Everyone is familiar with the beauty of Pakistan’s northern areas, but few have taken the time to discover the mesmerising charm of the country’s coast in the south.
I had never thought of exploring the coast either, until I met the famous British adventurer Tracy Curtin-Taylor who told me that she had never witnessed a coastline this beautiful.
I planned a trip with my friends to Astola Island, one of the many hidden gems of the part of the Arabian Sea that touches Balochistan.
We set off on our journey on a cool, November morning on a boat from Pasni, a fishing town 35km away from Astola. As we sailed and gained some distance, I looked back at the town: the Jabl-e-Zareen (Beautiful Mountain) was overlooking the pristine beach and the small buildings surrounded by golden sand dunes resembled something straight out of the Arabian Nights.
The boat captain told us that the sea is calm during the winter season, making it the perfect time to visit the island.
Once we were in the open sea, we were welcomed by seagulls calmly flying above our heads and a fishing boat nearby, where a man was pulling up his net. The seagulls were silently observing, waiting for the right moment to dive in and steal a fish or two. A few of them succeeded, and it was exciting to see.
As we sailed further ahead, I saw larger fishing boats passing by. My friend Bakhshi, who works at the fishery department, told us that these boats are called “launches”.
Each boat is operated by a team of 15 to 20 men, who catch fish the whole day. The fish caught on the shores of Pasni is famous and is also exported.
As we neared Astola, my first sight of the island was of a tall, oddly-shaped rock standing in the middle of the sea. But as we inched closer, the crystal clear, turquoise water took my breath away and I had to remind myself that I was still in Pakistan and not at a beach on the Mediterranean.
Astola is also known as Jezira Haft Talar (Island of the Seven Hills) because of the small, rocky mountains that stretch across the 15sq km island.
The reason why the island’s exquisite beauty has remained untarnished is because of its remote location. From Karachi, it is a seven-hour drive to reach Pasni, from where you have to take a three-hour boat ride to Astola.
Once we reached the island, I wanted to see it from a height and so I hiked up one of the hills. The climb was tricky since the mud was soft and the rocks slippery.
After some struggle, I found a well-treaded path. The view was worth it when we reached the top as the island and its shores were even more alluring from above.
The colour of the water and pattern of the beach changes throughout the day depending upon the tide. The seabed is visible to about the depth of 20 feet .
There is no standing structure on the island except for the remnants of a lighthouse the government had built in 1983.
After a few hours on the hills, we climbed down and got on the boat to explore the other sides of the island. I found every side of the island to be different and more beautiful than the other. The southern side did not have a beach.
We went snorkeling and it was startling to see so many multi-coloured fish. When we went back on the boat, the fishermen showed us some of the fish they had just caught.
Since there are no facilities on the island, we had to pack everything from water, food, to camping supplies. We had lunch on our boat with jellyfish swimming around with their tentacles floating behind them.
One of my friends got stung and was in pain for the next 10 hours. People who are visiting for the first time should be aware that jellyfish only look pretty.
Vegetation on the island is sparse and consists of shrubs and large bushes that come to life when it rains. The island has no source of fresh water of its own. Keekar is the only tree which can survive the harsh conditions.
Astola is a tough yet popular destination for camping and eco-tourism. People usually set up camp at the beach and go snorkeling, deep sea diving and even hunt fish under water.
As Astola receives more recognition, the number of tourists will increase. Let’s hope that this doesn’t damage the island’s beauty.