The scenery is stunningly beautiful, which was unexpected given the region’s reputation. Pakistan’s Tribal Areas – even the name is forbidding.
We’ve been reporting on this place, the base camp for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, for years. Yet because few correspondents ever get to go there, the imagination paints the most unflattering of pictures.
Children in the Harry Potter books are told to avoid the Forbidden Forest; for Western journalists it is the Tribal Areas.
A 19th-century British administrator called it the fortress nature built for herself.
The drive in is dramatic, and not for the fainthearted.
We’re accompanied by the Pakistani Army, who are keen to advertise evidence of what they see as a success story.
In 2008, Islamabad – under pressure from Washington – ordered a massive offensive against the Taliban in Bajaur Agency, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar Province where US troops are based.
A two-year war led to half the civilian population of 1.2 million people leaving the area. But since the routing of the Taliban, civilians have returned to their villages and farms.
Now they are poised to vote in Saturday’s election and, incredibly, the choice of candidates includes a woman.
In this bastion of male chauvinism, Badam Zari is risking her life. We’re in an area that’s more conservative than neighbouring Swat, where schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for wanting an education.
I asked Badam Zara about Malala. She told me the child had sought to light the way for others, but that dark forces had tried to stop her.
Those same dark forces, the Taliban, view democracy as the system of infidels and their leader says he has dispatched dozens of suicide bombers to attack polling stations.