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How the stars shine above Balochistan

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth. -Ptolemy, c.150 AD

By Nadir Siddiqui

Please click for a gallery of Nadir’s stunning photos from the trip and for all photos and links within original story.

About a month ago I went with the petrol-heads at Pakwheels on a road trip into Balochistan. They are a group of car enthusiasts that go exploring around the country in their trusted SUV’s. I soon learnt that on this particular trip, we would also be joined by some members of the Karachi Astronomers Society and that the purpose of this particular trip was to explore a new location for stargazing.

Though we weren’t going too far from the Sindh border, it would still be my first real look at a province that, these days at least, isn’t exactly the easiest place to casually visit. I was doubly excited about the stargazing, not to mention very eager to meet the folks at KaAS (I didn’t even know we had any astronomers much less a whole society of them).

I met the group early on a beautiful Saturday morning. The party of about 15 people was split up into three cars led by Pakwheels veteran Aqeel Baig in his three-door Land Cruiser Prado. A couple of my friends and I were to ride in an old MUTT Jeep that had been fixed up and modified from its army days by its owner Camran Mir.

The MUTT had no doors or roof, and though it was far from comfortable, it quickly turned out to be the ideal vehicle for photographing the landscape. So we clicked away excitedly as we sped along on the RCD Highway towards Winder in Lasbela, from where we would head north into the mountains.

We were heading for a location in the hills that would give us dark, clear night skies for stargazing, a factor that is measured by the “Bortle Dark-sky Scale”. KaAS member Naveed Merchant told me that at a mountaintop of about 3000ft., we would hopefully be able to see a sky that was rated “Class 1” on the scale. This means that the sky is at its darkest and a great range of stars are visible to the naked eye. He also mentioned that with the right timing, even the Milky Way can be seen stretching across the sky with the naked eye. But since this wasn’t the right time of year and we weren’t going on a moonless night, we would only get a small window of time (after the moon had set) to observe that particular sight.

Merchant also told me that Balochistan is an excellent place for stargazing – the clear, cloudless skies and low light-pollution result in a crisp view of the heavens, one that he promised would leave us astounded that night.

But just a couple of hours into the trip, Balochistan had already left me wide-eyed and amazed. In our short trip, we passed an ever changing landscape, including fruit orchards, streams, grassy plains, and different kinds of mountainous terrain.

The road ended before the mountains began, and we had completed three-fourths of our uphill climb when the gritty slopes struck their first blow: the MUTT had broken its rear axle about 300 feet from the summit, and we would have to climb about a kilometer up on the loose, sliding rocks to the top.

After a nervous climb in the thin highland air, we reached the peak and set-up camp for the night. Soon however, we were warned by locals that road construction on the mountainside could leave us stranded on the summit for up to two days. So after the sun had already set – and with the temperature falling dramatically – we decided that we couldn’t risk getting stuck and had to trek back down to a different campsite.

We eventually camped in a clearing in the mountains, a spot that was at a lower altitude but nevertheless afforded a wonderful view of the sky. The moon would set at about four in the morning, giving us plenty of time to sit around the bonfire, eat and take in the atmosphere.

I took this time to join Abbas Jafri from KaAS, as he set up his telescope and pointed it at the moon to do some casual observation. Jafri is a physics graduate from KU who is a serious hobbyist and – I am told, is the only real telescope technician currently working in all of Pakistan.

“The moon is not so interesting for us anymore. We are keener on viewing planets and doing deep space observation.” he said. Deep space includes anything outside the solar system, such as other stars, galaxies and nebulae etc.

We observed Mars, Saturn, and the Orion Nebula, through Abbas’ Celestron and small binoculars.

“An ordinary pair of binoculars is actually an excellent viewing tool for any amateur astronomer, and allows you to see greater detail in many parts of the sky” said Jafri, as I viewed the Pleiades star cluster through them.

By four o’clock in the morning, most of the group was asleep in their tents, and the temperature was freezing. I was shivering under six layers but I stayed up in anticipation as the astronomers started to come out of their tents. It was well worth it because after the moon had set, I was transfixed by the greatest number of stars I had ever seen.

I offered to help Merchant with his large and bulky MEAD telescope, which he set-up with the aid of a red torch. Unlike white light, this red torch would not interfere with our eyes.

“We have a small window of time before the sun starts to rise, and it takes your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness, so be careful not to turn on any other lights now,” said Merchant. He carefully set up his scope in the glow of the bulky red light I was holding for him.

As I looked around in the darkness, the rocky surface of the mountains suddenly felt like another planet. In the dead silence under the thick umbrella of stars, as I watched this bulkily clothed astronomer set up his scope in the eerie red light, it was not hard to imagine that I was standing on the surface of Mars gazing at the expanse of the unexplored universe above. No wonder these guys spent so much time and effort finding these remote locations, I thought; it is an unparalleled experience.

After Jafri helped calibrate the telescope, they started locating different deep-space objects to look at, such as the Hercules Globular Cluster (containing hundreds of thousands of stars) and the spiral shaped Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). A star cluster is any area observable within our own galaxy where a great concentration of stars can be seen, while a galaxy of course is a star system of its own, which is much further away than any of the individual stars that can be seen in the sky.

Above all however, I was eager to see one thing I had never seen before: I asked Jafri when we would be able to see the Milky Way. He pointed towards the west and asked me to look underneath the tail of the Scorpio constellation.

“It will soon rise over there, but you won’t be able to see it very well or for very long, for that you have to wait till May, when it is more easily observable by the naked eye.” He said.

I was barely able to see a dim haze behind the blanket of stars rising over the mountains. This was the Milky Way, a spiral arm of our own galaxy that can be seen from behind the stars that surround us, and covers a significant part of the sky behind the constellations Sagittarius and Carina.

Of course the sun was close behind, so I took my camera and headed off uphill to see what I could shoot. And sure enough, what was barely visible to my eye, appeared as a fantastic glow across the sky in my photos.

Dawn struck soon afterwards, and a few hours later we all set off back for home, but not before making a quick stop for a swim at a small spring in the mountains.

When we finally reached back home it was night again. Before I walked into my house, I looked up at the Karachi sky, full of light and haze from the city. Only a few of the brightest stars were dimly shining through. It was strange how it looked so convincingly empty, hiding its secrets as if nothing was there at all. I suppose it would always have been that way for me, if I hadn’t gone and seen the stars as they shine above Balochistan.

Please click for a gallery of Nadir’s stunning photos from the trip and for all photos and links within original story.

Faiz Baluch