How we found a desert oasis in Pakistan

With just minutes to spare before the border closed for the day, we drove out of Iran, through the barbed wire fence, into Pakistan. Before we reached the Pakistan border, in no-man’s-land, a Pakistani official waved us down and jumped on board. With a huge smile, he said “don’t worry, be happy, you are now free. You are in Pakistan, we don’t have all those rules they have in Iran”. Looking straight at us, he continued “you don’t need to cover up in Pakistan, we are a free country, throw off your head scarves, throw off you chador’s, welcome to Pakistan”. Everything is relative it seems.

mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

After a couple of days driving through the Baluchistan desert in Iran, we continued on through the same desert in Pakistan, the mountain range to our left outlining the inhospitable border with Afghanistan. And then we arrived in Quetta, and it seemed like an oasis in the desert. Sure, it was a dry sandy desert, but it was also a very friendly, hospitable stop.

markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back in 1990, Iran granted visas to very few westerners – Germans (it was a WWI/WWII thing), and Aussies and Kiwis. So in far north eastern Turkey, five of us parted ways with our other six truck-mates, and we went overland through Iran, while they had to back track to Istanbul, fly to Karachi, and then train up to Quetta to link up with us again. Which meant we had a few days to chill out in Quetta and we found it a very enjoyable stopover indeed.

making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

If I google ‘Quetta’ now I see titles like “Taliban stronghold’. But 20 years ago it seemed a very different place (or maybe we were just naive or lucky). We wiled away the days wandering the hot, dusty streets. We got measured for our own salwar kameez, so that we might blend in a bit more (a tunic top over truly enormous gather-at-the-waist trousers). We sampled perfect, hot pita bread out of an under-floor charcoal oven. We drunk tea and conversed in pigeon english/pakistani/ sign language for hours in the local fabric shop. For a few days it felt like we become a part of the fabric of daily life in Quetta. It was an easy, smiling, welcoming town back then. Western tourists in big trucks were rare, and were warmly welcomed, however odd we may have seemed to the locals.

clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back then we were on an overland from London to Kathmandu, during the first Gulf war. All the western countries were giving stern warnings to not travel to the Middle East, to not travel to Pakistan. As you do when you are young and have spent all year saving for this once in a lifetime trip, we ignored all the warnings, and we had a truly exceptional experience. We had an amazing, non-threatening, welcoming time everywhere we went. So I have to wonder – would it be the same now? Do I just think it is less safe now, just because I am older. Do I believe the media/government websites now more than I did then, or am I missing a great opportunity. It saddens me a bit that I even have to ask myself these questions. It does seem that Pakistan is a much riskier place to travel now than then, and I have noticed that most of the overland truck companies do not go through there anymore. Which is a shame. Because twenty years ago it was a highlight that I will never forget.

Camels, Dunes and an Oasis in Morocco

Liked the oasis, loved the sand dunes, hated the camels! – a twitter length summary of travelling in Morocco in 1988.

An Oasis in the desert

We head south from Fez for nine hours through red hard barren deserts. At one point we find ourselves above the snow line – well, it is January after all. We also pass the reputed original headquarters of the Foreign Legion, as in “I’m running away to join the foreign legion” – does any one even say that any more?

My naive expectation of an oasis is a half a dozen palm trees around a green fringed waterhole, with desert encroaching from every direction. Meski oasis however is much bigger than that, surrounded by irrigated fields in every direction. I definitely did not expect a large concrete swimming pool with umbrellas and sunloungers, created by diverting a local stream through the pool. As I gingerly tiptoe into the very cold water, I realise that the pool is also full of fish, and they seem to like nibbling on my legs, a very freaky feeling which does tend to put me off swimming. Little did I know then, that this would become a trendy spa treatment throughout Asia twenty years later.

Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco
Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco


Instead of swimming we wander off to explore the village and surrounds, quickly attracting a crowd of kids, who are already a bit bored with tourists giving them pens as gifts, but they take them anyway. We can see the old Casbah on a nearby hill, just across the stream.

At this time of the year the stream is more of a river, and the locals are suggesting that we don’t try and cross it – there are no bridges within sight. We decide to wade in and give it a try as it doesn’t look that deep, but it turns out our problems will be swamp and mud, not water.

As we inch forward, trying to feel for firm bits of ground to stand on for each step, I place my right foot down and find it is now knee deep in the swamp. I try and pull it up and out, and I am now thigh deep in the swamp. I need the help of two of my friends to pull me back onto dry land, leaving my right flip flop in the middle of that swamp forever.

At this point, we decide we don’t need to visit the Casbah at all, and head off to the little collection of stalls we had seen earlier. Meski is where I finally buy my first small Moroccan carpet – after haggling long into the night, I get it for the very good price of $10 plus a six pack of beer.

Sunrise on Sand Dunes in the Sahara.

post dawn sahara sand dunes
post dawn sahara sand dunes

Flat dry deserts are all very well, but how about some real Sahara, with huge rolling sand dunes? We set off at 3.30 am to drive two hours to a point where the sand dunes start. Its a really strange sight, all flat dry desert and then there is a sand dune, and from the top of that dune, all I can see is sand dunes to the horizon. An immense rolling pink open space.

We climb to the top of the highest sand dune we can see and wait for sunrise. This might be the desert, but pre-sunrise it is very cold. This is not a red sky sunrise, the sky gradually turns from black to a light greyish blue, while the sand dunes turn a delicate shade of peach.

Then, after it already seems to be daylight, the bright ball of the sun appears over the sand dune horizon, and the sand dunes that face west start to glow a beautifully red. Now I’m warming up. We sit and watch from the top of dunes for a while longer, it is immensely relaxing.

Once we leave the dunes we stop in Rissini to visit the local livestock market and check out the prices of the best goats and donkeys, just in case that comes in handy somewhere down the road. I wonder if a donkey might come in handy for the next day’s fourteen km hike through the long canyon of Todra Gorge.

Camels on the beach in Tangier.

Just outside Tangier on the coast are the ancient Caves of Hercules. There is an large silhouetted opening in one of the caves that supposedly looks like the map of Africa, and it is also claimed that you can see two profiles of Hercules face in the same map. There are supposedly old roman bath walls in the caves, which unfortunately look remarkably like modern concrete.

On the beach outside the caves, we meet our camels and camel wranglers for a beach ride. These are one hump camels, and I am soon sitting precariously on a bunch of rugs tied to the camel’s back. And this is where the nightmare begins. Most of the camels are female, including the one I am on. One of the camels is male. And it seems this is the season for the female camels to be in heat, therefore the male camel is now very randy.

 

Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers
Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers


So we start our rolling walk down the beach, with the sun out and beautiful blue surf to our side. The male camel starts getting excited and comes comes racing up behind the one of the female camels and starts trying to mount it, much to the consternation of the people sitting on the back of both camels.

The local camel herders shoo him away so he makes for the next female, which happens to be the one I am riding. Not wanting to be squashed (or dribbled on) by the front half of the male camel as he tries to mount my ride, I kick and yell and desperately try to get my camel to run, which it eventually does. But not willingly, I suspect she would prefer the male camel to catch her.

Before long there are half a dozen female camels running down the beach, topped by out of control riders trying to hang on for dear life but too scared to slow their camels down. And the girl on top of the male camel isn’t exactly enjoying herself either. For a while the local camel herders are mainly rolling around laughing but eventually they catch up with us, and one by one slow down our camels and get us off them.

The last one they went to get was the male camel, who had been waiting for his opportunity, and before they could grab him he managed to successfully mount one of the now fortunately riderless female camels. Suffice to say the rider of the male camel made an extremely quick dismount. It is now a long walk back up the beach to our transport, but preferable to having to get near camels again. I think we’ll need a beer tonight.