x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

Fortuner favours the brave

Two friends are close to completing the scenic route to this year's Haj in a battle-scarred but trusty Toyota.

Ayob Yusuf Vawda and Abdool Samath Samath's road trip makes the just-for-TV jaunt that Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman took for the Long Way Round series look like a leisurely afternoon ride. Ayob, 54, and his friend, Abdool, 66, set out from their homes in South Africa in July, 2008, to undertake an epic drive with a spot of voluntary charity work for Glencoe Islamic Mosque and Madrassa Trust along the way. Ayob sold his business, a motor parts shop, before setting off. They hoped their trip would culminate in making their pilgrimages at this year's Haj in Saudi Arabia, but they are stranded in Abu Dhabi awaiting their visas after encountering cumbersome bureaucracy at multiple embassies. While their heavily decorated Toyota Fortuner has not missed a beat on the 58,000km odyssey, the journey has been incident-packed. Apart from a large dent above the right rear wheel and minor dings and scratches elsewhere - "every dent on this car happened in India" - the car is in remarkably good shape, possibly because of two notices plastered across the rear door. One says "Driving - the world - for peace" and the other says "Visitor! May be lost. Please be patient".

Ayob, a lively, wiry man, is quick to share his anecdotes as he recounts his journey with the aid of well-worn maps, which came in useful after their GPS was stolen in Tanzania. "That happened after going around Mount Kilimanjaro," says Ayob. "We were greeted by Masai tribesmen and had to inch our way through the crowd." After leaving South Africa, they did voluntary work for the charity trust in Mozambique and Malawi before taking on Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

It was after crossing the Gulf of Aqaba to get to Jordan that their real adventures began. "After Jordan, we drove on to Syria, saw Damascus and then went through Turkey and took the crusader route along the Black Sea and ended up in Georgia and Azerbaijan," he recalls. When they tried to get exit stamps for Georgia, the usually quiet Abdool used his acting skills. "He's an Oscar winner!" enthuses Ayob. After a 12-hour wait at a border crossing, where the Azerbaijani officials didn't want to let the right-hand-drive Fortuner pass through, Abdool pretended to have a heart problem and soon paramedics were on the scene, he received two injections "from a very pretty nurse" and spent a few days in a dilapidated Georgian hospital while Ayob took the two passports to the embassy in Tiblisi, Georgia's capital, to sort out exit visas.

After Abdool was given the all-clear, they drove on to Armenia where they spent two weeks, eight hours of which was given over to extensive searches of the car by humourless Armenian and Russian officials. "Getting into Iran was the easiest border we encountered," says Ayob. "The man spoke perfect English, he was so helpful, he gave us maps and cash to boot." When they visited the South African embassy in Tehran, the officials were amazed. "They offered us tea and cigarettes and he says we were probably the first to ever drive to Tehran from South Africa. He thought we must have hired a car in Iran."

An invitation to the embassy's African Unity Day celebrations ensued and that was the start of a series of generous offers of hospitality in Iran, aside from an incident where they were robbed. "Fake cops robbed us of some dollars - they pulled us over, searched the car and said they were looking out for fake dollars," says Ayob. One of the con men took a close look at one of Ayob's US notes and then asked to see the rest of his money and his wallet. "They took my wallet into the car and drove off - I flipped and tried to chase them."

In the mountain town of Damavand, they had better luck when they slept for four nights in the loft above a kebab shop. Villagers near Khorramabad invited them to live with them in their goatskin tents. In Nasar, a local woman who seldom mixed with men in her village became their tour guide and cook. A chance encounter with a group of 36 tourists from South Africa, Australia, France and Switzerland in Esfehan led to them joining forces for a safe road crossing into Pakistan. Then it was a hair-raising journey from Bam to Quetta with a police escort the whole way.

"But the Pakistanis were very good to us - in Dalbandin, we slept on the roof of the police station with American jets going to bomb Afghanistan flying over," says Ayob. "It's a crazy city, man," is Ayob's incredulous description of Quetta, a place just 40km from the Afghan border and divided by US and Pakistani soldiers, police and Taliban. "There are guys with machine guns and sandbags on every second corner."

Ayob recalls a rather disturbing reason for local motorcyclists to be pulled over by the police. "If you are riding double on a motorbike, you will be stopped at every place because of target killings," he says. It has become a common practice between warring factions in the area to kill specific people from motorbikes with one person riding and the pillion passenger shooting. "I met the head of the anti-terrorist squad and he advised us not to use the car but instead to walk around, keep your mouth shut and go with local transport," he says. By blending in and being sensible, Ayob says he and Abdool gained access to a marketplace for weapons.

"The market sold US rifles, uniforms, night vision goggles; and it was sold to the general public," says Ayob. "No city impacted on me like Quetta." After failing to get visas for China, Ayob and Abdool crossed the border into India at Amritsar and experienced upset stomachs and new dents in their car in between seeing the Taj Mahal at Agra and the city of Lucknow. In Nepal, Ayob contracted typhoid and, while he was in hospital, he received word that his mother in South Africa was unwell, so he flew home from Kathmandu. "She passed away and I missed the funeral - in Islam we bury the body very quickly - and Abdool waited for me for three weeks in Nepal while I recuperated in South Africa."

After reuniting in Nepal with Abdool, they returned to Iran and crossed over with the car into the UAE by ferry from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. Now they are in Abu Dhabi hoping to hear from the Saudi Arabian embassy if they will receive their visas so they can make their Haj pilgrimage. "I am not too encouraged to go to Saudi now," says Ayob, reflecting on the difficulties they have experienced so far in trying to get visas.

But he is quick to admit that, so far, the 16-month journey has provided him with many amazing experiences as well as the opportunity to help with charity projects. Indeed, as the photographer arrives, he has started riffing on his opinions of the war in Afghanistan and explaining how the gun smugglers operate on the Kenya-Tanzania border. McGregor and Boorman might have slick camera crews and A-list friends to celebrate with them at the TV series launch parties, but Ayob and Abdool have lived off their wits and the kindness of strangers when they took the seriously long way round to Abu Dhabi. glewis@thenational.ae