By Omar Mukhtar Khan
FEW people in Pakistan know about the scenic valley of Soan-Sakesar and still fewer know that the valley boasts of at least five scenic and beautiful lakes. But this lack of knowledge is limited to us, the Pakistanis only, as the World Wildlife Fund has already acknowledged the importance of the site by recognizing it as a ‘Ramsar’ site — a site of international significance from an ecological point of view. The lakes include Ucchali, Jahler, Namal, Khabeki and yes, the famous Kallar-Kahar Lake, thanks to the Motorway. Together, these lakes are referred to as the Ucchali Complex.
The lakes are known as sanctuaries for migrating birds from Siberia and Central Asia. Every winter, tens of thousands of birds take this route to spend the winter in comparatively friendly climate and by March, the birds start their journey back. But only the lucky ones are able to escape the onslaught of scrupulous hunters. The birds include several different species of waterfowl, cranes, ducks, coots, flamingoes, etc.
As a vast area of the valley that is Sodi-ja-wali has been declared as a game reserve, one can easily find different species of partridges hopping on the road and across the fields. If one is lucky enough, a walk through the bushy hills makes one come across wild deer and partridges. This is also true for the restricted area of the Sakesar Air Base.
Nowshera, a small bustling town, is the centre point of Soan Valley. About fifteen minutes from Nowshera, on the way to Khushab, is the small village of Khitwai where public transport makes a stopover for tea. The small village has a huge colonial era building of the late 19th Century and these colonial era buildings are a very common feature of Soan Valley.
From Kithwai, one leaves the main road to join a single branch road heading to the village of Jahler and of course, the lake. It takes almost thirty minutes on the narrow winding road to reach Jahler. The acceptable road condition with warning mirrors at all dangerous turnings compels one to have a good opinion about the district administration. Even if someone has reservations about the road, one forgets them on reaching Jahler. The lake is simply beautiful. The sight of bluish-green waters of the lake surrounded by green hills forming a natural cup gives an astounding view straight out of heaven. It is the least known of all the lakes and perhaps the most breathtaking.
To the West of Nowshera is the famous hill-spot of Sakesar, known more for its small air base rather than its beauty. One of the reasons people don’t know much about Sakesar is because the entire area is restricted for the common people due to strategic reasons. But still, if you know the right people or maybe even a constable at Nowshera, you can get there. After passing by the late 19th Century police station (1879 to be exact) opposite a similar colonial-era rest house and a few small villages, in about thirty minutes one reaches the air force gate situated at the base of Sakesar Hills, from where it takes twenty minutes to reach the top of the hill at a height of around 1,500 meters above sea-level.
Sakesar has a very pleasant weather, specially during summers. A very well-maintained rest house of the district council is available for a night’s stay at Phulwari that gives an astounding view of the surrounding green hills and the vast plains of the valley. Another worth-mentioning place to visit is Helipad Park. The park is beautifully maintained by the PAF with a number of exotic species of flora planted by senior officers. The park again gives an astounding view of the surroundings. From one viewpoint, one can have an excellent view of the Uchhali Lake that spans over a wide area. Unlike the bluish-green Jahler Lake, Ucchali lake has a reddish tinge — probably due to the high concentration of sulphur. Namal Lake can also be seen further in the West from here, but to see that lake one needs an extraordinary vision and clear weather.
Namal lake is better accessible from the Talagang-Mianwali road by taking a small branch road just before the Musakhel Hills. From here, one can also spot a number of small irrigation dams constructed by local governments to support agriculture. Ucchali Lake is situated just at the footsteps of Sakesar Hills and one can always have a nice stroll along its banks.
As one drives East of Nowshera, one comes across one of the most unexplored landscapes of Punjab. The view of vast green fields surrounded by high mountains with camels driving the Rahat, i.e. the centuries-old way of drawing water from wells for irrigation and is really a treat to one’s eyes.
On the way, one comes across a ‘Y’ junction with a board mentioning the way to Khabeki Lake. Other boards by the wildlife department and WWF warn against hunting or fishing at the lake. Take this small branch road only if you are riding a jeep because the road is in real shabby condition. But then this road runs just along the banks of the vast lake, giving a real good view. There is a small rest house on this road owned by the fishing department and provides a good camping site.
However, one should not be disappointed if he or she does not own a jeep. Just take the main road at the ‘Y’ junction, that steeps upward. After about a kilometre, if you see to your left, you would be looking at one of the most eye-catching scenes of your life — a vast blue lake against a green hilly backdrop. The famous travel writer, Salman Rashid, in one of his articles, mentions a colonial-era rest house with an exquisite orchard in this area that, despite being a frequent traveller, I have failed to notice. But I plan to definitely find it out when I visit this place again.
On the way, one passes through the small town of Pail famous for the surrounding coal mines. After driving for about thirty minutes on a snake-like winding but comfortable road, one reaches a point from where the famous shrine of Hazrat Hubahu with the Kallar Kahar Lake in the backdrop is visible. With increasing tourist concentration at the lake, it has already lost its beauty to commercialism. This place was once known for its orchards and peacocks. Now one has to search for the peacocks to find them. A visit to the famous Takht-i-Babri at Kallar Kahar is also a must — the place where the Mughal King Babar used to sit and enjoy the scenic view of the lake. Rest houses maintained by the forest department, district council, police and the tourism department provide accommodation at a reasonable cost.
Soan Valley, with its majestic lakes and friendly people, is simply beautiful. Each of these lakes has the potential to develop into a tourist resort and reduce tourist pressure on any one lake. All that needs to be done is to develop facilities in the area such as water sports, lakeside huts, etc, and of course, some publicity. But then, even the concerned people here care little about tourism development.