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The entrance to the colosseum from high ground | Photos by the writer
The entrance to the colosseum from high ground | Photos by the writer

Balochistan is a land of extraordinary geological and topographical surprises. For the time being we can leave its archaeology alone because, one day when they bring their brushes and scalpels for its myriad mounds dating from 7000 BCE and surely even older, archaeologists will spend the next 200 years just uncovering the secrets of ages gone by. In only the physical splendour of Balochistan — from the dramatic mud volcanoes of the coastal region and Awaran to the fairyland of Moola Pass in Kalat district, to the deserts of Nushki and the immense salt wildernesses of Kharan — there is enough to overwhelm the curious traveller.

My friend Aziz Jamali knew of another marvel: Gerh Bust. Now, in Balochi, Gerh (with a palatal r) means ‘boundary’, while ‘bust’ is the ‘act of making it fast’. That is, the Well-Established or Fast Boundary. He said east of Manguchar town in the wilderness of the Central Brahui Mountains was this remarkable rock formation cut by millions of years of flowing water.

From N-25 (the old RCD Highway) we swung east of Manguchar village and entered the vastness of the unpopulated Balochistan. Ahead of us Koh-i-Maran — Mountain of Snakes — with the rising sun behind it, reared up darkly to its summit at 3,205 metres. I had long wanted to climb it to see if there really were snakes on its bleak slopes, where wild olive and juniper grow sparsely. I now found out Aziz too harboured the same curiosity and we resolved to unravel this secret together.

Unveiling the dramatic amphitheatre of Gerh Bust, another well-kept geographical secret of Balochistan

We skirted the mountain’s southern fringe by a low saddle between it and an outlying spur to its south and continued eastward. At a place our guide named Sanjdi Sarawan, where we saw no human habitation, we came to a fork in the road (N 29°-18’-27”, E 66°-50’-41”). We turned south. The road continued in fairly good blacktop condition until we hit what locals call Morgand Cross and turned south-east. A few kilometres more and we made village Gerh Bust, a collection of five or six mud-walled compounds and neatly-parcelled squares of cultivation. Map sheet number NH 42-9 of the US Army Corps of Engineers U502 series calls it Gedbast. Here we left our four wheels and changed to Shanks’s Pony.

Just over a kilometre eastward, following the stream that waters the fields of the village, we passed by two massive overhangs on our right. Here, hundreds of thousands of years ago, proto-humans would have sheltered from the harsh Balochistan weather and I was sure if one looked carefully, one would find ancient art on its walls, now perhaps hidden by soot from later fires. But we did not pause to play anthropologists for just ahead lay the dramatic amphitheatre of Gerh Bust.

The pool at the head of the horseshoe
The pool at the head of the horseshoe

We entered an elongated horseshoe about 70 or 80 metres in length, its sides rising sharply to the apex a hundred metres above the floor. (On Google Earth, the formation shows exactly like a horseshoe at N 29°-09’-33”, E 66°-46’-21”, elevation 7,202 metres.) As one stood right below the overhang of the apex, one could imagine what it must have been like in that bygone time, more than two millennia ago, when rains were more plentiful.

Here at the lower edge of a furrowed hill, rising a hundred metres above the floor of the amphitheatre, the hard shelf above the apex caught all the rainwater running down the slopes. During even the lightest shower an incredibly beautiful cascade, a veritable curtain of water, semi-circular in form, would have sluiced down to the bottom of the horseshoe. With the evening sun behind the observer, the torrent would be brilliant with rainbow hues.

Nowadays, surely, some young persons of poetic bent of mind from the nearby village knew this secret natural artistry and came here when, during a shower of rain, it began to clear in the west, to revel in its beauty. I wondered if our earliest ancestors would have stood at the mouth of the gorge to enjoy the same beauty.

Looking into the horseshoe colosseum from its entrance
Looking into the horseshoe colosseum from its entrance

A clear shallow pool at the closed end of the amphitheatre reflected the blue sky above. I sat by its side letting my imagination run wild with scenes from bygone ages: a million years ago, ancestors having stood upright and freed their hands to hold weapons and tools, driving herds of wild ungulates into the confines of the horseshoe and then moving in to bludgeon the cornered beasts. Fifty thousand years ago, homo sapiens with their more sophisticated methods would have done the same. Only now the hunt would have been better coordinated with bowmen on the lip of the amphitheatre to shoot down as others armed with spears prevented the panicked herd from escaping back. And there would have followed the carnivorous orgy and celebration. In my mind’s eye, Aziz climbing up the sheer side of the colosseum to walk around its rocky top was the kinsman with the bow.

Time marched on and Baloch ancestors gave up the hunt for survival. It was now only a pleasure undertaken on a belly full with the fruit of the plough. The Fast Boundary was no longer the killing field of the ibex and the markhor as it once was. After the introduction of the firearm, when game had receded into distant valleys and hills, this amphitheatre was forgotten and became virtually unknown for the purpose it was once employed.

And so, when Aziz led our little group to it, the place was almost pristine. The only rubbish was a couple of empty cigarette packets left behind by local visitors. Once it becomes common knowledge, it will go the same way as Ziarat, famous for its juniper forests, and Lake Saiful Muluk in far-off Kaghan. With no thought to keep it unspoiled, those who come to appreciate its beauty will corrupt it with the plastic they will leave behind.

I secretly hoped, and still do, that the hour-and-a-half drive from Manguchar keeps mindless ‘tourists’ from ever reaching Gerh Bust. May they never know of this wondrous place until they have learned the essence of keeping it clean and unblemished. May the only people who ever venture this far off the beaten track value the immaculate condition of this wonderful place. May they have the sense to be here and leave nothing behind.

The writer is Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 25th, 2018

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