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Travel: Down by the River

Updated Feb 12, 2017 10:07am


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Clockwise from top left:  The Victoria Bridge astride the river; mudflats along the river; waking up to a streak of sunrise across the sky; beri cruising on river Jhelum.  —Photos by the writer
Clockwise from top left: The Victoria Bridge astride the river; mudflats along the river; waking up to a streak of sunrise across the sky; beri cruising on river Jhelum. —Photos by the writer

There are many travel and tourist attractions located within short driving distance from Lahore. Recently on a weekend a group of friends decided to join some die-hard camper couples for a camping and team-building expedition to an island in the River Jhelum.

The plan was to drive down to Bhera, a historical city near Sargodha, embark on a beri or wooden boat and cruise down the Jhelum to disembark on the island, and camp there overnight. We planned to spend the day in various activities, and then sail back to land and drive back home.

We flew to Lahore from Karachi and early next morning we set off on the Lahore Motorway, driving along the left bank of the Jhelum river. The well-maintained infrastructure of motorways, toll booths, and rest stops made the journey a comfortable one.

A ‘luxury’ trip through the heart of Punjab and to an island in the middle of the Jhelum

The green countryside, a blue sky and red brick buildings make a pretty colour palette. Sadly, red bricks which make the city so pretty and hide the squalor with their aesthetic appeal are made in brick kilns that smog the environment and often run on bonded and even child labour. On the brighter side, it is heartening to see that many of these buildings are functional schools.

This is the heart of Pakistan’s food basket. Irrigation canals make a shiny grid in sugarcane, mustard, spinach, radish, rice, turnip and wheat fields to name a few. Groves of orange trees bedecked like Christmas trees line the motorway and honey farms are plentiful. The water bodies, rich soil and fields attract a wide variety of birds.

Men, women and children can be seen tilling, planting and harvesting the land. The people are poor but the land is rich enough to sustain them. Small patches of crops such as bananas, spinach, tomatoes and squash have been planted outside most of the makeshift dwellings made from mud and brick while the walls are splattered with dung cakes made from buffalo, cow and goat droppings. Dried up, these are used as fuel. The cold, crisp air is a mix of familiar village odours of manure, damp soil and burning wood.

From Bhera we drove for half an hour towards Malakwal, and then made a detour towards Victoria Bridge in Chak Nizam where we were greeted by local village children and slumbering buffalos. Built with iron, the Victoria Bridge is a beautiful railway bridge constructed in 1890 during the British rule. It was quite picturesque to see the river flowing underneath the red bridge and its yellow brick abutments and piers set against lush green trees.  

That was the starting point of our river cruise. After loading all our camping gear on two beris and a back-up speedboat berthed at the Victoria Bridge, we boarded the beri. Beris are local wooden boats that use bamboo sticks as oars and a rudimentary motor to propel it. They are seaworthy enough to transport tractors and busloads of wedding guests across the river.

Irrigation canals make a shiny grid in sugarcane, mustard, spinach, radish, rice, turnip and wheat fields to name a few. Groves of orange trees bedecked like Christmas trees line the motorway and honey farms are plentiful.

Navigating their way around vast mudflats and islands, the beris sailed along the refreshingly clean Jhelum River that flows down from the Mangla Dam. While the boats coursed gently upstream, we basked in the winter sun on the deck, lunching on sandwiches and freshly-plucked oranges.

An hour later, we made a stopover at the Flamingo Island where flamingos arrive from colder lands to roost from December to February. Numerous flamingo footprints and droppings encircle puddles left on the island by river tides. These are full of tiny fish and make ideal watering holes for flamingos.

By mid-afternoon we reached our final destination — the island where we were to camp overnight. Since it was a luxury trip, our personal sleeping tents, toilet tents, kitchen tent, snack and tea bar with an endless supply of tea, chips, dry fruit and other snacks, running water, and other facilities had already been set up for us before we arrived. The organisers had reconnoitred the place twice to ensure smooth operations.

We swam in the freezing Jhelum River, which one should do only under supervision with a lifejacket and swim shoes whilst being mindful of the undergrowth, and the direction and strength of the water currents.

By nightfall the temperature fell to five degrees Celsius, and we sat as close as possible to the bonfire, sharing jokes and stories over moong phali (peanuts), sipping steaming soup and tea, followed by an elaborate dinner.

As it was the 18th eve of the lunar cycle, we got two hours of a starlit sky before the moon rose. By 4 am the moon shone directly overhead like an over-bright orb with a rainbow halo.  

We figured how to keep the bonfire going for as long as possible — by placing fresh logs with calculation — and soaked up the heat from its dying embers till day break. Although our tents were insulated enough to give us a relatively comfortable sleep, most of us woke up from the cold and managed to catch the rose-gold sunrise.

Breakfast was an all-out desi affair with paratha cooked in desi ghee (what a delicious smell in the cold air), chholay, khageena, and sooji ka halwa, followed by chai and farm-fresh oranges.  

There was a raft race the next morning on rafts that we made from tyres and bamboo poles. There was also open land; enough for a game of football for the young and spirited. A questionnaire helped with self-evaluation.

Our tour manager had a strict ‘leave-no-traces’ policy. “We will carry all our trash back to Lahore: peanut shells, fruit peeld, cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, tissue paper, bottles — all of it goes back with us,” he announced determinedly. At the end of the trip he organised a clean-up activity involving the younger members, and personally supervised the clean-up, not leaving behind even a candy wrapper.

After lunch, pack-up and clean-up we left for our return journey. The boats dropped us at Pind Dadan Khan, a small city in the Jhelum district on the right bank of the river, after which we took the motorway back to Lahore from the Lilah junction. Only the incessant noise of a pump in the distance marred the rural peace of our stay.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 12th, 2017


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Comments (6) Closed

T Feb 12, 2017 12:27pm

Wow! The beauty of this write up is that it could easily have been about a trip taken on a virtual reality platform. With bridge and river and all created on a screen.

I admire the focus of the writer as she strictly remains to describing their experiences sparing us the distractions of what people and life they came across as they took their journey.

For a bit I wished to acquaint myself with the boatman who roved the visitors around for he must have been a human being with a name and a face but I think we can easily do without that detail as long as he did his job of roving well.

I liked best the broad stroke " the people are poor but ..." , the only mention they find in a poor-people-sanitised writeup where they are represented rather through their actions such as blighting the walls with dung cakes adding "odour" to an otherwise serene locale.

Appreciate your carrying away all the wrappers and shellings, a takeaway from this piece for sightseers.

More power!

Bhushan Parimoo Feb 12, 2017 07:50pm

thanks Dawn keeps us to toes to find interesting informative and worth time to spend, grateful, Dawn keep us abreast with historical social cultural events , unheard in the subcontinent these days , all the more even carrying hostile news don't loose cool that is the beauty

Ali Vazir Feb 12, 2017 09:26pm

Sajida Ali, you left me asking for more. That was indeed a very short but very interesting article. Being from tourism industry of East Africa, I long to see tourists flocking to my beautiful Pakistan.

Amir Toor Feb 13, 2017 01:25am

I am somewhat troubled by the nonchalance with which child labor is mentioned in the article! Recognizing that this is not a social piece, the respected author does not come across as accepting this as a fact of life, not worthy of condemnation...

Usama Farhan Feb 13, 2017 05:11am

Can you please refer me any trip organizer the one who manages Jhelum Cruises. On the other hand your writing and explaining the trip is pretty damn good

PS : Want to feel the same experience ASAP

Raza Feb 13, 2017 05:52pm

I wish there were pictures. Picture say a thousand word!