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.
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).