x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ageing Toyota Land Cruisers are the fisher kings of Kalba

The sorriest excuse for trucks you're ever likely to see are being put to good use on the beaches of this sleepy Sharjah town.

One of the fleet of old Toyota Land Cruisers used by fishermen to haul their catch up onto the beach in the sleepy town of Kalba, on the UAE's east coast. Most of the vehicles have been in operation here since the 1980s. Pawan Singh / The National
One of the fleet of old Toyota Land Cruisers used by fishermen to haul their catch up onto the beach in the sleepy town of Kalba, on the UAE's east coast. Most of the vehicles have been in operation here since the 1980s. Pawan Singh / The National

On the moon-like beachscapes of Kalba, they're hard to miss. An entire fleet of them, rotting in the sun like washed-up shipwrecks. Their flashes of brilliant red among splodges of black and grey are reminders of days long past, when glorious new paint adorned their flanks. Every inch of these vehicles bears the signs of a hard, unloved life; for all intents and purposes, they are junk, human sculpture left to be consumed as surely by the sea as the passage of time itself.

Except that they are far from junk - and, in fact, these near-dead vehicles make up a vital part of the local fishing economy. These are the Toyota Land Cruisers of Kalba.

For those who rarely venture farther than the safe confines of the nearest shopping mall, Kalba is a sleepy town on the east coast of the UAE, bordering Oman to the south, Fujairah to the north and the boundless emerald waters of the Indian Ocean to the east. Technically part of Sharjah, most visitors pass through its boundaries without recognition, and it's not hard to see why. An unremarkable hamlet dotted with seaside villas and nondescript, squared-off dwellings that rarely reach beyond two storeys, Kalba is very much a time capsule of the UAE as it used to be in the mid-1980s. Coming off the main Maleha road and its exciting downhill twists and turns, it seems quite the anticlimax, before you turn off and head up the coast towards Fujairah.

But press on towards the smell of the ocean and eventually you'll discover Kalba's dark, sandy beaches, dotted not with sunbathers, but with the most pitiful excuses for trucks you're ever likely to encounter. The scale of the dilapidation is hard to exaggerate; even from several metres away, the rusted bodies look ready to sigh their last, the once-square frames twisted by the force of some invisible weight.

Looking inside isn't for the faint of heart. The 40-Series Land Cruisers were never renowned for their creature comforts, being little more than a bench seat, a bare metal dash with a single, combined speedometer and fuel gauge and a long, goosenecked gearshift arising out of the flat floor.

That was when it was new. Today, the metal bears a million scratches, the seat springs have collapsed and there's a general rancid air that pervades the interior. And every one of them has a key in the ignition; a fleet of trucks abandoned on the beach, yours for the taking?

But before inappropriately naughty thoughts can invade, the truck's rightful owner appears on the scene. Slight of build with weather-worn features and draped in his traditional checked sarong, he speaks a language I do not understand, clearly wanting to know why someone would want to bother with his old car. After running through all the major languages spoken in the UAE with no result, some mutually broken Hindi is exchanged and he reveals that he is from Bangladesh.

Babul Hussain is in his late 40s but you would never guess it. Like most men who spend their life outdoors, he has long since ceased to age, now seemingly made of sinewy muscle and mottled skin darkened by the unrelenting sun. He is not the least bit worried about me or anyone else taking his precious truck away.

"Where can you go without licence plates?" he laughs. Hussain is right; the vehicle bears only temporary plates as a dealer would provide, for travelling short distances. "Only us fishermen use these trucks here and cars in this condition cannot travel very far on the roads."

Saying this, he climbs in and twists the key to life, the starter of the aged six-cylinder engine spinning with a slow drone that suggests death is imminent. But no; with his foot firmly on the floor, and after a few seconds of cranking, the engine catches and idles roughly, with puffs of smoke appearing from the exhaust. I feel like giving a small cheer of encouragement. While he waits for the engine to warm up, Hussain explains how it works.

"Every morning, we come here to gather our fish," he says. "The night before, boats go out to cast the nets over a kilometre. Then by nine o'clock the next day, we tie each end of the net to the trucks and pull in the catch. The men sort the fish, removing any endangered animals like turtles and releasing them. Then we load the catch into each truck and take them down to Fujairah to be sold in the market."

The method of measurement is unusual. While other markets sell by the tonne, here fish are sold by the truck. Hussain and his crew take, on average, four to five Land Cruisers with produce to the market each day, where it is sold for up to Dh7,000. After expenses - food and petrol mostly - are deducted, the owner of the truck and boat takes half, leaving the remaining chunk to be split between his eight crew.

But today, Hussain will not be going fishing. And he has not come to take his truck to Fujairah, but back to his camp a few kilometres inland. For the past few months, the catch has been extremely poor so, most days of the week, he uses his weather-beaten work horse for errands.

"It's not worth putting the nets out if we can't fill even one truck," he says, his brow furrowing. "In summer we don't catch anything so we go back home to our families. But this year, even the winter hasn't seen much fish. I don't know why."

If Hussain is stressed, he does not show it much. Gesturing me to join him in his cabin, I climb aboard. After spending a lifetime on the beach hauling tonnes of fish like a steel donkey, the truck is permanently stuck in low range, so it's a noisy, slow ride down to his encampment.

Hidden from the road by the aptly named Breeze hotel, the "camp" is a rough circle of portakabins where hundreds of men live and work in a self-contained fishing industry. As we drive in, barbers are cutting hair, while others mend nets. A flurry of sparks suggest some welding happening out of sight.

"Most of us are Bangladeshis," he says. "Pakistanis are good at repairs so they fix the trucks when they break, which is not often. The bodies are bad, but they last a long time and the only thing we have to worry about is the tyres. Nearly every day, the seashells cause punctures."

We arrive at his portakabin, where six or seven men are cooking or playing cards, protected from the sun by a green tarpaulin. It's a comfortable set-up, not least because of the plush sofas. Hussain says that they are a gift from the company owner; whenever he moves house, he gifts them an old sofa.

But what about the trucks? How long have the trucks been there? "They were here before me," pipes up a heavy-set man, Abdul Khasim. He's been here since 1989 and, even then, the trucks were in use.

"Each truck is used until it breaks - for at least 10 years. When a truck is finished," he gesticulates towards a group of abandoned Land Cruisers missing wheels, windows and other parts, "we remove what we can and use it on the new car."

"New" is something of a misnomer; every few years an owner arrives with a truck that has already survived several years of farm abuse to conclude its life on the beach. Of the nine fishermen, only Hussain and Khasim are licensed to drive them on the road. But since going places costs money, he and his brethren rarely travel.

"Look at it this way," Hussain says, settling into his sofa and lighting up a cigarette. "If I worked in Dubai, I would have to share a room with 10 people and earn half what I earn. Now, I am free to do anything all day, only work a few hours in the morning and at night. We don't fish in the summer, so I can be home in Bangladesh for up to six months. It's a good deal and my son will do the same," he states, unblinkingly.

And what of those amazing trucks, the decaying beasts that allow them to do so much and will die here on the beach, far from their Japanese homeland? He shifts his weight and ponders. "Who cares about the trucks? Do I care about this cigarette?" He puts it out and smiles. "Only someone like you would think such things are important."