They were on their way to Khuzdar from Karachi, following the old camel trail, when they came across a wizened old local. He was surprised to come upon this caravan of jeeps on this little used dirt track and asked them where they were headed. To Khuzdar, they said. The old man stared at them in stunned disbelief- “sahib, aap ko malum nahin key Khuzdar tak to eik bohut achhi sarak jati hai.” But given the choice, the members of Karachi’s Offroaders Club would rather choose a dirt track than a tarred road.
I first came across the Offroaders Club while browsing the internet for something completely different. They have a wonderful website, filled with photographs from their trips, travelogues, and more jeep lore than one would imagine possible. And I knew I just had to meet them. I managed to contact the webmaster, Khalid Omar, and soon found myself invited to dinner to meet the other members of the Offroaders Club.
I arrived early and found brothers Abid and Khalid in the middle of setting up a slide show of their latest trip to Kirthar National Park. I watched magnificent shots of literally dozens of ibex, and was soon joined by the various members and their families. The pictures were as often as not of the jeeps themselves, and as each member would spot his vehicle he would remark on the beauty, the strength and other virtues of his jeep. It is important to note that when the offroaders talk of jeeps, they are talking Jeeps, and not just any 4×4 vehicle. It is this love of Jeeps that brought the group together.
Many of them are mechanically minded. In 1967 Hamid Omar, Abid and Khalid’s father, designed and built a car, reportedly a first in Pakistan. He hand-built the metal body, the chassis was built from angle iron left over from the construction of a transmission tower, the tyres were from Lambretta scooters, and the car had a 200cc rope start pump engine. The car could cruise at 40 miles per hour and was in daily use for over ten years. Getting registration plates for the car was another story, as there was no precedent for registering a locally-made car. Hamid acquired an M-38 Willy’s Jeep twenty years ago.
Now this may mean little to the average reader, but to a Jeep enthusiast a Willy’s Jeep is a collector’s item. The Pakistan Army had a number of these jeeps, which have almost all been sold off now, but there are very few around in original condition. Apparently there are M38s in the Smithsonian Museum as well as the New York Museum of Arts, both restored by a Lyari mechanic, Dawood.
The jeep which Hamid fitted with a diesel engine, a new gearbox, air-conditioning and a remote-operated winch, now belongs to Khalid, as Hamid has upgraded to a Jeep Cherokee, voted the best off-road vehicle in America in the 90s for four years running, which the old-school members deride for the level of comfort it offers. Hamid’s brother Ahmed, also owns a Cherokee, but prefers to take his CJ-7, the last true Jeep, according to connoisseurs, which he calls “The Most Powerful Jeep”, a reputation the jeep has earned over the years, regularly pulling out other jeeps when they get stuck. According to Khalid, with the older 4×4s, the offroad prowess depends 90% on their owners, while the newer 4×4s it’s mostly up to the car as it cannot be modified much. With these old jeeps, it’s the driver that’s the most important part of the drive-train, which is what makes them so much fun off the road.
Taimur Mirza is another founder member of the Offroaders Club. He and Hamid have known each other for 45 years, and their friendship has been greatly strengthened by their common love jeeps. Taimur now drives a CJ7; he first met Dr. Mansur Ahmed “Doc”, in 1992. Doc was driving to work at the Aga Khan Hospital, dressed in a suit and tie, in a very open jeep. Taimur, also in his jeep, flagged down Doc, and they both spent pleasurable moments examining each other’s vehicles. They have been friends ever since. Brothers Salman, Imad and Yaseen are the other key members of the Club.
Although Hamid and Taimur have known each other for years and have owned Jeeps for years, it was only in 1986 that they went off-roading for the first time. Many years earlier Taimur’s father had gone off to visit Shah Noorani’s shrine and hadn’t reappeared for many days. When he finally did, Taimur decided he would go back there one day with his father. In 1986 he arrived with his father in his Jeep at Hamid’s house and they set off for their first of many adventures.
Occasionally the core group is joined by others, and sometimes families go along for the ride, but more often than not it’s just the boys and their “toys”. The Club has now been over many parts of Pakistan- parts many of us are not that familiar with. Taimur and Doc are big history buffs, and spend their free time reading Gazettes and many of their trips are planned around something they read. That’s how they first came across Neza-e-Sultan. The monolith in Balochistan was mentioned in Captain G.P. Tate’s book on his travels in Balochistan in 1892.
The Neza is near the Pak-Afghan border, north of Nok-Kundi, and to get to it the off-roaders drove through a salt pan, an extinct volcano, cascading sand dunes. Close to midnight they finally arrived, and formed camp about one mile from the Neza, and feasted their eyes upon the 900 feet monolith, on a brilliant, moonlit night, the first tourists to visit the area since Captain G.P. Tate.
Taimur and Doc lament the fact that while so many Karachiites seem to have 4×4s, so few actually venture out to see the wonderful places to see in Pakistan. Part of the thrill for the members of the club is to discover long-forgotten places. Once on the road from Loralai to Dera Ismail Khan, the boys were taken aback by what they saw: an old classic Triumph motorbike in immaculate condition, making its way towards them through the dust, its chrome shimmering in the sun. The side saddlebags were bulging with luggage, but most incongruous of all was the passenger – an Englishman on his way to Iran.
More often, it is the off-roaders who are the curiosity – hurtling down dry river beds, the occasional shotgun in view, faces covered in all sorts of rags, Doc’s long locks and face masks- they must seem quite outlandish to the people they come across. Yet they all insist that they never meet with anything but the greatest hospitality and friendliness. Whether high in the mountains near Sust, where they were feted by locals playing flutes and drums and served yak meat, or on dark and godforsaken desert tracks where out of the nothingness people come to their aid with food and drink should a car break down, the boys have felt safe.
Break-downs are common, given the terrain, but the group is prepared. Each driver has reached a point where they know their vehicle so well that they know its idiosyncrasies and are well prepared with spare axles,driveshaft crosses, bearings – practically an entire travelling workshop between the group. Most of the members of the club have rebuilt their own Jeeps and are quite able to fix almost all kinds of problems. Doc, a maxillofacial surgeon in real life, has also had to perform various types of surgery on the road.
Ever since the younger members of the Club got the website going, the members have been astonished by the number of messages they have received from all over the world – people who had lived in Pakistan years ago, people who see these stunning photographs and say how much they would love to come to Pakistan, and generally jeep and off-roading enthusiasts. But as Taimur says, owners of Jeeps all speak the same language and click easily.
Doc tells me that when his son went off to college to Canada he was glad, fed-up of life in Pakistan. But after a few months in Canada he wrote an email to his father, which Doc has printed and kept to show him one day, saying “I miss the smell of the desert.” I don’t have a Jeep, have never been off-roading but after meeting this glorious bunch of adventurers, I too yearn for those exotic places- Dozhak Tangi, Buzi Pass, Hingol – I too yearn for the smell of the desert.
This article was written by Umbreen Mirza and published in the Friday Times in Feb 2005.