By Sonya Rehman
Badly bitten by the travel bug many years ago, Wajahat Malik stands as one of Pakistan’s most well-known travel journalists in the country today.
And just like the plethora of musicians, fashion designers and actors that our media scene has to offer, we truly are in dire need of travel writers and filmmakers – who play an incredibly crucial role in creating a ‘softer image’ for Pakistan vis-à-vis the West’s cagey outlook.
Besides, travel journalists attract wanderlust tourists, and right now, Pakistan’s tourism industry surely could do with a bit of a lift.
Part of the recent Spantik expedition (in July), Wajahat reveals the traumatic rescue mission and what followed.
How did your career as a travel journalist initiate? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
When my wanderlust and adventures got out of hand, I knew I had to do something about my sweet affliction. And so I turned my passion into a profession and became a full-time traveller.
I was brought up to become nothing but a good human being so I never thought of becoming this or that. Life just took its natural course, and I became an adventure/travel journalist and filmmaker.
Did you face any trials and tribulations when you started out?
Oh, yeah, my family was confused about the path I was taking as they weren’t sure if I could survive in my chosen field. Many a time, a few of my relatives and family acquaintances termed me as a ‘loser’ as well.
But I took it with a pinch of salt as it was funny and quite natural for our money-oriented society of conformists. I wouldn’t call this a trial or tribulation though because I’ve generally had a pretty smooth sailing. My intentions have always been good and that kept me focused.
Which places within Pakistan have you visited and explored? Which were your favourite places?
Well, I’ve literally been everywhere in Pakistan three times over. Now that’s a lot of places. Being a mountain spirit, I love the North of the country and have explored a lot of it. The Hunza and Shigar valleys are two places that I simply adore. I also love Abbottabad, Lahore and Bahawalpur.
Have you ever faced any life-threatening circumstances on any of your travels?
See, I climb mountains and I paraglide and I travel a lot, sometimes to very difficult places. So yeah, I’ve got scores of crazy stories and there were many times when I had narrow escapes.
The last time I stared into the face of death was when I was paragliding. I was soaring on a mountain close to Islamabad when my glider collapsed and I fell about 250 feet from the sky.
I was lucky I only broke my arm and got away with other minor cuts and bruises. I am lucky to have survived that fall, because when I was coming down, a stone from that height, for a moment I thought my life was over. It was super scary man.
Given the political situation up North (in Swat etc), has local tourism faced a set-back?
I would like to clear this common fallacy that there is trouble in the Northern areas of Pakistan. Many print and electronic journalists in their pieces very wrongly refer to the Tribal areas and Swat as Northern areas.
These places are not even remotely related to the Northern areas of Pakistan and there is no militancy or extremism in the Northern parts of the country. Actually, on the contrary, the Northern region of Pakistan is super safe and the people there the most peaceful. The Tribal areas and Swat should be referred to as the ‘North Western part’ of the country.
But of course the turmoil in Swat valley is a huge set-back for tourism. Most of the people in Swat valley rely on tourism and tourism-related business. Now the people of Swat are literally biting the bullets.
The militancy in the North Western regions of the country is also adversely affecting the tourism industry of the country as a whole. There are travel advisories not to visit Pakistan.
But this doesn’t mean that we should lose hope. There are many countries like Sri Lanka for example where there is an active ongoing insurgency but the tourists still visit Sri Lanka in hoards.
I think the Ministry of Tourism and our media can play an effective role to dispel these notions of propaganda; that Pakistan is not a safe country to go to. The media can do its bit, I keep trying.
How many travel shows have you done so far?
I have done many travel shows in the past 9 years for many local and foreign channels.
I did ‘Travel Guide of Pakistan’ for PTV from 1999 to 2000. It was the only show that I didn’t direct.
Then I did the ‘Journey’ series for Indus Vision from 2000 to 2002. In 2004 I made the ‘Geo K2 Expedition’ series for Geo TV. Also, in 2004 I made a 50-minute adventure film for National Geographic. It was called ‘Surfing the Northern Frontier’.
Recently I made a travelogue on Pakistan by the name of ‘Mobilink’s Journey Through Pakistan’ that was aired at the beginning of this year on PTV and HUM TV simultaneously. This travel show was a joint venture between the Ministry of Tourism and Mobilink. In between these projects I have made many other small documentaries for different Pakistani channels and have worked as a freelance TV journalist on different assignments; one of them being a foreign correspondent (covering the war in Iraq) for Indus News.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I have just finished shooting an extreme adventure sports series and I am quite thrilled about it. The series has content and footage that has never before been shot or seen on screens in Pakistan before.
It’s about the extreme sports of paragliding, mountain trail biking, and high altitude mountain climbing in Pakistan.
I just came back from a mountain climbing expedition. I and two other members of the expedition attempted Spantik, a 7,027-meter high peak in the Karakorams mountain range. From the Hunza side, it’s called ‘Golden Peak’ and from the Baltistan side it’s known as ‘Spantik’.
Our expedition which started out on the 20th of July of this year, was known as the ‘Barbandu Spantik Expedition 2008’ – and it comprised of myself, Ahsan Haider (a telecom engineer from Lahore) and a German friend by the name of Throsten Bargfrede – who has worked in Pakistan as European Union diplomat for four years and is now posted in Nairobi.
What was that experience like?
We were attempting the South East ridge of Spantik and besides our team, there was a German and an Austrian expedition attempting the peak from the same route.
When we established our camp 2 at a height of 5400 meters, the Germans had established camp 3 and the Austrians were leaving from camp 2 on their way to camp 3. As they were climbing the steep section of the mountain along this route, three of their members were caught in an avalanche that broke five meters above them.
These hapless climbers were instantly swept away by the avalanche and fell about 300 meters down into a crevasse.
The Germans who were right above the avalanche immediately rushed down to rescue these climbers. The two Austrian climbers and one Pakistani high-altitude porter were badly injured but were lucky enough to survive the deadly avalanche.
From camp 2 we watched the whole episode helplessly as we could not move up to the immediate rescue of the injured climbers due to the distance and bad snow conditions. They were initially helped by the Germans but had to be evacuated by a helicopter. At this point the weather on the mountain had turned bad and a snow storm had set in, destroying all hopes of an immediate chopper rescue.
During the snow storm I had to descend all the way back to base camp to help build a helipad for the helicopters to land. Meanwhile there were climbers spread all over the mountain stuck in their camps, unable to move and praying for good weather. The poor injured climbers had to wait in agony for two days, when finally the weather broke and the Army Aviation helicopters flew in for the rescue operation.
The rescue itself was quite daring and precarious as the helicopters had to fly and land at a height of about 5800 meters to pick the injured climbers.
The helicopters have a flying ceiling and beyond a certain height, the pilots and their machines are at a definite risk.
It was a brave rescue on the part of our army aviation pilots who landed the chopper close to the lip of the crevasse and picked up the injured and stranded climbers.
After the successful rescue all the expeditions on the mountain decided to abandon the climb because of the dangerous snow and avalanche conditions. We all descended back to the base camp and looked longingly at the dazzling summit of Spantik – slightly disappointed and dazed, but knowing well enough that; ‘You live to climb another day’.
How much of the Northern areas are left unexplored? Are there any magical/undiscovered areas that we don’t yet know about?
There are still certain areas, passes and glaciers that are still unexplored in the North of Pakistan. The challenge is there for the takers.
Pakistan is still an unexplored country when it comes to domestic tourism. Our people still have a long way to go before they can truly see the whole country in its entire beauty and diversity.
Has life resumed to normalcy after the October 8th (2005) earthquake in Pakistan?
I don’t know about the normalcy of life in the earthquake affected areas because I haven’t visited these places since March 2006.
But I have heard that things have immensely improved since the earthquake.
Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing a book about your expeditions?
Yes, perhaps, one day I would like to write a book about my adventures and my bohemian escapades.
I think it will be soon. I just have to discipline myself and get it done with. I think about this book almost all the time. I need to sit down and start pouring my thoughts out.
Besides travel journalism, you told me that you also have a keen interest in politics…
Yes, besides adventure and travel, I have a deep interest in local politics. As I’ve travelled the length and breadth of this country, I have firsthand knowledge of the poverty, illiteracy, and other problems that have taken a toll on the masses of this Pakistan. Balochistan, for example, has been criminally neglected by every Pakistani government to date.
As a political activist I’ve also been fully involved in the lawyer’s movement for the restoration of the judges. I’ve been badly beaten by the police and jailed during the protests but still stand firm and active for the rule of law in this country. All of us, each individual, should stand up in the face of oppression – always.
The Friday Times