by Kaleem Omar
KARACHI: “East is East and West is West, / And never the twain shall meet…” wrote Rudyard Kipling more than a hundred years ago. But what he said doesn’t always apply. In this context, consider, for example, an event that will take place at about 4 o’clock this afternoon in the small town of Koh-i-Taftan on the Pakistan-Iran border. Koh-i-Taftan (let’s call it Taftan for short) is not exactly the hub of the universe, and many Pakistanis may have never heard of it. Nor would they be any the wiser if one were to tell them that it is about 60 km northwest of Koh-i-Dalil. Yet it is here, in Taftan, that East and West will meet today, in a manner of speaking.
The venue of the meeting will be Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation’s rest house in Taftan where a group of four enterprising young Britons who left England in August in two 4X4 vehicles on a gruelling expedition to drive 65,000 km to New Zealand to raise money for charity will meet up with 17 Pakistani members of the 4X4 Offroaders Club Karachi who are driving to Taftan in a convoy of seven jeeps to welcome Marianne (“Maz”) Towns, her husband Alex Towns, and their two friends, Martin Pitwood and Max Smith, and then drive back with them to Karachi, on a five-day journey that will take them through Saindak, Kila Ladgasht, the Mashkel salt flats, Palantak, Panjgur, Saka Qalat, Besima, the Nal valley, and Khuzdar.
Over the years, many Westerners have driven through Pakistan on their way to India, Nepal, China, Bangladesh and points farther east. What makes today’s meeting in Taftan unique, however, is that it will be the first time – as far as I know – that a group of Pakistanis have driven all the way from Karachi to the Pakistan-Iran border with the specific intention of meeting up with a Western expedition journeying through this country. It will, therefore, be something of a historic meeting, even though I’m using the word ‘historic’ here in a strictly lower-case sense.
Marianne and her friends, as the group of four Britons are affectionately known, say, “Why fly when you can drive.” Two years in the planning, their 18-month journey is taking them through 20 countries, driving overland across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia, before arriving at their final destination of New Zealand in February 2007. For the past three weeks, the expedition has been travelling through Iran, seeing the sights, raising money for charity, and heading east at a leisurely pace towards the Pakistan border.
The expedition, in its own words, is “visiting countries as diverse as Iran, Egypt, China and Indonesia, crossing deserts, hacking through jungles, climbing over mountain ranges, and shipping across seas.” “Hacking through jungles” may be overstating the case a little, but there is no denying that it’s quite a trip – one that will take them across much of Pakistan, down to the southern tip of India, then north to Nepal, over the Himalayas into Tibet, then east through central China, then south into Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Indonesia islands of Sumatra and Java, then across to the northern tip of Australia and along most of the Australian coast, then east by ship from the port city of Brisbane to New Zealand’s north island and all the way down to the country’s southern tip, where their journey will end.
Realising how fortunate they were to be able to undertake such a trip, Marianne and her friends felt that it would be a “great opportunity to offer something back” to the countries and communities they would be travelling through. It was this desire to give “something back” that made them affiliate themselves with CARE International, a humanitarian organisation working to help end world poverty, and set themselves the task of trying to raise money for the charity.
CARE International says it seeks “a world of hope, tolerance and social justice, where poverty has been overcome and people live in dignity and security.” CARE is now supporting 870 poverty-fighting projects in 70 countries, reaching more than 45 million people. Its projects include several in Pakistan, where it is now also involved in helping victims of the recent earthquake disaster.
Worldwide, one million students, half of them girls, have benefited from CARE projects that increase school enrolment and improve the quality of education. The organisation has provided more than 7.6 million people with emergency assistance, such as food, water and shelter, meeting basic needs in times of crisis.
CARE’s work has also ensured that nearly nine million mothers and children have better access to quality health services, making pregnancies, deliveries and infancy safer. Through its efforts, more than 6.5 million people have received training and/or resources to improve their crops and protect natural resources, creating sustainable solutions to hunger.
Affiliating their 20-country expedition with CARE, Marianne and her friends arranged with the organisation to visit some of its projects in various countries along the route, including a water purification and sanitation project in Egypt, micro-finance projects in rural India and tsunami relief projects in Southeast Asia.
Marianne says the team were very keen to ensure that anything they managed to achieve by their fundraising efforts provides not just temporary relief, but instead “makes a real difference to people for some time to come.” The team says that all the money raised by them will go to CARE projects, with the entire cost of the trip being funded by the team itself. That’s good to know, especially at a time when there have been reports in the press here about a Pakistani social-sector project where 64 per cent of the project-funding was allegedly paid as a fee to the project’s foreign consultant.
So who are Marianne and her friends. Well, according to their CVs, they are not only travellers but three of them are also scuba divers. Marianne says she learnt to dive when she started at the University of Surrey and couldn’t believe her luck when she got the opportunity to carry out her industrial placement in Adelaide, Australia – obviously a great place to experience her first war-water diving. She says this is where the travel bug hit her. “I travelled throughout Australia with Alex (Alex Towns, her husband) in my ‘passion wagon’ and saw a lot of the South and East coast of Australia during my year’s stay there,” she says. Since then she has travelled and dived in many places, including North and South Africa, UK, the Far East and South America.
Her husband Alex Towns says he was born in the UK but only stayed until he was five years old when he moved with his parents to Oman. “This was the start of my travelling lifestyle and its never really ended,” he says. “I love adventure and exploring new cultures, and being an avid scuba diver, I spend as much time as possible under the water. My passion in life is to go diving in exotic places around the world.”
Martin Pitwood says his taste for exploration started very early thanks to extensive travel in the United States while he was living there as a child. “On moving back to the UK, I was fortunate to have a regular family caravan holidays around the UK and Western Europe,” he says. “I learned to dive while at university and since then I’ve travelled to new places whenever possible for both diving and non-diving trips, but from entering Slovenia until entering Australia the whole of this itinerary will be through countries I’ve never visited before.”
Max Smith, the fourth member of the team, says he was brought up in the Cotswolds where he spent most of his childhood enjoying the great outdoors. “From this grew a passion for adventure sports and backpacking, to some of the most remote parts of the world,” he says. “I like to think I would try anything once and have been lucky enough to see many of the world’s wonders.”
He is likely to see many more wonders during the expedition’s journey through Pakistan, which contains some of the most spectacular scenery on earth and has been described by travel writer Isobel Shaw as “one of the best kept tourism secrets in the world.”
This, then, is the group that will be meeting up with the members of the 4X4 Offroaders Club Karachi in the border town of Taftan today, proving that East and West can indeed meet. The club has made numerous trips to places throughout Pakistan, including some of the remotest parts of Balochistan – a land of huge vistas and enormous horizons. The club’s website – www.offroadpakistan.com – is one of the most visited Pakistani websites, receiving thousands of hits a month from people around the world. But more about that on another occasion.
Meanwhile, a very warm welcome to Pakistan to Marianne and her friends. May the road always go with you and may you always travel in safety and enjoyment.
THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN ALL FOUR EDITIONS (KARACHI, ISLAMABAD, LAHORE AND LONDON) OF THE NEWS INTERNATIONAL OF MONDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2005.