To many, the vast expanse of Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, remains a mystery for reasons too many and too complex to be described summarily. It is a pity that these reasons continue to keep Balochistan’s beauty hidden from the eyes of an average traveller looking for just the kind of marvels available here.
Anywhere else, a land like Balochistan would have been a magnet for tourists, for there is something here for everyone. The land where the most ancient signs of life were found in the form of the largest mammal known, one resembling the present-day rhinoceros, Baluchitherium, dating back to the Oligocene period.
Balochistan is also home to the relics of the earliest documented human civilisation found at Mehergarh. The discovery has pushed the age of civilisation in areas that now form Pakistan by 2000 years. In other words, 2000 years before Indus Valley Civilisation, there was a bustling civilisation in Mehergarh near Bolan.
Balochistan has a greatly varied geography. It boasts of a stunning coastline extending from Jiwani near the border with Iran to Gadani near Karachi, with over 600 kilometres of pristine beaches, and a world class highway running alongside them. These are dotted with picnic spots from Gadani, famous for its ship-breaking industry and Sonmiani, a white sand beach which has excellent bird-watching facilities and a refugium to protect dolphins found in the creek.
For people living in or near Karachi, who want to move away from the crowded and polluted beaches of the city, one of their first interactions with the beauty of Balochistan is at Churna Island, frequented by scuba divers who want to feast their eyes on the rich marine life, including corals.
Further along the coastal highway, people can picnic at Hub Dam. Once in Hub, they may like to go visit the intricately carved graves and tombs, contemporary to many one sees in Chawkandi in Karachi and Makli in Thatta. For those more inclined to the seaside, the preferred place of outing is Kund Malir, whose blue waters, large expanse of beach and resthouses that offer a spot to refresh and eat draw a large number of families on weekends.
Along the coast, one can choose one’s own pit stops, depending on the kind of adventure they seek and the time at their disposal. Then there is Ormara, which has a naval base, a beautiful beach and a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea from atop the Hammerhead cliff.
Then there is Pasni, a small fishing town, which is a staging post for the island of Astola, a Marine Protected Area. In the absence of any adequate enforcement, it remains a haven for those interested in fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling and sky-diving. Those so inclined can go pay homage at the mazaar and mandir located nearby. The ride on a fishing boat on an ordinary day is about three hours while a speedboat can get one there in half the time. Astola Island is known locally as Haft Talar, and offers stunning views from atop the flat top hills.
These beaches are host to a variety of resident and migratory birds. The waters touching them are rich in marine life, including the delightful dolphins, the imposing whales and sharks and of course the turtles who visit the shores to breed.
One can keep driving to Gwadar, Pakistan’s first deep-water port being developed under the CPEC, which is a complete experience in itself and requires a separate article to do justice to it; to Jiwani, where people claim you can see the world’s most beautiful sunset from the beach; to visit Victoria’s Hut, built by the British, though the name is a mystery as Queen Victoria never set foot on the Indian subcontinent although it was a part of her empire. Beyond it, hidden from the view, and nestled in a corner, is Daran Beach, a turtle nesting site, right next to the Iranian border, which takes your breath away.
However, there are just as stunning locales on the right side of the coastal highway, which has a variety of mountain ranges that makes one feel as if one is driving along a Lord of the Rings terrain. Along the coast, they have been carved into amazing shapes by the elements. The range extends deep into Pakistan’s largest National Park, Hingol, which spans two districts and reaches deep beyond the Hingol river, a sanctuary for crocodiles. Over 6000 sq.km of the area is home to ibex, urial and chinkara deer, and many other species of birds, reptiles and amphibians.
Camping near the river, under a sky scattered with stars, and going hiking is a favourite pastime of the adventurers who go there, trying to spot the protected animals on their treks. Another distinctive feature of the Hingol National Park is the presence of Hinglaj Mata Mandir or Nani Mandir, one of the holiest temples of Hinduism which sees a stream of visitors year around. A very large number of pilgrims come in April for the festival.
Further down, there is a complex of large mud volcanoes, the largest of which is known as Chandergupt. They are a unique sight with streaks of grey liquidy mud running down its sides. Those who brave the climb can see the fluid bubbling in the craters.
Two other mountaintops with religious significance are Koh-e-Murad in Turbat which is considered sacred by the Zikri community among the Baloch who hold their religious rites there, especially during Ramazan; and the shrine of Shah Noorani, said to be a descendent of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). The shrine attracts thousands of devotees, especially at the time of the annual urs. It is located in a narrow valley between difficult-to-access hills in Khuzdar District.
But this is just a tip of the province and doesn’t cover beauties, like the cave city Mai Godrani in Bela or Moola Chotuk, Bara (or big) Chotuk and Chota (or small) Chotuk, also called koh qaf or fairyland because of its scenic beauty, and Charro, not for the faint-hearted for its three-hour access passage in an off-roading vehicle. Other places with waterfalls, falling into calm pools or Pir Chatal in Jhal Magsi, which bears the look of a festival site in winter when it hosts the famous jeep rally. The date orchards alone are worth a visit.
Bear in mind that very few of these places except Chotok have a residential facility. Other than weekends when families can make a day trip, they are usually a stag affair. Only recently some tour groups started making arrangements for family groups outings.
The vast plains, most of them arid, offer a stark contrast to the visually opulent rocky mountain ranges running through the middle of the province, with their colourful bands of minerals showing the promise of wealth they hold within. Balochistan is home to large deposits of copper and gold, besides fossil fuels like natural gas that has spurred development across the country. Uortunately, it has not benefitted much the people of these resources.
There are no large settlements along the way, so whosoever is inclined towards adventure must bear in mind that they have to take additional fuel, as well as provisions as for long distances there may not be anything available. Besides, connectivity through cell phones is also lost for a very large part of the way so people should go prepared.
As for food, roadside dhabas serve great food. While the variety is limited to mostly meat dishes inland, seafood along the coast must be sampled. It is best to carry your own supply of water and any other items that one is used to but are not likely to find on long stretches of the road.
The places mentioned are only a tip of the list of spots of archaeological, historical, religious and recreational importance in the southern part of the province. As one moves deeper inside, and towards the north, there are so many more and varied places that deserve a visit that they need a separate account.
It is indeed encouraging that not only is there a greater awareness of the potential for the growth of tourism, there are some measures in place. These measures come from entrepreneurs who are setting up tour groups to show off their homeland to people who have not seen it. They are also taking to the social media to show off the beauty of their land, culture, people, food and of course the traditional hospitality that awaits those who visit Balochistan.
This the government of Balochistan has allocated funds to provide better infrastructure and facilities for tourists by allocating Rs200 million in Public Sector Development Fund for the years 2019-20. This may seem a paltry sum considering the vast area of the province, but it does show a resolve to give tourism the importance it deserves.