How the stars shine above Balochistan

Published Mar 01, 2012 05:34pm

Three members of the group, Baber Khan, Jawad Hussain, and Fehd Siddique pose in the MUTT at a rest-stop. The other two cars can be seen parked in the background. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com
Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth. -Ptolemy, c.150 AD

About a month ago I went with the petrol-heads at Pakwheels on a road trip into Balochistan. They are a group of car enthusiasts that go exploring around the country in their trusted SUV’s. I soon learnt that on this particular trip, we would also be joined by some members of the Karachi Astronomers Society and that the purpose of this particular trip was to explore a new location for stargazing.

Though we weren’t going too far from the Sindh border, it would still be my first real look at a province that, these days at least, isn’t exactly the easiest place to casually visit. I was doubly excited about the stargazing, not to mention very eager to meet the folks at KaAS (I didn’t even know we had any astronomers much less a whole society of them).

I met the group early on a beautiful Saturday morning. The party of about 15 people was split up into three cars led by Pakwheels veteran Aqeel Baig in his three-door Land Cruiser Prado. A couple of my friends and I were to ride in an old MUTT Jeep that had been fixed up and modified from its army days by its owner Camran Mir.

The MUTT had no doors or roof, and though it was far from comfortable, it quickly turned out to be the ideal vehicle for photographing the landscape. So we clicked away excitedly as we sped along on the RCD Highway towards Winder in Lasbela, from where we would head north into the mountains.

Getting good landscape shots was easy in the beautiful countryside - even as the car sped along and wind battered us. Needless to say, we were all having a ball with our cameras. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

We were heading for a location in the hills that would give us dark, clear night skies for stargazing, a factor that is measured by the “Bortle Dark-sky Scale”. KaAS member Naveed Merchant told me that at a mountaintop of about 3000ft., we would hopefully be able to see a sky that was rated “Class 1” on the scale. This means that the sky is at its darkest and a great range of stars are visible to the naked eye. He also mentioned that with the right timing, even the Milky Way can be seen stretching across the sky with the naked eye. But since this wasn’t the right time of year and we weren’t going on a moonless night, we would only get a small window of time (after the moon had set) to observe that particular sight.

Merchant also told me that Balochistan is an excellent place for stargazing – the clear, cloudless skies and low light-pollution result in a crisp view of the heavens, one that he promised would leave us astounded that night.

But just a couple of hours into the trip, Balochistan had already left me wide-eyed and amazed. In our short trip, we passed an ever changing landscape, including fruit orchards, streams, grassy plains, and different kinds of mountainous terrain.

Naveed Merchant's Land Cruiser speeds along ahead of us as we head for the mountains. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

Offroading on the nearly-untouched terrain was a treat for the PakWheelers. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

A view from the mountain-top, just after sunset. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

The road ended before the mountains began, and we had completed three-fourths of our uphill climb when the gritty slopes struck their first blow: the MUTT had broken its rear axle about 300 feet from the summit, and we would have to climb about a kilometer up on the loose, sliding rocks to the top.

After a nervous climb in the thin highland air, we reached the peak and set-up camp for the night. Soon however, we were warned by locals that road construction on the mountainside could leave us stranded on the summit for up to two days. So after the sun had already set – and with the temperature falling dramatically – we decided that we couldn’t risk getting stuck and had to trek back down to a different campsite.

On the way back as we reached the MUTT, Mir decided to repair his axle then-and-there in the moonlight. Most of our group went on ahead to set-up camp while he slid under his car with an LED torch and a few tools. The rest of us waited bewildered at how he was going to do it. An hour or so later, after some pulling and pushing on the rough, inclined track, Mir had used the nuts from the front axle to repair the rear one. He put the Jeep into rear-wheel-drive and drove us to the campsite where everyone else was already preparing for the night. - Photo by Fehd Siddique

A view of our moonlit campsite in the quiet of the hills. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

We eventually camped in a clearing in the mountains, a spot that was at a lower altitude but nevertheless afforded a wonderful view of the sky. The moon would set at about four in the morning, giving us plenty of time to sit around the bonfire, eat and take in the atmosphere.

Abbas Jafri observes Saturn through his 5.1 inch Celestron telescope. There was also another, larger MEAD telescope owned by Naveed Merchant. Merchant also added that he had recently bought a 24 inch telescope made by Webster, which was the largest of its kind in the country. The calibration of these telescopes is a complicated process that Jafri is currently undertaking back home in Karachi. Both of the telescopes had motorized mounts that could track objects in the sky automatically using GPS. - Photo by Fehd Siddique

I took this time to join Abbas Jafri from KaAS, as he set up his telescope and pointed it at the moon to do some casual observation. Jafri is a physics graduate from KU who is a serious hobbyist and – I am told, is the only real telescope technician currently working in all of Pakistan.

“The moon is not so interesting for us anymore. We are keener on viewing planets and doing deep space observation.” he said. Deep space includes anything outside the solar system, such as other stars, galaxies and nebulae etc.

Even before the full-moon had set (here it is invisible just above the frame) there were a great deal of stars that were visible through the crisp and clear night air. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

We observed Mars, Saturn, and the Orion Nebula, through Abbas’ Celestron and small binoculars.

“An ordinary pair of binoculars is actually an excellent viewing tool for any amateur astronomer, and allows you to see greater detail in many parts of the sky” said Jafri, as I viewed the Pleiades star cluster through them.

This image, stitched from five different shots to form a panorama, shows a section of the Milky Way just above the hilltops. Four meteorites can also be seen as they streaked across the sky during the long 30 second exposures. The glow on the bottom left is that of the sun about to rise. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

By four o’clock in the

By four o’clock in the morning, most of the group was asleep in their tents, and the temperature was freezing. I was shivering under six layers but I stayed up in anticipation as the astronomers started to come out of their tents. It was well worth it because after the moon had set, I was transfixed by the greatest number of stars I had ever seen.

I offered to help Merchant with his large and bulky MEAD telescope, which he set-up with the aid of a red torch. Unlike white light, this red torch would not interfere with our eyes.

“We have a small window of time before the sun starts to rise, and it takes your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness, so be careful not to turn on any other lights now,” said Merchant. He carefully set up his scope in the glow of the bulky red light I was holding for him.

As I looked around in the darkness, the rocky surface of the mountains suddenly felt like another planet. In the dead silence under the thick umbrella of stars, as I watched this bulkily clothed astronomer set up his scope in the eerie red light, it was not hard to imagine that I was standing on the surface of Mars gazing at the expanse of the unexplored universe above. No wonder these guys spent so much time and effort finding these remote locations, I thought; it is an unparalleled experience.

After Jafri helped calibrate the telescope, they started locating different deep-space objects to look at, such as the Hercules Globular Cluster (containing hundreds of thousands of stars) and the spiral shaped Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). A star cluster is any area observable within our own galaxy where a great concentration of stars can be seen, while a galaxy of course is a star system of its own, which is much further away than any of the individual stars that can be seen in the sky.

Above all however, I was eager to see one thing I had never seen before: I asked Jafri when we would be able to see the Milky Way. He pointed towards the west and asked me to look underneath the tail of the Scorpio constellation.

“It will soon rise over there, but you won’t be able to see it very well or for very long, for that you have to wait till May, when it is more easily observable by the naked eye.” He said.

I was barely able to see a dim haze behind the blanket of stars rising over the mountains. This was the Milky Way, a spiral arm of our own galaxy that can be seen from behind the stars that surround us, and covers a significant part of the sky behind the constellations Sagittarius and Carina.

Of course the sun was close behind, so I took my camera and headed off uphill to see what I could shoot. And sure enough, what was barely visible to my eye, appeared as a fantastic glow across the sky in my photos.

We took a quick dip in the cold water of this small spring. It was just what we needed before heading back. Locals were herding donkeys and small goats on the precarious mountain slopes above. - Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

Dawn struck soon afterwards, and a few hours later we all set off back for home, but not before making a quick stop for a swim at a small spring in the mountains.

Some members of the group, including the PakWheels and KaAS members, pose with us for a photo before heading back home. - Photo by Fehd Siddique

When we finally reached back home it was night again. Before I walked into my house, I looked up at the Karachi sky, full of light and haze from the city. Only a few of the brightest stars were dimly shining through. It was strange how it looked so convincingly empty, hiding its secrets as if nothing was there at all. I suppose it would always have been that way for me, if I hadn’t gone and seen the stars as they shine above Balochistan.

Here is a gallery of Nadir's photos from the trip.

Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Comments (81) (Closed)


faraz
Mar 01, 2012 06:46pm
Good one. Keep up with that!
sam A
Mar 01, 2012 06:51pm
great pictures. badly written though.
Iftekhar Mahmood
Mar 01, 2012 06:49pm
Lucky you... Siddiqui Sahib. I really envy you... wish to have such a chance for myself and for my kids. Would you believe, while growing up in Lahore, during the early sixties, when we used to sleep outside during summers, the Milkyway would show up among the countless bright stars night after night to enchant us kids. My dad used to call it Kehkashaan... How much more beautiful and apt name doing justice to its expanse and splendour. Hope to see it one more time before I die... IA.
Suhail Yusuf
Mar 01, 2012 07:04pm
Amazing images and breathtaking sky view. There is no place like Balochistan even on the whole planet.
M.Omair
Mar 01, 2012 07:14pm
Amazing stuff
BRR
Mar 01, 2012 07:43pm
If more people like you started admiring nature and the wonders of the world, more of them would become tolerant of deviations from the norm, and be capable of living in peace.
Rao
Mar 01, 2012 08:48pm
its fascinating to look at sky during nights at remote places.
jamal
Mar 01, 2012 08:52pm
i remember sleeping in courtyard during summer in my childhood. if it rained during night, dad used to carry us inside one by one. we used to gaze at stars and listen to movie dialogue from a far far cinema in silence of village. then.... there was robbery in one of my uncles home in which he was killed. never slept outside after that...
maha
Mar 01, 2012 09:17pm
Aww i want to be a trip of PakWheels
Khan in USA
Mar 01, 2012 09:41pm
It is nice to know that we also have kids with pioneers spirit. Keep up the good work, and happy trails.
Omar
Mar 01, 2012 09:42pm
Breathtaking photography!
JAVED A. KHAN
Mar 01, 2012 11:06pm
Fantastic --- This verse is very apt for those photos. Inhi Patharaon Pay Chal Kar Agar Aaa Sako Tou Aao Mere Ghar Kay Raastay May Koi Kehkashaan Nahee Hai. by Mustafa Zaidi.
Akram zaheer
Mar 01, 2012 11:14pm
Can you please guide me on how to travel there and what are the expenses?
Salman Zahid
Mar 01, 2012 11:55pm
This is just amazing! wow:) I have cal 1 exam tomorow, and this just made my day!
Quraish Pur
Mar 02, 2012 12:02am
Brilliant photography and an enjoyable blog. Just proves again that Pakistan and Pakistanis are full of life and beauty!
sameen
Mar 02, 2012 12:07am
I just went through all your work, I am absolutely in love with it! Really amazing shots!
Abubaker
Mar 02, 2012 12:06am
This is really Awesome.!! The place is simply great. The sky must be Bortle 1. The pictures are amazing.. I wish I was with KaAS. Regards, Abubaker Siddiq A founding member, KaAS
Pk
Mar 02, 2012 03:10am
Those are not meteorites, those are airplanes/satellites.
karur
Mar 02, 2012 03:52am
Truly amazing! I learnt something today!
Agha Ata
Mar 02, 2012 06:33am
It took us 65 years to discover this beauty. :)
Ranjit
Mar 02, 2012 08:13am
Breathtaking snaps especially the one with the meteorites streaking. Also loved the landscape.
Masud Kader
Mar 02, 2012 08:14am
Absolutely outstanding. Thanks to all of you for this adventure.
Chris
Mar 02, 2012 08:32am
Oh What a wonderful sky. Excellent Pictures. Thanks
Tariq
Mar 02, 2012 08:39am
Very very interesting. Another side to Balochistan. Hope the death mongers disappear somewhere and leave us all in PEACE
Zain
Mar 02, 2012 08:59am
Awesome article and Breath taking photography...
syed baqar ahsan
Mar 02, 2012 09:15am
let us all start exploring our own country,it is has all beyond our imagination.Pakistan the beautiful,great effort boys,keep doing
Talha
Mar 02, 2012 09:47am
Amazing Balochistan! How could one be part of your trips?
Farrukh
Mar 02, 2012 09:54am
Amazing. Simple awesome. Us city slickers can only envy you guys!
Anam
Mar 02, 2012 10:41am
This is just BEAUTIFUL. Thank You for sharing this with us all.
Sen
Mar 02, 2012 10:47am
The Galactic Center is a breath taking view. Bravo Siddiqui.
human
Mar 02, 2012 10:48am
Beautiful Balochistan !!!!
Naila Parveen Abbasi
Mar 02, 2012 11:08am
wow what a place i wana be a trip too pakwheels. what a beauty there GOD made this world so beautiful. Its fascinating to look at sky during nights, at remote places. Amazing images and breathtaking sky view. There is no place like Balochistan even on the whole planet.
nida
Mar 02, 2012 11:11am
THis is amazing!
Ajay Singh
Mar 02, 2012 11:31am
Beautiful.... what a wonderful place. I wish things had been normal between India and Pakistan so we could visit.
sami
Mar 02, 2012 11:45am
nadir, a high-res of the milky way panorama would be nice
Salma
Mar 02, 2012 11:48am
Beautifully described ... and such a nice piece after such a long time. I always miss the stars and star gazing in Quetta and whilst travelling outside Quetta...now that I live in Islamabad. But I thought it's just me ...after reading this I am sure the stars shine more over Balochistan.
Ahmar Qureshi
Mar 02, 2012 12:06pm
"LIKE" this! My kind of stuff! Good Work Team! We hardly we find anyone with such keen interest in exploring the galactic sector!
ahad
Mar 02, 2012 12:07pm
this is so good. I really want to embark on a journey like this..mhm..pakwheels, here I come?
Alam
Mar 02, 2012 02:48pm
Awesome work guys!!! Simply amazing!!!
vijay, chennai, Indi
Mar 02, 2012 02:53pm
awesome snaps. Reminds me of my native where even now I can see the milky with my naked eyes because the place is "Underdeveloped". Sometimes I feel the let us have no development at all so that I can breath fresh air drink pure water and not RO water and have fresh vegetables without the "Organic "tag, "listen" to the pindrop silence and walk on the mud roads without being hit by a speeding vehicle. Just do not know whether Balochistan should develop or remain underdeveloped.
Shah
Mar 02, 2012 05:50pm
What a beautiful country!
Hina L.L.M
Mar 02, 2012 05:50pm
immense pleasure by watching these marvelous pics.Great work done by you guys.
Bilal
Mar 02, 2012 05:53pm
Awesome. Enjoyed it.
Mohdudul Huq
Mar 02, 2012 07:49pm
It is all Almighty's creation. Read Koran and able to find the answer.
Iqbal Hussein
Mar 02, 2012 08:00pm
There's a great future for Baluchistan as a "dark sky reserve", away from all that light pollution. One advantage of having very limited development.
malik
Mar 02, 2012 09:42pm
Beautifull really enjoyed the natural beauty through your eyes and lens.
Piyumi
Mar 02, 2012 10:00pm
Hands down, this is one of the best blog articles I've read recently...some splendid photography coupled with excellent writing! Kudos Nadir! It's something else seeing Balochistan through your lens.
Mohammad Naeem
Mar 02, 2012 11:21pm
spell bound! awsome
Syed W. Ali
Mar 02, 2012 11:39pm
Excellent pictures. And great use of UV, polarizer, and grad filters. My guess is that these pictures were taken by a Nikon camera. Yes? :-)
jagjit sidhoo
Mar 02, 2012 11:57pm
Wow what beautiful pics of a great countryside
Usman Zunnaurain
Mar 03, 2012 12:05am
Wonderful pics bro...no mention of exact locations/places though.
Zain
Mar 03, 2012 12:59am
Very well written, and great pics. Sounds like a phenomenal experience. Would love to make that trip myself. Thanks for sharing.
sarmad
Mar 03, 2012 01:46am
I used to work in Baluchistan on drilling rigs for oil/gas. I can recall seeing similar things in night shifts like in the photographs but never paid much attention like this. Now I regret, do not think I will get another chance. Thoroughly enjoyed this post, thanks for the efforts
Sip
Mar 03, 2012 04:30am
Nadir you are lucky to witness such beauty in Pakistan, I envy you but i am glad you shared your experience with us...keep up the good work.
Nasreen
Mar 03, 2012 07:04am
Its timely contribution,when the worldis focusing eyes on this beautiful place.I wonder wyhy Baloch leadrs ( so called) ccanot see this beauty and they are making it ugly with thier stubbon attitudes, lets the travels come and Baloch will be happy and prosperous. God bless Balochistani poor people,ameen.
asif saleem
Mar 03, 2012 07:14am
this is incredible. went all the way to NZ to do stargazing. Never knew it was available in my own country.
gashirazi
Mar 03, 2012 07:20am
Great journey. It is unfortunate that the average person in Pakistan is afraid of traveling there. I love Balochistan. We used to go there for our geology mapping classes. No more, sadly.
Humayun
Mar 03, 2012 09:50am
Good work and excellent photgraphy. Keep exploring Balochistan. It would be nice to share brief comments on the local community
abrar shah
Mar 03, 2012 10:16am
Execellent photography, i really love the secenes and nature of Balohistan. I appreciate efforts made by the group for this wonderful work.
vijay, chennai, Indi
Mar 03, 2012 10:25am
Mr. Iqbal I agree with you. Balochistan should be developed only for tourism which can bring immense wealth to Pak excheqer
zaik baloch
Mar 03, 2012 11:01am
awesome journey with awesome photo shots,keep it up.
Osama Hussain
Mar 03, 2012 12:30pm
Upload the original high-res pictures please!
S.Lal
Mar 03, 2012 05:14pm
Execellent. Amazing. Incredible. I thank Nadi Siddiqui and Dawn for giving a treat to my turbulant mind. Lakh wari shukriya.
SLDUA (Delhi)
Mar 03, 2012 05:19pm
Excellent. Amazing. Incredible. I thank Nadir Siddiqui and Dawn for treat to my turbulent mind. Thanks for a thousand times.
M Taha
Mar 04, 2012 12:58am
Ammmmazing....
beenish
Mar 04, 2012 10:36am
can only partly imagine how spellbounding the whole deal mustve been... i had a similar experience in Naran.. what a beautiful country we have!! also, lovely photography!!
Danish Sultan
Mar 04, 2012 01:07pm
Beautiful pics depicting the endless loving horizon of Baluchistan.I have been in Quetta and Lakpass,a mountain some 8500 Feet of altitude with respect to sea level in the suburb of Quetta for three years and seen there great seasons,extreme temperature,wind of 50 knots, uncommon plantations,wild life and unique colours n structures of rocks and mountains and especially to mention here, the night sky.I had never ever imagined such a sky to be seen in my life.There was no place in the sky where some stars were not glittering.It seemed that the arrangements were fabricated but it was real, unbelievably a fact that could not be denied.And then travelling by road on public coaches to Quetta from Karachi,was another exiting and thrilling experience. Nadir Siddiqui,you have reminded me those lovely days..Thanks a lot. I pray, all the best for the gr8 people of Baluchistan.
Naveed Merchant
Mar 04, 2012 08:29pm
Balochistan is a haven for astro tourism...
Pirzado Azhar ayaz
Mar 05, 2012 04:44am
Splendid! extra-ordinary!
Faizan
Mar 05, 2012 08:06am
Amazing work! This includes one more thing that I must add to my bucket list!
Nawaz
Mar 05, 2012 09:01am
I have been trying to be part of the Star Gazers but not lucky enough to be so far. Can someone help me become part of the group which provides the updates, my email is s_d147 on the yahoo. Please put the subject star gazer. Thanks
lollywood
Mar 05, 2012 12:26pm
wow... amazing.. great yar... keep up ...
Syed Abbas
Mar 05, 2012 06:48pm
Very Nice Nadir , Yeh country has a great sky both northern and southern skies specially Baluchistan is wounder for darkness, astronomers always love the dark sky,I visited several time with Karachi Astronomers Society and do astronomy by largest telescope and most advance telescopes of Pakistan, amazing exp...Keep thumbs up ..
Naveed Merchant
Mar 06, 2012 08:07am
Nawaz Anyone can become a member, just visit www.kaasts.com and http://www.facebook.com/KarachiAstronomy KAAS is planning star party event for 24th March night at the same location. Stay tuned to KAAS website
Dur-e-Abbas Malik
Mar 07, 2012 10:10pm
Quintessentially display of natural beauty. Great work
razya
Mar 08, 2012 06:31pm
Hey Nadir Great writing and fabulous photos. Thanks for sharing. rs
Abbas Jafri
Mar 12, 2012 12:30am
Nice and hard work, next time I ll try to give you a tracking mount for wide angle dark sky shots. I was the part of expedition wounder full site bortel 1 sky. Guys join KAS or Pakwheels ..
Shaista
Mar 12, 2012 05:10pm
Wow Wow Wow!!! Pictures are simply amazing.
Indusonian
May 09, 2012 11:02pm
Awesome, great pictures.
M Khan
Jul 14, 2012 04:24pm
Fantastic pictures. I wonder how far did you venture from Karachi. Beautiful pictures. Jinnah called Baluchistan California of Pakistan. May peace prevail. Keep up the good work.
Duaa Khalid
Jul 24, 2012 10:04am
My gosh Nadir! This is amazing stuff. Gorgeous photography and a beautifully worded article to boot. Excellent! :)