We bid goodbye to MGM Lodges at about 10 am after a restful night and a ‘buffet’ breakfast which failed to excite our taste buds. The day was hot and before leaving Multan, we decided to go into the city to buy sun shields for the car windows as we had forgotten to bring the ones we had. Multan was just waking up and when, to make conversation, I complained about the heat to the sun shields vendor he looked at me in a rather pitiful manner and told me that the weather was quite pleasant that day, thank you very much!
The sun shields were a great idea as they made the air-conditioning much more efficient. I filled up the ice box with ice and assorted drinks and we were on our way after getting some fruit from a road side vendor. On our second day on the road we had about 450 km to travel before we reached our destination but we had lost valuable morning time basking in the comfort of the deluxe rooms at MGM Lodges. We had planned to take a family group picture that would be representative of the trip but had not been able to do so yesterday. Seeing the mango orchards lining both sides of the road I drove down into an orchard where we parked the car under a huge mango tree laden with ‘Chaunsas’ and proceeded to take some pictures including the following one. Surprisingly the breeze in the orchard was cool and the shades of the tress thick.
My wife, Saima, was quite excited to see mangoes galore all above us and, caught in the moment, she plucked a king-sized mango from a tree. As she stood there in a trance, sniffing the mango with a beatific expression on her face, two men appeared out of nowhere on a motor bike. They called me aside respectfully and asked me in their wonderfully sing song Saraiki if she had plucked the mango from a tree or picked it from the ground? I stifled my urge to lie and told them that she had plucked it from a tree. The men became quite sad and told us in a profoundly philosophic manner that such a thing was tantamount to being sacrilegious. I called Saima over and told them she was to be blamed. This did the trick and on seeing a lady at so close a quarters, they became quite chivalrous. When they saw that we were suitably mortified they told us it was OK and rode away.
To shorten the distance we decided to bypass Bahawalpur and take a shorter side road with links to Muzaffargarh, Uch Sharif and Alipur. Very soon we realized that this was not the best of ideas since not before long the smooth, ,metalled road gave way to a dusty, pot filled road that seemed to stretch ahead for miles. The clouds of dust obscured the way and the sun blazed down in all its fury for the next 40 Km before we emerged on the National Highway and breathed a collective sigh of relief. We had passed quite a few places with exotic sounding names by then.
Now we were in district Rahim Yar Khan. The city of Rahim Yar Khan regularly receives royal visitors from Arab countries, who come here every year to hunt. There are many royal palaces built in the city as well as two private airports along with private roads from airports to their palaces so that the sheiks can kill helpless birds and animals with ease and comfort.
The landscape now changed with date palms and banana trees appearing more frequently. The agricultural canals that have made Punjab what it is appeared all along, also serving as swimming / cooling pools for the natives in the summers. Young men could be seen diving in the muddy canals. Their lithe, brown, muscular bodies a tribute to the time spent in the water. Rahim Yar Khan is the last Punjab District and the point from where you pass into Sindh. The passing into Sindh, which I had assumed would mean stopping at a checkpoint and at the very least, getting our luggage and documents checked was an anti climax as the bored looking rangers did not consider us worthy of even a second glance.
The landscape now became dotted with large bill boards displaying pictures of well-fed Sindhi politicians looking very pleased with themselves and posing with their male progeny. It seemed every area had been taken by a particular family, which in turn was blessed and protected by ZA Bhutto and his progeny, whose gleaming faces seemed to smirk and sneer from the background.
On the national Highway most of the traffic comprises trucks and trailers. The drivers are reasonably considerate but one has to be on the lookout for the many diversions in the Sindh part, as the road is being repaired in many places.The drive to Pano Aqil was relatively uneventful other than the many toppled trucks we saw on the way.
District Sadiqabad and the adjoining area house many industries, more famous of which are the two FFC factories in Ghot Macchi and Mirpur Mathelo and Engro Fertilizer in Daharki.
We reached Pano Aqil just after sunset and while looking for the Cantonment took a wrong turn toward the city. Pano Aqil city is a god forsaken place, with broken roads and people in a relatively primal stage of evolution. It’s electrical wiring system is celebrated and renowned for its intricate and complicated design.
But it was an entirely different story when we managed to find our way back to the Cantonment, which is right on the national highway. An imposing gate, duly decorated with a tank, a giant sword and militant verses from the Quran greeted us.
A long road eventually took us to the Guest house, which was nothing less than a ‘jangal mein mangal’. A very ready to please attendant made us feel at home and soon we felt refreshed enough to explore the area. It is a big cantonment and in sharp contrast to its surroundings, clean and very green. The club was reminiscent of colonial era and a notice informed us that unless attired suitably, we could not enter. A description of suitable attire also included the preferable colours for the clothing! The menu included sizzling steaks, Chinese cuisine, lava cake and whatnot. No doubt the Army knows how to take care of itself and its own.
The rooms were air-conditioned, comfortable and quiet and we soon fell into a deep sleep. We left Pano Aqil early the next day and reached Sukker at about 8.30 am. The plan was to go out on a boat in a bid to spot the blind Indus dolphins.
We managed to hire an enterprising boat man who took us further up the river and to our utter disbelief we soon spotted a dolphin jumping out of the water and making a graceful arc before diving back in. Soon we spotted many more. It was very exciting to be able to spot one as it took a second to dive back in. We manged to take some pictures and after about an hour headed back to the shore.
The Indus dolphins, known locally as Bhulan or Susu are mammals that come up to the surface for air and as humans do, they give birth to live young, which feed on their mothers’ milk. The Indus River dolphin is one of four river dolphin species and subspecies in the world that spend all their lives in freshwater. The Indus River dolphin weighs 70-110 kg and its maximum size is 2.5m (8.2 ft), with males smaller than females.
The Indus River dolphin is functionally blind having evolved without a crystalline lens or well-developed light-sensitive organ. However, this is not a disadvantage but an adaptation to living in the silt-laden turbid waters of the Indus where eyes are virtually useless, as very little light penetrates below the surface of the murky water.
Dolphins find their way with the help of echo location / sonar technique. The Indus river dolphin is listed by the ICUN as endangered on their ‘Red list of threatened species’. It is the second most endangered cetacean in the world and it is estimated that there are only about 1,200 individuals remaining.
We had lunch under a tree by the riverside and drove into Sukker city. The plan was to climb to the top of the tower at Masoom Shah’s tomb. Mir Muhammad Masoom Shah Bakhri also known as Syed Nizamuddin Mir Muhammad Masoom Shah was a sixteenth century Sindhi Muslim historian. He is known for writing a history of Sindh, published circa 1600 AD. He was also a trusted lieutenant of the Mughal emperor Akbar. In around 1595 he led Akbar’s army in a battle against the Baluch stronghold of Sibi in northwest Quetta, resulting in Baluchistan being annexed into the Mughal empire. Subsequently, in 1598, he was appointed the governor of Sind and Sibi by Akbar.
The minaret of Syed Nizam-ud-Din Mir Muhammad Masum Shah is the most conspicuous structure of Sukkur town, dating back to 1607. The minaret has a set of 83 very steep stairs and the view from the top is breathtaking with a swift wind that could sweep one off ones feet.
Our legs cursed us to high heaven as we alighted the stairs and resumed our journey crossing Loyd’s Barrage, popularly known as Sukker Barrage and moved toward Karachi.
The road was lined with date palm orchards full of dates. On the ground floor were banana fields, making good use of the land.
There were roadside stalls of ‘Rilli’ or patchwork and dates, fresh from the tress. We bypassed Hyderabad at late afternoon and entered the 136 km long stretch of Hyderabad- Karachi Superhighway.
It was around sunset when we reached the outskirts of Karachi only to discover that the JSQM (Jiye Sindh Qaumi Movement) had blocked the Superhighway to protest against the under construction Bahria Town . Their sinister looking red flag with a hand holding an axe was fluttering everywhere.
So it was with a heavy heart and a tired body that I switched off the engine and started waiting for the road to be opened along with thousands of other vehicles.
The sun disappeared below the horizon and what happened next is another story…