Far from the crowd of Karachi, a lonely February evening sets at Clifton Beach.
The birds come home at last after their daylong labour. Their abodes in trees at the shoreline wait for them. The lonely evening witnesses a few, seemingly tired, people at the beach, but the breeze is ready to take away their weariness. Hawkers and camel jockeys attract customers in their own style.
Last evening, the same moment had gripped me at Hawke's Bay, and this one carried me away altogether. As the crimson of the setting sun changed hues, tossing and turning and reaching for the cover of darkness, my shadow left me, a wave wrapped around my feet and a cool breeze took me away.
Each wall of my room reflects my passion for photography spanning 12 nomadic years. Whenever I stand amid that great imagery, all those long lost moments, hot afternoons, balmy evenings, lonely, nostalgic nights and full moon flights echo. A time-lapse plays out in my mind, set to the background of a child’s laughter.
Four years ago I started presenting my artistic-traveller series on Gilgit-Baltistan on DawnNews. I figured now is the time to peep into the treasures of Sindh and Balochistan.
A wandering soul is always set on a road which leads it to nowhere, yet the soul meets its destiny at every turn. There, it steals rare moments and moulds them into timeless memories like an alchemist.
In Naya Pakistan, there are loads of assurances for promotion of tourism. And in this promising ambience, my inner traveller drags me to the dunes of the coastline that extends from Karachi to Gwadar, before it disappears into the rising sea.
Domesticity makes me restless. I find peace in being challenged, and comfort only in long, unknown journeys, sipping tea at dhabas, the twists and turns of dangerous highways, far away from crowds, where I can light a cigarette under the starry skies.
I left Lahore on a rainy night and boarded a train to Karachi after decades. From there, I planned to go to Gwadar via the Makran Coastal Highway.
The rain kept beating, the train kept hurtling and sleepy cities kept passing by. I stood at the threshold of my cabin, looking at the rain. As the howling wind drove the rain-laden clouds stretched across the vast skies, a thunderstorm rattled the carriages.
Other passengers slept, unaware that the dark and dreary night had lifted the veil off the morning, while the silvery dawn had awoken the sleeping birds by the side of the railway track.
As the train left Punjab and entered Sindh, the sights and scenes remained the same, but the soil changed. Columns of palm trees were lined up along the track as if to welcome us. The sun rose, the train whistle slit the quiet of the morning and the golden sun rays bathed the mud walls of huts, turning them copper-gold.
My friends, Adil and Abuzar, warmly received me at Karachi Railway Station. They’re both avid travellers and have been roaming Sindh and Balochistan for the last 10 years. I wouldn't have been on this tour if they hadn’t pushed me. We were to leave Karachi for Gwadar the next morning.
As I refocus, night has fallen at Clifton Beach; the hawkers are gone and only the rant of sea waves prevails in the darkness. Although Karachi never sleeps and neither does the sea, after a long, tiring journey, I can't stay awake.
As dawn breaks, our jeep leaves Karachi and marches on to the highway, crossing Hub Chowki. This checkpoint is at the border between Karachi and Balochistan. Not far, a signboard reads ‘Gadani’ and we turn left for Gadani Beach.
Gadani is a graveyard of ships — what a place to take the last breath.
The rays of the setting sun smear the wide shipyards with crimson red. A group of labourers break in through the wrecked ships. Amidst the massive scrap are the pickers in search of a living, stray dogs and, of course, us. The deafening whimpers of worn-out ships silence the camera shutter.
Before the sun sinks into the horizon, the jeep takes a turn and returns to the highway. The city of Uthal lies ahead.
The wind plays the musical notes of the evening and on those notes, serpents of sandy dust dance in front of the vehicle. We reach Uthal at dusk. Before the city begins, there is a road that turns left to Gwadar off the N-25 National Highway; this is the Makran Coastal Highway, or N-10.
Night falls as we drive along. Sand plains bracket the road from both sides. The truck hotels are fewer here, as are the petrol stations, where oil smuggled from Iran is sold. Besides oil, other Iranian products such as ghee, biscuits, ice cream, chocolates and cakes are easily found here.
Headlights guide the jeep to take a left off the highway that leads to a vast open land. This plain of porous soil is the terrain of mud volcanoes. Somewhere here lie the sacred Chandragup mud volcanoes, some of the highest in the world with a height of 300-plus feet.
We spend the night at the foot of this holy volcano. Far above, the stars play hide and seek with the clouds and there is a chill in the air. The mighty Chandragup stand upright, unmoved.
I decide to make an ascent all the way to the summit. It was a hostile hike, but I wanted to see the stars from higher up. At the top, boiling mud produces strange, bubbling noises that disturb this silent hour.
After a moment of contemplation, I step back and descend to my camp. Counting stars always helps me fall asleep. And needless to say, it works this time too.
The next morning, I wake up at sunrise. At daybreak, Chandragup tower like a monarch’s throne. Every year in April, Hindu worshipers come here from all over the country for a series of rituals as part of a pilgrimage to the Hinglaj Mata Mandir. To reach this spot, they walk 21 kilometres under the blazing sun from the temple, also known as Nani Mandir, in Hingol.
As the evening sets, we are back on the coastal highway. In a blink, we cross Kund Malir, a fishing village that is dormant at this hour, as are its boats at the calm shoreline.
The road takes a turn here to separate from the sea.
Hingol, one of Pakistan’s biggest national parks, starts here. Stretched over 1,650sq km, this magical world charms visitors with its charismatic landscapes and ever-changing hues. In places, it drops to sea-level, in the plains of Kech, and in others, it reaches for the sky at the peaks of Awaran.
The elements have carved gigantic statues, castles, wadis and chess-like pieces in the mountains; sprinkled with sand dunes, they form the desert landscape.
We’re on the road again in the morning. Crimson hues begin to sprinkle across the horizon and the road rejoins the sea here. This is Golden Beach.
From behind the sand dunes, the rising sun throws all its colours onto the wild waves of the ocean. Our jeep stops at the shore for a while.
As the sun frees itself from the loose grip of the clouds, we see a group of dolphins emerge onto the surface. The waves soak my feet, the dolphins swim across aimlessly, my camera shutter opens and closes, and suddenly this entire moment dwells in an ocean of time.
With one last glance at the dolphins in my rear-view mirror, I seal the moment in my memory.
Here, the Makran Coastal Highway moves away from the sea again and into the hills. Buzi Pass welcomes us as we cross the bridge on the Hingol River.
My friends Adil and Abuzar turn left off the highway once again towards the vast plains. This is marshy riverbed offering unseen dangers, and our jeep battles the mud. We intend to spend the night at Sapat Bandar Beach, 12km away on the other side of this marsh.
The waves here are illuminated with blue lights thanks to a natural phenomenon called bioluminescence. Sapat is one of the rare beaches in the world where this is visible on shore due to its remoteness and isolation.
After a murky night, dawn breaks at Sapat Beach at last. The sun paints everything a cadmium yellow and birds fly across the sky. A large turtle digs its way out of the sand and heads towards the waves.
The sun rises with blazing rays as we are all set to leave. But it seems this isolated mud plain wants to enjoy our company for a little longer, so it traps our jeep.
Smeared in mud from head to toe, we continuously push to free our vehicle. After toiling all afternoon, it’s free at last and our first stop is a dhaba, where we change and clean off the mud that had turned to plaster in the heat.
Right before the hills of Buzi Pass, the jeep leaves the road and bounces amid treacherous elevations. After nearly two hours of off-road driving, an awe-inspiring scenery unveils ahead, as if the Coastal Highway has taken us to Mars.
Spiked mountains soar above smoothly curved, dune-like hills. For a moment, I think this place exists in a parallel world. This surreal landscape is Pachri.
It ends as we return to the highway.
On our way back, we see a few ibex, my first one-on-one meeting with these wild creatures. Deep inside Hingol, our presence surprises them equally.
The mountains of Buzi Pass start here. Statues and silhouettes line both sides of the road and at every turn, we meet new figures. With adieu to Abulhoul — the sphinx — the Princess of Hope, a masterpiece sculpted by wind, welcomes us. There are tourists to see her highness.
Parting with the Princess of Hope, we move forward slowly along the contours of mountains. Night falls when we reach Ormara. The sea touches the road for a moment and we stop for the night. At dawn, we leave for Gwadar.
Leaving the mountains behind, the Coastal Highway once again runs through vast sandy plains. Dunes of sand rise upon the horizon as we reach Pasni on the way.
We cross the city to reach the Pasni shoreline, and here in the backdrop of the sunbathed mountain, migratory birds from Siberia bask in the warm shallow waters.
Watching cranes has always been my greatest leisure, whether on their visits to the Chenab in my native Sialkot, or as they drift on the lakes of Soon Sakesar.
A flock of them takes flight and vanishes somewhere in the skies. There are a few sand mounds at a distance. There is an isolated hut on the beach nearby and a dog seems to keep watch.
I want to spend the rest of my life here.
Another night falls. On the boats at the shoreline, a young man sings Sassi Pannu in the background of clamouring waves. A strange melancholy stretches over the night.
In this fishermen settlement, we are served Iranian snacks and Baloch youth tell us their stories of deprivation. As evening approaches, we decide to ride ahead.
We reach a sleepy Gwadar well into the night. I go directly to the hotel room and fall asleep as soon as I arrive.
Before dawn, I climb Koh-e-Batil in the south to enjoy the moment Gwadar’s beach bathes in early sunrise. This mesmerising view stretches before me while the boats look as if they were still sleeping.
Finally, early rays of sunlight emerge from the eastern corner and spread across skies in an instant. On this bright morning, I can see the economic lifeline ahead. A journey to development is to start from this stepping stone. I fully relish the morning breeze.
This never-ending road trip is about to finally conclude. A travelogue won’t suffice what this wanderer’s heart has experienced and felt during this journey.
With its untouched sights, pristine waters and beaches, golden dunes and wildlife, Pakistan has a stunning coastline.
I hope I’ll keep exploring and writing about it.
An era has passed, and another is to come
اک دور تھا جو بِیت چُکا ، اک دور ہے جو آئے گا
A dream has ended, and another is to come
اک خواب دیکھا جا چُکا، اک خواب دیکھا جائے گا
A slightly longer version of this travelogue was originally published on DawnNews and has been translated by Sameeha Khaliq and Mahnoor Bari.