Woke up before sunrise to the sound of dogs barking, roosters roosting, and Imam calling the faithful to morning prayers. We put our mattresses away and left our rooftop bedroom to go downstairs and get ready for our anticipated 07:00am pick-up by the next Levies team arranged to take us out of Dalbandin. Our two overnight Police guards had slept up on the roof with us – in fact one of them had recommended that we sleep on the roof as the hotel power goes off at midnight and the overhead fans in the rooms no longer work and they become a sauna.
About 7:30am our escort arrived and we were quickly on the move, taking in the sights and sounds of Dalbandin as it hustled and bustled into life. We had two quick stops – the first to get some water for the trip, and then fuel – 14 litres for about 1,200 rupee, served out of a plastic canister and a tin can through a cloth-covered funnel.
Ali, the officer in charge of our morning team and proud driver of the brand new Toyota Hilux Levies ute had said that we were to meet up with three other tourist vehicles at a check-point down the road, but we never met any other travellers throughout the long, hot day.
We had approx 320km to travel from Dalbandin to Quetta, and we averaged 50kmh across the whole day. The day’s temperature peaked around 41.5 degrees – so not quite as hot as some of our previous riding days, but I was feeling quite sick with nausea through a lot of the morning, which made the riding difficult. The Levies have perfected the hand-over of travellers from one escort team to the next, so the change-overs are quick – so quick we often didn’t have time to grab a drink of hot water from our water bottles stuffed into the cavity of the spare tyres strapped to the back of the bike.
Fortunately we were invited inside a hut at the check-point at which Ali and his team handed us over to our next escort – a man on a 125cc Honda with his rifle slung over his shoulder, and we were offered a revitalising tea inside the hut before we moved on, and the sweet tea helped settle my nausea.
The terrain for the start of the days ride was across a flat and barren wasteland of a desert. In places sand drifts had crossed the road and we had to ride across these sandy patches in pursuit of our escort vehicle.
As we approached the first hand-over point – just east of Padag I think – we picked up a low mountain range to the south of us and followed its contours to the hut where we had the sweet tea. This area seemed more inhabited and there were signs of crop cultivation and livestock, benefiting from water derived from the mountains.
Following the next escort on his 125cc Honda we left the hut and immediately around the next bend was a grassy oasis with perhaps 50 camels grazing on the grass. We whizzed past the camels and none of them battered an eyelid, heads down instead as they ate.
Trees started to pop up on the plain, and we entered a small village, pulling up behind the escort under the shade of a tree outside an Islamic Boys School, and waited briefly for our next escort – this time two old sunburnt men on a single motorcycle, the pillion with his rifle in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. The boys at the school came out to see us – or more likely the motorcycle – as we waited for our escort, and that was a bit uncomfortable as they crowded around us, touching and fiddling with the bike. We were happy to get going again, and the breeze as we rode on was also welcome.
A short distance down the road we were handed over to two young guys on a motorcycle, and for the first time in the day we picked up our speed a bit, even managing to get up to 100kmh! We hoped that we’d have this escort all the way into Quetta, but it wasn’t too long before they handed us over to the next team.
All in all we lost count of the number of escorts we had throughout the day – probably between 25 and 30, and the number of check-points we had to present our passports to, and complete a log book with our particulars. With that said all of the police officers and Levies were very professional and courteous, and we enjoyed their hospitality and kindness. At one stop the Police showed us the drip irrigation system they had installed that allowed water to run down the reed wall of their shelter, cooling the breeze as the air passed through, and their dog ‘Tiger’ who they were training to guard their check-point when they were out on patrol.
The day progressed at a slow rate, and at one stage we were a bit concerned that we may not make it to Quetta, but once we’d passed Nushki – the typical overnight stop for escorts that can’t reach Quetta in a day – our confidence increased even if the speed of our escorts didn’t – and at times we were crawling along at 30-40kmh, baking in the sun.
We entered the mountain range and the road became quite fun to ride on, twisting through the hills as it climbed up towards Shaikh Wasil, before flattening out in a cultivated area. Our escort here pulled over and waved us on. We checked with them that we were free to ride on unescorted and they said ‘yes’, so we slipped into sixth gear for the first time in the day and enjoyed our run up to Lak Pass. The traffic at the tunnel here was banked up so I followed two motorcycles down the wrong side of the road as no oncoming traffic was coming through the tunnel, and when we popped out the other end we found out why – two trucks had collided and caused a traffic jam. We squeezed between the chaos of trucks all over the road and pushed on our merry way for another few kilometres before we came to another check-point where the absence of an escort caught the Police by surprise, and we were pulled over.
The Police at this check-point were wonderful, inviting us to sit in their hut and offering us cold water from their urns whilst they got onto the radio, trying to figure out what to do with us. An elderly gentleman came in and chatted with us – he spoke excellent English and explained how he was an Immigration Officer and had spent twelve years working in Taftan, before moving to other positions throughout Pakistan. This man had a large paddy-wagon parked outside the check-point and he explained that he’d heard that a large number of Afghan men were rumoured to be moving through the area without the necessary papers, and he and his officers were waiting to pick them up. Sure enough we saw two men inside the paddy-wagon when we arrived, and another eight or ten were offloaded from a bus stopped for inspection and they too were bundled into the wagon.
We sat on the ‘naughty bench’ outside the check-point hut and watched the vehicle inspections continue, and waved at the passing traffic. Utes full of girls dressed in bright, colourful dresses would pass by and we could hear them singing – it was a wonderful sight. Colourfully decorated truck and buses with live goats and people on top sped past. After 30 or 40 minutes a Police ute pulled up and an escort team alighted – giving us hugs of happiness that they had finally located their wayward tourists.
We were quickly on our way, and soon afterwards started to enter Quetta. The roadside chaos was a delight for our eyes and ears after the drab monotony of the desert crossing. Our destination within Quetta was the Hotel Bloom Star – the Bloom Star gets a mention in the Lonely Planet guide and is – we found out later – the only place that foreign tourists stay at when in Quetta. Whilst we only had a few km to ride to our destination we had perhaps six or more escort teams take us along various sections of the main road. My favourite escort was the armoured car that had his siren on, Karen liked the covered ute with three armed Police in the back – constantly alert and with their fingers resting on their trigger-guards. Every time we slowed down for traffic these men would pop up from the back of the ute and survey the surrounding area like uniformed meerkats.
We followed the escort vehicles as close as I thought safe – we’d sit behind them by just a few feet as they pushed their way through the afternoon traffic. Any cars or rickshaws that came too close were warned off by the Police – a little tap on their rifle enough to convey the message.
The last team we had needed to turn right across a busy, congested intersection (upon entering Pakistan we’ve switched back to riding on the left-hand side of the road), and one officer jumped out of the Police ute and stopped the traffic so we could pass through. A short distance later we were ushered into the secured car park of the Hotel Bloom Star, and the OIC formally handed us over to the hotel staff, and then left with his team.
We signed into the hotel register and were shown to our room – dilapidated and basic, but after sleeping on a rooftop in Dalbandin and in a Levies lock-up in Taftan, our room was almost as good as anything the Hilton could offer.
After a cold shower – no hot water here – we ordered dinner (chicken curry & chicken masala) – and a couple of alcoholic beers arranged by the Bloom Star staff – and then after downloading our photos from the past few days and watching them on the Mac it was time for bed – a long, hot day on the back of the four previous long, hot days – but we’d arrived safe and sound in Quetta and we’d had a wonderful adventure getting here. Mission accomplished!!!
If I’m not mistaken there’s a few different groups active in Baluchistan province, all with different objectives, so it makes for a very complex situation. I can certainly imagine that Baluchistan would breed a very tough and proud people as the climactic conditions they live in here are very challenging, but at the same time their friendliness and warmth is humbling. I’m constantly reminded that you can’t really learn much about people by watching documentaries on TV – you really need to sit down with people over a cup,of sweet black tea and chat to learn about them as individuals, and their culture.
Adventure riding takes on a whole new meaning travelling in areas affected by war.
Looking forward to the next instalment.