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.
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.
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.