It was a travel brochure that seeded the notion in my mind. As days went by, the idea grew into an irresistible urge to see this magical land – the land called Kafiristan. It was in August 1975 that four footloose explorers in Peshawar pointed their noses towards Shabqadar and then Yusuf Khel in Mohmand Agency. We were warned that moving on was a risky endeavor as we would be crossing unsettled tribal territory. We were fortunate that two of us were familiar with the Pukhtun language and it was on our urging that we drove from Yusuf Khel to Nawagai without any mishap.

It was well past our lunch time and our stomachs had begun demanding sustenance. Stopping at a stone walled apricot orchard fringed with tall shady Chinars, we decided to ingest our sandwiches and tea. We had just begun to eat, when we found ourselves confronted by three middle aged men, whose guns were menacingly pointing straight at our belly buttons. A barrage of questions was hurled at us to find out who we were, why we were trespassing and did we not know who the orchard belonged to? The answer to the first two questions was straight forward – we were four friends who loved travelling and had halted to have our lunch - en route to Chitral and beyond. The last question must have elicited comically blank looks from us because our three interrogators began grinning. We were informed that the orchard and its surrounding area was owned by the Khan of Nawagai and we had abused Pukhtun hospitality by eating our own food on the Khan’s land. So it was that two pairs of very somber looking and resigned young men were led to a small ‘hujra’ inside the garden and made to wait, while a ram was slaughtered and roasted for our benefit. This was an unforgettably delicious meal that did full justice to the Pukhtun ‘Rivaj’, the memory of which is cherished by us to this day. We left the feast with distended bellies, handshakes and bear hugs, to reach Khar well after darkness had descended and the authorities had perhaps given up on us as expended.

The remaining part of our journey to Timurgarha, Dir, Lowari Top, Drosh and Chitral was uneventful except for the fact that we crossed the Lowari Pass when evening had fallen and heavy mist had descended reducing visibility to almost zero. We negotiated the seventeen descending hairpin turns at a snail’s pace, with one of our numbers walking in front to guide us. We reached Chitral as dawn was breaking and checked into our lodgings to get some sleep.

The next afternoon found us at the Gahret suspension bridge that spans a rushing torrent at the bottom of a gorge hundreds of feet deep. The ‘road’ across this bridge is made of wooden planks, secured to parallel steel cables. Two stone tower-like structures formed the entry and exit points at both ends at an awkward angle of ninety degrees, forcing vehicles to stop, reverse and then point in the right direction to get across. Midway through the crossing, gusty winds amplified by the ‘venturi’ effect of the deep gorge swung the bridge from side to side making the venture rather unsuitable for the fainthearted.

We left our ‘four wheel drive’ in the care of a local at Ayunand, and back-packing our stuff, began the trek into Bombret - one of the three valleys inhabited by the Black Kafirs. The sun was setting as we passed amazing picture post card mountain landscapes, to be met by our guide Lal Shah at a log bridge that marked the entry point into the land of the Kafirs. We trudged on in the gathering dusk till we arrived at a mud structure that was to be our home for the next two days. We bedded down into our sleeping bags looking forward to the next day, when we would begin exploring this land of legends and fairy tales. But wait, for that is another story, which I shall reserve for next week’s piece.

 The writer is a historian.