Tag Archives: OffTheBeatenTrack

Brown People Do Overland

As we get closer to Pakistan, we thought it would be a good time to tell you this story.

People respond with amused curiosity and mostly disbelief when we introduce ourselves as overland travellers. It seems that “brown” people are an unusual demographic in the South African overlanding community which could explain this reaction.

Farhaan however does have the land travel bug in his family blood from way back in the 60’s. His grandmother Zaynub Bibi, grandfather Goolam Rasool Mia and their three daughters Rabia Banoo, Hasina Banoo (Farhaan’s mother) and Mehmooda Banoo embarked on an epic overland journey in their Land Rover Defender from South Africa in 1964 to perform their pilgrimage (Hajj) and finally ended in India with the return journey being completed by ship in 1966.

Their journey was unique and we draw inspiration from it. We cannot speak of their experiences on their behalf as we fully understand that each persons journey has it’s own purpose. The challenges faced during that time would also have been vastly different. In short there can be no oversimplified comparisons.

Countries such as Iraq and Syria were definitely on our wish list, but given the geo political state of the region, were completely out of bounds for us. They travelled through East Africa, Middle East and Asia and recall fondly their travels through Iraq and the Sham region.

Navigation would also have been a completely different excercise on the road then – compasses and paper maps vs. Garmin GPS and iPads. Add to that the fact that in those days tarmac in Africa was as easy to come by as good South African chocolate in Kenya. A hand drawn map of Africa on the side of the Defender by a kind gentleman was the result of one such routing encounter.

On the return journey when their ship docked in Karachi, Rabia Banu (aged 13) and Hasina Banu (aged 7) were betrothed to two sons of Abdul Jabbar Khan, a family friend who hosted the travellers when they drove through Pakistan. These two unions not only resulted in a gang of rather good looking ‘real’ cousin brothers and sisters with roots in two continents but also serves to question our modern stereotypes around arranged marriages.

So there you have it, the short personal story of how brown people do overland and sometimes they even bring back extended family. Farhaan’s overlanding genes, combined with Khairunnisa’s love for change and new experiences made The Khan Playground inevitable and we look forward to many many more adventures to come.

Goolam Rasool Mia posing with their Defender and Caravan in a village in India.

 

A Five Star Hotel

Thinking about it now, R1600 (approx. 114 USD) for a room in a five star hotel is pretty cheap, but when you are an overland traveler counting every penny that you spend, bargaining (and in some cases begging) becomes a habit.

Our drive to the border began late morning, after we bade farewell to Ali  Cemal (pronounced Jemal) – the owner of the little restaurant and campsite, that we had made our home base in Trabzon, Turkey. The Georgian border was just over 200 kms away so we thought a leisurely drive along the Black Sea would get us there in time.

Little did we know that while these thoughts ran through our heads and we settled into the drive, a very excited farmer, driving a red lorry with his wife and the load bay full of cows was eyeing our truck. What happened next was the subject of a Facebook post on our page:

“We are always a few hours late, but sometimes it has a hilarious and heart warming story behind it. We were making our way out of Trabzon to Georgia when a red lorry carrying about 5 cows kept driving up to the side of us. The cutest old couple would excitedly wave at us. The eccentric driver of said lorry followed us from a small town Macka into the city centre, pulled us off the road and literally whisked us to his younger brothers cafe – Cafe Aloha – for a tea and a chat. Davut Celeb owner of cafe pictured at the bottom”

Davuts brother had asked us to wait for him at the cafe while he quickly delivered his cows. We waited a while but then asked Davut’s leave as border crossings are always a stressful event. As we got close to the Sarp border crossing, we passed through the border town of Kemalpasha and experienced a feeling that was familiar to us from most border towns we had passed.

There is this sense of dodginess and desperation. You see people who are in a state of some stress, be it the urgent need to get across the border or the stress of not having the right papers or the worry of being caught out by Customs for the goods they want to take across and sell. Then you see the dodgy characters lurking around figuring out ways to take advantage of these desperate people. Don’t get me wrong, it is very seldom that an entire town gives off this eerie vibe but more the main road that leads to the border and most often than not, that is the only part of the border town passersby experience.

Sunset at the borderWhen we arrived at the border we saw a long queue of cars and I got confused about the process. Since it was time for the Maghrib prayer, we said our prayers and made our way to the border office on foot to try and figure out the process. Before we knew it our passports were being stamped and only then did we realize that the ‘foot queue’ was only for those who were crossing the border on foot and for passengers of the cars!

Masjid at the Sarp Border Crossing
Masjid at the Sarp Border Crossing

Panicked, we tried to explain to the Turkish officials that we want to cross in our car and in true Turkish fashion, without any stress (even with hundreds of people in the queue), they stamped us back into Turkey, told to us get in the vehicle queue and drive to the crossing. I remember thinking to myself, I should just listen to K!

We eventually got across the border – me in the car and K on foot – and met on the Georgian side. The process here was quick and efficient and we were in a country we had never in our wildest dreams thought of visiting (Read about that here).

By the time we had exchanged our money and started driving away from the border it was 8pm. At this point we had no idea where we would be spending the night. We thought we could find a hotel in the popular tourist town of Batumi. We had read that Batumi, the second largest city in Georgia, was a resort town, but didn’t realise that gambling is one of it’s main attractions.

We decided against sleeping here and found a campsite on our GPS about 60 kms out. As we neared the campsite the GPS told us to get off the main road onto a dirt road. We followed the directions along extremely dark roads, which did have houses but these were very dark too. We figured that this might be a holiday destination and the houses were most likely holiday homes that were not occupied.

When we got to the location, we saw nothing but an empty patch of land, adjacent to a double story house where the lights were switched on. We tried to get somebody’s attention to see if we could get some information on the campsite but were unlucky. We drove up and down the road, trying to find the right place and then decided to give up.

The GPS also indicated a B&B nearby and we thought this will have to be our accommodation for the night. Through  the more dark streets we arrived in front of a house that had one light switched on outside and the flashing of a TV screen on the inside. We rang the bell, knocked and hooted until a silhouette of a person looked through an upstairs window at us. He motioned to us that B&B was closed. We were perplexed.

Out of options we decided to try Kobuleti, a town we had bypassed on our way to the campsite. The GPS indicated many hotels here and so we felt hope. It was already close to 10 pm and in our exhaustion were desperate enough to settle for the first hotel room we found.

The streets of Kobuleti were wide, there were street lights but roads were deserted. We came to the first hotel which was very quiet, almost shut down. After knocking on the door a while someone eventually emerged, smiled and invited us in. The reception was modern and well kept. This looked like a good hotel. He told us that the hotel was closed and tried to get hold of the manager to see if he could give us a room.  No luck – he allowed us to use the bathroom and we continued on our quest. The second and third hotels were exactly the same, we rang bells at receptions, knocked on doors and hooted but there was no response. We realised that this may have been the off-peak season and hence there were no visitors in town.

We avoided The Georgia Palace Hotel on the GPS list because  it sounded too expensive. At this point, our choices were rather slim. It was either, find a room or spend the night in the streets of a city and country we didn’t know much about.

The gates to The Georgia Palace hotel opened as the gates of any palace would. We drove down a long  drive way and got to the 5 star reception. With knots in our stomach we went in and found someone there. They were open! We were tired, but gathered up the strength to haggle and bring the price down a bit before we accepted and paid.

We ordered a veg pizza, ate and enjoyed a good nights sleep. In the morning before continuing on our journey, we took a walk along the beach and wondered what this place would be like in the busy season.
Beach at the Georgia Palace Hotel     

A bad road, a Yemeni and a Qur’an

Had we researched the route before leaving, we would most definitely have had a much less interesting day but also unbeknown to us we were on a mission. A mission to deliver a Qur’an.

We had arrived the previous night in the Tanzanian capital city of Dodoma and spent the night in a refurbished budget hotel called Nala Centurion Hotel. Our next destination was Arusha in the north. It was about 10 am and the GPS calculated a 5 hour drive so we thought we should do some sightseeing before we leave.

We checked out from the hotel and went to the Ismaili Mosque in Dodoma town and also paid a visit to the Dodoma Cathedral which, as we were informed by locals, is the only building that is a replica of the dome of the rock – Jerusalem. We then duly followed our T4A map out of Arusha and not even 5 kms out of town, the road turned to gravel.

Expecting it to turn to beautiful tar road soon, we carried on driving but no tar appeared. We decided to drop tyre pressure and carry on hoping to reach tar. After an hour of driving and not even covering 30 kms, we realised we were in for a rough ride.

5-10 kms our of Dodoma
Just after lowering the tyre pressure at the beginning of a long arduous drive

Most of the dirt road was along and criss crossing the new road being built. Subsequent research confirmed that the road has been under construction since 2009!

It was very bumpy in most places and badly corrugated in many other places  but wherever we got a chance to drive on the freshly flattened surface in preparation for tarring we happily floored it.

Part of the bad road running alongside with the flattened road gravel
Part of the bad road running alongside with the flattened road gravel

The road (or lack there of) then climbed suddenly up a mountain pass and we found ourselves driving through pristine little quiet villages at the top of the mountain where old men sat under trees in deep discussion, families gathered at the road side laughing and talking, young kids ran along the roads playing and young men and women worked the fields. The air was crisp and fresh and our lungs got a good break from the dust we had been inhaling the whole day.

View from the top
View from the top

We drove through one of these mountain villages called Bereka waving at the old and young  inhabitants (as we did in most villages). As we passed the last few mud houses of Bereka a man on a motorcycle coming the opposite way waved us down and greeted us “Assalam u Alaikum” and we responded “Wa’alaykum Assalam” and he continued “Kayfa Halukum” (how are you?) and we responded “Alhamdulillah” (All praises are to God Almighty).

On hearing this he got very happy, told us to wait and parked his bike in the shallow ditch on the edge of the now damp gravel road. He came up to us and asked our names (in Arabic) and where we were from. He was very happy to hear that we were South African. In broken English he explained that Bereka is his village and welcomed us to both Bereka and Tanzania. He told us his name – Sa’eed bin something bin something bin something and carried on for a about 5 generations … from Yemen.

It was about 6 pm, we were getting worried about remaining daylight and were already discussing how we would approach setting up camp in one of these villages. We asked Sa’eed if he knew about the road conditions to Arusha. “The road is fresh after about 15 kms” he said to us in his broken English. He said it would take us 2 hours to get to Arusha. We were happy to hear this. We said to him that we had seen many Muslims in his village – he looked a little confused – we wondered why. He then said to us “Will you help me to give some books, some Kitabs”. We asked, “Who is it for and what books?” He said, “for me, I need a kitab… a mushaf”, we confirmed, “Qur’an?” he said “yes”. We looked at each other thinking the same thing.

Cut to the story of the Qur’an – On the day we were leaving Johannesburg (from the Turkish Mosque) we kept the Qur’an that Khairunnisa had used since she was in Madressa (Islamic School). We were meant to give it to her mum when we saw her at our farewell. In the emotion and commotion of the event we forgot to give it to her and the Qur’an travelled with us all the way until this day just outside a village called Bereka, high in the Tanzanian mountains where Sa’eed asked us to help him with a Mushaf (the Qur’an in book form).

Back to Bereka – We looked at each other thinking the same thing – Khairunnisa said “I have my Quran, should I give it?” We agreed and handed it over to Sa’eed bin something bin something bin something. He was ecstatic and in broken English and some Kiswahili he invited us to spend the night at his home in the village.

We were so close to Arusha yet our exhaustion tempted us to accept the kind offer. Thoughts of “what would this mans family eat if we arrived home with him”, “does he have space.”, “will he have a toilet?” went through our minds and we politely declined and bid farewell.

IMG_2274
Farhaan with Sa’eed

After 15 kms a beautiful tar road greeted us and if it wasn’t for our full bladders, hungry stomachs and exhausted bodies, we would have gotten out of the car and kissed the tar. We arrived in rainy Arusha at around 9 pm and promptly started looking for decently priced hotels as there was no way we would manage to camp that night.

The next days research into this road led us to forums where people have described this as one of the worst roads in Tanzania and where one man said he had lost a couple of engines! Our Cruiser did greatly Alhamdulillah! and we felt grateful for not having researched the alternative (and much longer) tar road to Arusha.

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