The young captain had made arrangements for us at the Amirchah post; he had been in touch with the post commander should we require any help on our way to the Neza-e- Sultan. The team of cooks was preparing for breakfast when the twenty seven of us descended upon them. They were not geared up to cater for such a large party at a time as Nok Kundi is a non-family station and the mess is for the few officers that stay there, yet they did a remarkable job of frying eggs and making omelets, ‘parathas’ and bread. We finished breakfast by eleven in the morning and gradually made our way in the direction of the hills where the pillar mountain was supposed to be located. The two guides with us were well aware of the terrain and were seated with Salman in his jeep who was leading the team today. We made our way through the town center and crossed the railway track that had been following us yesterday. A small railway station with a few bogies suggests that the track is seldom used these days. The track leading out of town is of loose gravel and bumpy, the washboard-like ruts on the surface make driving very tricky as the vehicle shudders violently at slow speeds and tends to wander at high speeds. There is a specific speed of about fifty or so kilometers per hour at which the vehicle will neither judder nor skip the road. Maintaining this constant speed requires skill while negotiating the bends. The lone track leads out towards the rocky desert, a land peppered with small dark colored rocks on a flat terrain, probably remains of volcanic eruptions of the past. There is no indication of direction here and soon one is lost in the vast desert expanse. However, the guides know their bearings well and after about driving twenty kilometers we were asked to turn right on a small dirt track which from the look of the surface appears to be seldom used.
We waited for the rest of the team to assemble here so that we could once again proceed as a convoy. The land is treacherous here; it resembles a moonscape, flat, rugged and windswept, with ruts and gullies made by flash floods furrowing through the surface. Driving through these ditches and gullies is dangerous. The halo of the mountains on the right starts to deepen as we fork right towards them leaving the desert to the left. Hidden amongst the mountains, we caught a glimpse of a pillar, which resembles the Neza-e-Sultan in the silhouette of the landscape. Could this be the pillar we have been looking for?
The gravel track entered a dry river bed and smoothed out. I was lost in thought driving in this lonely place, the engine humming away, the Desert Duelers skimming the sand as the Jeep floated on the surface, the cool breeze blowing on my face, to me this was heaven. Suddenly I was jolted back into reality by Papu Sahib on my tail, honking like a mad man, trying to speed up with me. What fun when two avid offroaders test their driving skills on uncharted territory. He was taunting me by driving right up to my tailgate at fifty kilometers an hour. While it doesn’t sound like much, fifty kilometers on the road is worlds apart from fifty in the sand where traction and room for error are extremely limited. I have been driving this Jeep for the past fifteen years and I have modified it to my needs. I know every inch of this vehicle, how it handles and the punishment it can take, so I was game for some fun. Papu Sahib, on the other hand, is a veteran. He has even more experience than me in offroad driving, and we have Khan Sahib telling us about his escapades all the time. For the next few kilometers both of us sped through the desert at high speed. I just floored the accelerator and the Jeep flew; the passengers knew how to keep themselves in the Jeep as they have on numerous occasions while chasing deer in the desert. The drag must have lasted for fifteen minutes with him driving inches behind my Jeep as we gathered speed in the dry river bed. I maneuvered through the rocks and the ditches with Papu sahib in full pursuit anticipating my moves as to which way I would turn next. He tried but was unable to overtake me. I was driving with full view of the track up ahead; he was simply following my tail because he could not see, for the cloud of dust my tires were generating restricted his vision. Now that requires skill. Driving the jeeps in the desert is a thrill on its own and can bring out the youth in some of us, even those who are close to sixty.
The track approaches the hills and enters the canyon with the rock surfaces jutting out into the sky. The surface of the mountains is bizarre, etched into exquisite shapes by the water and winds over the years. The track traverses through the canyon till it approaches the sulphur springs on the left. A narrow gorge leads the way past the spring and up a steep incline into another valley. The Bronco driven by Abid and Papu Sahib’s M38 had a tough time climbing the steep rugged incline.
The rock pillar, or ‘Neza-e-Sultan’, is only a few kilometers from the climb and we reached the volcanic remnant after driving through narrow gullies of sand and rock. The Jeeps were parked in a row facing away from the pillar so that we could video the scene and take pictures as we always do. The boys climbed up to the base of the pillar and it looked huge and ominous from where we were standing. Not many people have been to the site, and according to the guide, we were the first Pakistanis who had ventured so far. The Neza is a vertical rock pillar that juts straight into the sky; it is visible from a good fifty kilometers away as a needle sticking out through the mountainous terrain. The English gazetteer had this to say:
We were inspired by the comments and wanted to experience the splendor of the volcanic rock for ourselves. It was getting dark by the time we started back for base. The drive back was not as exciting, when suddenly the front right tire started to pull heavily to the right as it lost air. Changing the tire gave us time to sit and video the rest of the group drive past through the river bed. The river bed was dry but there were a sign that there had been a recent downpour, the fine layer of crusted mud was still damp in places. On the way out, my eyes caught a glimpse of a white skeleton in the distance in one of the gorges to the right side and I turned the Jeep into the short valley to explore. It was a camel that had probably died of thirst; the bones had been bleached white by the intense sunlight. I picked up the skull and secured it to the front bush guard of the jeep. We reached town at dusk and drove to the market to check out the shops. The Major and his boys at the post had laid out a four course meal for us to our surprise. The dinner was fabulous and we stayed up late chatting about the local customs and the legends of the Hamoon-e-Mashkel desert. Tomorrow we would attempt to drive through the hundred mile desert expanse.