It’s always a challenge for tourists to select a suitable time of the year to travel to the scenic North — to the mighty mountains and serene valleys and their lakes, streams, waterfalls, fauna and flora. One wrong judgment, and they’ll find themselves indefinitely stranded mostly due to inclement weather.
But the ideally located in Punjab is fast becoming a tourist destination, and an escape from travel discomforts to the North. An easy getaway from the bustle of city life, it is located in the Khushab district, just about an hour’s drive if one takes the Kallar Kahar exit on the Islamabad-Lahore motorway. The road to Soon Valley is smooth and the weather ideal all year round.
Soon Valley is home to natural lakes, waterfalls and mountains, and historical sites, including temples and botanical gardens from the colonial era. The area is also home to a wide range of migratory birds.
People from Islamabad can take the Balkasar exit but it is advisable for them to use the Kallar Kahar exit and then follow the road signs to reach the destination. There are also road links from Sargodha, Khushab and Mainwali. The distance from Islamabad to Soon Valley is 290 kilometres, from Lahore 300 kilometres and from Sargodha 120 kilometres.
Not many travel enthusiasts know about the secrets of Soon Valley. They’re either not aware of what it offers or have found boarding, lodging and dining facilities inadequate. But, of late, mainly due to the government’s new-found interest, state of the art facilities have developed in the area.
After the passage of the 18th amendment, tourism has become a provincial subject, whereby the provincial governments are entrusted with the responsibility to develop new tourism sites and upgrade the existing ones.
Perhaps because of the presence of the airbase, the Valley was earlier considered a restricted area for visitors. Also, there’s a general perception among the locals that it was deliberately kept underdeveloped for this reason.
The Urban Unit, a Project Management Unit (PMU) formed by the Punjab government, in collaboration with the Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab (TDCP), has been assigned to develop a sustainable eco-tourism programme for Soon Valley. Three main sites have been developed, namely Khabeki Lake, Kanhatti Garden and Uchali Lake, to facilitate tourist activity.
One major concern challenging the developers is how to save this wonderland from environmental degradation that invariably follows tourist invasion.
Soon Valley lies in the north-west of the Khushab district and is adjacent to the Salt Range and Potohar Plateau. Its largest settlement is the town of Naushera. The western edge of the Salt Range forms a semi loop, called the Soon Valley, which comprises three sub-valleys, named Saik, Jahlar and Kanhatti Gardens. The valley extends from the village of Padhrar to Sakesar which is the highest peak in the Salt Range. The valley is 56 kilometres long and 14 kilometre wide.
Presently, the area is being developed under the project titled ‘Development of Eco-Tourism in Soon Valley’ as a tourist hub without harming the environment and ecology. Earlier, there were no clear-cut road directions to Soon Valley but now two huge gateways have been constructed to mark the area for tourists. One gateway has been constructed at Kallar Kahar and the other at Pail Chowk, which also functions as the entrance to the valley. From Kallar Kahar, the three sites, Khabeki, Kanhatti Garden and Uchali are 62km, 68km and 89km away respectively. The informational signboards are installed at every 5km on the 90km road which connects the plains to the rolling hills.
Khabeki Lake is the closest spot and the first where tourists may like to stop. This lake is formed due to the absence of drainage in the range. It is part of the Uchhali Wetlands Complex and has been designated a Ramsar site.
Tayyab Sohail, associated with The Urban Unit, says, “A restaurant building has been renovated and a boardwalk installed for visitors to walk along the picturesque lake. They can also ride bicycles that are available for rent on site.”
The attractions include a tower for bird watching, camping facilities, canteen, cafeteria, two fully furnished rooms each for Rs5,000 per night with open kitchens, gazebos etc.
The lake also receives migratory birds in a large number during winters from destinations as far as Siberia. The fisheries department has been told to discontinue fish farming in the lake as the presence of fish in the lake deters the migratory birds from migrating here. The use of noise-making diesel boats disturbs not just the birds but also the calm of the lake. “The plan is to use Yamaha engines because they do not make noise,” says Sohail.
There are reports an amusement park and shops will be built by TDCP in the next phase on the land already acquired for this purpose by the district administration.
Kanhatti Garden is another site developed under the same project. Major Whet Burn, District Engineer of the area during 1933, established it. It is a huge botanical garden with plant inventories including almonds, apricot, pineapple, oranges, olive and fig trees. Besides, there are natural springs and waterfalls that are a treat to watch.
A tower has been built to offer a panoramic view of the valley to visitors. From this tower, they can also see the common boundaries of three neighbouring districts. An old resthouse has been renovated to accommodate a few visitors “but if the number increases they can use camps”. An open kitchen equipped with basic kitchenware has been made available for the campers to prepare a meal. The area earmarked for camping is fenced and guarded to stop wild animals, like boars, wild cats and jackals from trespassing.
In the foothills of Mount Sakesar, Uchhali Lake is a picturesque salt water lake, extending up to five kilometres when there are good rains. At the farthest point, if you enter the valley through Kallar Kahar, this lake is ideal for boating and bird watching in summers. The white-headed ducks and flamingos are regular visitors. The flamingos’ arrival is a celebrated occasion when the locals hire motorboats for Rs2,500 to Rs3,000 to spot them on the edges of the lake.
An old, rickety walkway that ran across the lake has been refurbished. Benches, picnic areas and kiosks for the sale of refreshments have been added for the beauty and convenience of visitors.
Dr Farooq Ahmed Malik, a local with background in agricultural studies, says, “The development of the area has encouraged non-government sector and private investors to take initiatives,” continuing that once the tourist traffic increases, the existing boarding facilities will become insufficient.
A recent example of local participation is the construction of Dara Shikoh Rest House near Uchali Lake by the Grass Roots Development Programme (GRDP) with the support of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Malik adds, “The climate of the valley is sub-humid with hot to moderate summer and severe winter which makes it a desirable tourist destination for 6 to 8 months in a year”. He worries about the unplanned constructions in the area but hopes “the government-imposed restrictions on construction near environmentally sensitive locations will not be violated”.