On this day last year (23 June 2015) at 2 am in the morning we drove into #AlQuds (#Jerusalem) completing the #Joburg2Jerusalem leg of our #overlandjourney.
We didn’t know much about the city layout or where exactly our accommodation was located, just that it was in the #oldcity. Looking at the old walls that envelope the old city of #AlQuds, we realised that cars cannot go in.
We parked outside and found the Damascus Gate – the gate that would become our main portal between the outside world and the walls that had witnessed millennia of communities, trade, prayer, unity, conquests, hatred, bloodshed, peace, love, tears, laughter, bonds, rivalries and footsteps of prophets, believers, soldiers, priests, rabbis, imams and kings.
To know what it feels like to walk these old stone streets you actually have to walk them.
To feel the weight that the walls would have felt when Jesus (peace be upon him) rested his tired palm against them with the cross on his back, you actually have to put your hand on the indentations into the walls along the path to his crucifixion – called Via Dolorosa.
To imagine what it must have been like when all the prophets of God prayed together led by the last of them to be sent to humankind – Muhammed (peace and blessings be upon him), you actually have to pray in Al-Haram Al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary).
To feel the constriction and the suffocation that a people feel when they are not free in the land they have called their home for generations… you actually have to live there.
This old city of Al-Quds became our home for almost 2 months and before we left, the locals started calling us “Qudsi” – those who live in Al-Quds. It was hard to hold back tears as I wrote this because the mark that this blessed land leaves on ones heart can never be erased. So we hope and pray to be Qudsi’s again very soon.
The fairly new tar road that we were driving on came to an end at the Abbasi Mosque in the village of Derawar. We were greeted by beautiful white minarets and domes invoking memories of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. A man walked out of the mosque courtyard and Farhaan went to greet him. He asked the man about the graves of the Sahaba that we heard were in this area. He told us to follow the same road towards the exit of the town and we will see water tanks. There we would see the mazaar of the companions of Prophet Mohammed (Peace and blessings be upon him).
Sukkur was the last town of the Sindh province of Pakistan that we were staying in. Next was Punjab. Everyone that heard about our travels up North had told us “Drive though Sindh in one day and get to Punjab”. The lack of speed in our car coupled with our enviable ability of getting delayed when leaving in the mornings meant that this would be impossible. We ended up spending three nights in Sindh stopping to see Kot Diji Fort and Mohenjo-daro. We also got the opportunity to cross the Indus river a couple of times.
While at the guest house in Sukkur we started researching points of interest near the next big city of Bahawalpur. We came across Derawar Fort which was some 170 kms before Bahawalpur about 70 kms off the main highway. We thought of leaving Sukkur and spending the night somewhere immediately after entering Punjab so that we could visit Derawar Fort on our way to Bahawalpur. After speaking to Farhaans uncle we booked a guest house in Sadiqabad.
The drive from Sukkur to Sadiqabad was a mere 170 kms and we planned to be there at around 3pm so that we could get some time to write a blog post. And 3 pm it was, when we entered the town of Sadiqabad and reached the point on Google maps marked with the golden star that tells you that you saved this location.
Nothing. Just a few old structures and empty pieces of land. We drove around a little in the streets off the main road but only saw more empty plots and private houses. Attempts to call Jovago and the guest house were met with a very calm lady on the other side of the line telling us that the number was not available. We asked a few men sitting in front of a newly built building and they said they do not know of any guest house and gave us directions to another hotel and offered us tea and food which we kindly declined.
Just a side note here, where ever we stopped to ask for directions or chatted to people at a filling station and they heard that we were travellers they would offer us a cup of tea, cold drink or food. Such is the hospitality of the people of Pakistan.
We then went to a shop further down the road to buy airtime for our phone. The man there informed Farhaan that the said Guest House had closed down and directed us to a new “very good” hotel. We decided to check it out and after a wrong turn ended up driving next to a very smelly canal. As we took the U-turn to track back a maroon Suzuki Jimny overtook us on this single lane road with richsaws and taxi’s coming from the opposite direction. A few meters later the said 4×4 suddenly took a sharp turn blocked the road ahead of us and came to a halt. Out came a man with an official rush in his walk to Farhaans window, introduced himself as an intelligence officer, announced that the rest of the team is on their way and asked to see the car papers. By his nervous nature, we knew he was bluffing about the team.
Now, over the 15 countries that we have travelled we’ve been stopped numerous times by all kinds of scary and official looking blokes and we are kind of used to this. So Farhaan casually asked to see his ID and after perusing it showed him the papers. He made a phone call to someone and then told us that it would be best that we leave Sadiqabad and travel to the next town Rahimyar Khan, which we did.
The next day we left for the city of Bahawalpur but with the firm intention of going to Derawar Fort along the way. We only took the turn off for Derawar around 3pm. We couldnt find it on our GPS so decided to use google maps which, for Pakistan, does not give you voice navigation but will provide the route. This meant that we had to watch our position on the map and take the correct turnoffs.
The plan didn’t work out very well when the very first turn was closed off. We looked at the map and found another route to the correct road. As we travelled further the vast green fields, the mustard plantations and desert sand that appeared in between them totally distracted us and very quickly we forgot about the map we were supposed to be keeping an eye on.
“Are we on the right road?” Farhaan asked waking up from the dreamy drive that we were enjoying so much. “Oh no”, said Khairunnisa, “we left our turn behind”. So we took a U-turn and drove back through the little village lined with fruit stalls, meat shops, samoosa and pakora (chilli bites) stalls and many more. We were quite hungry so Farhaan pulled up at the samoosa and pakora stall bought some snacks and confirmed directions to the fort.
A couple of wrong turns later, feeling satiated with the very tasty snacks, we were on the straight, fairly recently tarred road to Derawar. The road again was lined with bright yellow mustard plantations on one side and green meadows on the other. These would abruptly give way to desert sand with shurbbery and small dunes and that would suddenly turn back into alternating green and yellow fields.
The road took two bends and we saw a big sign across the road announcing our arrival at the Derawar Fort. We continued to drive and the road wound through a sparsely populated village with neat mud houses and a few grocery shops. The road ended at a spectacular but not huge white mosque reminiscent of Mughal style architecture with a courtyard that has 3 entrance doors. This mosque, also called Derawar Mosque is apparently built as a replica of the Moti Mosque in Delhi, India. The main entrance faces a body of water that according to some, was once a large river whose banks use to be quite close to this entrance. It enters into the courtyard of the Abbasi Mosque with the white domes and minarets greeting the visitor.
The sign that welcomes visitors at the only road entering the village.
Walkway to the masjid
A window in at the mehrab provides a view of the Fort.
The main entrance door exits out to a lake that used to have a lot more water in the old days.
This the entrance structure of the Abbasi Mosque
From the main entrance the while domes of the mosque greet the visitor.
From here we drove our car a very short distance through a large entrance gate and along a narrow path that led us to the Derawar Fort. The fort stood in front of us in its former glory but showing definite signs of ageing. Many of its forty bastions towered over as we stopped our car and took in this magnificent sight. There were parts where bricks had fallen off and the entrance gate was closed. We later learned that visiting inside is not allowed as the building is vulnerable to the elements given its age and lack of restoration efforts.
We now feel honoured and sad to have visited the endangered site that stands like a shining jewel in the Cholistan desert. If attention is not given to the restoration of the Derawar fort, future generations will not get to experience this piece of historical architecture.
A few photographs later, we went in search of the Sahabah that we had confirmed lay near by. We drove through a small patch of desert sand back on to the only tar road of Derawar and after a couple of minutes saw a white structure with green flags denoting the resting place of those close to God. We turned of the tar again and drove a few meters to towards the Mausoleum.
As we walked through the graves outside and came closer to the white building we were stopped dead in our tracks by the most beautiful sweet fragrance in the air. We stood there for a few moments just taking in this scent and then went inside. We spent a few minutes in silence and offered our supplications for the Sahabah that lay there and left feeling blessed and happy to have stood in their company.
The sun was starting to set as we made our way to Bahawalpur city but that did not deter us from stopping to take some photos of the mustard fields and the beautiful sunset.
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.
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.
When 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!
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.
We woke early with the sound of the Adhaan, prayed Fajar (morning prayer) and went back to sleep. We woke up again much later and had to rush as checkout time had approached. Being stressed about not getting late for checkout, K began taking the bags to the car and left them next to the car.
As we started packing everything into the car, to our horror we saw that one of the dogs from the lodge had peed all over our stuff!! Great start to an epic journey!! hmph! With a bit of anger and a hint of depression we rinsed our stuff before packing it back into the car.
During check out we asked the receptionist about the closest border crossing to Botswana. He advised us to use the Skilpadshek border crossing as it was less busy and not as frequented by trucks. But before we headed to the border we had some admin to take care of.
We drove to the Zeerust police station where we needed to get some documents certified and get a police clearance for Earl II. At the station we got reprimanded for trying to park our vehicle in the parking area that said “visitors” so we promptly reversed outwards and parked across the road.
Officers at the station were firm but professsional, and the officer helping us warmed up after K struck up a conversation. We understood his initial irritation due the large stack of papers we gave him to certify. We left there with certified documents but without the police clearance as the relevant officials were on sick leave. Officer Lekgoba advised us to proceed to Lehurutshe police station to get this. It was quite entertaining getting the pronunciation right (or wrong).
The Lehurutshe police station was a huge police compound with several buildings. People there were extremely helpful and one lady officer even walked to us to the correct building. At building two, the friendly ladies gave us a place to sit while they organised the relevant office to attend to us and discussed quad bike with us that was for sale from theft stock. An officer who was on leave that day was around and kindly agreed to assist us. With police clearance in hand, smiles on our faces and the dog pee in distant memory we made our way to Skilpadshek border post.
Border processes here were extremely efficient and we were on our way within minutes. It was hot day but not unbearable. From the border office we proceeded to the last couple of gates that marked the end of South Africa. As came to the first gate, we came across what would be our first and only encounter of officials demanding something from us (at least in Africa). The officer insisted we give him something to drink. In our panic, we parted with one of our two precious bottles of ice cold Coo-ee Lemon. A few meters down the next officer who noticed this, insisted on getting something too and we handed over a R20 note. That is SA we thought as we left our homeland for over a year.
At the Botswana border they were a little more thorough and asked K twice why we were visiting and the exact names of people we were visiting. Luckily we had been invited by the Peerbhay’s to stay with them in Gaborone so providing those details wasn’t a problem. As we got back to the car after the formalities, a kind man next to told us to go back and pay for our TIP – Temporary Import Permit – for the vehicle.
#Lesson: we learned that if we had kept the TIP from our last trip to Botswana in December we could have reused it. It is valid for 12 months.
With all the border admin finally completed we made our way to Gaborone which was just over an hour away. We relaxed for the next two days at the Peerbhay residence and completed some final outstanding items on our checklist.
Our Sunday farewell was a bit surreal. We had obviously been planning for almost eight years for this day and it had finally arrived. It also felt surreal because for the last two weeks we had been working tirelessly ticking off last minute action items off several lists. This meant that for two weeks prior to this day we were eating junk takeaway meals almost daily, barely sleeping and totally getting on each other’s nerves.
Nervously we gathered and packed the last few things into the vehicle, later realising we had almost forgotten thirty percent of our foodstuff, which would make a big difference later on. We were about an hour late at our own farewell but it was all okay and today our friends and family would forgive any failures.
We chose the Turkish Masjid (Mosque) for its size and centrality, no catering and organizing fuss and symbolically leaving from a Masjid made sense. We both hoped that we had planned it a little better so that there would be a few planned prayer items and maybe a few words from people we had asked far too late and who understandably could not make it. But even in this unplanned chaos of the day, it all turned out okay. It was an emotional day where many of our friends and family gathered for hesitant farewells.
Later that day on a Facebook post, I described the day “It was a send off to be remembered today. Everyone gathered at theNizamiye Masjid in Midrand for an overwhelmingly emotional morning. The two of us are on the road now filled with feelings of intense gratitude for having reached this point. Thank you to all who were present in person and spirit to send us off with prayers and positive energy. The destination does not matter, how far we get and how many countries we cover is irrelevant. This moment matters and the journey has begun. #Alhamdulillah“.
We then drove to the Westdene cemetery to pay respects to Farhaan’s late dad. K read the traditional script from the Qur’an – Surah Yasin and her dad prayed the closing prayer with both our families present. We then made another graveyard visit to Lenasia to pay respects to Farhaan’s late grandfather who had undertaken a similar journey with his family in the 60’s (more here).
At this point K was bursting for the toilet. We soon learned that this would be a consistent problem of our travels that would give us many teary eyed giggles on the way. We stopped at K’s cousins place in Lenasia who was delighted to have us for a few minutes, gifted us some Coo-eeLemon (local carbonated drink) for the road and we were on the way.
Zeerust (close to the border of Botswana) was our first stop and the weather was lovely and overcast all the way. We spent the night at Sha-Henney’s guest house where a strange looking Afrikaans speaking man in a mullet and a tiny pony tail at reception helped us with the booking and also cautioned us against having the breakfast due to “respect for your religion”. We were impressed and obliged.
We were both extremely exhausted and ate some of the pies that were packed for us by family, showered and literally collapsed into bed after Maghreb (evening prayer).