Almost 75000 km into the journey, there was a moment where it could have all gone terribly, horribly wrong. Ayob Vawda and Abdool Samath had been on the road for more than 20 months and, apart from a single puncture in Yemen, nothing had disrupted their wonderful odyssey that had begun far away in Cape Town, where anything seemed possible.
“We were on our way back home, running through the mountainous region of Kenya, and were told that the road through was impassable because of heavy rains. So we waited, and waited some more, and every day the rains came again, making the situation worse,” Ayob Vawda recalls from the comfort of his Ladysmith home, where he’s still trying to wrestle the wanderlust bug out of his system.
“The roads were bad alright. Soft thick mud with great big grooves carved out by trucks – which is what happens in the rainy season – threatened to bog us down.
“Every so often we came across abandoned vehicles that hadn’t made it, and the only thing to do was to keep momentum going, slowly, gently and to drive around the stricken cars and trucks if necessary. I’m no 4X4 expert but after nearly two years away from home driving in these conditions I’d developed a feel for it. So it was first and second gear in low range, for many kilometres at a time.
“All of a sudden, a little kid appeared on the side of the road flagging us down. We naturally slowed, wondering what the problem was, and as we came to a stop I heard these strange, sharp popping sounds. It took me a second or so to realise it was gunfire.
“It’s strange how time seems to tick so slowly in those moments. I remember seeing the child running away, remember his face and I thought he couldn’t have been part of this set-up because he looked so frightened, so surprised. What I did was pure reaction. I just put my foot down and drove for my life. Our lives.”
“The back window exploded from a shot, but all I could think of was to get away, and fortunately we got out of there. Later, when we got to the next town they said that the bandits in that area didn’t just take your car or your valuables, they took everything. They would strip you naked and leave you in that remote area to die.”
Ayob and Abdool had dreamed of driving to China. They’d talked about it over and over again, but without making any real plans. Then Abdool bought a brand new Fortuner 3,0 D-4D 4×4 and convinced Ayob that the dream they’d talked about could actually become a reality. And so they set off – still without any plans, except to make it all the way to China.
“We were both at loose ends, both single, our lives at a turning point. Abdool sold two of his properties and I sold my motor spares business on the South Coast, so we were self-funded. This was pure adventure.
“After Abdool took delivery of the Fortuner from Dundee Toyota, we drove down from Glencoe, where he lives, to Cape Town. We were totally unprepared; na?ve I think is the word. We had a roof rack only, fitted just before we left South Africa in Nelspruit to take water containers and two spare wheels, and for the rest we packed our stuff into those black plastic containers you buy at supermarkets.”
Over the next 22 months and 80000 km, they journeyed from Cape Town through Mozambique and then into Malawi.
From there the route traversed Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Egypt and then over the Suez Canal into Jordan, then Syria, Turkey and finally to the northern most point of their journey, Georgia, which was part of the former Soviet Union.
“We had no schedule, which meant we could explore each country as we liked. This is how we logged such a huge distance on the Toyota. For instance, in Sudan we must have covered close to
15000 km, criss-crossing that vast country, which is about the size of South Africa.
They then made an excursion East, travelling through Pakistan into India, and then to Nepal. It was here that Ayob was struck down with typhoid fever and hospitalised in Kathmandu.
“This part of our trip was another attempt to find a route through to China, but for various reasons this didn’t happen, including falling foul of a no-right-hand-drive ruling in some countries.
“It would take a book to describe all the wonderful experiences we had, and that is one of our plans. We saw fantastic sites, the tourist must-do places like the Taj Mahal which just takes your breath away, where up to 20000 people a day visit.
“For me, one of the most unusual experiences was a trip through the desert in Egypt where almost no-one goes. We latched onto a tour run by Pan Arabic. They take visitors to World War II sites where you can see the remains of Italian, German and English planes still quietly rusting away in the desert.
“We saw many more wonderful places – sufi temples, and the wonderful shrine in the middle of Mackinnon Road in Pakistan. Here it is said that a saint called Sayyed Baghali Shah was working on a railway gang when the workers were threatened by a pride of lions. Baghali went out to confront the lions and befriended them, to the extent that they formed a protective laager around the railway gang so they could carry on with their work without fear of attack.”
Later on when Baghali died and was buried the authorities tried to run the railroad through his grave, but each time they tried one of the workers died in mysterious circumstances. Thus the railway line that should have run straight at this point takes a mysterious kink, to circumnavigate Baghali’s burial site.
“For our return trip we drove down pretty much the same way we’d come up Africa, except that we went through Zambia, not Mozambique. The roads are much better, but on the way up we had a duty to carry out for the Glencoe Relief Aid in Mozambique, gathering information that they would use to provide relief in the area against diseases such as TB and malaria.
“When I set out I was an absolute novice in off-road driving, but after about 70000 km behind the wheel – Abdool did the rest – I felt like a master. We covered every hazard: soft sand, hard sand, rock, winding narrow tarmac, you name it.
“The Fortuner was incredible. We had it serviced at major towns and cities every 10000 km, and I’m not kidding when I tell you that, apart from the one wheel we changed in Yemen, the Fortuner still has the original General tyres that came with the vehicle on delivery. Quite amazing. It is still running its original brake pads too. The only breakages we had were three shock absorbers – and the rear window.
“Despite sometimes travelling for days on end in low range, we didn’t have one spot of mechanical trouble!”
Ayob and Abdool found that the closer they got to home after nearly two years away, the faster they wanted the journey to end. But it was with mixed feelings that they arrived home as, apart from all the wonderful sights and experiences, it was the hospitality and generosity of the people they met that will stay with them. Abdool, at the age of 66 is taking a break for a while, but Ayob, at 54, is already raring to go – again.
Ayob’s Travelling Tips
TZ: What advice would you give to readers embarking on a similar trip?
AV: Go where your heart takes you, it’s all about the experience, not the distance.
TZ: What would you do differently?
AV: Nothing, everything was like a magical dream. The spiritual aspect of meeting so many people was wonderful. On a practical sense, the route via Zambia and Zimbabwe is better than via Mozambique where the rough roads are a car-breaker.
TZ: What vital pieces of equipment would you need?
AV: We were so under-equipped. In our case, it was our Garmin GPS and a camera. Oh yes, and we drank bottled water whenever possible.
TZ: Which countries were out of bounds?
AV: Many for various reasons: conflict or car-elegibility issues in the case of Tibet, which prevented us from reaching China on our eastern leg.
TZ: How difficult
was it servicing the Fortuner in Africa and Asia?
AV: No problem at all. The servicing in the major centres is as good as it is in South Africa.
TZ: Would you do it again?
AV: Coming home, I feel unsettled. I can’t wait to get on the road again.