16 January, 2011

Astola's Primeval Charm

I have tried asking several of my friends if they knew about Astola. The replies have been as diverse as any bunch of schoolboys might give. "It is the name of a movie", one said. "It is an ancient king’s name", guessed another. The closest somebody came to, was its being the name of a city. Well, you can’t blame them when no school geography book mentions it as our forsaken largest island, nor do the superannuated tourism mandarins care to enthuse the countrymen with anything more than Shalimar Bagh and Jahangir ka Makbara!

I first got to see the splendid island a couple of decades ago, while skimming the waves at over 500 mph. Looming like a gargantuan aircraft carrier, the island caught the fancy of the squadron-mates; it soon became a must-visit waypoint for updating our Mirages’ inertial navigation systems while on coastal strike missions: that was official. The unofficial purpose was to explore the prospects of a squadron outing, some day. The idea of wallowing in its enchanting creeks and coves and, dipping in the sparkling blue-green waters, kept turning into a collective obsession.

The first of my several visits was three decades ago – a jaunty ride by boat hired from Pasni. No pleasure craft that boat, as only fishing vessels plied the seas for the most part, as they still do. In the eighties, a deal for a round trip to Astola worth a few hundred rupees would bring immense joy to the poor folk; now the rates have shot up ten-fold but they seem unsatisfied – clearly a sign of these cheerless times. A puttering outboard motor spilling oils and all sorts of lubricants into the sea was the standard propulsion gear then. No change, whatsoever, has taken place since. No GPS, no two-way radios, no life jackets. Neither have fortunes of the fishermen changed much, as their tattered clothes clearly substantiated.

The second time, in the mid-nineties, I got a chance to hitch a ride on a Navy helicopter during an exercise. I, along with a few colleagues, was quite literally dropped on the island – from a hover at five feet – as landing at Astola would have been considered an ‘outstation’ trip, hence unauthorised! (Recovery was in hover mode again, suitably lowered further, but without a hint of a landing.) On the island, we sauntered in the scrub and dipped in the sea; cruelly tanned, hungry and with nothing better to do, we scribbled graffiti on the rocks. It is a wonder that fifteen years later, a sweetly etched K+S still survives, as I discovered to my delight in the latest trip by boat.

Drowning the noise of the motor, a sudden  lyric went off that we took a while to comprehend. “Saat pehar Satadip mein; athwan pehar Hinglaj….,” it went. The boatman, seemingly well-versed in local lore, explained like a teacher, that in terms of cosmic time, Satadip deserves a stay of seven parts while Hinglaj the eighth – the former being the name of Astola in Hindi and the latter being a venerated mountain in Makran Coastal Range, that houses the famous nani ka mandir where Hindu pilgrims from afar visit regularly.

Astola Island is located 25 miles south-east of Pasni, being part of the administrative Sub-Division of the same name. Satellite pictures clearly show the contours of a submerged hill that is capped by an outcrop of rock shaped like a grotesque crocodile. Its shape and layout is not too different from the ‘hammerheads’ at Ormara and Gwadar. Astola is 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide; the all-around perimeter is about 6 miles. The highest point on the gently sloping, but largely flat, island is 240 feet above sea level.

Our boatman explained that the island serves as a way station for fishermen during the fishing season, as they can extend their range with an overnight stay there, rather than having to return to Pasni every evening. The ice cabins in boats can preserve the catch in the hottest of seasons for up to 36 hours. The fishermen carry their own water rations in the absence of fresh water supply on the island.

Going by the drought-like conditions prevalent on the island, any suggestion of a tourists’ permanent dwelling, seems a non-starter. Day-long tours staged through Pasni, with self-supplied rations, portable shelters and some entertainment wherewithal, are the only option for the time being. A float-plane service from Karachi to Astola and other coastal cities of Makran comes to one’s mind, but with the cost of living going right off the charts, there may not be many takers of this proposition.

Saw-scaled Viper
The island’s flora and fauna has evolved in salt-laden moist winds, merciless sun and little rainfall. Devoid of trees, the island is mostly covered by tamarisk, acacia and sea-blite shrubbery. Seagulls and terns are a common sight. An endemic snake sub-species, the deadly saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus astoli is unique to the island, and is found mostly in the deep clefts and rocky crevices. The threatened Green turtles and Hawksbill turtles have been spotted in sandy shoals in the egg-laying season. Sea snakes are said to infest the waters around the island, but there have been a few intrepid scuba enthusiasts visiting from Karachi who seem unruffled by these dangerous slithering creatures in their midst.

A big nuisance on the island is the feral cat. Introduced by the fishermen as ordinary domestic cats to get rid of huge-sized rats that stalk their camps, the felines have multiplied and, have assumed menacing habits while living in the wild. They are the biggest threat to eggs of sea birds which nest on the ground and, need to be thoroughly culled under supervision of wildlife experts. There is also a need to make the fishermen aware of the consequences of upsetting the island’s eco-system through a concerted campaign. Unfortunately, an overall lack of education in Makran towns makes matters difficult for the environmentalists.

Of the only two structures on the island, one is a pir’s ‘mazaar’ near the north-western shallows, said to house the mortal remains of the legendary patron saint of sailors, Hazrat Khizr alayh-assalaam. Our boatman told us that every sailor who disembarks at Astola, first visits the pir’s mazaar. “The prayer helps us with a bountiful fish catch and also keeps us from harm at sea”, he maintained. The remains of what was possibly a Hindu temple, with some swastika signs still visible, are located not far from the mazaar.

The other structure is actually a compound that houses a solar powered lighthouse installed in 1987 to replace an earlier, gas powered one, rusting nearby. This point is also the highest elevation benchmark of the island. The powerful revolving beacon is reported to have a visibility range of 16 miles – when serviceable, it must be added!

No account of travel in Pakistan is complete without Alexander the Great doing a round and, Astola is no exception. In Arrian's Indica, which describes the westward journey of Alexander’s fleet after the Indus Valley campaign (325 BC), Admiral Nearchus is quoted as having anchored by an island named ‘Carnine’. Some scholars have assumed Carnine to be Astola Island, without considering the extreme aridity and lack of fresh water which renders the place inhospitable. In all likelihood, Carnine was the name of a mud flat isle in the inland sea, presently known as Khor Kalmat. This latter conjecture supports Nearchus’ coast-hugging voyage (which would have kept him well away from Astola), a compulsion meant to provision Alexander's army that was supposed to have marched out along a coastal route; in the event, the forlorn army found itself astray in the hills and vales of the interior before finally managing to get out of treacherous Gedrosia (Makran).

Astola Island is one of the last frontiers of Pakistan that retain their primeval charm, though litterbugs have done their bit to remind us of the influences of modernity by leaving a trail of juice packets, disposable bottles and the ubiquitous ‘shopper’ plastic bags. It would be a sad day, I thought to myself, when the first commercial hoarding gets erected in this still-pristine island. The Balochistan Government would do well to immediately declare the island as Astola Nature Park. This would be the right step towards conservation of the island’s endemic flora and fauna, as well as resetting the ecological balance that is clearly in doldrums. It would also pre-empt any efforts by various vested parties to gobble up real estate for crass commercial gains.

© KAISER TUFAIL.  This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article appeared in the daily newspaper The News International on 16 January 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Kaiser, good write up, I've been to Astola on snokerling visits a number of times, the island remains as awesome as you remember it. Ali Khan