That bubbling thing

March 15, 2015

Rediscovering the unknown mud volcanoes in Avaran district Balochistan

That bubbling thing

My friend Aziz Jamali is a hard task master. Standing orders for the four days Akmal and I spent with him in Awaran were: out of the house at 6:30 AM - without breakfast too. This only helped make huge appetites for lunch and that was just as well for the fare was always premium. His full mop of silver hair gives a deceptive look to his youthful face, and I cannot even venture a guess as to his age. But as a trekker of some experience, he was the fittest in our trio who seemed unfazed by early morning hard work on an empty stomach.

As deputy commissioner Awaran, Aziz has been almost everywhere. Whenever he can take time out from rebuilding the poor earthquake-ravaged district, he goes exploring. Among other little or even unknown items, he has discovered a number of mud volcanoes in his district. Now, having read of these natural curiosities in early 19th century works of British explorers, I was also acquainted with the set of three that lies on the seaboard just south of Makran Coastal Highway in Lasbela district a few kilometres from the fishing village of Sapat Bunder.

Sitting in a vast and utterly flat scrub desert, it is sacred to the followers of the Vedas who pause at it on their pilgrimage to Sri Mata Hinglaj. In colourful files, they climb its hundred-metre high cone singing their hymns as they go and on the summit pitch coconuts into the bubbling mud to seek bestowal of divine favours. For the unfit, the only difficulty reaching this worship place is the short hike to its crest. The pilgrims call it Chandra Koop; for the Baloch it is Darya Chamag -- Eye of the Sea.

Consequently, when Aziz asked if I was up to hiking a couple of hours to reach his mud volcano, I thought it would be a cakewalk. In my mind’s eye I saw this one situated in terrain similar to the one I have twice visited. Aziz did not deign to tell me what sort of topography we would be travelling through and I foolishly did not ask.

As we drove out of Awaran east into the dawn -- on empty bellies, I must reassert -- Aziz said that only the week before, after he had picked up Akmal on his first day out from Abbottabad, they had directly hiked up to the volcano. Laughingly, Akmal added that he was in his dress shoes and pants and I thought this two-hour walk would not just be cakewalk, but would come with icing too.

Even if one did not care for the actual or purported therapeutic value of the virgin mud boiling up from heated caverns deep within the womb of the earth, the volcano as an oddity is more than an attraction.

On the west bank of Nal River -- lower down known as the Hingol -- sits Jhao village: a wide dirt road bordered by mud and wattle huts serving as shops and eateries. The sun was just rising and in the oblique light, Jhao reminded us of most frontier towns, especially Peshawar, as painted (and later photographed) in the early 19th century. One wonders if in two hundred years Jhao will be what Peshawar is today.

Across the streams Larandri and Ara we paused at the teashop on Mar Kor -- the suffix being the Balochi word for stream. The biscuits served with the tea were our only breakfast that day and thus fortified we drove a short way to the bed of the Mar where our walk began. Into the bleak and desiccated gorge we went with Aziz and his men leading for they had travelled here before. The gorge got progressively more and more claustrophobic. We paused at an oblong pond, deep green and still, as if a large bathtub with walls of bleached limestone. It was refreshing against the stark, bare hills surrounding us. The levies men filled their water bottles for this was our only source of water in this desiccated country.

An hour and half later, having trekked through narrow, circuitous ravines, we were scrabbling up a scree-covered clay slope, the loose, sharp-edged bits of scree shooting off underfoot. The slope brought us to an arête, keen as a surgeon’s knife. To negotiate the hundred odd metres of it one could either walk with both feet on one side of the crest and risk slipping to end up in the gully a hundred metres below, badly scraped and battered with a bone or two shattered. The choice was to fall either to the north of it or to the south; results at the end of either inelegant descent being alike. The other way to negotiate the length of the arête was by straddling it. Slippage in this case meant certain castration. At my age, the last option was preferable over broken bones. And I took it. Happily the expected did not occur.

On the far end of the horrible arête was the irregularly serrated lip of the caldera. By the time I came to it, Aziz was standing atop a sheer clay slope which he later told me was the cone of another smaller mud vent now extinct. In front, some ten metres below the lip lay a large circular splash of gooey mud as if it were a frozen ripple created by a large stone hitting the hard clayey surface. On the far end, I could see mud bubbling every now and again.

Unlike the Chandra Koop of the seaboard which is a tall, narrow cone brimming with gooey clay flowing in a thin trickle over the lip, this was another kind of works. Here we could actually descend into the caldera and walk right up over the cracked, dry mud to the edge of the erupting goo. The Chandra Koop dribbles over the side adding, ever so imperceptibly, to the height of the cone. But here, the mud boiling up from the heated innards of the earth had nowhere to go. In a few million years, it will have created a central cone within the caldera.

We sat on the south side of the caldera and Aziz pointed out the jagged peaks he had shown us from the highroad just before we had left it. He said we could give off the easier route we had taken on the walk in and take the much harder trek directly south. I balked. If our walk in was easy, I was not up to attempting the harder trek.

Aziz had been quartering his district on Google Earth and pinpointed not just this one, but another vent a short ways to the west. As well as these, he has two more sets of mud volcanoes each with a dozen vents close together. Having been to all these, Aziz says vents in those two sets vary dramatically in size from large to merely teardrop size. Interestingly, if the mud vents on the seaboard are known as Eye of the Sea, these are called phunduk (the u as in ‘put’) -- the bubbling thing.

To my mind, it is a joke that people imagine travel destinations exist only in Gilgit-Baltistan and nowhere else in Pakistan. Wonders such as these mud volcanoes are unknown. Even if one did not care for the actual or purported therapeutic value of the virgin mud boiling up from heated caverns deep within the womb of the earth, the volcano as an oddity is more than an attraction. Better yet, the thrill of just walking to this phunduk is adventure enough.

In the warm sun with parched palates (I only had a half-litre bottle that I was preserving for the return march) we sat on the summit and talked of how in another land such a spot would be a spa for the adventurous. Here Baloch men would operate food and drink bars and sell local needlework while visitors sprawled by the bubbling mud plastering themselves with it for its curative properties.

But this was Pakistan and if it hadn’t been for Aziz Jamali, the adventurous deputy commissioner of Awaran, this hidden mud volcano would forever have remained unknown.

That bubbling thing