t had been a truly awful week. As I was driving through northern Bosnia on a routine assignment the voice of my brother came through on a crackly sat phone.
He told me how RUF rebels had overrun the camps he was working at in the Sierra Leone jungle and he was surrounded, under fire, and running out of food and water. As the days passed his predicament worsened. Determined to do what little I could I persuaded the Telegraph to let me go to Freetown to cover the civil war. Then, on the eve of my flight into Lungi airport on a Royal Air Force transport plane, Kurt Schork, a man I liked and deeply respected, was shot and killed in an RUF ambush.
Three days later and a drugged-out child soldier was jabbing his Kalashnikov deep into my ribs to encourage me to interview his illiterate and semi-comatose commander. But the commander was simply incapable of speech. This seemed to infuriate the young soldier who only jabbed harder. Safety off, finger on trigger.
It was a day or two later and I was far from the line of fire chatting with British soldiers when something hit me like a policeman’s riot stick. My legs went soft and my vision blurred. I felt panic rising like a wave. I felt so sick I thought I was going to collapse. The army medics checked me over but found nothing wrong. Later, back in the UK, several specialists were mystified. One suggested doubtfully that brain surgery might help.
For months I was off work, couldn’t drive a car, couldn’t even walk down the road without fear of being overcome by a fresh, debilitating attack. As the weeks went by it slowly dawned on me this was not a tropical disease or a genetic brain disorder but stress, shell-shock, war fatigue, call-it-what-you-will.
Eventually, as a desperate measure, I flew to Canada, bought an ancient camper van and, as my frazzled nerves began to slowly recover, trundled north across the prairies to the frozen Northwest Territories. Until then I had considered myself lucky in war.
In the beginning it had almost seemed like fun in a macabre sort of way. I remember the thrill of my maiden solo drive down Sarajevo’s Sniper Alley in a souped-up car with the Sex Pistols blaring and the sun roof open. Later, after my first dead body, first nearmiss and first guilt-ridden sleepless night, the flamboyance cooled and a bitter anger and sense of injustice took its place. I witnessed bits of the Serbo-Croat war, Bosnia and then, later, covered the massacres of Kosovo, the air war, Nato’s deployment.
After Canada I eventually returned to the front line. There was the tiny conflict in Macedonia and then, after 9/11, months of Afghanistan and Iraq. As Moscow correspondent I spent much time in Chechnya – which earned me an invitation to the Lubyanka and a reprimand.
I loved Afghanistan and the Caucasus, and even enjoyed the early months in Iraq in a twisted sort of way, but there was a nagging and growing sense that it was time to move on. The rules were changing, the buccaneering days when embedded was a dirty word were over and covering the war in Iraq had become a grinding and thankless business.
When the Telegraph went through one of its periodic shake-ups, I bit the bullet and quit. A year on, as I write this, I’m sitting high in the Canadian Rockies. Outside my window the snow is still on the ground and the river that runs along the edge of my 32 acres of wilderness is inching higher.
Last week I waded it with my brother after a long walk through the forest – it seemed to take forever and our legs almost froze as we held the shotgun loaded with huge slugs and our two-way radios clear of the rushing water. In two or three weeks I’m going to open here for commercial guests. The plan is to try and lay on some of the things I always wanted to do in my life but never got around to. I’ve already found a great local guy who will arrange fly-fishing tours on the streams and lakes here. Can’t get much better therapy than that.
For my part, I’m going to lead trips way up into the Selkirk mountains. Some will certainly be on quad-bikes – I have bought five of these rugged little machines – others, perhaps, on foot. In the autumn we’ll get out our new Zodiac and ride the river to watch the grizzlies that come and feed on the salmon and Rainbow trout. Of course, I’m still drawn to wars. In the off-season I may well hit the road again if I can drum up a freelance commission or two.
Kristin, my girlfriend who has made all this possible, has said she’s happy to stay behind and look after the dogs and horses. As for the great friends I made in the field, I miss them. I’d like them to feel they can come here at any time for a piece of the serenity and beauty and to feel the awesome power of these mountains.
To try and give a little back – and perhaps help out those who, just as I did, may need a temporary refuge – we’re setting up a very small fund and we’ll ask for donations from paying guests. Each year in the off-season we’ll offer up a cabin for a month (the fund will pay the air fare) for a strung-out journalist who needs a break. It won’t be a holiday so much as a place to unwind and recharge. Anthony Loyd will run the UK side, I’ll do my bit from here. If there’s anything left over each year we will donate it to the Kurt Schork Memorial Fund.
Three years ago this spring I was sitting in a Kurdish town long after dusk, my back to a scarred wall, watching as Iraqi tank shells sailed overhead and crashed into empty houses a few streets away. I had been drinking and cheered quietly as each one landed.
Now I have traded in those battlefield thrills, the booze-soaked evenings with colleagues, the fitful sleep and the technicolour dreams for the more elemental challenges of the wilderness. I’m not saying that I will never again drink from the intoxicating brew that is war journalism. But for now it’s grizzly bears and fast-flowing mountain rivers. And I’ve never felt better.