It’s only a few hundred miles from Karachi to Quetta – and a lifetime!
You know how easy things look on a map. How close the various stopping points are and how romantic it sounds when you are told that you will be staying in Government District Officer’s houses on the way. Those were the encouraging signs that persuaded our mother to go along with the idea of driving overland from the coastal city of Karachi in Pakistan up to Quetta.
Indeed the distance was only around four or five hundred miles, but this was the mid 1950’s and we were going to be travelling through the Sindh desert and up into the foothills of the Baluchistan Mountains. We were going to be travelling in convoy with another family, but they too had no idea of what really lay ahead of us. Perhaps things would have been different if anyone had known.
As it was, we had a real mixture of a journey, with some highlights, and not a few disquieting moments as well, especially when my father discovered the arrogance of the local drivers.
“Oh the bumps really hurt.”
But this time it was down to the roads
and a lack of suitable cushions
You may recall that our vehicle was not some luxury saloon – or even a rugged all terrain vehicle but something almost unseen before in Pakistan. It was a Grocer’s delivery van which had had extra springs added to allow for the more rugged roads that my father had anticipated.
That plus the fact that the back seat consisted of a few inches of foam padding over a plywood base meant that within a very short space of time our backsides were being punished. We soon passed through the “numb bum” stage to the aching and painful stage. This meant that the cries of “are we nearly there yet?” were really heartfelt and was not just because of boredom.
Yes, it was only four hundred miles or so from Karachi to Quetta; and we were indeed staying in official residences along the way, but those had soon turned out to be far less romantic than the tales that Rudyard Kipling had mentioned.
The Infamous Van, that had saved Pa some Tax, but our backsides paid dearly
Each time we arrived at the next Dak Bungalow we were greeted by a rather bored or sullen chowkidar or watchman, who would begrudgingly let us into the compound of the bungalow where we would be staying. The promise of a servant to look after us was equally as loose in its description.
Clearly their idea of a meal was something that we as young western children were not too willing to bother with. The two mothers in the party were soon ransacking our precious stores of luxury items, such as tinned butter and baked beans, as they tried to keep their offspring from open revolt.
We travelled only in the early mornings as the heat in the desert became impossible by the mid morning. Not only that, but the roads and demon-like drivers coming the other way, meant that whoever was driving had to be on top form at all times, if only to be ready to take evasive action.
Nothing had prepared either of the two drivers for this new form of chicken!
The oncoming buses and lorries, piled high with everything imaginable, assumed that might was right and so barrelled down the centre of the road. We Chickened!
The drivers’ pride in their ornately decorated vehicles was only matched by their desire to maintain mastery of the roads. It seemed that each and every driver was determined to be the King of the Road and “Allah protect the weak”, because they were coming through, no matter what!
Amazingly though we still managed to enjoy some spectacular picnics along the way. The fact that our backsides would only take about an hours’ pummelling at a time, meant that rest stops were much more frequent than had been planned. Despite managing to find extra cushions at markets along the way we still became extremely vociferous about the state of our rear ends as each sector got longer.
Although we had no idea at the time as we were just children, we were in fact following a famous route that the British forces had trekked along some 120 years before as we headed up into the mountains. We were heading into what is now known as bandit country, quite close to Afghanistan, and an area that has never really been anything other than a tribal area.
The scenery was staggering though and the main recollection was of the raw and rugged beauty of the area with splashes of greenery and fantastic river lakes to splash into when we stopped for a break. That was in amazing contrast to the roasting heat that we had been experiencing for the previous two days. Not only that but the few people we saw seemed much livelier and willing to smile. No doubt their relatively rich life compared with their desert neighbours was part of that, but Baluchis and Pashtuns did in seem to have much more of a culture of hospitality.
The last stages of the journey naturally saw us getting more and more excited and we took no notice of the fact that we were supposed to be acclimatising to the fact that we were now a mile and a bit above sea level.
The sheer adrenaline rush more than made up for a slight drop in the oxygen levels and we spent most of our time divided between waving to the occupants of the highly decorated trucks and buses and trying to spot the first signs of where our new home was going to be.
Finally we made it to Quetta and from there to the military headquarters where all the Directing Staff were based with their families. The next two years or so were going to be filled with adventures and excitement, but then isn’t that the case for every lively seven year old. I was just more fortunate in that there would indeed be snakes and scorpions, wild men with wilder eyes and even bandits to be wary of. Such things are dreams made of, at that tender age when reality is indeed whatever you make it.