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The goddess of Taliban country

Baluchistan, purported home of the Pakistani Taliban, offers much more than a wide open road.

KARACHI, Pakistan — The road into Baluchistan is dual carriage, the topography is flat. There are fronds in the sand, an occasional crooked tree and the intimation of the sea. Narrow scratched paths lead inland and close to the horizon, we can make out clusters of structures — mud rooms, thatched tents — and the local population: tanned fishermen and women and children.

Not more than two hours into the journey, we turn left at a solitary petrol pump attached to a roadside restaurant. After announcing ourselves at a checkpoint — hum Hingol ja rahay hain — we cruise down the Makran Coastal Highway.

I am riding shotgun in a Jeep with a mangy, taciturn, chain-smoking adventurer. He offers me a dry omelet-and-hunter-beef sandwich. I take a bite. It is difficult to swallow but I don’t protest. Who knows when sustenance will be offered next?

We have entered the badlands of Pakistan, the purported seat of the resurgent Taliban. Somewhere across the expanse lurks Mullah Omar, the murderous, indefatigable, one-eyed leader of the shura. Although there is strength in numbers — we are traveling in a caravan of 11 vehicles comprising the Off Roaders Club – we are only armed with poles, pegs, hammers and other camping equipment. I’m no outdoorsman, no adventurer. I wonder what the hell I am doing in Baluchistan.

Another hour or two on the road, we turn again, presumably north, into Hingol National Park. Before suggesting that I ride with somebody else — we have to pick up a local guide from a teahouse — my reluctant host mentions in passing that the park receives funding from the World Bank. I don’t understand why at first — the place seems godforsaken — but a kilometer in, it becomes plain: spectacularly bare, veiny, windswept mountains rise in the distance. In the shadow of a crag, we happen upon a pelican languidly flapping in a pool of azure water. It is a sudden, ethereal sight. Then somebody points out an alligator basking upstream.

Hingol National Park is a vast nature reserve, two and a half times the size of Luxembourg (about 600,000 hectares or 2,400 square miles). The terrain is populated by jirds and lizards, caracals and urials, by badgers, porcupines, foxes, jackals, wolves, boars and hyenas. According to a no-nonsense, middle-aged lady, a veteran of the motley, ballsy Off Roaders, an almost mythical snow leopard also haunts these parts. And there are many fancifully named birds: kestrel, shrike, stone curlew, brown rock pipit, redheaded merlin, Houbara bustard, Bonnelli’s eagle, Eurasian griffon vulture, Laggar falcon, Lichtenstein’s sandgrouse, Hume’s chat, hoopoe.

There is, however, no sign of Taliban anywhere. But there are suggestions of other violence: The twisted remains of a concrete bridge, like an arm ripped from the socket, span a wide, empty riverbed. The guide, a wiry, weathered character, an employee of the Bridge and Works Department, informs me that the torrent in the rainy season is vehement. The area is mostly uninhabitable. The trees, I notice, are all bowed. The signs, however, remain strangely erect. One heralds ibex territory. Another announces “Nani Mandir.” I repeat the phrase in my head. It sounds vaguely ominous.