We got up early in the morning for breakfast which was laid out at nine. The boys were very enthusiastic and helped pack up all the Jeeps, there was so much gear in every vehicle that it’s difficult to imagine how it all fits in there. One by one the jeeps moved out of the BNR rest house and gathered at the petrol pump on the main highway where all the buses stop enroute to Quetta. The spare jerry cans were also filled up as for the next few days only Irani diesel would be available which is inferior in quality and not good for the engine. For this reason we had to carry diesel additive which counters any deficit in the quality and keeps the injectors clean.
By mid afternoon we were on the way to Surab. The road from Khuzdar to Surab is good and is a straight drive, on occasions one can see for miles as the road descends into the plains. The gentle ascent and descent is hardly noticeable except that the temperature of the engine climbs and drops with the up and down gradient of the road. The terrain of the hills is rugged with rocks scattered all around, there is sparse vegetation and hardly any cultivation along the way. What is most fascinating is that there are no trees along the way. The only greenery is isolated close to the natural ‘chashmas’ or the tube wells that supply water to the orchards of apples and peaches.
Surab is a small town where the road forks towards Basima or carries on towards Quetta. We would take the left fork towards Basima. The road from Surab to Basima is paved but narrow. It passes through the plains initially and then through a range of hills which are barren and lack any vegetation. The hills open up into a valley and there is a ‘karez’ which supplies water to the plantations in the valley. Karez are narrow, often cemented waterways buried deep underground to avoid any loss through seepage or evaporation in the sun, which can be strong in the summers. While I stopped to take photographs of the Karez, Dr. Baig who had stopped in front of me suddenly reversed only to be jolted as he backed into the front bumper of my Jeep. Fortunately, the Jeep is equipped for such eventualities with a brush guard. However, he still managed to break the glass on one of the many lights on the front bumper.
Basima is located at the foot of the range; it is a picturesque place as the valley opens up for a distance. The rolling hills and the brown color of the terrain is in contrast to the color of the shrubs, which are a fine tinge of green. We were parked in the bazaar close to the turning we were to take waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. The party was big so some of the Jeeps sometimes lag behind; we have to make pit stops off and on to give the others time to catch up.
The party assembled at the crossing and we asked for instructions. The rest of the way is through the desert mainly on dirt tracks. It is good practice to confirm with the locals about the condition of the road and any detours from the main track. The desert criss crosses with tracks and it can be difficult to figure out the main track unless a guide is with you or the gravel track is marked with white stones, the main track is usually marked with leading stones to keep the unwary on the right track.
Salman was leading in his long chassis Jeep M170 with Khalid following behind him in his white M38, then Ahmad in his green CJ-7 followed by myself in my open CJ-7 I call the Desert Wind. Mir Raza Ali, the father of the famous boys, was with us sitting beside me in the passenger seat. We were driving merrily along enjoying the countryside, the shrubs, small trees, rivulets and the hill ranges, when Mir sahib noticed signs placed at regular intervals along the road with a red marking at about three feet above the ground and a notice reading ‘Stop if water is it red’. After a while when he asked me a question about the signs, I took my eyes off the road just for a second to read the notice. Right at that moment the paved road ended abruptly and the surface changed to gravel. The track was level for the first few yards but lined with one smooth ditch after another for the next few yards until it leveled out. The jeep was doing a good eighty kilometers an hour when it hit the first ditch. All four wheels took to the air as the Jeep flew over the humps dragging itself to the left first then to the right as I tried to keep the vehicle on the track. We finally slowed down once the tires were back on the gravel and had something to grip. Mir sahib was visibly shaken by this one of my countless offroad escapades and held the handle bar firmly for the next half an hour anxiously anticipating another airborne adventure.
Up ahead the dirt track was quite broad but the fine dirt kicked up by the tires of the Jeeps up ahead slowed us down. We crossed a dry river bed and climbed up a hill to the left of the bank as the track disappeared into a dry bush jungle, switching back and forth in the dense brush. The track reappeared again as it descended down into the dry river bed. There were a few water holes along the way and on one such reservoir we encountered company. To the surprise of an Anti-Narcotics team, we drove straight into their convoy. They were busy loading water and freshening up in the afternoon heat when a barrage of Jeeps one after the other descended on them. They were quite taken aback as they were not expecting any company out in the desert. They were totally unprepared as we drove in, no sentries or guards posted to forewarn of an eventuality. The soldiers were unarmed too. Before any hostilities could develop I got out of my Jeep and started walking towards a young lad who looked like an officer. He too walked up towards me and I greeted him with a strong handshake. Before he could say anything I introduced myself as Dr Mansur Ahmad, Consultant Maxillofacial surgeon at the Aga Khan University Hospital. That broke the ice and he asked me as to what in the world were we doing out in the desert where even the locals dont wander. Experiencing the outdoors was the answer as I explained that there were many of us on the way. He quickly gestured to his troops and within no time they were on the move. It was then that I realized that there were American soldiers in the group, with their automatic weapons pointed in our direction. Their team was well equipped with satellite systems, trail bikes, water tankers and other well maintained vehicles. They are quite active around those parts as we later found out.
The river bed was pebbly and the water brackish, the salty spray from the tires as they splashed the water while negotiating the tight bends confirmed the advice of the locals, they had also advised us not to drink the water from the pools in riverbed. We were carrying enough water in the vehicles to last out a few days and then some. The gravel tracks led us through the river bed and gradually left the bank to climb the hilly region of the Kharan district. We traveled on the dirt road through the hilly portion till the landscape started to change. The hills flattened out and the gravel turned to a fine white powdery dust of the plains. A few miles further on we came to a junction with a few huts and a settlement of road-workers. We took the right fork to Kharan, while some of the Jeeps had already gone ahead. There were many tracks leading in the same direction and after a while they converged into one main track leading west. Looking back for the rest of the group I realized that Dr Baig’s Jeep was missing. It had been with us a while ago and now it was not in sight. After driving up about a kilometer and waiting with Salman for them to arrive, we decided it was getting late and we needed to back track to investigate the delay. We drove for about ten minutes before we made visual contact with them and found them working on the leads of the battery. The Jeep had suddenly died on them there was no current coming from the battery. Hamid and Ahmad were waiting with them. Shahid immediately diagnosed the problem to be the broken main to the starter. It would need welding in the morning at Kharan. The good thing about diesel engines is that they will start if you tow them. We pulled the vehicle and it started; the head lights were powered by the bypass wire which Shahid had connected to the battery. We reached Kharan by nightfall. Taimur and Wazir Ahmad had already reached ahead of us and secured the rest house. We were greeted by the brother of the Corps Commander of Baluchistan. They had a lavish dinner arranged and waiting for us at the rest house. The District Administrative Officer, Mr Nousherwani, was also there, and so was the Assistant Commissioner of the area. After dinner we had green tea and exchanged notes with the locals about the routes and the terrain we would be traveling through.