Pakistan's highway of marvels

The silent rocks on the way to Fort Munro are a geological and paleontological wonder.
Published December 3, 2014

By Suhail Yusuf and Muhammad Umar

Dera Ghazi Khan, regarded in the world as a crucial site for Pakistan's uranium deposits, is famous amongst the locals as the town from where the shrine of the great sufi saint Sakhi Sarwar can be accessed.

But, unfamiliar to many, only 60 kilometers away from the town is a hill station, the route to which can be described as the world's only 'open air museum.' The Fort Munro hill station, standing at a height of 6,470 above sea level, is part of the Sulaiman Range and one of the few places in Punjab which receives snowfall every now and then. It connects Punjab with Balochistan and was originally known as 'Anari Mol' (Hilltop with pomegranates in the Balochi language). More of a summer retreat than a fort, the place attracts quite a large number of local tourists looking for relief from the scorching heat in southern Punjab.

Many, though, are oblivious to the marvels around them.

The silent rocks on the way to Fort Munro, among many other things, offer clues to the cataclysmic event that resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago and the emergence of mammals thereafter. A thin grey/brown line laid into the rock is the Cretaceous and the Tertiary boundary, commonly known as the K-T boundary. This boundary is the distinct layer of geological sediments delineating the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, and linked with the massive asteroid impact that may have led to the extinction of dinosaurs and other species. It is found all over the world.

It is no surprise then that one of the exposed layers of rocks in the area dates back to the same geological period as the strata from which the fossilised bones of the largest-ever land mammal Baluchitherium were discovered in Balochistan by English paleontologist Sir Clive Forster Cooper in 1910. No further investigations were carried out for almost a century and the creature remained an enigma until finally in the 1990s French paleontologist Jean-Loup Welcomme set out on a journey towards Balochistan in order to find the fossils of the mysterious beast. He followed the footsteps of Cooper and finally discovered that Dera Bugti was the place where Cooper had first unearthed the bones of Baluchitherium.

In 2003, the French team carefully examined every major and minor bone and finally put them together, building a composite skeleton of the Baluchitherium. The skeleton suggested that the giant creature was five-meters tall, seven-meters long and weighed 20 tonnes, almost as massive as the size of three large elephants!

In geological time scale, Baluchitherium roamed Asia in Oligocene or 30 millions years ago. The geological setting is the same at the place where Baluchiterium was found in Dera Bugti, some 100 km south from the area. Recently bones of Baluchitherium were also uncovered from Shagala area of Zhob (northern Balochistan Basin) and Taunsa area of Dera Ghazi Khan (eastern Sulaiman Fold and Thrust Belt) by senior geologist Sadiq Malkani and Shahid Ishaq of the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP).

In the same strata, or mass of sedimentary rock in the Sulaiman Range, one can find a point where ancient 'walking whales' were discovered from Pakistan. The Rodhocetus Balochistanensis were discovered by US and Pakistani paleontologists and this amazing discovery actually changed the biology textbooks while changing our concepts about whale evolution.

Highway of economic opportunity

The Sulaiman Range in this area not only offers a peak into the fascinating past but according to Malkani, who first discovered dinosaur fossils in Pakistan in 2000, there is abundant supply of minerals that the country can benefit from if tapped properly.

"Gypsum, limestone and clays are key ingredient of cement and our found in great abundance here. It can transform the region into a hub for cement manufacturing. Currently, only one such installation is operating here," Malkani says.

Millstone, quartzite, marble and iron are also found here and the site offers good quality of Uranium reserves. There is also grey shale, a good source of oil and other hydrocarbons. The several kilometers long Mughal Kot Formation is currently being explored for oil from the Jandran area of Barkhan District.

But before this region is tapped for economic benefits, conditions must improve for the locals, who have been living here for decades.

A middle-aged man from the local Leghari tribe says the government had so far done nothing to fulfill their basic rights.

"We do not even have clean drinking water here. There is no effort on the part of the government to resolve our issues. How can we talk about making this place an economic hub?"

The Sulaiman Range, especially the Dera Ghazi Khan-Fort Munro belt is a Mesozoic and Cenzoic geology 'wonderland' which demands protection as a national and international Geopark. But as we are left in wonderment of the past, the present situation of the locals must first be addressed. Innovative ideas, which will simultaneously develop learning and the livelihood of the people in the area, must be explored.