16. Home?

Green grass, the sound of birds, beautiful flowers and a nice morning sun. By closing the eyes, this could be Ethiopia. But it’s not. It’s the Netherlands. 5,5 months after we’ve left our jobs, sold our house and said goodbye, we’re back. The world is turning upside down and we are whirling with it.

2,5 weeks ago we were still in Ethiopia, relaxing at a nice camp spot in the North at Lake Tana. We’ve heard many stories about this country: the most beautiful nature in Africa, special tribes and stunning offroad tracks. But also: civil unrest, kids that throw rocks to your car and overwhelming busyness. So while making plans we’re curious and aware at the same time: where to go and which area’s to avoid. On our 3rd day at the camp site a Dutch couple joins, Coen and Floortje. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve met fellow overlanders so it’s nice to share drinks & stories. After a few days we decide to travel together trough Ethiopia; starting with a beautiful multiple day track in the Simien mountains. 

But while making these plans, there is a word that increasingly joins our discussions: Corona. It’s vague, but it’s there. We see some news flashes from Europe, we read about increasing numbers of affected people, we hear about friends that need to work from home. But everyone we know back home is healthy so no need to get restless. And Africa seems to be ok. So we continue to plan our journey: a few weeks of exploring Ethiopia, finishing with a well known beautiful off road border crossing to Kenya.

But then Kenya closes its borders. The first Covid-19 measure that directly hits our travel plans. We re-discuss our plans, pro’s, cons, and for the first time the option of going home to the Netherlands finds our discussion. But we don’t see the need. Ethiopia is safe, we can travel around and we decide to enjoy Ethiopia on a very slow pace, waiting until Kenya opens its borders again. In the meanwhile, messages from back home get surreal: empty super markets, friends do not know whether they can have a drink in a bar or not, people get angry when someone coughs, etcetera. Scenes from a movie, not from real life. But it is really happening. Though we still decide to stay. Better enjoy the beautiful Ethiopian nature than sitting at home in the cold Netherlands. And we don’t even have a home anymore. It’s Sunday night and we decide to start driving to the mountains on Tuesday morning.

But things develop fast. On Monday, the Dutch prime minister speaks to the Dutch people. We are aware of the fact that this is a historic moment; the last time this happened was in the seventies. The message is clear: the Netherlands (together with so many other countries) is facing big challenges. Schools close, restaurants close, working from home as much as needed and keep distance. While reading articles we get introduced by new terms like social distancing and vital professions. We have phone calls with family and re discuss our plans. In the meanwhile, two Greek overlanders, Dimitris and Vasilis, have joined our group, so we’re now with 6. We again weigh all the pros and cons. Borders in Africa seem to close fast, health care is far from sufficient in most African countries, how long will this all last and are we still able to fly to the Netherlands when needed? But also: we are in good health, Ethiopia is a huge country so fine for weeks of exploring and we can always return to this safe camp site. So we decide to stay: we will drive the next morning.

But then there is other news: our Greek friends just arrived at the campsite, and encountered some negative emotions towards white people. Ethiopian people yelled ‘Corona Corona’ to them and it felt tens. And we hear similar stories from Sudan. This changes the discussion: so maybe we are not afraid for our own health, but what if civil unrest gets worse and we are the ‘ones to blame’? In ‘their’ eyes, we as white people bring the Covid-19 virus to Africa. So we are to blame when things get bad. When people get sick. Or even worse, when people die. Economic decline. And so one. 

The next morning our Greek friends have decided they want to drive to the capital Addis Ababa, and take a flight home from there. We are confused, not knowing what to do anymore. We decide to make coffee and have a final discussion with the 6 of us. It’s difficult; we’ve all been dreaming about this travel for a long time, invested lot’s of time, love and money, left our home and job, and we are so not ready to go home. There are so many African countries still to explore. But we cannot decide different than to drive to Addis as well- mainly because of the expected unrest. We know it’s a long drive; at least 1,5 day. So we pack and go. The moment we leave the campsite, we receive an informal message from the Dutch embassy in Ethiopia; travelers should leave the country as soon as possible. There is our confirmation. 

And then our journey begins. We’re a bit tens, not knowing (after a week on the campsite) what to expect from daily life in Ethiopia. Already in the first village people start yelling ‘Corona Corona’. Ok, it’s real. Actually we are happy when kids yell “money money” in stead of “Corona Corona”. And in the meantime we receive many updates with one clear message: leave the country before the airport will shut down. We decide to not only drive to Addis, but also to book a flight back home as soon as possible. The drive is exhausting and beautiful at the same time. We drive through many busy villages, there are always people, animals or trucks driving like crazy on the street, and in the meanwhile we see stunning nature: mountains full of green, enormous trees, flowers and animals. The road is (mainly) in good condition and meanders through this magical landscape. We definitely want t come back to explore this country when things settle down.

At the end of the first driving day we park our cars at a local hotel. Immediately many locals stand  around our cars, laughing, saying corona corona and trying to touch us (it seems like you are cool when you dare to touch a white person). We see the conditions of the rooms and facilities and decide to sleep in our cars. We book 3 rooms anyway which allows us to park our care safe in the backyard, have dinner, drink a beer and relax a bit. In the meanwhile, friends and family help us out by booking flights.

The night is short- we go to sleep around 11PM and wake up at 4:00AM. We decide to drive in the dark: not only to be on time in Addis, but also to avoid crowded villages (and with that, the corona yelling). The first 1,5 hour is difficult: it’s fully dark, truck drivers drive (again) like crazy, people and donkeys on the road without any light and the road is good but with potholes and many curves. We are glad when we see the sunrise- not only for safer driving but also for the incredible views on the landscape. Along the road we pick up 2 Americans on bikes- they don’t feel safe anymore and we give them a ride to Addis. Along the road, many people hold their clothes for their mouth when they see us. We also notice that beggars and police man don’t come to our cars anymore while standing still in traffic. Is that a coincidence, or are they afraid of us?

Our feeling is ambiguous; we would like to go home now with all these recent developments, but in the meanwhile we see this insanely beautiful country, and – besides the corona yellers- often nice locals who smile or even shout ‘welcome to Ethiopia’. We really hope we can go back to create new memories here. 

In Addis we are lucky to be able to park our car at the Dutch embassy- the safest place we can think of. The people at the embassy are super kind and even give us 2 suitcases- of course we did not bring any ourselves. We feel emotional and tired while packing our stuff and while preparing our car/home to stay there for – probably- at least a few months. To close our journey we enjoy a meal in a hotel with the 6 of us. We’re glad we could share this journey together and make plans to visit each other in Europe- whenever possible.

After dinner we head to the Airport. We’re with the 2 of us again and fly from Addis to Londen, and from London to Amsterdam. 2,5 days after we decided to go back, we arrive in Amsterdam. We see the first Corona contours: lines at the toilet for washing your hands and shops that are closed. Merle’s sister Rachel (who helped us incredibly with booking our flights) picks us up and brings us to our new home. We are lucky: a good friend owns a house in Culemborg (center of Holland) which he does not use. It’s a lovely villa, surrounded by green and a good place to catch our breath and understand what just has happened. We left Africa. And we left our car. 

At the moment of writing, we are back now for 2 weeks. We slowly get used to the Dutch cold weather (but luckily are treated with a lot of sun as well!) and we have made our home a nice cosy place with the help of neighbors and family. It feels super weird to walk in the Albert Heijn, Hema or other Dutch shops. It’s such a difference with the past 6 months. We even forgot to bring our payment cards the first time; we only had African cash money in our wallets. But of course at the moment everything is weird for everyone. So we’re kind of part of that weird bubble now. And we’re happy to be close to friends and family- we don’t see them in real life but the feeling of being close is nice in these times. And obviously, we’re happy that we and the people around us are healthy, that we have this nice home, with great nature for hiking around and that we collected already so many nice memories in the last 6 months.

From here we’ll see. We try to help around where needed, we started online courses and we walk around. It’s a nice bubble in weird times. We do not plan further than today or tomorrow. And of course, we hope to continue our travel as soon as possible. But when that is, we’ll see. Let’s first beat this virus. We really hope that the African countries and their people will be ok, because with their fragile systems this could turn into a disaster. We deeply hope that scenario will not occur.

Take care of yourself and the people around you! And thanks for following our journey together with us; we’ll hope to be back soon with an update! 

15. This Is Africa (TIA)

“So, you can either go back to Saudi to get an approval for your car, or wait here in the harbor for 4 nights and we will arrange approval”. It’s Wednesday 17:00. This morning 08:30 we arrived – after a 12 hour ferry- in the harbor of Suakin, Sudan. The status end of day: we are allowed into the country, but our car is not. According to the Customs officials, we need an additional approval to import our car. Three men help us out that day, debating with customs, running around, talking to unidentified other persons, etcetera. We’re not sure if they are fixers or harbor officials, but it’s nice that they help us out. Or at least, try to. Because at 17:00 our car is still behind the fence. We’re tired and get upset now; we don’t want to go back to Saudi nor want to stay in the harbor. Finally, at 17:55 a Customs official invites us in his office, makes an exception for us and gives us the papers and stamps we need. We still don’t understand what was wrong but hey- TIA (This Is Africa). We thank the Customs official a thousand times and with huge smiles on our face we drive into Sudan- literally screaming of joy.

Other than in the previous countries, we now have a time schedule/ planning in Sudan. Max’ sisters are visiting from the Netherlands, so we have a few days to drive to Khartoum to meet them there. The drive towards Khartoum gives us a chance to get a first glance of Sudan. One thing that (again, as in most other countries) we notice is the kindness of the people. At a first encounter, many of the Sudani look at us as if we are aliens. But when we smile, we receive large, big white smiles in return. “Sank you Sank you” they yell, or “Helloooo, welcome”. Furthermore, we see a desert landscape with small villages with mud houses, self made tents, lot’s of garbage alongside the road and donkeys carrying food or wood. It’s a complete different world after a few months Middle East. What is also different, is the shortage of diesel in Sudan. Already for quite a while there is a shortage of gasoline and diesel, which results in endless long lines before the gas stations. Some people even wait overnight. It’s a huge problem, and the black market seems to offer a quick escape. Alongside the road, small shops (secretly) sell diesel. But this – obviously- comes with a high price.

Khartoum feels like a big village- not like the huge capitals we’ve seen so far. Only a few high buildings, many buzzling streets with little markets and the Nile meandering through like a calm, steady flow, taking care of the city (the water of the Nile is used everywhere; from drinking water in shared big cans at restaurants to the many small tabs alongside the road where people wash their feet). The vibe in Khartoum is busy but relaxt; there are many people on the street, we have many small chats, but we can also just sit down, watch our surroundings and enjoy a drink. In daytime we see women with headscarfs, in the evening we see young girls with European- style clothings. It’s an interesting mix in this Islamic country.

At Sunday night we pick up Max’ sisters – Marlou and Meggie- from Khartoum airport. It’s super nice to hug family (in law) again! We’ve planned 10 days traveling together, where Max’s sisters will have their own car and a driver- a group of 5. But, TIA: when we meet the driver he does not speak any word English. So last minute an English speaking guide is arranged and we leave Khartoum- 2 cars, 6 people. Our guide- Mohamed- has set up an 8 day program: heading North from Khartoum, crossing the Nile a few times and then back South. From day 1 we step into Sudan history, where we learn about the original Sudani- the Nubians-, the Egyptian invasion and Christianity in Sudan. We visit the oldest city in the world- Kerma, where they show the start of civilization in a very interesting museum. Small pieces of jewelry and kitchen ‘tools’ are shown, some 8000 year old (!). We visit sights where foreign universities and/or historical institutes excavate churches from Christian sights. We see archeologists at work, brining history to life with recovering stunning wall paintings, many of them well kept. We visit pyramids and tombs and watch the early morning sunrise on a beautiful Egyptian temple in Soleb. One of the most special aspects about the sights is that they are far from touristic- there are no fences, you can freely walk around (literally stepping on dunes that cover pyramids still to be excavated) and there are hardly any other tourists.

The Sudani we meet are kind, curious and welcoming. They do not have much -we can clearly see poverty at some (most) places- but they seem to be able to take care of each other and themselves on a (very) basic level and keep a good spirit. We drink many tea’s at the typical Sudani tea spots; small places where women serve tea and coffee for 10 eurocent from behind their little ‘desk’ and we stroll around market places. It’s a full program (especially after 5 months without having any program) and in the beginning we surely have to adjust with camping with 6 people (in stead of 5 months being just with 2), but it’s definitely rewarding. Unfortunately on the last day on the road, Marlou brakes her ankle while playing soccer with some kids- so the last 24 hour of our time together in Sudan is mainly spent in the hospital and hotel. Luckily they can still catch their planned flight and surgery can be done in Holland. Nevertheless we all look back on a very special Sudani 10 days.

Our last days in Khartoum we enjoy city life with a few hours of sailing on the Nile, we visit a local Friday prayer (Whirling Deverish) and have dinner with some fellow overlanders. We also try three times to visit the National Museum but it’s closed because of no electricity- TIA. We close our Sudan adventure with a visit to a huge farm near the border with Ethiopia. We were introduced to the owner of the farm in our Khartoum hotel, where he got us excited with his stories. It’s quite a ride to get there, we get lost several times, drive trough very small villages where we are thrown back in time, people stare at us and ask for water and we make wrong turns in the middle of agriculture fields (where Max steps out of the car to check the road, gives an enormous scream, jumps in the air, runs to the car and only can say: SNAKE, SNAKE, a big brown SNAKE). Right before dark we arrive at the farm, are welcomed by the owner and enjoy a shower and a good sleep. The next day we get a full tour on the farm- it’s harvesting season and we see how soja beans, water melons and cotton are harvested. The farm has 2500 people working on the fields, making sure the products are harvested in time, so the land can be prepared for seeding again before raining season starts. For harvesting cotton, the farm hires many of the workers in Ethiopia: they are picked up at the boarder, sometimes bring their whole family, their sheeps and donkeys and sleep in self made huts on the land. They work for a whole month, sometimes 20 hour a day (!), to be able to make some money to bring back home (unfortunately Ethiopia has a high rate of unemployment).

The next morning we drive towards Ethiopia. Again we get lost a few times and we get instructions from locals: keep on the left side of the mountain, which is actually quite a broad range (“How do we get to Ethiopia?” “Sopia? Ahhhh Sopia! Yes yes Sopia nice, you go left from the mountain!), but after 5 hours we see the border. Our Ethiopian adventure is about to start.

Nb: at the moment of writing we are at a camp site at Lake Tana in the East of Ethiopia (Sopia). As aspected, the Corona virus has found Africa including Ethiopia as well. It’s quite an exciting time, because borders are closing; i.e. Kenya (our next country) has now closed its borders for a month. It’s been an interesting (and not always fun) first Ethiopian 4 days because of this news, where we’ve discussed different scenarios. For now, we decided to stay here – we’ve met a nice Dutch couple and plan to travel together for a while- of course we will be careful with hygiene and take notice of important changes. For our readers; take care wherever you are, we hope you all are and remain healthy.

14. Saudi in 10 days

Back to our first night in Saudi (or read our previous blog first). If we are not quite sure where we can camp, we normally check the app “iOverlander”, where fellow overlanders drop wildcamp- spots. But not in Saudi. Since the boarder is only open for tourists for 3 months now, there are not many spots yet noted. Nor are there any clear descriptions in travel guides.  So when it get’s dark, we know we have to hurry because finding a spot in the dark is not so convenient- you just never know where you actually are. 

We search for parks in a small town, but it’s too crowded. We search for open area’s near the town, but it doesn’t feel safe enough. Around 20:30- it’s already very dark- we see some dunes near the road and decide to camp there, hidden from the road. We quickly make dinner and – tired from a long driving day- go to bed early. Right when we fall asleep, we hear men voices and knocking on our ‘door’.  We’re awake immediately. Men knocking on the car, the first night in a new country; it doesn’t feel too comfortable. Especially because it’s difficult to estimate their tone of voice; it sounds angry but it could also be curiosity; it’s difficult to tell. Max get’s out of the car and with hands and feet we understand that they are farmers and that we camp on their property- oops. They first seem to think we’re locals who want to sleep secretly together without being married. When they hear the word ‘tourist’ they cool down and immediately welcome us. Pfieuw. We can continue our sleep..

In total we only stay in Saudi for 10 days- way to short to explore this immens country. We first drive to the Edge of the World- a stunning canyon landscape. We arrive on a Tuesday and learn that sights are only open in the weekend; on Friday and Saturday (hello new country). So we are sent away. We decide to camp nearby and try again on Wednesday morning. They let us in, yes! We enjoy 1 night wild camping at this beautiful landscape (though very cold! Where is the hot Saudi desert?! 🙂

Saudi feels interesting. Obviously, the Islamic rituals are a main part of the experience. We’re already used to the prayers 5 times a day, but where in other countries you just heard the prayer, in Saudi normal life stops for a moment. Shops close, when eating in a restaurant the curtains go down and on television the broadcast is paused with images of Mekka. The islamic religion is way more tangible than in the previous Islamic countries we’ve visited. But being non-muslim we have some exceptions; i.e. Merle does not have to wear a headscarf and we can stay in hotel rooms together- even not being married (hardly even a question). What we cannot do, is driving to Mekka. On our way from Riyadh to Jeddah we cross Mekka and we are curious at what point we – as non muslim- are headed to a different direction. Then, around 30KM before Mekka, the road spits with a sign “Left Muslims, Right Non- Muslims”. This is how close we will every be to this holy city. 

Like in Oman and the Emirartes, we see many Indian and Pakistani people working in the restaurants, gas stations, laundry shops, etcetera. We notice again that these are such friendly and hard working people, no matter where we stop, we always have fun with them. The Saudi’s are definitely kind and welcoming as well, but with a little more distance. Furthermore Saudi also feels like little America. American brands are everywhere, the same as huge malls and drive-through- services (you can even get cash from the ATM without leaving your car). 

An important part of our Saudi stay is trying to get a Sudan visa. It’s a complicated and time consuming process. We were rejected in Oman, then went to Dubai, to Riyadh and finally to Jeddah, the city where the ferry to Sudan leaves. At the moment where we almost give up hope, we receive an sms that our visa is ready! The next day we drive to the Sudan Consulate and after many paper work, waiting and more paper work, we receive our Sudan visa. We can’t be more happy!

We decide that we do not want to wait to go to Sudan, so we reserve a spot on the Wednesday ferry, 2 days later. On Tuesday- our last Saudi day- there is a second nice surprise: we can join a Swedish film maker on his day trip finding the best coral spots for his new movie. Wow! With only him, a few crew members and ourselves we enjoy a full day of snorkeling and diving far far away from the coast. We have both never seen such beautiful coral; colors all over and beautiful fish swimming by. As a last treat, some dolphins swim with our boat as we head back to the coast.

At the moment of writing we are on the ferry from Jeddah to Port Sudan, a 12 hour trip, where we are the only non- Sudani. But they immediately give us a welcoming feeling. Our Africa adventure is about to start!

13. Overlanding vs Uber chopper

Our first night in Saudi Arabia. We are already driving for 8 hours and hope to find a nice wild camp spot somewhere along the way. In the morning we crossed the Emirates – Saudi boarder. A huge area with enormous lanes and offices to host many people. Is this huge area a preparation for Saudi’s 2030 vision, in which they aim to become a tourist-heaven? We’re not sure, but at the moment we’re the only one there. The Customs’ manager assistant is appointed as our chaperone, and guides us through the process. At the passport check, there is a friendly man who seems to be very proud on all the tooling he has; a copy machine, a fingerprint scanner and a camera. With lot’s of concentration and love, he first cleans the tools with the wipes he carries with him and then invites us for the check. We are ‘documented’ and welcomed to Saudi.

With the start of our Saudi adventure, we close our Oman and Emirates travel. Especially Oman was a welcoming relaxing month, a very easy to travel country with lovely locals. Our final week in Oman we spend desert driving with 2 new German friends: Claudia and Simon. When we met them we immediately felt a good connection, camped for 2 nights together and then decided to cross the Rub’ al Khali desert with our cars, which became another highlight of our travel. We prepped the route by putting some GPS coordinates in our devices and then hit the dunes. The week had it all: dune driving, sand storms, beautiful easy desert mornings with yoga, even more sand storms, running away for desert- snakes, Max’ bday with a campfire, music, lots of meat and even more drinks, a proper hangover day (where we drove max 30 KM and then set up camp again), again sand storms and a wild camp lunch where a group of 12 camels joined us and we could even cuddle with them. Oman is definitely a country to come back to; it honestly feels as a hidden gem in the Arabian peninsula. 

The Emirates was more like a must-go- stop for us to arrange a Sudan visa and to do some car maintenance. We started in Dubai at a nice beach camp among locals. It’s a basic low key camp spot, but with a good view on all the Dubai craziness with its lights, luxurious hotels, fireworks and even Uber choppers flying over constantly. An overland safe place between all the (in our eyes) overdone entertainment and money spending. By pure coincidence, 2 friends of us stayed in Dubai as well. We visited Annelouk and Patriek in their resort and Annemarie and Joep visited us for a bbq at our camping. It was very nice to see some familiar Dutch faces and to be able to hug close friends. We still enjoy the travel very much but at the same time we obviously miss our family & friends, so this ‘intermezzo’ was a pleasant surprise!

We finished the Emirates with a visit to the Louvre in Abi Dhabi- a dependance from the Paris’ museum. Because of the high entertainment level in the Emirates (Ferrari world, 4D movies, etcetera), we were quite skeptic upfront; is this some kind of fake-tourist-remake of the Paris version? But our skepticism disappeared quickly when we saw the magical architecture of the building and the enormous galleries which lead you through art from all over the world while teaching you the development of art trough the years. It’s absolutely worth visiting- we’ve spend there almost 6 hours. 

And then Saudi! Curious for our adventures there? Click here

12. Omani holiday

“Do you want some lobster? Ehm, yes sure why not!” We arrived in paradise; the most Southern part of Oman, Salalah. White sandy beaches, palm trees, rocky mountains, camels wandering by, green/blue sea with amazing cliffs, and hardly any other camper, for some nights we even have our own private bay. To make paradise complete, a fisherman stops by to give us some lobsters.  

We are in our 3rd Oman week. When we arrived in Oman, we had to get used to the serene atmosphere. In Iran there was always something going on, always people around, always new situations. Oman feels more calm.

The Omani’s we meet are super welcoming. We’ve experienced this in several ways; when camping at the beach a big car stops and a chique looking Omani steps out of the car. He introduces himself, tells us how much his car is worth (it’s clearly a status object) and tells us he is the CEO of a Salt factory close by. “Can I help you, do you perhaps want a shower”? is his first question. Ehhh, well, if that’s his first question he might be hinting to the fact that we either smell or that the dread-look in our hair shows that we used only the sea as our shower for the last 10 days. A proper shower sounds pretty good so we kindly accept his invitation. The next day we drive to the Salt factory where we are welcomed by the manager. And the assistent manager. And the assistant from the assistant manager. The first asks us if we want tea, and the second yells to the third that he needs to bring us tea. Hello Omani hierarchy. The assistent manager – we named him Ferry Important- takes us to the cabin of the CEO. He shows us the bathroom and tells his assistant to bring some lunch. A few hours later we leave the plant. Completely clean and with a full stomach. Happy with this moment of luxury!

Another example of the Omani friendliness is when we visit one of the Wadi’s in the North East, Wadi Tiwi. When we arrive, a local, Sahid, approaches us and asks if we want to see the waterval. Sure why not, so we follow him downhill. He shows us the wonderful Wadi and invites us to climb down with ropes and swim in the beautiful pools. At that moment we guess he might be some kind of guide, and he probably will ask for some money afterwards. But hey, let’s enjoy it;  he does show us this nice surroundings which we wouldn’t have found ourselves. We swim for a while and climb uphill back to the town where he takes us to his house where lunch is ready to be served. Ok, this is definately a paid tour we think. After lunch he brings us back to the car where we offer him some money. But he doesn’t accept, he explains he enjoys showing his country to guests. This kind of hospitality keeps on surprising us.

Besides the people, also the landscape surprises us. It’s funny how you form a picture of a country in your head, and when you arrive you realize this picture is based just on a few stories. The same goes for Oman, where we mainly expected desert and beaches. But already in our first Omani days we are treated on some beautiful mountains and wadi’s. We can test the power of our car again with steep mountain tracks and enjoy some walks in wadi’s with beautiful green. Besides the differences in landscapes, nature ‘treats’ us on wind, a lot of wind. So when we arrive at camp spots -mainly at beaches- we make a quick dinner outside and get into the car pretty early to watch a movie or read a book. On one Friday night we camp at a beautiful white beach. But the sea  (West side) is wild and the wind (East side) is heavy so at night in the tent it feels like sleeping in a centrifuge. At 6AM we see Omani’s around us packing their stuff. We see a family who’s camp is almost completely blown into the sea. We help them out, pack our own camp and at 07:30 we arrive at the first Wadi, obviously way before opening hour..

A nice aspect about our time in Oman, is that we often encounter travelers we met earlier in Iran. Almost everyone we met decided to enjoy a ‘holiday’ in Oman. Where holiday might sound strange because you could see this whole travel as one big holiday. But while traveling every day there are things to arrange; filling the water tanks, arranging food (hence, searching for a super market, that most of the time sells only a few things so you need at least 3 shops), searching for a camp spot, finding a shop for spare care parts, finding a print shop for visa, arranging internet, packing and unpacking the camp, dishes, finding a laundry, etcetera. And of course all in new surroundings (so getting lost quite often) and with a language barrière. There is rarely is day where we just relax. But hey, we’re definately not complaining: it’s a luxury that we can travel this long and we’re enjoying the ride!

Yesterday we met some German travelers here in the South of Oman. They invited us for a coffee via instagram, so we drove to their camp spot on the beach. We actually planned to go North that day, but the coffee ended up in wine, which ended up in a bbq, which ended up in staying at their camp spot 2 nights and this morning we decided to drive into the desert together for a few days. Nice how plans can change. From the desert, we will drive North towards Dubai where we hope to get our Sudan visa!

11. Treasure hunt

Iran; we planned to stay 4 weeks but ended up staying 8. And we could easily add another 4. But at the same time we want to continue our travel and explore new countries. So after celebrating Christmas in Iran, we took the ferry to the Middle East. 

Christmas 2019 is a special one. We celebrate Christmas eve with a bunch of overlanders at the beach of Bandar Abbas where we create a 5 cars – camp, add some Christmas decorations and listen to Chris Rea’s Driving home for Christmas. In between we here the songs coming out of the mosque- a nice blended start of Christmas. It’s good to be with some friends we’ve met on the road; in these days family and friends feel far away and are missed. 

At Christmas Day we catch a boat to Hormuz island, famous for its hippie style atmosphere. When the people of our homestay find out we celebrate Christmas, they make it a special night for us. “Guests are as lights: they lighten up your home and you have to make sure they will shine even brighter” they say to us. A warm – originally Persian- Christmas thought. We enjoy fresh fish from the grill, home made drinks and listen to WHAM. 

The other guests are 3 young guys from Teheran. It’s interesting to have chats with them, and understand more about the impact of the current economic situation. We speak about work possibilities, emigration, differences between men and women and so on. For many Iranian people it’s difficult to find their way in the current situation. While discussing, a guilty feeling rises; just because of the place where we were born we have more opportunities. This is obviously no new information, but in these kind of conversations it gets more concrete. Lots of young Iranian people still live at their parents and cannot find a job. We sold our house and quit our jobs, because we trust that we will manage to find a new place & new jobs once back from travel. The differences could not be bigger, which is a hard reality.

The planning of our visit to Hormuz Island represents our time in Iran- we planned to stay 1 night but end up staying 3. Finally, we need to take a ferry at 6AM in the morning but we cannot leave without breakfast- as Iranian say: “Breakfast is golden, lunch is for friends and dinner you share with your enemies”

Saturday December 28; time to take the ferry to the Emirates! Other travelers warned us upfront; the procedure in the Iranian harbor takes some hours. When we arrive, we see a few blue containers with small offices inside. This is where the treasure hunt for stamps and paperwork starts. First to container one to get a stamp. Then to another container, where someone checks this stamp. Then to the building left, where we need to make visa and passport copies (5 of each, of which we used 1). In the shop next to the copyshop we need to buy a folder to keep all the paperwork together. No, not a blue folder, a green one. 200 meters further, again in a random direction: a building where we need to fill in several forms. In office one the form is checked, in office two we get a stamp and then back to the entrance for a copy. In another building there are 29 desks of which 2 are open. There we receive another stamp. 

And so it continuous, in total around 27 steps. Luckily, there are 5 German overlanders who are in exactly the same process so we can share our newly gained knowledge, help each other and most of all laugh about the whole procedure. At 5PM (8 hours after the start) we collected all the apparent necessary stamps: the treasure hunt is over. At 9PM we can board. The emergency door has a sign which says “ In case of emergency, keys in buffet”. Enjoy the ride…

Arriving in the Emirates, we find out that the Emirates customs like treasure hunts as well. Signing papers, stamp collecting, payments; all in different offices in the harbor (of course the office buildings are not clear; it’s opening a container door and hoping that you’ll find a desk). After 6 hours in a rather inefficient, but operated by friendly people process, we reach the end level of this hunt and drive into the Emirates. Let the culture shock begin.

The difference with Iran could not be bigger. Immense high fancy looking buildings, huge yachts and everywhere where you look expensive cars. Supermarkets where we see Western products we’ve missed for a while, perfect road conditions and hotels with an super chique allure. We find a beach in the middle of Dubai where many locals camp. From there, we enjoy a 360 view on Dubai and the Palm island. We decide to celebrate NYE with some of our new German friends, buy some bubbles, watch the immens firework shows and get easily drunk (after 2 months ‘hardly any’ alchohol) . With a huge hangover we cross the boarder to Oman on January 1st. For now: Happy & healthy 2020!

10. Go with the flow.

Goal oriented, Result driven, Planning focused; these would probably be some of the words you would find on both of our resumes. And being Dutchies, it’s in our culture to be efficient, in control and time driven. Well, these are definitely not the characteristics you need for traveling through Iran. What you need is the opposite; go with the flow, take your time and accept the fact that you often haven’t got a clue what is about to happen. And hey, things just happen, not perse for any reason. Where we Dutchies always feel there is a lack of time, Iranian people see time as something endless- it is always there.

After our Lut desert adventure, we decide to drive to Shiraz. The fifth most populous city in Iran, and – among other things- famous for the Nasir al- Mulk Mosque and the garden and tomb of the Iranian poet Hafez. It is quite a culture shock; from off-road desert life, we jump into a city trip (it’s an interesting feeling; we’ve both been living in cities for 20 years, but since/ while traveling we evidently prefer rural area’s). Although we have to adapt, we also enjoy the benefits of city life; good restaurants, even better coffee and beautiful architecture. But after a few nights we decide to hit the road again; visiting the impressive Persepolis and off-roading through the Zagros mountains!

Driving through the Zagros mountains we come across the small village Qhalat, also named as ‘Little Amsterdam’ – we’ll leave open the question why. From our Lut desert guide Ali we received the number of a guy living there, so we decide to text him. Not having a clue for what reason Ali recommended him but hey, let’s see. The guy- Ramin – responses quickly, picks us up at a bar and – without really saying something- takes us with him to his house. Why does he show his house? What are we going to do? We haven’t got a clue. Ramin appears to be a musician and plays some beautiful music for us in his living room. Then 2 Iranian backpackers show up and join us for the music. We sometimes look to each other: do you have any idea what the plan is? Nope. Ok, let’s see. 

Ramin asks if we want to stay for the night. It’s cold and dark outside, warm and cosy inside so sure why not! Two local man show up and join our little get-together. Maybe, we say to each other, there is no plan. We just hang out, with some random people, at a random place. To make ourselves useful we cook dinner for the group. It’s nice to be able to contribute to this random gathering (or to have a goal after all?). We play and listen to music till late in the evening, share new music and just enjoy the good atmosphere.

When we wake up, we take a stroll through the village with the group and then hit the road again. Not without the promise to watch Ramin’s concert that night in Shiraz. So that night the group get’s together again in a super hipster bar and we enjoy a good jazz concert of Ramin and his band. There was no plan when we sent him an app the day before, and there still is none, but we just step from one experience into the other. And it feels quite good.

The next day we drive to the Persian Gulf. After a few hours driving we step out of the car; warm air! What a present after many cold, even freezing, nights. We find a bar where we can park via iOverlander and with our engine still on the owner of the bar runs to us saying: “ WELCOME HOME!! You are at home my friends”. Wow, what a welcome. We can park our car in front of the bar and walk in; 3 other French overlanders are there as well and the bar is a super nice, European looking venue, chill area’s, film corner and a kitchen/bar we can use as much as we like. At first we don’t understand it; why would he open his bar for us? Where are the customers? It appears that it is a private member club- only good friends of Farshid (the owner) can drop in, and he just really enjoys the company of travellers. 

We arrived there to stay for 1 night, later plan to leave after 4, but due to the rain re-plan this changes to 5 and end up staying 6. It indeed feels like home. It also feels like being student again; living together with a bunch of fun people just doing fun stuff. Farshid makes delicious cookies and shakes every morning, takes the guys out to a gym at the beach, we grill fresh fish, the French cook delicious French cakes & crepes and we enjoy a Dutch bike ride along the coast. In the evening we play games, watch movies and enjoy nice chats with our French friends, Farshid and his friends. The days just crawl by and we don’t even notice. 

A few of Farshids friends are pianist and invite us for a night at the piano institute. We go there and enjoy some beautiful music performances. And as an extra surprise we get V.I.P tickets for an Iranian concert and enjoy traditional music and dancing. Again – like we experienced everywhere in Iran- the people find it super important that we have a good experience and that we understand that the media image of Iran is not how it is in real life among the people. We already experienced that from the moment we entered Iran, but stay surprised about the genuine selfless hospitality of the people.

The last few weeks we didn’t have a plan; things just happened. No goals, no next steps, no control. Where in the first weeks of our travel we kind of ‘rushed’, we are now slowing down. We planned to be in Oman for Christmas, but are still enjoying Iran too much. So we decided to celebrate Christmas with our French friends in the South of Iran, visit the island of Hormuz and then take the ferry to Oman. 

At the moment of writing we are wild camping at the Persian Gulf a few days. Beautiful – Greece style- bays, no internet and hardly any people. Time for books again and some beach gym – working on the many many many nice Iranian cookies & French crepes 🙂 For now: we wish you a Merry Christmas!

Nb: we’ve posted the first part of our Iranian photo’s

9. Men with a mission

So, there we are. In Shadad, a small desert village, with our Troopy on a 6 hour desert drive far away in the dunes. We’re quite worried; what if someone finds our car? Our tour guide Ali helps us finding mechanics and tour guides (he leaves to India so cannot come himself). It’s a full day of calling, arranging, some more calls and well, some more calls. Luckily, a mechanic we’ve met before can help us and knows where to find a new part; in Teheran. There goes our hope for a quick fix. But it’s ok; they send it with a night flight from Teheran to Kerman. And indeed, it is delivered the next morning. Let’s start the rescue! We drive from Shadad to Kerman, where the rescue will start.

Sunday morning 08:00 AM, we wait at our hostel in Kerman. The mechanic and a colleague of him have picked up the clutch at the airport and meet us at our hostel. Packed with water and some food we get in the car. We absolutely have no idea about the plan, so we have to let go of all control (which is quite challenging) and just go with the flow. Sunday morning 08:30 AM: we change taxi’s. With this taxi we drive 200KM from Kerman to Bam. There we hope to see the offroad cars which will take us into the dunes. Because sunset is already at 16:30, we know we have to hurry. But hurry is not in the plan. We stop at a date factory and get invited into de Director’s office. It’s a Don Corleone type of man, showing us all about his business. He asks us if we know the route to our car? Ehhh, no, we thought you would know? We feel kind of discouraged. We eat (obviously) dates, and after a while we understand we have to wait for the offroad cars a little longer. We get a nice lunch, but it’s difficult to really enjoy it, not knowing when we will be reunited with Troopy.

Then after 2 (long) hours we hear the sound of some offroad cars. We run outside; we see two Toyota’s and when they stop, 2 men jump out. They’re not much higher than 1.60, wear serious sunglasses and based on their outfit look very technical & professional. They don’t smile but just start packing the stuff that we brought: men with a mission. Immediately we feel confident that this mission will be successful. At 14:00 we hit the road and after a few hours we’re back in the desert. The group: Two cars, 2 tour guides, 1 brother of the tour guide (we’re not quite sure what his role is, and still do not know), 2 mechanics and ourselves.

We understand that the original plan is to drive to our Troopy that Sunday, the mechanics will fix the car in the night, and we will drive with Troopy back to the city Monday morning. But when it get’s dark, the tour guides decide it’s too dangerous to drive further into the dune and that we should make a camp. With all our camp stuff  stored in Troopy, we have not much more than a bag with water & food. But our men with a mission came (obviously) prepared. We make a fire, eat from one big plate and when we’re about to sleep, they give us 2 sleeping bags and a tent; a pleasant surprise! Tired from the day, we fall right asleep, not even noticing the hard sand we sleep on.

Monday morning 05:30. In 10 minutes (yes, these guys have a mission), the camp is packed, no breakfast (because we have a mission) and we start driving again. The dunes get more challenging but we see Troopy’s GPS location getting closer. At 09:00 we see Troopy! Around 09:30 the mechanics start the fix; they do an absolute great and quick repair in the middle of the desert. In the meanwhile, we bake some eggs in for the team. To make the adventure complete, suddenly a guy on a motorbike crosses by. The guides tell us to stay away and start talking with this “Iranian tourist”, and then he leaves. We are even more glad that we have started our rescue mission on time..

12:30: Dune driving again in Troopy! We feel like the happiest persons ever. But the high dunes remain challenging; the turbo has some troubles (for those interested: a torn turbo inlet pipe that blocks the air intake when the turbo is actually trying to suck more air in..)  and therefore we often lose power & speed at the moments we need it. The mechanic fixes the turbo with an old t-shirt and we manage to get Troopy out of the high dunes. Once in the flat area, Tropy drives perfect again. With a beautiful sunset we drive in a few hours back out of the desert. Super super happy and ready to give Troopy a well deserved treatment in the garage. At the moment of writing everything is fixed (luckely it was more sand cleaning than fixing) and we have our car/ home back again; ready to hit the road! 

8. Hitting the dunes

“Hi, we’re a Dutch couple looking for a guide to take us into the Lut for some serious off-roading. Not just driving and camping, but serious off-road tracks.” This was the message we’ve send to some guides. And we found one. Our biggest adventure so far was about to start.

After unwinding a few days in an Maymand ecolodge (where we slept in caves, brought home 2000(!) sheeps from the land and ate (sheep) with the locals) we were ready for the desert. Monday morning 08:00 AM: we gather at a hotel in Mahan. It’s a funny feeling, we‘re about to go on a 5 day holiday with people we’ve never met. The group is already there: Ali (the tourguide) his wife Arezoo, Souma, Paymen, Asoumi, Bigi and Mahan. All in/around their 30s, and based on some of their clothes it looks like they walked straight from the Burning Man festival. This promises to be a good week.

Like mountains can be overwhelming with their enormous heights (we experienced this in Albania), the desert can be overwhelming with landscapes where you literally see nothing but flat sand 360 degrees and you loose all your orientation. We drive with 4 Toyota’s in a line, heading towards the dunes.

Ali’s enthusiasm about the desert and its high dunes makes us curious for what is about to come. When we stop for a lunch we can see the dunes in the distance. High sandy hills, stretching as far as the eyes can see. When we reach the dune area, we’re already sold. Everywhere around us nothing but high dunes, curving the sandy landscape combined with a nice winter sun. But the dunes are not easy. The sand is soft and Troopy is heavy. Where the other cars flow over the dunes, it’s clear that we are not only carrying our car, but also all our belongings. Many times our Troopy get’s stuck in the sand and we have to maneuver a way out of it. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s frustrating. 

The good thing is that we’re with a group of professional dune drivers. They guide us, learn us how to catch a steep hill, how to come off a steep hill safely, what route we can take to not get stuck, etcetera. After a few hours, we already notice that the sand get’s less challenging, we can follow the group more easily and enjoy the dunes. Our smiles cannot be bigger while driving from a high dune, our favorite DJ track in the background and enjoying crazy dune views. At sunset, we make a camp. This group is clearly experienced in desert camping. Like “Douwe Dabbert’s knapzak” they get an enormous amount of camp stuff ( even virtual reality glasses ( a VR tour in the middle of the desert?!) ) out of their cars, and within 20 minutes we have a camp spot to dream of. Often we look to each other: is this really happening? The group, the dunes, the camp nights; we could not imagine that it would be this fun.

The week continuous and we get better and better in dune driving. But unfortunately, the dunes seem too much for Troopy, especially because of its weight. It’s more and more difficult to get to the dune tops, and on Thursday the clutch breaks down 😦 No more driving for Troopy. At first, with the other 3 cars we try to get Troopy out of the dunes. But it’s too much weight, the sand is too soft and the dunes too high. After a few hours of trying we stop and decide that we have to leave Troopy in the desert to get a mechanic and a new clutch. Being our car and our home, this is not the best news for us. But the group knows how to cheer us up (these guys just know how to make fun, no matter what happens). We enjoy the last camp night with them, and drive out of the desert together in the 3 cars on Friday. Leaving Troopy behind.

7. You drive like an Iranian

Our first impressions of Iran are dominated by the 3p’s. People people and people. Upfront, we heard many positive stories about the Iranian citizens, and that’s what we’ve experienced from the first moment on. At our first night in Tabriz, people start random chats with us on the street. Being / feeling like tourists, we tend to get suspicious first. What do they want from us, what do they want to sell? But nothing happens. It’ s just a real, genuine chat and a warm welcome to their country. When we ask directions, a young couple not only points us where to go, but walks with us the entire way. And after 10 min they come back to give us their phone number- in case we have any more questions. 

In Rasht a tourist guide starts a chat with us. Again, we’re kind of suspicious. He probably wants to sell us a tour. Again, our first thought is wrong. He helps us arranging an Iranian SIM card, we have a tea at his friends bar and when he finds out we sleep in our car on a parking lot, he offers a room in his house. We kindly refuse (we enjoy sleeping in our own bed), but this type of kindness is what we continuously encounter. Without any exception. When crossing toll gates on the road, our money is refused: you are guests! When buying mobile data in a shop, we cannot leave before we eat together with the staff and make (many!) pictures, even the local photographer is called and stops by with an enormous lens. 

The first week in Iran we explore the nature in the North of Iran; the Gilan province and the Salambar mountain pass. We wild camp at 3200 m high, on top of snowy mountains and never had a more beautiful wild camp spot. Surrounded by mountains, stunning views and a beautiful sunset. We eat at 5 PM because it’s already freezing and dive into bed at 7PM to keep each other warm. We wake up with the sun shining on the mountain tops.

On our way back driving in he valley an old man invites us to his home. He lives on top of the hill, alone, in an old cottage with a stunning view. He does not speak English, but with books, hands and feet he learns us about the Iranian history; he appears to have been a pilot in the Iranian army. At one point he get his gun- in any other situation this might be the moment to start running. But we know it’s safe, he’s just very proud 🙂

Another not to miss topic when driving through Iran with our own car, is the traffic. Actually the word traffic implies a kind of structured way of moving together on the therefore appointed lanes. That is not what happens in Iran. 2 lanes used by 3 or 4 rows of cars, lanes that are suddenly used as parking lot, people driving at the upper right lane and then suddenly decide they need to go left- and really cannot wait, roundabouts where there seems to be no logic other then pushing yourself through. And that accompanied by many many horns. 

But this is Merle’s perspective. There is someone with a continuous smile on his face while driving in this hectic; Max. After a few days he knows for sure that in his previous live he must have been an Iranian cab driver. And it must be said; he meanders super smooth among all locals, in the meanwhile waving and thumbs up to fellow drivers. At one point driving in Qazvin a cab driver opens his window and shouts; you drive like an Iranian! The smile on Max’ face is not to describe. The biggest compliment ever!

At the moment of writing we are in Maymand. An off the track Flinstone- kind- off- village where people live in caves. And so do we. After 5 days of exploring Esfahan (with Max’ mother and her husband, nice to see them there!) and a few days city life in Yazd it’s nice to unwind here. We have dinners in caves, enjoy cave- hikes, sunsets and help bringing home sheeps from the land; we’re part of the local community for a few days. A good spot to unwind before our next adventure: a 5 day tour in the Lut desert with an off road guide!