Some years back, browsing through the now defunct Pakistaniat.com ran by Dr. Adil Najam and his team, I came to know about a place called Gorakh – the title of the piece written by Owais Mughal highlighted it as a place “Where it snows in Sindh”. I got interested, as all I knew of Sindh till then was dry, arid and hot. Gorakh, the mystical “Hill Station” of Sindh inspired a sense of wonderment and thrill amongst my travel-buddies but the perceived “law and order” situation in the Dadu district resulted in a few aborted expeditions. We finally mustered the courage to make a trip a couple of years back with the help of the Village Shadabad Organisation, a local NGO.
After a sleepless night in Karachi, we offered our Fajr prayers, and downed a cake stolen from a friend’s kitchen with tea and left for Hyderabad. Driving smoothly, we reached Jamshoro and had a proper breakfast at a roadside restaurant located on the N 55 (also known as the Indus Highway). This would be our last full meal before another one the next day, at the same place! Whizzing past the Runnikot Fort exit and bypassing Sann city, we reached Sehwan where the Lakki Hills make an impressive appearance and serve as a reminder of the highlands ahead.
We drove straight through Dadu city and Johi town to reach the village of Wahi Pandi around noon, where we were greeted by the staff of VSO. Here, we purchased provisions and arranged for water, blankets etc. A courteous contact had also arranged for a police guard and a cook. Owing to the lack of any four wheel drive vehicles, we decided to hire jeeps available from the village which is the last settlement of any consequence before Gorakh. The Potohar jeeps are fitted with a diesel engine to cope with the daily routine of treading on the Khirthar range. Fully geared, we headed straight for the top as we wanted to be there before nightfall.The ride up the hills was exciting and the road often meandered through dry beds of perennial rivulets. The rugged terrain coupled with sights of camels foraging around shrubs were a paradox when one recalled that we were just a couple of hours from a hill station. A hill station also usually means ample supply of running water but here we had to carry water for drinking and all other purposes with us, as there is none available at the Hill Station! This also meant that inside the small jeeps, everyone was cramped up with our camps, warm clothes, beddings, food, water, photography equipment, etc.
We did not come across a single vehicle moving in any direction, other than those of our own entourage throughout the ascent. Sparse vegetation, a few camels, some donkeys and the odd flock of sheep or goats stood out amongst an apparently lifeless landscape. People were only visible at and around the few police pickets set up on the Gorakh Road and were mostly shepherds and wood gatherers.
Throughout the drive, electricity poles and a water pipeline ran alongside and implied a more comfortable reception at the top. As we stopped over for a break at a camp, half-way through, I inquired about the same and was told that though there is a pipeline, there is no water, and despite a transmission infrastructure, there is no electricity at the “hill station” just like, though there was a road, it was so badly washed away at places that it remained only navigable by an off-road vehicle.
Over one hour into our drive, we came across a very steep track with sharp bends. This was the Khawal Lak – a Lak is a mountain pass in the local language. Here, portions of the road have completely eroded due to landslides and it is hard to believe that a road ever existed. Any false move on the part of the driver at the Khawal Lak could be the last one for him and his passengers. Once through the pass, the remaining climb is more of an inclined plateau with markedly more greenery than seen earlier. Peesh, the local variety of dwarf palm, which is an important commodity is found in abundance.
This green gold drives a unique economy in some parts of the Khirthar range. It is used to make rope, as roofing and construction material, bedding, mats, footwear, cattle fodder, etc. Finally, we were near the top and as if to welcome our party to Gorakh, an unexpected mild drizzle greeted us. The scorching heat in Wahi Pandi below seemed a world apart from this place.
The “rest house” at the top was a fiber glass construction perhaps, completed in the haste of meeting an “inauguration” deadline rather than actual utility. I will be surprised to hear if it has survived the winds even after a mere two and a half years since our visit. The sanitary fitted in the fiber glass toilet booths had already been torn apart and had become part of the “landscaping” carried out by the authorities.
At night, we had the traditional “much kachairi” or discussion forum by a bonfire with a handful of locals. I inquired why more people did not visit the place. A local guide stated that it was due to the “law and order” situation as there are some bandits around. One of the drivers replied that he knew that Gorakh beats Murree hands down but it was the lack of facilities and poor access that prevented tourists from visiting! The comparison with Murree seems to be a widespread phenomenon. However, in my view, even with all the pollution in the Galliats, Murree and its surrounding areas are a more attractive option with their accessibility, greenery, snowfalls and comparative security.
With a height of well over 5,500 feet, Gorakh does not receive as much “snow” as it is fabled to, mostly due to lack of moisture. However the Mercury does go below zero in the winters on occasions with some frosting and occasional snowfall. The hill station offers a unique micro environment in Southern Pakistan as it rides high on the Khirthar ridge that was formed when the Indian tectonic plate collided into the Eurasian plate approximately 50 million years ago. Amazingly, this pre-historic pedigree means that parts of the Khirthar range formed the seabed when the two plates collided. This is evident from the abundance of fossils of sea creatures that are found at various places in the range including Gorakh. Marine fossils are also found in the Himalayan Range for the same reason.
In the morning, while strolling along the cliff’s edge I spotted a couple of huts visible around 2000 feet below. They were completely isolated from any settlement or road and hence I asked my guide why it was so. He informed that since the land is rocky and farming is not possible, people often live in isolation so that their limited cattle can forage around.
My question about their source of water was replied with a finger pointing towards a small stream many kilometers away. My naive inquiry about where these people went to in case of a medical emergency was finally scoffed at by the guide. He said that the most basic medical emergency that a family could have was the delivery of a baby and even for this, these people had no medical access. Since the huts are so isolated, and everyone except the would-be mother were likely to be out shepherding or arranging water when the time came, the lady in question was usually taught by other ladies to deliver the baby herself! I believe every human being deserves a better chance than this – both the mother and the baby.
Enormous amounts of funds have been spent during the decades since the idea of developing Gorakh was re-floated in 1989 after a visit by the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Yet the untapped tourism potential of the place has not translated into a functional Hill Station with appropriate safety and amenities. Its development will provide an economical option for tourists from lower Pakistan, offering a less time-consuming get-away from the heat. Once the tourists start pouring in, the economy will also undoubtedly flourish with more options for the local population which is badly in need of social and economic uplift.
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