Overlanderwas on a road trip from Kinsale to Australia experiencing a breakdown in a remote area of Iran. A good Samaritan came to his rescue and the humanity of man will stay with him forever.
SEPTEMBER was hot as hell as we hammered through the desert on our way to the isolated city of Zahedan to catch some sleep.
The empty ribbon of tarmac disappeared into the shimmering landscape, and the mountains bordering Pakistan only seemed to get further away. “We still have 150 kilometres to go,” Wil volunteered, a fact I was fully aware of.
With only a day left to exit Iran before our transit visas expired, there really wasn’t much time to lose.
We are in Balochistan; an area the size of France which is neither a country nor state, but a region that embraces the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Seldom visited by tourists, it is a bleak, brown, arid, rocky desert and mountainous region; populated by millions of fiercely independent Baluchis, denied a nationhood by colonialists, who carved up their lands as spoils of war a century ago.
This is also a troubled Separatist and Taliban region where the rule of law is tenuous. With a history of kidnapping, robbery and drug smuggling, the stress of our predicament was only compounded.
I gazed across at my son, Wil, sitting in the passenger seat. He was beginning to doze off, no doubt dreaming of his impending final year at university and the hopeful excitement of his first overland trip with his old man.
The engine suddenly screamed as I swiftly took my heavy foot from the accelerator and cut the motor. The temperature gauge was now in the red zone as I veered off the track, coming to a halt in the soft sand. Steam was wheezing under the bonnet as we jumped out of the cool of the cab into the searing heat of the midday sun. We looked at each other and without need for words, we knew we were in trouble.
I have driven this Toyota Hilux on extended overland trips for more than ten years; armed with two spare wheels, 40 litres of diesel and a toolkit just in case, with little else. Having driven around the world, I am out here now to do it again, taking a different route on our way to Australia. I’ve been lucky so far, meaning my skillset doesn’t match the toolkit. I tap the radiator with a spanner, and to no surprise, the steam persists.
We tried to assess the problem as the radiator gurgled and hissed. “What the hell do we do now?” asked Wil. The comfort of air conditioning and a functioning engine were gone. We checked our water supplies, “just shy of ten litres”, Wil told me with a sigh. All of a sudden the track ahead looked scabby and wind-blown. The road was pocked with patches of dirty sand reclaiming our lifeline to Pakistan. It was quiet now, eerily so.
Our entry into Iran had been fraught with difficulty as we were held at the Turkish border for three days due to paperwork irregularities. British citizens aren’t permitted to cross land borders into Iran without an official permit and guide, so we were lucky they didn’t notice I was British from my passport as my thumb comfortably covered the “Great Britain”, leaving only “Northern Ireland” for them to see.
Wil’s Irish passport was our golden ticket. After a rejected Carnet de Passage incurred a hefty penalty, we were sent on our way with a five day transit visa to cross 2500 kilometres of Iran’s merciless terrain. We loved Iran so far, the people and the ancient cities of Esfahan and Bam in particular, following the Silk Roads of old, regretting we could not linger for longer.
This is a very lonely, little used road crossing the Dasht-e Lut Desert and we are still hours from our planned overnight destination, with no settlement in between. After an hour of sheltering from the scorching sun and swirling dust, I flagged down a battered truck whose driver was soon under the bonnet prodding and probing the fan belts and seals.
With no common language between us, I understood his shrug and barrage of Farsi enough that the engine was shot. The truck driver was soon into the cool of his cab and on his way with a wave, promising to send someone back from Zahedan to rescue us.
A plume of black smoke puthered from his exhaust as he roared into the distance, signalling our own lost hopes as they dispersed into the blazing afternoon sky. We descended into a gloom, hoping the next truck that came along would stop and give us a tow.
“Salaam” we called twenty minutes later as a little car arrived and the driver soon gave a shrug and shake of the head, confirming the truck driver’s opinion that we are in trouble.
Ahmed is a Baluchi with the dark features of a Pakistani Sunni Muslim, in long loose shirt and baggy trousers in crumpled cream. Baluchis are distrusted by the Shiite majority Iranians, who look and dress very differently. We are tiptoeing on the cultural frontier.
I flashed our rope and waved my arms in an appeal for a tow. He gave me a weary look and nodded as I swiftly hooked up our heavy truck to his mini car. Ahmed invited Wil to sit with him in the car whilst I slouched back in the Toyota.
It was now mid-afternoon and still extremely hot as his car wheels spun in the sand, rocking backwards and forwards as he tried to gain traction. We finally got underway nearly two hours after this unscheduled stop.
Twenty minutes later we rumbled to a halt with Ahmed’s own motor steaming. I was incredulous that such a tiny engine in this extreme heat had been able to haul us at all.
The little car was soon back to its labours as I closely followed in tow watching the animated exchanges between Wil and Ahmed, with not a word of a common language between them. It transpired our Samaritan shared his time between his two wives five hours apart. He drove this route weekly fulfilling his obligations as a good family man.
After three hours crawling through the desert, we reached the far off mountains. Slowly we inched our way to the summit of the first pass where Ahmed stopped to unhitch the tow rope motioning me to freewheel down the mountain track into the unknown. I hurtled along in fear with neither air conditioning, power assisted steering, nor brakes, the rumble of the tyres squealing around the bends in the road leading to Zahedan.
I lost count of how many times we rested and watered our little tow truck. With a second mountain pass to cross, the daylight faded and the heat mercifully receded. Hours later the first stars twinkled as we reached our destination with its fearsome reputation.
This outpost was not a garage but a parts provider surrounded by workshops, all manned by independent mechanics who quickly surrounded us with the prospect of a pay day from two very gullible overland travellers.
Three of them were soon under the bonnet with torches and spanners probing for the source of the problem but it was quickly established that not one had the experience of diesel engines, which are a rarity in Iran. After twenty frustrating minutes one asked me to start the motor and with trepidation I turned the key. To my surprise it roared back into life and my new found mechanics stood back in dismay as a financial opportunity slipped away.
I too had a mix of emotions of both relief and concern that the engine would quickly overheat again, but it never did.
With embarrassment I turned to Ahmed who broke into a wide smile revealing nearly a full set of yellowing teeth that I had not seen before. For hours he had tugged my lump of a truck from the desert over two mountain ranges reducing the life of his little car by half, I am sure.
I took him to one side and proffered my gratitude in cash but he declined with a wave of his hand and his new found smile inviting us to overnight in his home.
My internal dialogue was host to a dilemma. Zahedan’s dangerous reputation gnawed at me, along with our reservation in the safety of the Esteghlal Grand Hotel. But what do I do? What do I do after this man has been so kind thus far, and has further offered the hand of friendship?
Ahmed bounced along the dark dirt roads into his bleak neighbourhood with no street lights. I followed closely, wrought with fear for possibly making the most foolish decision in my most sensible life. We soon arrived at the tall, steel gates of his compound. He tooted his horn and the gates were opened by a small, shadowy figure into a concrete yard with three small building blocks now in my headlights.
We arrived physically and mentally exhausted, sixteen hours after departing Kerman that morning, but adrenalin kicked in as we alighted into Ahmed’s home.
Two dogs were howling to each other somewhere in the still darkness, which added to the tension. We were eased with a “welcome” from the shadowy gatekeeper, Ahmed’s brother; a younger, more stocky figure than his gangly elder. We never did grasp his name nor of another silent friend who emerged from the darkness on this warm and sultry night.
The only illumination came through the open doorway of one building block, emitted by a bulb dangling from the high ceiling; television and occasional giggles and laughter could be heard from a second. A little girl suddenly appeared, flinging her arms around her daddy’s leg whilst trying to hide behind his baggy trousers from these two strange looking travellers, who had appeared from nowhere.
A gesture to remove our boots was made. We were ushered through the open doorway into a poorly lit large square room, furnished only by several layers of carpet. Decoration was a large tapestry along a wall and numerous cushions scattered for comfort. There was no furniture to speak of. Ahmed’s exquisite rug was our home for the evening.
Brother was charming and hospitable as he engaged with us in his fractured English, wanting to know all about us. Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? Why? It would be a lie to say I was not feeling unsettled; Wil, however, seemed at ease, and took to answering his questions with enthusiasm. I took this as a pre kidnap interview.
We were soon poring over the maps of our overland route from Ireland as they tried to grasp our story that sounds farfetched even to ourselves. We are an adventurous family with a passion for travel, possibly inspired by my own travels in this Hilux, which was now parked in their yard.
With a succession of friends and family I had crossed more than eighty countries on numerous trips of up to a month at a time, leaving the truck to return home to fulfil family and work responsibilities. Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia and the Americas had all been crossed but not fully explored.
Our daughter Camilla was emigrating to Australia, so we decided to drive her part way to Istanbul airport, then carry on the road trip to meet up with her in Adelaide. We all decided to share the experience between us in driving stages to France, Italy, Croatia and Istanbul where we said our tearful farewells. Wil and I had taken up the Istanbul to New Delhi part of the drive through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and into India each with its cross border challenges.
Zahedan was the last Iranian stop before Pakistan and this is the first ever breakdown on my entire travels, and it was not even a breakdown.
Brother wanted to know more about where we live in Ireland and the pictures of Kinsale were beyond his comprehension living in a brown arid landscape and far from a sea that he had never seen. Wil and he really bonded and I began to relax a little but not entirely.
Ahmed kept appearing with food from the block house adjacent which I assumed was the family domain and during our entire stay saw no one else. I made a brief excursion to the ablutions block which defied description and was not a place to linger.
Brother and Wil started playing chess with gusto, and I admired my son for his social skills in changing a negative into a positive situation as they whooped and groaned as the game developed. We looked on with shrugs and smiles being unable to communicate anymore. The little girl fell asleep snuggled into Ahmed’s lap and smiling he gently took her into his arms and swept out of the room returning with blankets for us.
We plumped up the cushions, switched off the light and snuggled down under scratchy blankets, tired but unable to relax going over the events of the day and thinking about tomorrow. How safe are we, did the engine simply overheat, and will it happen again? The border crossing into Pakistan is an hour away through no man’s land to the border town of Taftan described in the Lonely Planet “not unfairly, as hell on earth.” What are we doing here, a pensioner and his twenty year old son with his whole life ahead of him?
I dozed fitfully until a gap in the curtain let in the predawn and I was fully awake, still dressed and ready to go. Wil was in a deep sleep as I made for the chink of grey light and gently pulled it aside to focus on the yard. My Hilux was still where I left it and there are three bundles on the floor beside it that I hadn’t noticed when we arrived only hours before.
I squinted and pulled the curtain wider for a better look before realising these bundles were our hosts wrapped in blankets sleeping on the concrete yard, protecting my beloved Hilux. I was astonished. They had given us their room for the night, showered us with kindness and hospitality, rescued us from the desert and, we, total strangers who were fearful of their motives and intentions were profoundly humbled. Shame on me.
I roused Wil whilst tidying the room and we were soon ready to go. As I drew back the curtain, Ahmed awoke from his slumber and with a broad smile waved us out into the yard in silence as we carefully stepped around the two remaining men fast asleep. Dawn was truly breaking as we motioned our desire to leave.
He took his key to open the large gate lock and pulled them open motioning us to reverse out. I inserted the key into the ignition and drew breath as I turned it. The engine spluttered into life and Brother and their silent friend flinched momentarily.
Ahmed in his little car guided us out of his neighbourhood back onto tarmac as we drove through the near deserted streets in the direction of the rising sun. He stopped and flagged us to wait whilst he crossed the road into a bakery returning with fresh bread and water for our journey. We thanked him profusely but still he declined a gesture of cash from us. I insisted that he took a gift for his beautiful daughter, which he accepted with demure.
He led us back into our car pointing us in the direction of the worrisome border crossing into Pakistan which we had to make with only hours to spare. We sounded our horn and drove away with sight of our Good Samaritan waving farewell, receding in our mirror.
Thoughts of the humanity of man and My Longest Day will stay with me forever.
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