Pedalling to the pilgrimage

Two South Africans face thousands of kilometres of unchartered territory as they journey to Mecca for Hajj – by bicycle.

Pedalling to the pilgrimage
Haron and Cairncross left Cape Town in February and arrived in Mecca nine months later [Photo courtesy Cape2Mecca]

The idea began as a hypothetical situation – what would happen if a few friends attempted to bicycle from their home in South Africa to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in time for the annual Hajj pilgrimage?

Twelve countries, nine months and untold kilometres of freshly traveled earth behind them, the hypothetical has become a reality for Cape Town residents Nathim Cairncross, 28, and Imtiyaz Ahmad Haron, 25.

The two pedalled their way across the Saudi border in late October, arriving nearly three weeks before the official start of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca.

The pilgrimage, which falls during the last month of the Islamic calendar and begins on November 14 this year, is a rite that forms one of the five pillars of Islam and is mandatory for able-bodied Muslims of means at least once in their lifetime.

The two began planning their journey in December, shortly after Haron floated the idea to Cairncross, his friend of nearly seven years. Haron had been reading up on the Hajj, which draws about two million Muslims to Saudi Arabia annually.

Inspired by the stories of pilgrims that had made the arduous journey to Mecca before him, Haron decided that he wanted to join their ranks and enlisted Cairncross to come along – with a twist. The two would make the trek using only their bicycles.

“In life there’s a consistent principle for me,” Cairncross told Al Jazeera.

“If I work very hard for something, at the end of the day it’s sweeter; I value it more. After nine months [cycling] through Africa and the Middle East – of course, I value it more.”

Training for the trek

Their journey began on February 7, on a cold and rainy morning at a mosque in Cape Town, where nearly 500 people had gathered to bid them farewell and pray for their well being. 

Escorted about 70km out of town by local cycling clubs supporting their effort, the two were then left alone to traverse the road ahead using their maps, their bicycles and sheer determination.

“We’re not professional bike riders,” Cairncross said. “But we did physical training – increased exercises – two months before, going up the mountains [of Cape Town], running on the beach, swimming.”

Even as they trained for the trek, Haron and Cairncross also had to combat the naysayers, who discouraged them from embarking on the ride, and others who did not think the two would go through with the plan. 

Undaunted, the friends plotted their itinerary, consulted the South African traffic department to ensure they could use the roads, researched visa entry rules, and sought medical advice from doctors, who “diagnosed us as crazy”, the two said.

Word soon began to spread of their plan, and their story caught the attention of local radio stations. Once their journey began, those stations kept in touch with the riders, calling them periodically to check in on how the ride was progressing, and reporting back to listeners in Cape Town.

The support helped buoy them through their long journey, across Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the green peaks of Malawi. 

Kindness of strangers

They cycled 80-100km per day, starting after the pre-dawn Muslim prayer, and stopping at night at hotels, campsites, or mosques, where they would tell their story to welcoming listeners who would then invite them to stay the night and eat a meal.

They made friends along the way – locals, other cyclists and tourists curious about their journey.  Haron and Cairncross welcomed the curiosity, seeing it as an opportunity to explain Islam, Hajj, and why they intended to perform the pilgrimage.

“On the ground you can speak to the people,” Cairncross said.

“You get an opportunity that traveling by plane or car you don’t get. And you learn much more, you discover much more about yourself. It was an existential experience.”

However, speaking to people posed a challenge in some countries, where the number of English-speakers was few, and language represented a barrier. Refusing to let that hinder them, Haron and Cairncross began to pick up the basics of the languages they encountered, consulting with locals and researching when they could find an internet connection. 

In addition to the language barriers, the two faced minor technical problems – tire punctures, broken chains, and cushion malfunctions. But they said safety was never an issue, and despite their limited budget they always managed to find food and shelter.

Africa to Asia

From Malawi, the friends cycled through Tanzania, visiting the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, before heading to Kenya and the border of Ethiopia.

But it was at that border that Haron and Cairncross faced their first major obstacle of the trip. The two had planned to travel through Ethiopia and into Sudan, but border authorities denied their exit from Kenya into the east African country, leaving the friends temporarily stranded, and without a plan.

After myriad calls to South African embassy officials and a hasty refiguring of their original plan, Haron and Cairncross booked plane tickets and flew to Turkey, determined to complete their mission despite the slight hiccup.

They spent the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan traveling through Turkey, from Istanbul and Ankara to Gaziantep, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

From Turkey, they cycled to Aleppo and Damascus in Syria, where they were pleasantly surprised by the depth of Syrian hospitality as children ran up to their bicycles and invited them home to lunch.

Mercy from the skies

Then it was on to Jordan – with a 24-hour trip to the city of Jerusalem to visit Masjid al-Aqsa  – before heading back over the Allenby Bridge connecting Israel and the Palestinian territories to the Jordanian border. After biking the rugged hills of Petra and riding past the Dead Sea, the two at last cycled through the Arabian desert and over the Jordanian border into Saudi Arabia in late October.

“At the Tabuk border, we ran into three generals at the border post, and they were very impressed with our trip,” Cairncross said.

“So they made things easy for us, processed our visas, and while that was happening, they took us to their office, allowed us to sleep over and eat breakfast.”

With a stop in Medina, Haron and Cairncross finally made it to Mecca, under heavy grey skies reminiscent of the day that they set out on their trip. The two friends have not yet decided how they will get back to Cape Town – and they are soliciting donations to help defer some of those costs, including a bid to sell their bicycles when the trip is over.

However, despite the uncertainty of the future, they said they knew the trip was more than worth the effort when they stepped foot into the confines of Mecca.

“It was an incredible feeling,” Cairncross said.

“It was storming when we got to Mecca, with thunder and lightening. But we were so keen to get in, to see the Kaaba for the first time.

“Making tawaf (the circulation around the Kaaba) with your ihram (unstitched garments worn by pilgrims) soaking through – the rain was like mercy coming down on us. Not that we’re special, but it felt like, God willing, our efforts were accepted.”

Source: Al Jazeera