The sky broadened as we neared the end of the ascent, raw excitement ignited, we knew the next crest was the final big push and from there, our route was generally a descending trend for the next 200 kilometres, or so we naively thought. The view of Sheosar Lake from the official National Park entrance was sublime, when you have worked so hard in achieving a goal, the sense of accomplishment feels that much sweeter and reaching the official entrance to the Deosai National Park was a warm, soft slice of trillionaire shortbread. The culmination of arduous days riding, leaving the Karakoram Highway, the climb to Astore, the road to Chillam and pushing our bikes to the National Park entrance, every bead of sweat, every grimace, every time my head was hung down to my handle bars in exhaustion was all finally worth it, Jacob and I couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces as we embraced, triumphant.
Oddly, I had no preconceptions of Deosai. Apart from it’s prominence I didn’t quite know what to expect, yet I was overcome with a deep sense of nostalgia when my eyes were met with a view of the open expanse with rolling, barren hills and distant, snow capped mountains, it had a somewhat Scottish Highland feel to it. It took me back to the weekends spent with my friends Phil and Steve hiking and wild camping. The autumnal months had pushed aside the luscious green grass and carpet of wild alpine flowers and had provided a blanket of deep orange and red vegetation. We cycled down to the Sheosar Lake, ate lunch and sat for hours soaking up the view and the satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
We rode the final 10 kilometres to Kala Pani, the first of three designated camping grounds. I was fascinated by how clean the landscape was, we had unfortunately grown accustomed to the empty packaging and used bottles by the roadside throughout northern Pakistan, but here in Deosai, not a scrap of litter in sight. We stopped for a few moments along the track and savoured the isolated serenity, I felt as though we were a thousand miles from civilization, not a vehicle in sight, not a sound, except for the occasional snickering of an elusive Golden marmot.
Kala Pani was a small camping grounds, it offered a few large white ridge tents to rent and designated spaces to erect your own. It was home to a group of men until late November who catered for the passing tourists, cooking a selection of dishes from their rudimentary kitchen constructed of mud bricks and sheltered from the elements by a bright orange tarpaulin. We set up our tents, enjoyed a course of daal and chapati then shortly after sunset went for a wander out across the plains to admire the landscape under the vast, twilit skies. The temperature dropped considerably, once back at camp we decided to retire to our tents, don our thermals and toggle ourselves into our sleeping bags like Eskimos in their Yup’ik parkas. When we first arrived to Kala Pani we were delighted to have the entire camp to ourselves, though into the night a mass of Pakistani tourists arrived and it soon became clear that the British unwritten code of camping etiquette was not customary in Pakistan. It seemed they were incapable of having a quiet conversation and made quite the racket. One group left their rubbish despite the numerous signs and barrel style bins reminding them to keep the National Park clean and in the early hours one man decided to leave his Toyota Hilux running with the exhaust fumes flowing directly into my tent, I had no choice but to brave the sub-zero temperatures, wander over in my skin tight thermal leggings and make clear my frustration. From this point, I struggled to sleep, the temperature had dropped to -8°C, ice had formed on the inner and outer skin of my tent and I had become extremely cold from the numerous excursions. It didn’t help that I had to relieve myself twice in the night, though this dilemma was quickly solved the next morning with the introduction of Jacobs genius idea of a “pee bottle“.
In the morning the sun rose above the neighbouring ridge and hit our tents, we were slowly brought to life and crawled out of our sleeping bags like cold blooded reptiles. That morning we learned that a brown bear had wandered close to camp to salvage the remains of a dead sheep that it had hunted the night before, which was most likely the cause of all the nocturnal commotion. We only had 10 kilometres to ride to the next camping grounds, Bara Pani, so we decided to hike to the top of the ridge to admire the view in a hope to see wild brown bears. Disappointingly, there was no sign. Perhaps for our safety this was fortunate, but as a consolation the view was serene. We sat in peace, grateful once again for the solitude.
The ride to Bara Pani was short but the road conditions were atrocious, huge boulders jutting out of the sandy track and there was a number of sections where we were forced to push our bikes but I was happy to push, attempting to ride was an extremely uncomfortable endeavour and would significantly shorten Victouria’s life span.
Bara Pani was similar in terms of scale and the available amenities to Kala Pani. We erected our tents shortly before sunset and donned our thermal layers in readiness for the inevitable severe drop in temperature. We were invited to eat in the camp kitchen and keep warm by the roaring kerosene stoves. Worryingly, there was a distinct lack of fire safety as the kerosene cylinder was being refilled a mere 15 centimetres from a wild, roaring flame. Assuming this was standard practice, we tried to ignore and continued to eat plate of daal, thankful for the warmth the kitchen provided. We had a pleasant conversation about life with the staff who had also informed us that after the climb over the ridge behind the camp it’s “Downhill all the way to Skardu!” Skardu was the next significant town along our route, 50 kilometres from Bara Pani. This news was well received, we celebrated with a sweet, milk tea. After being on the road for 44 days, and recently camping for consecutive nights over 3,800 metres above sea level, interspersed with arduous cycling and over a week without a shower we felt that we had officially earned the right to crave luxuries that are taken for granted from the safety of a leather corner sofa in the living room with the central heating set to a volcanic temperature. We prematurely, and with childish excitement, compiled a Christmas wish list of items that we hoped our families could send in the post. Fresh ground Arabica coffee, Yorkshire tea bags, spare inner tubes and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange were vivaciously added to the list.
To our relief we had the entire camp ground to ourselves, with the exception of a wandering brown bear, though we were reluctant to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags to investigate. The Bara Pani staff were on guard and armed with pots and pans to scare it away if it overstepped the camp boundary. The morning was cold and overcast, seemingly superimposed layers of cloud formations were dramatically transforming the sky as birds of prey with enormous wingspans circled in the air. Groups of tourists arrived in a hope to spot a bear but we had learned that bears typically only make an appearance at night. Within these groups sported an Italian couple who we chatted with over a tea and a short time later, a pair of attractive blonde European women clad in jeans and down jackets. Populated areas of northern Pakistan are generally devoid of women and when women are present, due to the Islamic religion and social structure, they tend to not interact with men, especially white, western men. It wasn’t until this moment that we realised how long it had been since we had experienced some form of social interaction with a woman. Both groups shared their contact details and kindly invited us to meet with them in Islamabad. As we were conversing, a fierce snowstorm curtained the distant mountains and a fine hail started to fall. Fortunately, the epicenter of the storm bypassed the camp and as quickly as the storm appeared, it was gone and replaced with an expansive, brilliantly blue sky and glorious sunshine. At such altitudes and situated on an open plateau the weather can change rapidly. Glad for the meteorological improvement, we packed up camp and loaded our bikes to tackle the next leg to Shatung, the final Deosai camp.
Another short but rough section of road lead us to Shatung. Shatung was a basic camp and a base for four Deosai National Park wardens who were responsible for the sustainability and protection of flora and fauna in the Park. We were welcomed into their mess tent to cook our own dinner, to shelter from the brutish, harsh winds. We recreated a cinnamon and raisin rice dish, that we had accidentally ordered at a restaurant a few weeks ago, to compliment our spicy vegetable curry. We felt that we were becoming quite the Jamie Olivers of camping culinary. We washed our pots by torch light in the Shigar River before reluctantly settling down to another sub-zero slumber.
Morning came, I woke early with the twilight and once again my tent was encrusted with ice. Snuggled in my sleeping bag, I waited patiently for the temperature to rise as the frozen condensation melted and turned to droplets on the inside of my tent. We ate a breakfast of hot, steaming porridge before hitting the road. We were somewhat bemused to battle uphill for 8 kilometres after being informed that from Bara Pani it was “Downhill all the way to Skardu!” A phrase that was repeated ironically each time we hit an significant incline over the next few days. As we descended, the road was engulfed by a steep sided gully, the road appeared to have been hacked out of the rock face, it hugged tightly to the walls as it swept its way down into the valley. Our brakes were put to the test as we swerved to avoid sharp rocks and boulders that made up the road. Finally, after 50 kilometres of dirt track, our tyres glided onto the tarmac, hallelujah.
The road continued down the valley, we rapidly dropped altitude and the temperature noticeably increased. We found ourselves in more familiar territory, following the river down the valley, amongst towering peaks with snow capped pinnacles on the horizon. Before reaching the town of Skardu we decided to spend the night in Sadpara, a quiet village nestled in the valley. We made ourselves comfortable and washed with a bucket of scolding hot water before tucking into a dish of mixed vegetable curry. Unfortunately, the curry didn’t quite sate our unfathomable hunger. We tried to order more food, though after waiting an hour with no second helping, Jacob strolled into the kitchen to inquire and as we anticipated, they innocently had no intention of serving round two. There had obviously been some miscommunication and we ended up with a plate of chips and naan. Not quite the food we had expected but food none the less. We rolled up the chips in the naan to create the Pakistani version of a chip cob and settled down for some much needed sleep.
We had made it. We valiantly defeated the road that, at times, could be only described as a dried out riverbed. No punctures, no injuries. The only casualty of the four days spent over 4,000 metres, at what felt like the roof of the world, was one screw of my rear left pannier, quite remarkable. But what the Deosai National Park lacked in quality roads and civil engineering, it made up for with divine, natural beauty; expansive blue skies, rolling plains of a deep orange and red hue framed within a boundary of mountain peaks. The last four days will certainly be a memory that we will both cherish for years to come.