As a child in 11th Grade, we were told by our English Teacher, Mrs. Hughes, to write a book on a topic that interested us the most. While others chose to write about vacations in faraway lands, my inspiration came from a black & white photograph of my father standing in front of his Jeep with late Dr. Rizvi with a hunted Ibex spread out in front of them. This photograph was taken in the 1960’s at a place called Hingol.
The photograph remains imprinted in my mind since the day I saw it for the first time as a child. Maybe it was the magic of the faraway sounding name, “Hingol,” or maybe it was the fantasy of a place far from my home in metropolitan Karachi, a place that required a long journey over rugged terrain to reach (about ten hours before the completion of the Coastal Highway).
The book I wrote based on the photograph is still with me. I have few material treasures as all others are just memories of great yesterdays.
By chance or, some say, by destiny, I ran into the Offroaders, with whom the common love of the wilderness and jeeps placed me right into the eye of a hurricane called the 4×4 Offroaders Club Karachi (also known as Offroad Pakistan). Here I met all and sundry, the old and the young, the careful and the rash, the engineer and the doctor, the director and the producer, the photographer and the filmmaker. Here, I found a group of people who shared my passions.
One day, while on a trip into the dirt and sand of Sindh, I heard them mention “Hingol.” I made inquiries and was informed that they had stumbled across the name years ago and since then had made frequent trips into this pristine wilderness. From then on began my conniving maneuvering, trying to get the members to plan a trip to Hingol. It wasn’t that difficult at all and, for no credit of mine, they all jumped at the idea. Our departure day was 24th of February, 2007.
Behind every successful man, there is a woman. We all know that this saying is true and is applicable universally. Therefore, I was curious to find out who was the “woman” behind the Offroaders! I was to find this out on this very trip.
Our previous trips had been on relatively benign tracks, where the mettle of the jeeps and their drivers were not put to any great test. This time it was different.
The recent rains in the Hingol area had left the tracks out of commission to the extent that there was no sign of any vehicle ever having passed through these areas. On reaching the Hingol area, and after having waited for what seemed like eternity for the guide to appear—during this time many frantic satellite phone calls were made (imagine, an eternity of calls), and after a quick drive back to the highway by Taimur—we finally set off into the wilderness. A discussion between Taimur and Doc on the radio set meant that we were heading off to the “other” track, which was, according to most members, a benign track. Having heaved a sigh of relief, I was quick to get back to my critical self, and quickly asked Mahera to film what I had to say. As soon as the video camera was switched on, I started blabbing out criticism of the mettle of the Offroaders, stating that they were just little kids who were too scared to get out into the rough. This was enough to cause rebellion in the ranks and with a unity rarely displayed by the motley crew, they all changed gear and plans, quickly shifting back to the old route.
Later, I cursed my self for having spoken too soon.
We were finally going into Hingol, a place that had haunted me since childhood. Those bowing mountains with jagged edges, those clear blue waters of the river, those expansive dusty plains! Finally, I was here today in flesh and blood. This was my day. My heart was beating fast, racing along with the revs of Jeep’s engine. I was in my newly acquired CJ-7, which most Offroaders thought would barely make it to Nani Mandir. The offoading began immediately after we crossed Nani Mandir. The heretofore, meek, mild and soft-spoken Pappu Sahib had turned into a devil behind the wheels of his Ford GPW and was on a maddening spree across the sands of Hingol. His ‘42 GPW had a relatively smaller engine, smaller narrower tires, and hence he was relying solely on “momentum” to keep him going. And m-o-m-e-n-t-u-m he was maintaining. notwithstanding anything in his way, he cared little for obstacles such as gaping holes, small crevices or huge sand walls… he kept going at a cool 30 kilometers an hour. And I kept right behind him, knowing that if I faltered, I would loose him and then get stuck. We crossed the same river umpteen times and we crossed sand banks a hundred times, each sand bank more sandy than the previous one. The Offroaders kept an eager watch out for me, expecting my jeep and me to get stuck in the sand or in the water, but I defied them all day.
After a lot of bouncing, a lot of revving of engines, and a lot of dragging of wheels, we finally arrived at a decent site on the banks of the Hingol River. I could not resist but jump into the clear blue waters of the river and soon the crowd followed. All were eager to hide their naked bodies except Doc who, after some convincing, agreed to leave his underwear on his body. He jumped in with a great big shout that shook the dust out of everzone’s hair. And then there was a heavenly peace—a slow wind picked up and cooled the heated engines of our jeeps and refreshed our tired souls. Dinner consisted of packed meals brought in from Karachi, and mixed the excitement of the outdoors, they tasted great—even the nans that were by now a day old and barely chewable were a hearty feast.
It was difficult to sleep as my mind wandered to those days when I used to dream of Hingol and had not yet seen it. Those days were so long ago and yet so close. The mountains looming on all sides, the desolate isolation, the wilderness, the soft grabbing sand, the meandering river, it was all too overwhelming for me to sleep. I do not know when I slept, but when I woke up, the Offroaders were getting up too. After lingering on at camp for eternity, they all managed to bundle into their jeeps for another day of eating dust. I was glad that my jeep and I had made it thus far and was convinced that whatever lay ahead could not be as bad as yesterday’s route. Boy was i wrong! Hardly 5 minutes out of camp, we approached the bank of the river and I found Pappu Sahib examining a vertical decline and claiming “No problem, its okay.” OKAY?
Okay it was, for he jumped back into his jeep and took off ignoring my pleads for him not to go down. He turned and twisted and slid his jeep on to the riverbed and I was left astounded, wondering whether I should go kill the lunatic or praise him. Behind him followed the even more meek and mild Rashid in his Land Rover. He did not even wait as long as Pappu Sahib did, he simply carried on, almost turning his Land Rover turtle, but he did not notice it. Then they all followed and I, now embarrassed, had no option but do go down the dragnet. The track was much simpler now, after 8 vehicles had moulded it into shape, and I got down without any mishap, my heart beating at 7000 revs a minute. At the river bed, I too felt it was ‘okay.’
From there onwards it was a piece of cake! The tons and tons of sand grabbed at our wheels but we kept on moving with engines in full rev (Editors note: The more experienced drivers carried on at half, and even one-third rev!). We criss-crossed the river many times again in the shadows of majestic mountains and heavenly valleys. The undisturbed wilderness with its rugged, jagged peaks, the clear blue waters of the river, the stone laced plains, the sand crested banks, the muddy wallows, the pebbles all reminded us of the divine architect. It was like a lengthy glimpse into the past. These mountains and valleys stood as they had thousands of years ago. Time hardly passes once you get off the metaled road, and here in Hingol the clock ticks backwards. In many ways I could, I felt I could, hear shouts of commanders urging Alexander’s army to move on, at other moments, I could hear the roar of the leopard, now very rare. At night I could feel the gaze of the piercing eyes of a wolf or a hyena and sometimes the hissing of a snake would wake me up. I was truly lost in this magnificent wilderness, one of the last ones that remained untouched by the human hand.
We got quite far and reached a point where the Hingol River was joined by the Haryun River. We could go no further as the recent rains had rendered the chances of crossing the river impossible. From this side, the other side was simply a fairytale setting, sharp peaks rising in succession in the distant fading in the mist against a setting sun. I was, by this time, lost in the book that I wrote so many years ago in high school about a place I had not seen then, was seeing now.
Doc was not dancing, Taimur was not lecturing, Pappu Sahib was not deriding anyone, Ahmad was not competing, Ali and Raeda were quiet, Khizer was taking pictures and Mahera was filming. Everything was quite normal, at least for this magical mystical moment. We were all lost in our own little fantasy worlds, thinking deep thoughts that we shared only with ourselves and felt entirely comfortable being absolutely alone in the midst of our group. It was one of the loneliest, yet most enriching experience of solitude that I could ever imagine. These intermittent episodes of ecstasy are precisely why I venture out into the wilderness, nothing can be more soothing than the quite whispers of a soft breeze caressing your face under a scorching sun surrounded by mountains and bushes and trees and sand and water.
An Offroader’s chest expands to 63 inches with pride
After these few exhilarating minutes, we all set off for the return journey to camp and the inevitable climb back up the steep river bank. A great big sand drift lay between us and the camp. Pappu Sahib was in the lead and got stuck, as I waited, the others kept streaming past us with their supped up jeeps and made it through and stopping way out there where the ground was firmer. Rashid and Pappu Sahib were stuck in the middle and I was waiting at the edge, wondering what to do. I held my breath, revved up my engine and took off straight into the sand. The sand grabbed me only a short distance into the pit. This was trouble. I could see the others standing on the other side, laughing their heads off, enjoying the fact that at last they had me cornered! This was going to become the hot topic for many trips to come. This was serious stuff. My head was spinning with thoughts of Doc’s murky laugh and Taimurs sly smiles when they would speak of my jeep getting stuck and then would follow tales of how they got me out. This was a Shakespearean tragedy. But as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. I was not going to lie around and have myself pulled out of this hole. I decided to fight for my pride and my honor as an Offroader par excellence.
I got off the jeep, and followed the trick my father had taught me years ago in the desert. I took the air out of the tires, down to 12 lbs, jumped back into the seat and began rocking the jeep to and fro. Sumar, our local guide who was with me, started digging the sand out of the tire path with his hands. After many to and fros and many digs by Sumar, my jeep took off… just when Khaild was approaching with a huge tow rope sent by Taimur. He had almost reached my jeep, Taimur had almost started to laugh, Doc, standing a million miles away, had almost started rejoicing their victory and Khalid had almost tied the noose around my neck… when I took off… and took off I did to the amazement of the Offroaders and to my unbridled joy. It was a hard fight for victory.
Okay! But it was like jumping out of the frying pan straight into the fire! The bank that we came down on was staring us in the face barely after we got out of the sand trap. It was a simple straight vertical climb which of course, had been easier to slide down. Pappu Sahib was the first one to get there followed by me. He was just not waiting and was roaring to go for it… I begged, I pleaded for him to wait till the others arrived but he was in no mood to listen and jumped into his jeep and was about to take off when common sense finally prevailed and he waited. The horde arrived, they examined the incline and discussed the possibilities of traversing it to death, and finally concluding that Taimur’s jeep was best suited to attempt it first. Taimur, with his chest expanded to over 63 inches got into his jeep while all others shoveled sand into the ditches and placed cut bushes at critical points. He raced into the incline, made it halfway and then reversed for a better start. This time he was lucky. At mid-point the tires were churning sand out and the jeep barely moving when finally, after what seemed like eternity to us, the spinning wheels caught traction and he reached the top to the relief of all. We would now be able to make it through. Taimur whisked his jeep around, parked it on the edge and stood there like Genghis Khan after a crucial victory. He unfurled the victory banner which was the wire on the winch, clenched the Dunhill between his teeth and took a long drag just like Clint Eastwood would chug at his cigar, placed one foot on the jeep bumper and held the remote in one hand and said “who’s next?”
One by one, we were all winched up while Taimur was basking in glory, Doc was supervising the winching and all others were clicking away with their many cameras. We proceeded to camp, exhausted by the excitement and tension of the day, and all just simply ran towards the clear water in the river and jumped right in. There was much talk, much laughter while the shampoo flowed freely and this time Doc’s mechanic was maliciously attacking the same shampoo that he had complained about in the last trip. He would soap his hair and then shampoo and repeat the procedure many times. When queried about this peculiarity, he advised that only soap cleans, while shampoo softens. We all live and learn. Even Pappu Sahib had adorned his birthday suit, albeit boxer shorts, and was gawking away in the water. Doc’s physical abilities were challenged by me and a bet was placed on a 50 yard sprint by him, which he willingly undertook in the river bed in extremely short and scanty underwear (Ed: Who won?!).
The bathing over, the pranks finished, everyone settled down to some great tea as the evening set in. Khalid and Khizer began a barbeque while I tried my luck at cooking vegetables. The barbeque was going great as Khalid and Khizer were on the same plane. I was trying to cook vegetables with about 10 people helping me. The barbeque was ready much before the vegetables and rice. As hunger was striking at our stomachs, we all gave up and dug into the tikkas. I had quite a few, others had a couple each and as we all finished we finally figured out why Ali had eternally been complaining about the unpredictability of his stomach. He finished his third and foruth tikka much before we had taken care of our first one. After his 6th tikka, we lost count as we were busy star gazing. In the morning, when Ali started complaining, no one took notice and went about their own chores. We had finally cracked the Da Vinci Code. Ali’s issues were self imposed and had nothing to do with the quality of water, food or the state of his mind.
Hingol claims another victim
Next morning it took the Offroaders an eternity (as usual) to pack up and get moving. A trademark that bears the hallmark of Hamid Omar. They are all the same… very hard to get moving, but once they move, boy do they get going. Just as we started off, Pappu Sahib in the lead, I following, we were halted by frantic calls on the radio by Doc. He kept hollering “come back!” So we did and found Ahmad Omar’s ˝most powerful Jeep in Pakistan˝ taken apart by a small ditch. It was David vs. Goliath. A small ditch with a sheer drop of about 3 feet had finally caught Ahmad’s Most Powerful Jeep in a death clasp and wrenched the back wheel out of its socket. Doc had already counted down to three, and the match was well won by Hingol. Ahmad denied rumors circulated by his son that his dad was trying to spray a fly in the jeep with Baygon, and thus had his head turned back while spraying all the while driving… therefore, he did not see the ditch which could easily have been avoided. The Jeep was left behind to be recovered another day. This what these crazy Offoaders do… they don’t give up, just keep on moving without batting an eyelid.
As we hit the Coastal Highway, a major portion of the motley crew was in favor of visiting Kund Malir, a great beach only a few kilometers the other way from Karachi. I was too tired and wanted to get back home. Ahmad was now riding shotgun in my jeep. After endless arguments and debates, we devilishly agreed to continue with the rest, waited till they left and then turned towards Karachi and sped off, radioing them that we were not coming. Surprisingly, Khalid also followed us. As the bad omen of leaving a group had struck Humayun Qureshi in the 2nd Dureji Expedition, the omen followed us too as we were leaving the group and heading off to Karachi. Just 20 minutes into our 4 hour journey, my jeep conked out. We were bewildered as to what the reasons could be. Soon, the hood was opened and I and Khalid poked our heads in to find a great waterfall coming out of the engine block as one of the “ticklies” had burst. This was catastrophe! Now I would be ridiculed by Doc and Taimur for eons. I could not bear the thought of this incident being repeated over bonfires on cold nights in the deserted mountains of Balochistan. This would haunt me. I had to get moving somehow, get near Karachi to save my skin. Khalid casually mentioned that he had heard years ago that “naswar” can block leaks in radiators, but this was the engine block. And how to get naswar in the middle of nowhere on the Coastal Highway where most eat pan or gutka.
I had stopped at a small roadside hotel. It was deserted. I ventured in to discover a droopy man lying on a charpoy. I asked him if he had naswar. Since I don’t look like a pathan, he immediately asked “is your radiator leaking?” The look in his face was not too comforting. He knew he had me and now I wondered how much he would charge for the naswar. I followed him closely into a small corner which was his shop. Although I noticed the naswar lying in a can, he fumbled everywhere pretending to look for it. I seized the opportunity and grabbed three packets of naswar and quickly threw down 30 rupees and walked off. He was stunned, opportunity had just passed the guy by… he could have made a cool thousand… but he was too slow.
I returned to the jeep, we threw in almost two packs of naswar, loaded the radiator to the brim with water and took off, keeping a close watch on the temperature gauge. It did not rise. Ahmad switched the AC on and it still did not rise. I pressed the accelerator as far as would go hoping to get me to Winder where we could find a mechanic and save me the ignonomy of having to face the Offroaders. I could imagine them laughing and clapping hands if they found me stranded on the highway. We made it to Winder without heating up, we did not stop and raced to Karachi. The water was no longer leaking, the jeep was cool. We made it home. One more victory for me.
I had finally visited a place that I had wrote about over 20 years ago without having seen, and I found it more mystifying, magical, mysterious and absorbing than I could ever have imagined. I fell in love once again and often, since the trip, close my eyes and go through portions of that trip before i sleep. It is tranquility redefined.
Now, in retrospect, I found many answers, including the most crucial one asked in the beginning of this article. Although all the members are exceptionally adept at contributing towards the success of each trip, there is one who stands out not merely due to his age or his gender, but particularly due to the energy and courage that he instills in all those that are around him. At over 75, Pappu Sahib is no longer a young man. He has a ‘42 GPW that is as basic as it gets; no power steering, no power brakes, even the hood is falling apart. But can that jeep go and can that man drive. He lives on the edge. He fears no inclines or declines and he fears no water nor any sand. He lives for the thrill and drives like a mad man. He knows his jeep like I know the back of my hand and knows how to fix pretty much anything that breaks down in it. He moves on principles discovered by Einstein. Momentum is his ally and brakes his enemy. He stops for nothing except maybe the law. At 30 km an hour he will meet and greet any sand wall that may be as high as 4 feet and he jump any ditch wider than 2 feet. He will gladly take on a bump, often becoming airborne, but he will not stop. He leads, the others follow. Out of respect to all Offroaders, this does not mean that they are any less capable than Pappu Sahib, but I believe out of respect, he is given the first place, and if Pappu Sahib is replaced by any other member in the lead, I am sure they would most definitely follow the same principles, for they are of the same creed.
My memories of trips with these offroad maniacs are now growing like the gathering clouds on a monsoon afternoon. There is no way i could recollect them all and deliver them to the lesser mortals who were not there with us. I can only choose to be selfish and enjoy these memories as and when they sail across my mind, turning and twisting inside my brain, awaiting the arrival of new ones with each passing trip. I wait anxiously for the next outing, like a child anxiously awaiting his next treat.