Today was a rest day for us at Hotel Bloom Star, Quetta. The road south from Quetta to Sukkur is about 420km long and crosses the Kachhi Desert before reaching the provincial border of Baluchistan and Sindh Provinces. Despite some of our earlier escorts saying that we wouldn’t need a NOC (No Objection Certificate) to travel south of Quetta, all of my research on Horizons Unlimited had suggested that a NOC was an essential prerequisite, and our Australian 4×4 friends – Claire and Emiel – had needed to get a NOC in Quetta just a week earlier, so we weren’t surprised when we had been told the previous evening that the Police would collect us this morning and take us to the Home and Tribal Affairs Department to obtain our NOC.
As an explainer – the NOC is a piece of paper that states that the relevant local authorities do not object to having a foreign tourist travel a particular stretch of road, and that the Police will provide all necessary security arrangements to ensure that nothing untoward happens. The NOC has to be presented at the Police check-points along the route, and without a NOC you will not be allowed to proceed.
Karen and I had a simple but enjoyable breakfast of toast and jam, tea and coffee in the cool gardens of the Bloom Star. A local family staying at the hotel were very intrigued by our presence – I counted about 10 or so young children, and they were fascinated by us. Initially timid and shy, with some coaxing they eventually came out and sat with us. The eldest boy could speak English and so we chatted with him, whilst his younger cousins and siblings just sat and smiled. The girls were dressed in very colourful dresses, and many wore armfuls of bangles and sported henna tattoos on their hands and feet. The boys wore the traditional male dress – not unlike a pair of plain coloured pyjamas.
One young girl – Sophia – was particularly taken with Karen, and Karen gave her the ‘Save the Rhino’ bracelet that she had bought in South Africa last year to add to the collection of bangles on her arm.
The elderly grandmother came out from behind the garden fence from wher she had been watching proceedings, and the young boy introduced her. She spoke no English but we still had a chat with her, and she sat and joined us and the children.
After breakfast we bade farewell to our Baluchistan entourage and presented ourselves at Reception, ready to go to Home Affairs. Four armed men from the ‘Anti-Terrorist Team’ arrived, and one of them procured a tuk-tuk to take Karen and I, with the four men astride two motorcycles.
The tuk-tuk drive to the Home Affairs office was one of the wildest rides I’ve ever had – it would have featured perfectly in a James Bond chase scene. As the lead motorcycle raced off the tuk-tuk was right behind the bike – literally just an inch off his rear wheel. Time and again I thought that we’d crash into the motorcycle as there was no space at all between us, and we were weaving through traffic and dodging obstacles all the time. The motorcycle veered down a side street, bouncing over a speed bump with the tuk-tuk in hot pursuit – Karen and I both thought we’d roll over as the weight shifted cornering hard over the bump, and we may have nudged the police bike at this point, but the wild ride continued unabated for a few more minutes without any accidents but plenty of exciting moments.
We pulled into a secured carpark and alighted, and the guards formed up around us and marched us through a complex of official buildings before leading us up the steps of the Home Affairs office. We were led down a dark corridor and admitted into a large office where seven men were working, surrounded by high piles of paperwork, and our team left us at this point.
We were made very welcome by the men in this office. They inspected our passports and prepared our NOC application, offering us sweet tea in the process. One smartly dressed man – he sported a waist coat over his blue pyjamas, sat with us and described some of the aid programs that Australia contributes to in Baluchistan, involving irrigation and water management, crop development, and livestock management. Apparently Australia has developed a lot of relevant experience and knowledge in these areas that is applicable to the farmers in Baluchistan, and they share both their knowledge – and a portion of the profits.
We were led to three other offices down the other end of the long corridor to obtain approvals from two officers, including the Deputy Secretary of Home and Tribal Affairs Department (and we enjoyed a brief but very pleasant chat with him) before moving on to two other officials, then returning to the first office and after a short wait, receiving our NOC. Everyone was most professional and helpful. The administrative process took about an hour or so.
Another Police team was organised by phone and when they arrived we retraced our journey back to the Bloom Star, but at a slightly less frenetic pace. On this journey one policeman sat next to the tuk-tuk driver, AK47 on his lap.
Back at the Bloom Star we enjoyed a spicy lunch in the cool gardens, and I was introduced to the elderly man who maintains the gardens here – and it’s obviously a labour of love as the gardens are immaculate. Whilst he didn’t speak any English I think he could still appreciate the compliments I offered about his garden, as he grinned a big toothless grin that stretched from ear to ear.
Throughout the afternoon we had numerous men pop by to sit and chat for a while, keen to hear about our travels and practice their English-speaking skills. At one stage we had about five men chatting with us, but the hotel manager chased them away eventually so we could eat our dinner in peace and quiet.
It was another hot night and when the power went out and our room fan stopped I grabbed a blanket and a pillow and slept on the balcony outside our first floor room, overlooking the garden below, as this way I could enjoy the cool evening breeze rather than roast in the room.