The perils (and amazingness) of having an adventurous father
This was a common conversation heard in our family when I was growing up:
Dad: "I think we'll just [drive over that enormous mountain/ travel beyond the reach of the map / go to that farflung place for a holiday.]
Mum: "John, really?"
Dad: "It'll be great. Just wait and see."
Yes, I have an adventurous father. And the stories of him as a child lead me to believe that he was ever thus. In the school holidays, his mother would pack a lunch for him and say, "See you home for dinner." Off he'd go, out into the landscape on the outskirts of his country town, exploring. (I believe there was also a motorized billy cart brought to school on his last day, driven through the office block.)
Let's be honest: his adventurous spirit is probably one of the big reasons our family ended up in Pakistan, and he certainly made the most of it, especially once he got a small 4WD Suzuki jeep. With that vehicle, vistas opened up to him in ways he could never have imagined.
Out in the desert....
Dad: "Let's just drive past that remote village, over that sand dune. Where the camel train is."
Mum: "What for?"
Dad: "Just to see what's there."
Mum: "Are we low on fuel? What if we get bogged like that time you took that old jeep onto the beach and it took us four hours to get out? Plus, do you realise the road actually ends here?"
Dad: "It'll be great."
Up in the mountains....
Dad: "I think we should drive up to that plateau I've heard about. The one with all the wild flowers and the view. It's supposed to be fantastic."
Mum: "But even the local jeep drivers won't drive all the way up that road. They say it's not safe. They stop at the bottom and tourists have to walk up. The road is probably all falling away anyway, and if the locals say it isn't safe, we should probably listen and take note."
Dad (scoffing): "Yes, but have you seen their tyres? They're all bald. And their brakes are rubbish. Our jeep's in good nick. And we're on a small wheel base, so it's not like we're trying to do it in a big heavy thing. We'll easily make it."
Dad: "It'll be great."
At this point, I have something to say about our jeep. Dad was right: it was small. When we got it, our family was growing. There were two parents and three teenagers, two of whom were boys, and neither of whom were tiny. Our parents, being parents, got the regular sized front seats. But we three kids had to squeeze into the miniscule back bench, which was wide enough for exactly two and a half bottoms. We took turns sitting on the bench: two could be on, and the unlucky third had to perch half their bum on the wheel hump until it was time to swap.
I'll say something about that mountain 'road' (cough cough, har har) up to the plateau, too: it was wild. Incredibly steep, incredibly narrow, totally filled with mud, and hair-raising to the max. The locals were right: it was dangerous.
I have vivid memories of that trip. Again, Dad was right: our vehicle was in better nick, and thankfully, we made it all the way up, we three kids swapping our poor numb bottoms from seat to wheel hump, clinging on to anything we could find so as to not be thrown around as we rounded the crazy corners and hairpin bends.
When we got out, of course, the sight of wildflowers filling the grasslands made us forget about what we'd just experienced. The view over to snow-capped Karakoram peaks in the distance was unforgettable. I spent the next few hours breathing, looking, dreaming, and making untold numbers of wildflower wreaths.
And then it was time to go down again. I can't remember it accurately, but I'm pretty sure that my dad would have been waiting for the last possible moment to leave the plateau. Probably Mum was reminding him that sunset was coming, and we didn't want it to be dark, given that we were on an isolated goat track in the middle of a mountain valley with no hospitals, no helicopters, no access, and no ambulances, and really, we should be getting down NOW, John.
(We kids were reminded of the no ambulances thing a lot: mostly when we ventured too far towards sheer cliff faces, or when we expressed a desire to walk across a suspension bridge over the washing machine of a rushing river that would have sucked us in and bashed us about, drowned us within twenty seconds, and never let us go again.)
Somehow my mum managed to get us into the car, ignoring our teenage pleas of not having to suffer TBS once again (It stands for Travellers Butt Syndrome... only truly experienced when you are very friendly with a wheel hump. Don't you try to tell me you're uncomfortable in your air-con car with appropriately designed ergonomic seating underneath your posterior.) Dad started the car, and we set off, back down the mountain.
I think it was at the point where we noticed the road had fallen away, and that to make it down one particular section, we'd have to jam a log in with rocks, to drive on, so that the vehicle wouldn't lose its footing and tumble down the mountain... yep, it was definitely at that point, that I refused to travel in the jeep any longer. I was already white with fear. Plus I was 14 and knew my own mind.
"I'm walking down," I said. "I'm getting out and walking. Because this car is going to tip over and fall down and you're all going to be killed, and I'd rather be an orphan and with no brothers than be dead with you all today."
Dad probably tried to tell me that I was over-reacting (what? me? And at 14?) and that everything would be "great" but I knew that was rubbish. They were going to die, and I wasn't going to be as stupid as them.
Yes, there was mud. Lots of it.
Yes, I got filthy.
Yes, it took a long time, and it was hard, but survival was at stake. Plus, my bottom was feeling better for doing a little bit of exercise.
Luckily, they survived, and I was not orphaned.
I deigned to get back in the jeep once the road flattened out and became wide enough for at least one and a half vehicles.
"We managed to get down without dying," said Dad, to me.
"Only just," I replied.
"But it was great, right?" said Dad.
And I had to agree. It was phenomenal*.
*As was our trip to the border of China, sleeting and freezing in the middle of summer, our mountain trek to the 'Shepherd's Hut', a base camp for serious mountaineers attempting some of the higher Himalayan peaks, hours of fun in the river shallows, heaps of chai and curry (but don't eat the salad unless you want to be sick for the rest of your life, said Dad - he was not adventurous when it came to stomach bacteria) and our visits to old castles in the Hunza Valley, which had trapdoors in their balconies - convenient for getting rid of enemies, apparently.
Yes, Dad, it was great.
The postscript to this story is from the same holiday in the Kaghan Valley. At the end of our holiday, we met up with another family we knew, who had just arrived, and happened to be driving exactly the same tiny jeep as us. My dad and the other dad thought this was 'great' and compared notes. "Have you been here? Did you go there? How did the vehicle take it?"
Just before we were about to leave, and Dad and this guy got into a 'what if' conversation about the Babusar Pass. This was a remote road into the Kaghan Valley, which was an adventurer's adventure. Hardly anyone ever took it: there were stories about having to build sections of it yourself as you went, because of the landslides. It was dangerous, remote and incredibly inaccessible, and both of these two men were dreaming about it. "Imagine if we could do that," said my Dad, and for once my Mum said ABSOLUTELY NOT and YOU WILL NOT EVEN ENTERTAIN THE THOUGHT and Dad listened. No Babusar Pass for him.
A week later, when we were home safely, we heard the news that the main road into the Kaghan Valley had been blocked by a massive storm and landslide, and it would take two or three weeks to fix it. In the meantime, no one could get in and out.
"Are those people we met still there?" I asked. "They'll be stuck for a while."
It turned out that they were stuck. Or at least, they had been stuck. Because guess what? They took the Babusar Pass road out of the Kaghan. For years, my dad was absolutely, totally green with envy. And I was breathing a sigh of relief that it hadn't been us.