Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Inspired by True Greatness

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Most of us, when we set out on a course that is somewhat removed from the usual and mundane way of life, are motivated by some very strong external stimulus. I was very fortunate to find just the right incentive – almost by accident. After struggling through seven years of a very colourful but hardly glorifying military career, I joined a multi-national firm in Karachi. Here I was supposed to be an administrative officer looking after the smooth functioning of the office, but, as I used to say, I was no more than a glorified clerk.

My escape from the drudgery of a stultifying, unrewarding life was weekend flights to the wilderness just north of Karachi. It started in February 1979 with the first outing to Khadeji Falls, some 30 km out on Super Highway. Though the fall could have been pretty in a rather modest sort of way, the crowd of Lalu Khet picnickers, the noise, the garbage strewn all around and the loud music from cheap ghetto-blasters was a total put off.

This was just the kind of madness that Karachi used to be in those far off days and I had to get away from it. So I walked along the Malir River (on which the waterfall is situated) about three hours to reach a beautiful idyll of misty blue hills in the distance, a wide valley with sparse vegetation, and a sparkling pond of emerald water about fifty metres long and half as wide and shaded by a lovely tamarisk tree.

There was not a soul in sight and my only companions were the fresh breeze soughing through the bushes, birds of the wing and monitor lizards, some almost two metres long. Later, I was to become acquainted with so many other species of wild animals. This became my favourite weekend haunt after I discovered a rock nearby that was big enough to make a comfortable bed where I would spend solitary nights under beautiful starry skies.

I have to admit that I had never read any geographical treatise until then. I did not know that early 19th century officers of the East India Company had travelled through this region to pen some truly brilliant unravelling of the ancient history of Sindh.

Four years later, in 1983, when I was called upon to write on Rannikot Fort, I had do some research – then completely out of my domain. By a great fluke of chance, I ended up in the library of the Department of Archaeology where, among thousands of other priceless books, I found a slim volume titled Blank on the Map, by one Eric Shipton, a British explorer.

This was the account of a survey, exploration and map-making expedition in the summer of 1937 when Shipton was just thirty years old. The region where Shipton and three of his friends worked for over three months was the central Karakoram Mountains. The serious story of map-making in an unexplored region was told with remarkable humour and in an utterly engrossing style. I was hooked to a genre of writing I had not known existed: adventure travel writing.

At that time I did not know that Shipton (1907-1977) was billed as one of the greatest mountaineer-explorers of the 20th century. This I was to learn many years later when I acquired a nice hardbound book titled The Six Mountain-Travel Books. One of these six books by Shipton was Upon that Mountain, an autobiographical account of his early years as an explorer. The last paragraph of this classic is the epitome of the Outward Bound way of life. These few words became my guiding principle and I quoted them in my 1994 book Between Two Burrs on the Map. I discovered later that this passage has been used over and over by many famous writers as encapsulating Shipton’s spirit. I quote:
"He is lucky who, in the full tide of life, has experienced a measure of the active environment that he most desires. In these days of upheaval and violent change, when the basic values of today are the vain and shattered dreams of tomorrow, there is much to be said for a philosophy which aims at living a full life while the opportunity offers. There are few treasures of more lasting worth than the experience of a way of life that is in itself wholly satisfying. Such, after all, are the only possessions of which no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can alter the fact if for one moment in eternity we have really lived."
Even if I did not fully comprehend the greatness of Shipton’s stature back in 1983, I wanted to follow a life that was in a little way like his; a life that could actually be called living that satisfied. My explorations took me deeper and deeper into the Khirthar Mountains that stretch from just north of Karachi fully four hundred kilometres into the heart of the Central Brahui Mountains like a jagged backbone separating Sindh and Balochistan. Then followed my short forays into the higher mountains of the north.

Always, for me, the journey was not just a journey where I was adding a chip to my shoulder. It was, much in Shipton’s style, a journey of discovery. There were no maps to make, but there were maps prepared by great explorers to follow and see what others had seen before me. Like Shipton, who was extremely well-read, I became obsessed with knowing what there was to know about the places I visited. I read and read and read in three libraries in Karachi, namely, British Council, Liaquat National Library and the library of the Department of Archaeology.

By the early 1990s, having read all of Shipton’s books, I felt I knew this great man rather intimately. The thing that most impressed me was his humility. Around me in Pakistan was a cut-throat world of sham writers trying to show each other down. But here was Eric Shipton, larger than life, with far greater achievements than any of the pygmy travel writers of Pakistan could achieve, and he was utterly, utterly modest. There was no swagger, no boast about him. He did great things and he did them without fanfare and bombast. And having accomplished another feat, he quietly presented his work to the world in writing.

In 1931, climbing Kamet (7756 m, 25,440 ft) with Frank Smythe as leader, on the final push to the summit, Smythe and Shipton stood back to let Lewa Sherpa become the first human, the first Nepali, to stand on that virgin summit in recognition of services the Sherpas had rendered the expedition. Such an act takes immense largesse of the spirit that those two great mountaineers possessed. They were like men I did not find in Pakistan.

Again, it was Shipton who reconnoitred the Everest for the best climbing route in 1951. At the end of that season, as planning for the assault was being done at the Alpine Club in London, Shipton was the natural choice to lead the team. However, even in Britain, the club was not without its politics. When the expedition was announced for 1953, Major John Hunt was nominated as the leader; Shipton being altogether left out of the expedition. And so, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay eventually stood on the highest spot on earth, they had followed the route marked by Shipton two years earlier.

The triumphant team travelled back to Britain and as it disembarked from the train at Victoria terminal, Hunt, and perhaps even Hillary, was surprised to find Shipton among the welcoming party. This man was simply too great to not extend his best wishes to fellow mountaineers regardless of the politics that had snatched the glory of that peerless feat from him.

The pre-war years of the 20th century were when dozens of European explorers were wandering about northern India. As I read the works of many of those men and women, I saw the disdain they had for local peoples. Shipton, also a product of that time, was different. He was sympathetic and he never failed to acknowledge the superior knowledge and skill of the ‘natives’ he was travelling with.

Shipton’s biographer, Peter Steele (Everest and Beyond, 1998), has page after page of epic stories of the dervish spirit of this great dervish of the mountaineering world. There is no one who knows Shipton a little bit and does not wish to know him more. And once this remarkable man is known, there is only respect and admiration for him. This I discovered in the summer of 1991 while researching at the Royal Geographical Society. Rachel Duncan, then in-charge of the photo library, got bright lights in her eyes when I said I was looking for Shipton’s pictures. Together we sat in the cool basement of RGS with warm sunlight slanting in from the windows and sorted through hundreds of black and white images. The passion with which she spoke of Shipton amazed me. As the minutes turned into a couple of hours, Rachel, seeing that we shared a fascination, invited me to a meeting with other Shipton fans. That evening, eight people met in a pub in, I think, Covent Garden, and talked Shipton. I haven’t ever seen so many people get all misty-eyed talking about a hero! And Shipton had then been dead for fourteen years at that time.

Public acclaim lays shallow pygmies lower still. The better among us are only humbled by it. That was Shipton’s characteristic trait. With brilliant achievements to his name, some of which, like the ascent of over a dozen 7000-metre peaks in Nepal in 1951, being unparalleled in the annals of mountaineering, Shipton yet managed to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Humble himself, he admired humility in others as we see from a private letter to a friend in the context of the Everest triumph. Shipton wrote that he was really delighted with Ed[mund] Hillary because he was “a grand mountaineer and a delightful person: he is one of the few I know who has the strength of character to withstand the avalanche of public acclamation that is coming to him.”

I am very grateful that I have Eric Shipton as my guiding light. He has taught me the value of humility, of never pushing oneself or one’s wares as the best and of quietly doing one’s work without thought of acclaim and awards even when one has put one’s best into the work. It is from him I learn to pass on what my work has taught me to others who seek it – without holding anything back and without asking to be acknowledged. Shipton teaches me, too, of never ridiculing anyone who wishes to achieve a goal no matter how impossible, but to always encourage and assist in whatever way I may be able to.

I am glad that like Shipton, I have also been able to, in a small measure, live like him: “He is lucky who, in the full tide of life, has experienced a measure of the active environment that he most desires.”

Related: Travel is never going to die, ever

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 November 2013 at 10:51, Anonymous S A J Shirazi said...

"I am very grateful that I have Eric Shipton ... but to always encourage and assist in whatever way I may be able to."

The above para goes on the 'display board' of my life. Very powerfully inspiring.

At 25 November 2013 at 17:39, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People who do something original inspire. He can be a guiding light to many. Thanks for sharing this.


At 25 November 2013 at 21:35, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Regrettably 'a cut-throat world of sham writers trying to show each other down' is in action even today...
Sympathetic, and down to earth Eric Shipton....I liked his work, style and most importantly a very good human being in him.
A good read Salman Rashid

At 18 December 2013 at 22:49, Anonymous tariq said...

Salman sb. Can you collect your memoirs in sindh n baluchistan n write a book on them.

At 19 December 2013 at 09:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tariq, should I address you as Waja or Saeen? Dear Sir, my anthologies contain stories of rambles in Sindh and Balochistan.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days