. I thought there'd be more people going there. It's not that dangerous.

Vastly more people die in Afghanistan in road accidents, because the roads are terrible and they drive in a crazy way, than are dying at the moment from fighting.

While we were there an aid worker got shot and a couple more people got killed somewhere. But I'm not sure that we heard any gunfire at all.

Every single building has armed guards outside. Our little hotel place in Kabul had two guys with guns outside.

But in fact we were never in a threatening situation - we didn't at any stage feel scared and without exception we found the people very hospitable and very friendly.