Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The great bird chase

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Back in the early 1980s when I lived in Karachi, I spent my weekends wandering about the wild places of Sindh. While old ruins where a favourite haunt, my other preference was the hundreds of small lakes and canals of Thatta and Badin districts. There were birds, birds and birds that I had never seen before. If truth be told, that was when I learned that the pariah kite is not the only hawk-like bird!

Referring only to wildlife, my ten years in Sindh until December 1988 took me to the Khirthar Mountains on one side and to the lakes of lower Sindh on the other. Those wonderful years form a kaleidoscope of heart-warming images: upward of five hundred flamingos in a lake barely off a road somewhere in Badin, a golden eagle on the prowl above the Khirthar crags, a male Pallas’s fish eagle bringing food to its mate on eggs, a desert cat near Naukot Fort and leopard pug marks in the lower Khirthar Mountains. There are also memories of virtually hordes of marsh harriers, Brahminy kites, jacarandas, and migratory ducks of a dozen different species almost within arm’s length.

Now for many years I had not been in Sindh at the right time, that is, mid-winter. So, when my friend Raheal Siddiqui arranged for me to be driven down from Sukkur along the Nara Canal, I asked my guru Nadeem Khawar, the photographer, to bring along his wildlife photography equipment. The Nara Canal that takes off from the barrage at Sukkur, follows an ancient abandoned bed of the Sindhu River and is reputed to have, besides its ample complement of birds and wildlife, a goodly population of crocodiles.

Meeting up in Sukkur, we set out early one morning. Unfortunately, the driver, a Magsi from Jacobabad, did not know this part of the country very well. So when I said to him that we wished to drive along Nara Canal, he heard Nara Cantt. As I had not known that in the twenty-two years since I was last there, a Nara Cantonment had come up near the village of Tajjal, so too did the good Magsi had no idea about the canal.

Expecting to be joining the canal soon, Nadeem and I got talking. And we had a lot of talking to do. Nadeem hopes to trek up to Sim Gang (Snow Lake) in the summer and said I ought to come with him. Following the fiasco in Mintaka Pass and having written my requiem in this paper last summer, I now wanted to back out of retirement. Making plans and yakking away, we did not realise that we were taking an awfully long time reaching the canal. At that point we were somewhere in a desert of low limestone hills.

Still, instead of worrying about being lost, I launched on the tale of those Neolithic chert blades that Shabnam and I had found in this region in 1987. At that time, some cement factory or the other had hired local labour to sweep up the loose surface talus of the hills. This was gathered in large piles and collected by trucks to be crushed for cement making. It was from among these piles that we picked up the blades.

Here was the cultural heritage of Sindh reaching back a hundred thousand years and more in the past, and these idiot cement manufacturers were destroying it for a few rupees of profit. That was a time when a man known for his interest in the preservation of Sindhi culture, arts and crafts was the Secretary Culture and Tourism. We went back to Karachi frantic with concern and told the good man what was going on. If I remember correctly, I even wrote out my complaint for him.

I have long maintained that we Pakistanis are exhibitionists interested in doing only what can be noticed. The chert blades that our Neanderthal ancestors were so assiduously producing on the banks of the Sindhu, did not interest anyone in the dark years of a dictator who abused religion for his own aggrandisement. Nor too were stone blades as visible as the finds of, say, a dinosaur or a huge gold necklace. Consequently, nothing happened. And today we stand having lost a major part of Sindhi prehistory. The greater tragedy is that nobody noticed; no tears were shed.

I broke off from my diatribe to ask the driver where we were. He said we would shortly be there. I assumed ‘there’ meant the Nara Canal. Another hour went by. It was now mid-morning with the sun high and the light no longer good for bird photography. About this time, I noticed a conical hill with its crest shaped like a large billed and crested bird. It actually looked like a huge prehistoric bird sitting in its nest.

We stopped and I took a picture of the hill. Even as I did that, I had niggling hunch that this stone bird did not bode well for our little expedition.

When I asked him again, the driver said we would shortly be there. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later we drove past a milestone that said, ‘Nara Cantt 0 km.’ Old Magsi asked who we wanted to see in the cantonment and I nearly went through the roof. We had lost nearly three hours. It now turned out that whenever I said ‘Nara Canal,’ Magsi heard ‘Nara Cantt’ and when he mentioned the cantonment, I only heard ‘canal.’ We were too late and too far out to drive back and restart along the canal from Sukkur. And so we settled for picking up the Nara Canal at Nara Cantt.

Down its meandering course we went, pausing whenever we came abreast with sandbanks in the water. Here we hoped to find crocodiles. At least that is what I imagined. But we found nothing; not even the birds that filled my imagination from more than twenty years ago.

As we meandered through the countryside, we spotted a lake and paused to see if we could make some worthwhile images. Two amiable young men taking time off in a teashop offered to lead us and by and by, we were by its shore. We only found some red-wattled lapwings, stilts and a species of snipe. There were no harriers or Brahminy kites. Indeed, in the full day’s travel, we had not seen many birds. This was a strange contrast from the Sindh of my younger days.

On the morrow, somewhat disappointed, we left the canal and headed straight for Badin. My friend Abubakar Sheikh whose NGO is hard at work attempting to rehabilitate Nariri lagoon on the seaboard of the district was our guide. Until May 1999, the emerald Nariri was a wonderland of shorebirds. On the sixth day of the month, cyclone A-2 slammed into it. For a full thirty-six hours, the storm raged and when the waters receded, the shallows of the lagoon were filled with sand brought in by the huge waves. There was no longer room for water in the lagoon.

Since Nariri was once known to be a flamingo habitat, we headed south of Badin hoping to find the birds. The person who had lent us his vehicle, opted to come along for the fun. But one man’s fun is the other man’s poison. Soon after we left the tarmac, we hit a ditch in the road. Though we got across with a bit of a hassle, our host seemed peeved. Abu, Nadeem, and I could clearly see that he thought we were bonkers. But the lure of photographing flamingos drove us on.

At the embankment, which Abu’s NGO hopes to raise in order to fill the lagoon once again, we met with some villagers. The word we received was grim: a hunting party had preceded us by a day. Only in this region they had expended upward of two hundred cartridges, it was reported. The flamingos and pelicans were there all right until the day before. But the noise drove them out. Now they were about a kilometre from land in the sea and we had to be supermen with telescopic vision to see them at that distance. Going out on a boat was out of the question because the birds were so spooked that they kept their distance.

Dejected we turned our backs on Nariri lagoon. Abu said if we wanted to see the flamingos, we would have to return next winter, camp in the lagoon for a few days and do our photography. And so with this hope, we turned around. There was one highpoint of this day however: Nadeem bagged a few prize shots of sparrow hawks and Brahminy kites with his 600 mm lens. In comparison to the images that crowd my mind from a quarter century ago, this was hardly anything. But this will keep us expectant until next winter.

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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