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When I was in secondary school, a Ferozesons Atlas for Pakistan was part of the curriculum. Apart from the sparse curriculum-driven usage, my copy had several areas circled with a pencil, places that I had visited, along with a companion list of places that I dreamt of going to one day.
Living in Karachi and not travelling much, the markings were modest – Malir, Thatta and Hub were the first to be circled. Over the years, the wish list grew longer. The habit became part of who I was.
An item that first appeared on the list a few years back was Chutok in Moola Teshil of District Khuzdar in Balochistan. I first came to know of Chutok through an article penned by my travel writing idol Salman Rashid, in the Urdu publication Jahan-e-Pakistan.
The piece, titled Jadunagri Chutok (Magical Wonderland of Chutok), described the place as a nature’s waterpark of sorts, embedded deep in a narrow canyon. The prospect was tempting.
I had already visited some areas of Balochistan, seen Khuzdar from atop Gorakh on the other side of the Khirthar Ridge in Sindh, and Makran Coastal Highway had become a favourite hangout spot, but for one reason or another Chutok remained out of reach.
Last year while visiting Pakistan for Independence Day, I sought Salman Rashid’s help to visit the place but his local friend from the Zehri clan had moved abroad. This year, our plan to visit Astola for Independence Day was blown away by monsoon winds.
As luck would have it, Fawad Khan, a banker and former colleague, has taken up offroading and is always on the lookout for a destination to explore. Our addiction to the outdoors lead the way and we were on the way to Khuzdar along with Jahanzaib Najam who is a professional photographer, a Bonsai practitioner, and an adventure enthusiast.
As we fueled up along the Hub River Road, we observed PAF’s Mirages coming in to land at the Masroor Base. This is the base where Rashid Minhas took off from on his flight to immortality, on that fateful morning in August, 46 years ago.
We crossed the bridge over the Hub River to Bab-e-Balochistan, the gateway into the province.
We stopped near Bhawani Serai (a Chowkandi style graveyard) on the RCD (Regional Cooperation for Development) Highway for Friday prayers. Similarities in the stone carved graves from Bhawani Serai to Makli are a testament to the presence of an ancient culture that fared these routes.
When we crossed Winder, the usual sandstorm-esque gusts greeted us on the way to Uthal. In its own rugged way, it felt as if Balochistan was welcoming us.
Our first break was between Uthal and Bela, where green fields and smoke rising from the hearth of a teashop, tempted us with the promise of doodh-patti prepared on a wood fire. I have never been able to appreciate the difference between a pizza baked in a wood-fired oven and that prepared in a gas oven, but tea and karhai are on a different level altogether when prepared on wood fire.
In Sindh and Balochistan, smoke from burning keekar lends the humble ingredients an aroma that the finest Darjeeling tea and Wagyu beef cannot match. We savoured our tea in the cool breeze under huge keekar and babur trees.
To our surprise, the crop in bloom in the fields behind the teashop turned out to be cotton. None of us previously knew that cotton was planted in this area of Balochistan.
The locals informed us that it was a recent development as it is more profitable than other crops and know-how of its growth is now reaching these parts as well. Although this sojourn was very relaxing and on another day could have been a destination in itself, Chutok beckoned us.
Throughout our journey we encountered the usual cargo on trucks – huge boulders heading toward the Marble City near Hub, to be crafted into tiles and ornaments, and agricultural produce heading in both directions. There were containers being hauled.
In the wider geo-political arena, commentators would have us believe that these are the beginnings of CPEC cargo and not continuation of NATO cargo – if so or otherwise, I am unable to vouch. But I hope that whichever alliance the cargo belongs to, its economic and social benefits will trickle down to the locals.
During a short break between Bela and Wadh, we bought and drank what we later concluded was counterfeit bottled pomegranate drink. We were left red-lipped, red-mouthed, and red-faced.
We decided not to take any further breaks till we reached Khuzdar. Dusk approached as we crossed into Wadh, and as it became dark we made a stop in the wilderness, surrounded by the mountains to marvel at the Milky Way before the lights of Khuzdar would fade it out.
Khuzdar was refreshingly bigger and more developed than our expectations. The roads that we used were better than most Karachi roads, cleaner too, and a minor ocean of city lights gave the impression of a large, well-planned town.
Much to the discontent of our hosts at Khuzdar, we decided not to stay for the night, but immediately after dinner, head off to Moola Tehsil.
There are two navigational options available if one were to reach Moola from Khuzdar city. The longer, but saner and safer route is through Karakh town of Khuzdar District on the under-construction M-8 Ratodero-Gawadar Motorway.
M-8 promises to be a life-changing infrastructure project for many, similar to what the Makran Coastal Highway has done for the people in Ormara, Pasni and Gawadar. From Karakh, one has to take a hillside road to Moola, which, as it proceeds, morphs into a dirt track that criss-crosses the river bed.
The other option is to take the comparatively shorter but completely unpaved 90 km-long dirt and rock track near the intersection of RCD and M-8.
Our motley crew had the offroaders’ ego to live up to, so we opted for the latter much to our hosts’ concerns and suggestions to reconsider. Their mehmaan-dari called for letting them provide us a comfortable stay, a breakfast and then an early morning start to our onward journey.
But once they saw how committed we were to take ‘the road less travelled’, a different aspect of their mehmaan-dari checked in, and they not only encouraged us to go ahead, but also arranged for a Levies personnel as a guide, and provided a travel time estimate of three to four hours. This time estimate further encouraged us to proceed.
Years of wandering teaches one not to digest any time frames given by locals, especially hosts without a pinch of salt or two. But the same years also prove that no matter how many pinches of salt you take, excitement to reach your destination often intoxicates you into believing the time frames, and also that you can improve on that time!
What was supposed to be 3-4 hours, turned out to be eight long hours of gruelling offroading on dirt, mud tracks, rocky patches, running streams, and finally meandering for miles along steep mountain sides. Throughout the night, we were convinced that it was our guide who had lost the way and was working on a trial and error methodology.
Several times, one of us had to cross a stream in the dark to check how deep it was, before our faithful 1984 TLC (Toyota Land Cruiser) could make it through. I guess the rationale behind this time-tested method of crossing streams is that it is better to risk one soul with everyone else there to rescue them, instead of jeopardising the pack and no one left to rescue!
The continuous night-time off-roading was a personal record for all of us as we reached Chutok at 6 am.
Fawad, whom we had entrusted with the steering wheel and our lives throughout the night, opted to take some rest while Jahanzaib and I, who had occasionally caught some naps during the night, immediately got into gear for the two km hike westwards from Chutok Resthouse to the springs.
The sun slowly rose behind us as we entered shaded canyons. The path often criss-crossed the stream coming from the springs. The surrounding landscape is mostly dry but its rugged beauty is spell-binding — something Balochistan is blessed with.
During our hike it was disappointing to notice a couple of rocks where visitors had left some graffiti.
As Chutok comes on the adventure visitor’s radar, it is important to preserve its natural beauty and originality. We are better off eating an apple or a banana purchased and brought along from Hub, rather than the prospect of enjoying a burger served by a franchise’s Chutok outlet that will ultimately ruin what one goes there for!
I asked the guide Mian Khan why they do not stop the vandalism, to which he replied that on a holiday such as Eid or 14 August, there can be hundreds of people visiting the springs and it is just not possible to ensure that people don’t engage in such acts.
At the mouth of the gorge we expected to swim across the huge pool of turquoise water that we had seen in some videos. When we reached the spot, I enquired from Mian Khan where the pool was.
He replied that that it had been filled over with pebbles. When asked who did that, his response was “qudrat”, before explaining that torrential rains bring huge amounts of pebbles down the ravine that fill up the pool.
He went on to claim that this was a periodic phenomenon and that another torrent will flush out pebbles from the approximately 30-feet-deep pool! Hard to believe, but I guess we’ll have to take Mian Khan’s word for that. Or maybe, we can revisit in hopes of being greeted by a flushed out pool.
Any notion of a stroll-in-the-park kind of picnic that had survived up until now was quickly and surely put to rest as we entered the gorge. To begin with, the sides are steep and the stream is rolling down a gentle slope, but as one goes further, the gradient increases and little falls have to be climbed.
The gully narrows and the sides become virtually vertical, thus eliminating the option of bypassing the stream. The flow of water increases at the tighter spots and the sides drip from innumerable points.
The walls are tens of feet deep and allow little direct sunlight to enter the crack; this, combined with lack of space and rocky ground, limit vegetation mostly to ferns and moss that have found a perfect abode here.
This is an ideal setting for an introduction to the sport of canyoning, with a wide variety of obstructions and features squeezed into a neat power pack.
During our session, the objective was to reach the point where the springs originate and return safely. On and on we prodded, waded, jumped, swam and climbed against the flow.
There are several fantastic water features one comes across here — puddles, pools, showers, waterfalls, springs and fountains gushing out of the rocky walls — and waterslides polished smooth by perhaps millennia of water erosion. Waterslides in general are great things to slide down on but climbing up against a powerful stream gushing down is another story!
We took off our shoes before swimming across a large pool and climbing a small waterfall. When one crosses all the pools and falls, the stream in the middle weakens to a soothing flow of crystal clear water with a bed of pebbles on both sides – a Japanese rock garden created by ‘qudrat’.
Here the roars of the torrent are only a distant whisper interspersed with a gentle drip. We discovered that walking with soaked bare feet in a Japanese garden can bring one back from a meditative state, especially if one is overweight – in short, it HURT!
The tranquility of this space was disturbed a couple of times by what sounded like a few SMG bursts from a distance but the sound was too vague and distant for us to investigate. In any case, an investigation would require us to get out of the gorge first — we kept moving further in.
Alas, when we reached what we thought was the point of origin, all that we could see ahead was dry pebbles. We continued further, only to discover that there was yet another “origin”, a tiny spring with water flowing out and sinking under a bed of dry pebbles.
The water reappeared where there was a disturbance in the terrain. This happened a few times till we finally reached the true origin of the stream, after which the gully took a sharp turn and sealed off.
It was only by this time that we realised that those 'bursts' were pebbles of various sizes hurtling down sporadically from the top edges of the ravine, gaining momentum during their long fall, and then hitting boulders at the bottom. Any unfortunate soul that gets hit by one of these would find them not much different from a bullet. Mian Khan enlightened us that grazing goats at the top sometimes cause these rocks to fall.
Getting struck on the head by rocks falling from tens of feet (if not hundreds) was not exactly an enticing prospect, hence we were a bit nervy and quick on our return.
In my haste I was about to splash in a shallow puddle when Jahanzaib grabbed my arm. He pointed towards a little snake that was lounging by its pool in privacy that I was about to invade.
The tiny fellow remained unfazed by our presence — the feeling was not mutual. One snake meant the possibility of finding more, and worst, sharing the upcoming pools with a few.
Luckily sanity prevailed and we were able to negotiate our return through some steep descents and sliding down slippery rock surfaces, without injury.
It was the best canyoning experience one can hope for.
A note for would-be canyoneers: The sport is most exhilarating and thoroughly enjoyable if you love nature, however, it has its own set of hazards such as flash floods, getting stuck in whirlpools, encounters with wildlife and being pinned down by a boulder, etc.
Remember the movie 127 hours? It is based on the true story of Aron Ralston who was trapped by a boulder in Blue John Canyon in Utah and had to cut off his arm to get free!
In any corner of the planet, the activity should be exercised with knowledgeable local guides and by exercising due caution.
As we headed back to the Moola valley, a constant game of light and shade was on display as clouds moved overhead. Up ahead we could see darker clouds with distant rumbling sounds indicating a downpour.
At the village, our hosts had prepared for us a scrumptious meal that summed up Baloch hospitality. The art of slow cooking that Baloch cuisine is famous for is perhaps born out of necessity as food in most areas is still cooked on wood fires. Despite the presence of Sui where the legendary methane reserves were discovered, ‘Sui gas’ is yet to make its way to many households in the province.
It was no surprise that the pièce de résistance was the lamb sajji, slow cooked in its own juices, covered with a salty crust, and equally importantly, sans the masala that we are accustomed to in the cities. Salt is applied to the meat to help dehydration and is often the only spice used.
Other items on the spread were not to be outdone by the sajji. Namkeen rosh, fried green chillies, boiled rice and kurnu featured on the menu.
Kurnu is a traditional Baloch bread, that takes hours to bake. Tough unleavened dough is applied to spherical river bed stones weighing approximately a couple of pounds. The stones are heated in a fire and covered with the dough, then left in fresh, warm ashes.
The exterior heat of the ash bakes the dough from the outside while the inside is cooked by the heat emanating from the stone. The result is a thick, crusty bread, a bit hard on the outside like baguettes, but chewy on the inside, and hollow in the middle after the stone is removed.
Eager for our return now, we started our goodbyes only to be informed by the hosts that our departure would be delayed. The rumblings we had heard earlier had brought heavy rains further down the valley and a flash flood was passing through the river bed that would take an hour to recede to navigable levels.
We spent this time exploring the nearby paddy fields and date orchards — another destination in their own right.
Finally the water level receded and we headed back, driving along steep cliffs overlooking the valley. We had entered from the other side along similar cliffs in the dark. Daylight emphasised our exploits from the night before.
Like a dream, the adventure ended as we returned to Khuzdar, interacting on the way with the ever vigilant FC personnel guarding their posts, and young men from the village who had hitched a ride with us to the city.
As the M-8 takes shape, CPEC traffic increases, and the magic of Chutok lures more visitors armed with SLRs and video drones, one hopes that the local population finds better economic opportunities from tourism and commerce, and better education and health facilities become available.
One also hopes that the increasing footfall does not result in total destruction of the magic. Unfortunately, already a couple of plastic wrappers and some scribbling could be seen etched around Chutok.
With dreamy memories of the Jadunagri, and a promise to return again when life permits, we made our exit from Balochistan. Upon my return, I picked up the phone to tell Salman Rashid that I visited Chutok and to tell him that his Urdu title for the piece was perfect.
After the call, I picked up my time-worn atlas, circled Moola (Chutok is not mentioned on the atlas) and updated my list.
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