MarySmith’sPlace – Turtle watching

“Come quietly,” hissed the man with the flashlight. It was one o’clock on a moonless night and as we stumbled after him in the dark our feet sank in soft sand.

The sight of the huge creature provoked various reactions. Three-year-old-child already over-excited by being out of bed and on the beach so late, let out a piercing shriek of terror as the monster from the deep moved towards him. Abdul Ali, a refugee from landlocked Afghanistan, where the most exotic aquatic creature to be seen is a fresh water crab, launched into a wild jig, whooping enthusiastically. The guide, forgetting, in his fury, to whisper, yelled at us to be quiet.


Green turtle

It takes at least an hour for a turtle, using her strong front flippers, to dig a thirty centimetre deep, circular pit. Sitting in this depression she then, with her back flippers, creates a cylindrical shaft, with sides so smooth it is difficult to believe a precision engineering tool was not used. While engaged in this digging work, however, turtles are easily distracted. Our particular turtle, alarmed by the sudden cacophony of noise turned around and trundled off back to the sea. In the gleam of the torchlight as she turned away I imagined I saw an expression of quiet resignation on her wrinkled leathery face.Consumed with guilt at having interrupted an ancient ritual – pre-dating the extinction of the dinosaurs – we returned to the vehicle to gag child and admonish a sulky Abdul Ali. Our guide, Hamid, after giving us a short, pointed lecture on the need for silence, disappeared on reconnaissance.

Once the egg laying begins, nothing – neither screaming children, nor flashing lights – will disturb the turtle or stop the process. I’d even heard of people standing on a turtle’s enormous hard-shelled back (the creatures can weigh up to 180 kilos while the carapace can measure three and a half feet in length) while she laboured to lay over a hundred, ping pong ball-shaped eggs.  After covering the clutch with sand, she makes a dummy depression next to it to confuse predators.

All the while, silent ‘tears’ trickle down her wrinkled, pre-historic face. They are not, of course, real tears but a design of nature which allows sand to be washed from her eyes. Despite this scientific, rather prosaic explanation, however, there seems to be something ineffably sad about the whole business for, after all her efforts, the mother turtle returns to the ocean – never to see her off-spring.


Back in the 1970s the Green Turtles and the smaller Olive Ridley species were on the verge of extinction. Sindh’s Wildlife Management Board established a project to protect the Karachi turtles and their eggs in 1979. Gangs of students can now no longer find the buried eggs – stealing them for their supposed aphrodisiac properties – by following the tell-tale, five foot wide ‘caterpillar’ tracks on the sand. The Wildlife Board employs local people to dig up and re-bury eggs in protected hatching grounds. Karachi bakeries can no longer use turtle eggs as a cheap substitute for poultry eggs and the export of turtle meat to Southeast Asia, particularly Japan, has also been stopped.

Despite the intervention of the turtle conservation project the survival odds are not great. Crabs, crows and stray dogs forage for eggs on the shore, the hatchlings get picked off on their way to the ocean and once there fish and other sea creatures find them tasty. Then there is the danger of fishing nets. The mother swims thousands of miles, digs for hours, pops out 100 ping pong balls – only one of which might survive to become a grown up turtle – a bit more digging then back to the sea for thousands more miles of swimming. Perhaps they are real tears, after all.

As we waited for another turtle to choose a quiet spot I wondered if this, my second attempt to see the egg-laying was also doomed. The first occasion was when friend Firasat obtained his company’s beach hut for a day. A dozen of us, including children, squashed ourselves into a Suzuki van. Wedged in beside us and under our feet were water coolers and thermoses, pots and pans and mysterious cloth-wrapped bundles from which wafted appetising aromas of biryani, chicken korma and still-warm nan bread. There’s none of your cling-film wrapped, soggy tomato sandwiches and a packet of crisps when a Karachi family goes on a picnic.

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Sunset at the beach, Karachi

In the evening, we dined in style by candlelight, which was when the trouble started. Attracted by our candles hundreds of moths – some very big – came swooping out of the dark. Firasat’s sister flapped at them with a towel but when a huge, black, unidentified winged creature whirred past her head she let out a piercing shriek. We blew out the candles. The beach was full of strange night sounds which, despite Firasat’s assurances, unsettled his sister further. “When will the turtles come?” she quavered.

Her school teacher sister, Ferzana, sighed. “Oh, for goodness sake, Shabanna, be patient.  They don’t appear before midnight.”

Shabanna checked her watch. “It’s only nine o’clock, now,” she moaned. She suddenly clutched my arm making pitiful squeaking sounds of fright. “Oh, my God, what’s that?”

“Well, hey,” I muttered as I peered in the direction she was staring, “I’m the foreigner here, no good asking me.” Something very large and very tall was loping silently along the beach. Definitely not a turtle.

Firasat soothed her. “It’s only a camel.”

Twenty minutes later, as yet another huge flying beetle sort of thing dive bombed her – deliberately, she maintained – Shabanna, we led her back to the safety of the van and abandoned our turtle watch.

Now, it was looking as if my second attempt to see a turtle was not going to be any more successful. Habib returned. He’d found another turtle further along the beach and was prepared to take us in pairs to see her digging her nest but then, so we would not disturb her – a glare in Abdul Ali’s direction – we should remain in the van until she began to lay the eggs. This might be after one, maybe two hours.

Child, finding himself being led away from the safety of other humans towards the great, dark unknown became almost as hysterical as Shabanna had been with the beetles. Sadly, we decided to give up.

Hamid, though clearly relieved by the decision, took pity on our disappointment. He disappeared again returning after half an hour carrying two buckets from the turtle nursing centre. They contained hundreds of hatchlings, each the size of a ten pence piece. Excitedly, we crowded round. It was clearly the closest we were going to get to the famed, giant turtles on this occasion. Sadly, an exhausted child and fed up Abdul Ali missed them – both were sound asleep.



Mary Smith’s Place – Karachi crocodiles

I apologise for the lack of decent photos to accompany this post. I visited Manghopir several times, taking many photos of the crocodiles and of the shrine, the busy shops around it and of the hot springs but I can’t find them. I suspect they were in the albums thrown out after our previous cat sprayed on them. He had a tendency, after a stray kitten tried to take up residence, to mark everything in the house as his.

The legendary crocodiles that guard the shrine of Saint Mangho (ManghoPir) were piled in a heap, under a tree. They looked very muddy, and suspiciously lifeless. The shrine, or mazar, lies to the north of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. There are two springs beside it, one hot, and one cold. Bathing tanks have been provided, for the water is reputed to cure all manner of ailments – from rheumatism through frigidity to skin diseases.

When Mangho arrived, in the middle of the thirteenth century from Iraq, in true hermit fashion, he chose a patch of arid desert in which to pray for grace. Making the cold water trickle from a rock was his doing. Producing his drinking water, however, seems to have exhausted Mangho’s miraculous powers, for no more are mentioned. Fortunately, he had some friends who turned up to lend a hand. The most famous of these, Qalander Lal Shah Baz of Sehwan, provided the hot spring.

Mangho’s other three friends – there is no general consensus as to who they were, everyone cites the names of their personal favourites – joined in the miracle making. One produced, from the twig with which Mangho cleaned his teeth, a date palm oasis. Another provided honey and melted butter which rained from the trees. According to some versions of the story, the fourth friend caused a wilting flower to change into a giant crocodile to guard Mangho and the shrine.

There are various legends to explain the existence of the crocodiles. My favourite is the one in which Mangho was terribly troubled by lice. These – as they do – made his head itch dreadfully. One day, driven mad by the itching, Mangho, in an unsaintly display of temper, stamped his feet. This dislodged a great number of lice – which turned into sacred crocodiles.

They are mugger crocodiles, looking rather like alligators but definitely a true crocodile. One more scientific explanation is that these crocodiles were carried through some heavy floods, during ancient times and gathered here. Archaeologists believe there was a Bronze Age community near Manghopir, which worshipped crocodiles.

Joining the other observers, I peered over the wall of the enclosure. As far as living legends go, they were a bit of a disappointment.

Staring at a bunch of crocodiles who only wanted to cuddle up to each other, wasn’t what I expected. Eventually, one, small and sluggish disengaged himself and waddled towards the pool, slipped smoothly into the murky water and promptly disguised himself as a partially sunken log. IMG_0009 (Small)

Perhaps the crocodiles expected something more from the pilgrims? It used to be customary for supplicants to provide a sacrificial goat. Indeed, in the old days it must have been much more exciting. Then, the devotees of the saint, both reptile and human, shared the same bathing facilities. The humans, however, took exception to the crocodiles’ occasional tendency to eat them, and a separate enclosure was erected. Perhaps that was when the crocodiles began to tire of their role. Or perhaps that came later, in the days of the Raj – as suggested by none other than Sir Richard Burton, diplomat, explorer and translator of erotic literature.

According to his account in Sindh Revisited, the alligators, as he insists on calling them, were “once jolly as monks.” Their lives took a dramatic downturn when young subalterns from Karachi’s camps found it entertaining to pit their bull terriers against them. Should a crocodile, in defending itself, kill a dog, the men “would salute the murderer’s eyes and mouth with two ounces of shot” causing the creature to plunge into the water, “grunting as if it had a grievance.” I should think it did have a grievance and the subalterns’ behaviour didn’t do much for our reputation. All in all, it is not surprising the crocodiles show a marked inclination to ignore visitors and cuddle up to each other.

Worse was to come. The crocodiles began to die off. However much the British subalterns may have demoralised them, they were still breeding successfully in those days. In the 1950s, someone estimated there were over a hundred – although terror, at being in the actual enclosure with the reptiles may have led him to exaggerate. In fact, the cause of the alarming decline was down to nothing more sinister than Pakistani Government bureaucracy.

Traditionally, the custodianship of the crocodiles was handed down, father to son, through the centuries. A Government body – the Auqaf Department – responsible for Muslim shrines, decided to dispense with the services of the family. At that time there were twenty seven crocodiles. Within a couple of years, there were only two left. In 1972, Khan Mohammed was hastily re-appointed in an effort to save the sacred reptiles. Happily, it was a successful move. Crocodile numbers began to increase. The biggest one is called – and was even in Burton’s day – Mor Sahib, or Mr. Peacock.

There are two annual festivals, one of which marks the death anniversary of Mangho Pir. The other, the Sheedi Mela is to celebrate the crocodiles. The Sheedi are a minority group in Pakistan, said to have been African slaves belonging to Arab traders. Settling first along the Makran coast of Baluchistan, they later spread throughout the province and into neighbouring Sind. The Sheedi Mela was put on hold for seven years because of the political tensions around Manghopir and other parts of the city but it took place again in 2017.

During the Mela, Mor Sahib is covered in vermilion and given a goat by the devotees. When the disciples dance, day and night to the sound of drums, it is to an African rhythm. Quite what the crocodiles make of it is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it cheers them up a little. They look like they need a bit of revelry.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Karachi driving

I went to work in Karachi, in the headquarters of the Pakistan leprosy programme, in 1986. My job was to set up a health education department. The work of this department had several aims: informing the public that leprosy is curable, encouraging them to come for treatment at the earliest opportunity and that leprosy did not automatically lead to deformities. It was also to help the paramedics trained in leprosy control find ways of encouraging their patients to take their medication regularly and not stop the treatment just because they felt well. Telling patients they would go to jail or end up becoming totally deformed having proved to be not a particularly motivational method.

As well as working from the base in Saddar, in the heart of Karachi I often had to visit clinic in various far-flung districts of the city. When I was told there was some funding available to purchase a small Suzuki van for me I was delighted because it would mean no more death-defying journeys perched on the back of a motorbike.

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Note that men can sit astride a motorbike. Only we women who have to be cherished and kept safe are allowed to risk life and limb riding side saddle

Sitting side-saddle. Clutching my handbag and files. With nothing to grab hold of and, this being a Muslim country, forbidden to fling my arms round the man who was trying to shave seconds off his previous best time between clinic and centre. My hair blowing in my eyes, my scarf flying about risking being caught in the wheels a la Isadora Duncan. Eye-balling donkeys at traffic lights. Being looked down on by camels.

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Camels feel they are a superior race.

I beamed at Mr Fernandez the head administrator. He beamed back as he handed me the keys.

“Em, I will have a driver, won’t I?”

“No, there’s nothing in the budget for a driver. You have a driving licence, don’t you?”

I stopped beaming and tried for a beseeching look but he was having none of it. “All you have to remember is to watch the car in front. We drive on the same side of the road as you and follow your Highway Code. After the first couple of dents you’ll be fine. Maybe don’t go near Empress Market at first. When I’d just passed my test I found myself there by mistake. All the buses, the cars, the horns blaring – total gridlock.” He shuddered at the memory. “I stopped the engine and walked away. Went back for the car when it was quieter.”

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Outside Empress Market

I took the keys in my now sweaty hand and went outside to admire ‘my’ new vehicle. I sought out Zafar and asked if he’d sit with me a few times – like maybe a hundred – until I gained a little confidence. Could he think of somewhere quiet to practise? He decided we’d drive to the sea front at Clifton a place favoured by Karachi-ites for ice creams, pizzas, catching the sea breezes.IMG_0007 (Small)

I seem to remember it was about 10 o’clock at night. Zafar drove at first explaining the rules of the road. There was one more than the one Mr Fernandez told me about. The only other rule, Zafar told me was that if the vehicle approaching is bigger than you, you give way, otherwise you go. We swapped places and I started driving, very, very slowly. Zafar urged me to go a little bit faster and eventually I was in third gear. By the time I’d driven to Clifton and back three or four times Zafar declared himself satisfied with my progress and we returned to the hospital.

“Just one thing,” he said, “it would be best if you kept your eyes open when you go round a roundabout.”

I learned to keep my eyes open. I learned to be a pretty confident driver but I never, ever learned to keep my hand on the horn – at all times.

Messing about on boats – Pakistan style

Messing about on boats has never been my thing and when I went to work in a leprosy hospital in Pakistan sailing was not something in which I expected to participate. Karachi-ites, however, are proud of the wide range of water-based sports on offer and expect foreigners to make the most of the opportunities to try deep sea fishing, scuba diving or explorations of the mangrove swamps.

My first boating experience was not a happy one and left me with no desire to accept further invitations. Not even the prospect of sailing around the harbour to visit one of many deserted bays for a private swimming party held any appeal. Until, that is, my imagination was caught by an article on the delights of midnight crab fishing. The idea of drifting gently in the moonlight on the calm waters of the Arabian Sea in a traditionally built boat, its lateen sails billowing, while I reclined on silken cushions had a certain appeal. As did the thought of dining on freshly caught crab, cooked on board by the crew as we sailed leisurely homewards.

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This is the kind of boat I thought I’d be going on

My new friend Zafar, a leprosy patient from Afghanistan, who within days of my arrival in Karachi had appointed himself my guide, chaperon and English student, was eager to share the experience. However, an Afghan refugee without papers and nervous of being out at night, he wanted an afternoon rather than an evening outing. Scratch the moonlight, then.

He rounded up some friends and we set out in my little Suzuki van which I drove with a combination of great pride and sheer terror through Karachi’s teeming streets. It seemed to me every one of the city’s ten million and rising residents were on the roads at the same time as I was, driving their trucks, buses, rickshaws, donkey carts and battered taxis in my direction.

Down on the old harbour front, Zafar indicated where I should park and within seconds of leaving the vehicle we were surrounded by swarthy, Baluchi fishermen sporting magnificent moustaches. Everyone was yelling at us. Thinking I must have pinched some VIP’s parking space I began to retreat. “No, no,” Zafar explained, “These are fishing boat men. First, we fix price.”  Though proud of my bargaining skills in the bazaar, hearing two dozen prices quoted at the same time, at full volume, threw me completely and I left him to it.

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Three of the dozen of so fishermen who bargained to take us out crab fishing.


When he told me to return to the van, I thought even Zafar, skilled negotiator though he was, had failed. The men followed, crowding us, still yelling. “Start the car,” commanded Zafar authoritatively. I turned the key in the ignition. The clamour increased.

“Off the engine. I have okay price,” he said, beaming happily.

As we followed our chosen crew towards their boat, memories of my earlier experience on a boat trip to the island of Manora floated into my consciousness. On that occasion, I’d stood at the foot of harbour steps gazing at the passenger ferry which lay on the far side of a dozen small bobbing boats. While I was still wondering how they were going to steer it up to the harbour wall my companions, Hameeda and her sister Razia began skipping nimbly from boat to boat, unconcerned by the vertigo inducing effect of the murky water slap slapping against each one. Fighting panic I’d clambered clumsily after them.

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Part of the fishing fleet at Karachi

Within twenty minutes the ferry was full and we’d lost much of our seating space as everyone squashed up together. Ten minutes later, the boat was decidedly over-full and sitting impossibly low in the water. I was thinking perhaps a visit to Manora wasn’t really all that important when the engine roared into life and we headed out to sea. The voyage lasted barely twenty minutes – long enough for me to recall with frightening clarity every headline ever read about overloaded ferries capsizing on Asian waterways.

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Did the sharks I had seen being unloaded at the fish market (fins to the Chinese restaurants, the remainder turned into fish fingers) come this close to the harbour?

Manora, which is a Pakistan Naval base, is all of 300 square acres and about 100 feet high. It was the starting point of the British conquest of Sind in February 1839. When the commander of the mud fort guarding the harbour entrance refused to surrender, Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Maitland in command of HMS Wellesley gave the order to fire. The fort was smashed to pieces. When the gallant British soldiers stormed over the walls they found the garrison comprised one old man, one young woman and a boy – all of whom instantly surrendered – hardly a glorious conquest for the British troops. Four years later, Charles Napier took possession of Sind, reputedly announcing his success to the world with the cryptic Latin comment:  peccavi – meaning, ‘I have sinned.’

“Isn’t it beautiful?” demanded Hameeda, indicating Manora’s silvery white sands.  It certainly was, but the thought of our return journey prevented me from appreciating our glorious surroundings. All the way back I fretted about having top repeat our earlier acrobatic performance but, to my relief, the boat nosed in close to the harbour.

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I disembarked, lost my footing and fell face down, full length on the slippery steps. Feeling myself slither towards the soupy water below (Karachi’s harbour is one of the most polluted in the world) I clawed frantically at the sludge covered stones. Tearing every finger nail in the process, coated in a thick layer of foul smelling slime, I finally hauled myself to my feet. With a collective sigh – whether of disappointment or relief I wasn’t sure – the crowd of curious onlookers parted to allow me through. Razia and Hameeda, embarrassed by such unseemly behaviour and ashamed of my disreputable appearance and smell, walked stiffly on ahead, pretending they didn’t know me.

What made my misadventure all the more unbearable was learning Manora isn’t a real island at all. It’s a peninsula connected to the mainland by a 12 kilometre road.

Edging once more down those same treacherous steps, I was in no position to argue with Zafar about the craft he had hired. Ignorant as I am about boats I do know a motorised one when I see it. Scratch the lateen sails – and the silk cushions on which to lounge. Once on board he explained with a shrug: “Sail boats very high price and take long time to reach fishing place.”

The crew handed out lines and lumps of fish for bait then hovered, landing nets at the ready, to assist us haul our catch aboard. After a while, when it was apparent all we were going to catch was sunstroke, they pottered off to the other end of the boat to do their own fishing. One or other of us felt a tug an occasional on the line but the crab had always managed to disentangle itself by the time we hauled in the line. The sun beat ferociously down on us, the ice in a bucket to keep our drinks cold melted, leaving us with lukewarm Fanta and, knowing there wasn’t one, I started worrying about what to do if I needed to go to the loo.

An enticing aroma of frying onions and spices cheered me up. The boatmen generously shared their catch with us. It may not have been quite the outing I had anticipated – an overpowering smell of motor oil rather than a salt tang carried on the sea breeze, scorching sun instead of silvery moonlight – but those succulent, spicy crabs were delicious.

I resolved, though, to buy them at the fish market: messing about on boats – not my thing at all.