Saturday, 23 April 2005

ST05 : From Our Own Correspondent

This is a story about what happens when the dreaded Australian Department of Transportation Security singles you out as a "person of interest".

It happened to me.

The crew and I had been working for several weeks in outback Queensland, on a story about mining methods for the BBC's TV programme, "Panodrama". The Sydney Bombings seemed very far away - as far as Cairo is from London in fact, Australia is a Big Country. We'd heard the reports, seen the films, but it hadn't affected us much. New coveralls for people working with explosives, a pair of rather bored-looking but fully combat-equipped soldiers in a Land Rover near the pyrotechnics hut, some new communications apparatus, that's all.

Periodically, people with explosives qualifications would go absent for a few hours, and come back with fingerprint ink on their hands, but that didn't affect most people.

Like everyone else, we'd heard horror stories about delays of up to 12 hours for air travel. Having to check in luggage 24 hours before departure (and a camera crew has a lot of luggage), spot checks and random searches. So we decided to travel back to Sydney by Bus from Brisbane to catch a flight home.

Bad Move.

The line was moving quite quickly - IDs were checked, a few seconds in the "Magic Box" which had various hush-hush sensors in, and most people boarded without incident.

When it came to my turn, as I exited from the box I heard the dreaded words "Would you please come this way, Sir?"

I knew then I'd miss my bus.

I can't go into details without risking prosecution, but the next few hours were cordial, though strained at first. They asked me if I could account for the explosives residue that had been found on my person. Did I work at a chemical plant. Had I visited a mining or construction site recently, and could I prove it?

Fortunately, my answers satisfied them. But they checked them all, and that took time. I spent much of the intervening period in a hospital gown, reading and watching TV, as my clothes had been taken I knew not where. A soak in a hot tub was provided, but I was warned that I'd have to apply the lotions there and scrub myself thoroughly, head to foot, particularly my hair. It was implied that someone would be watching to make sure I did a thorough job, and if not, I'd be "helped" with the process. At least it let me get the fingerprint ink off my hands.

An interminable time later, my clothing was returned, freshly laundered and dry cleaned, and whiffing very faintly, almost imperceptably, of Primroses. I asked about that.

"You're one in ten thousand, Sir" said my genial captor, who looked like he'd be perfectly at home in a Rugby Second Row. "Are you by any chance a wine buff?"

I modestly replied that as Wine Editor for a local periodical, I did have some small expertise in that area.

"Thought so. You must be good at it. Most people can't detect anything, even after training. It's a chemical marker, so we know where you've been, and that any explosives residue you leave in the immediate area is no cause for alarm. Your very own scent, no two people have quite the same mixture. We tried to get everything off your clothes, and the bath will help get anything out of your hair, but our detectors are very sensitive. It'll go away in time, about the same time as you stop leaving traces of explosives residue about the place."

So I caught the bus for Sydney the next day. After an 18 hour journey, I arrived at Sydney Central terminal. I passed through without delay as soon as they'd verified my identity. "Oh, you're OK sir, you're in the system" said one lass cheerfully. "We know all about you. It's the unknowns we're concerned about."

Back at the Hotel, I unpacked my baggage, which had arrived long before I did. It looked exactly the same as when I'd last seen it, undisturbed, everything in the same place I'd put it when packing.

Except the clothes I'd been wearing at the mine, and only those clothes. They'd been neatly folded and dry-cleaned, and on them there was the feint aroma of Primroses.

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