Lush green hills, cool breeze, sights and sounds of birds and animals, and marvellous views of Islamabad spread out below… That’s what Margalla Hills offer to hikers.
Indeed, for someone fond of the outdoors, one of the best things about Islamabad is hiking. The most popular of these hikes is Trail-3 that attracts dozens of people every week day and many more on the weekend.
You start from a well-paved parking lot with dense trees right from the start. It keeps winding, but lets you warm up slowly before challenging you. It does get a bit steep in the end, but the trail has many variances. You can pick and choose what suits your fitness and mood on the day. It takes regular hikers about an hour and thirty minutes to the top, and about an hour down. A lot also depends on the weather. It may feel like a walk in the park in December and a gruelling workout in August.
I have been to Trail-3 many times and found people of all ages — from the young to the young-at-heart, five to 75-years-olds, locals and foreigners, those wearing hiking boots to Hawaiian sandals, those donning quick-dry shorts to cover-all burqas. For some of these visitors, it’s the most difficult physical challenge they have ever undertaken. You can see them huffing and puffing, moaning and groaning, and eagerly asking everyone coming down, “how long is it to the top?” For many others who live close by, it’s their evening walk; they go mid-way on most days, and all the way to the top and back when they have more time.
The people I most look forward to seeing on the trail are the two amiable gentlemen, well past their 60s, who do this trail five times a week!
The newcomers to Trail-3 may not know that they are not far from snakes. Margalla stands for a herd (galla) of snakes (maar). These snakes, which include cobras and vipers, are the reason the regular hikers keep a stick in one hand. The idea is not to indulge in any maula-jutt type gory encounter, but just to generate vibrations on the stones, to say, “live and let live”.
If you are lucky you will see some animals. There are plenty of monkeys. Sometimes, they even come down to the parking lot causing excitement among kids. Pigs are also a common sight but nobody in Pakistan wants to see them. What many want to see are the deer but they are hard to catch a glimpse of. I have seen their photos taken by other hikers early in the morning near a water stream towards the adjacent Trail-5. Recently, there was a sighting of a big cat. There have been unverified sightings of leopards for some time. I am willing to believe it.
This place is a paradise for bird lovers. There are quite a few varieties including robins, kites, crows, larks, partridges, pheasants, and doves. You can hear them all along the way or see some of them hopping under the bushes.
The air starts to become cooler as you hike up. There are also far fewer people near the top. You can pick a spot of your choice, stare at the Islamabad landmarks below, and daydream. No better way to unwind!
I have had the good fortune of doing a number of famous hikes, including the base camps of K-2, Nanga Parbat, Everest, Annapurna and others such as Mount Kilimanjaro and the Inca Trail. I have many fond memories from those hikes but I find Trail-3 to be special. The best thing about it is that it does not require the extensive planning, days off work and great expense — it is there for you whenever you feel like being close to nature.
Trail-3 is a treasure of our capital city that needs to be preserved. But alas, it is getting ruined by its visitors. It has got littered with garbage of all sorts, most notably plastic bottles. These bottles are everywhere, from start to finish, and their numbers are compounding by the day. You get a better sense of their numbers in the winters when there is far less vegetation around. I have a feeling that the plastic bottles on the trail now outnumber its birds and animals.
There is absolutely no justification for throwing your plastic bottle on the trail but many people do it every day. It’s not a question of one’s education or income but basic common sense, which unfortunately, isn’t very common.
Representatives of Islamabad Wildlife Management Board have set up a stall at the start of the trail. It seems to be a good step but will it prove good enough? What the trail needs is not more of what has clearly not worked so far but a clean-up to remove the junk that has been accumulated.
I have learnt, to my disappointment, from the website of the Capital Development Authority (CDA), which employs about 20,000 people, that there are six different directorates under its Environment Wing, and yet Trail-3 remains in a dismal condition.
It makes me wonder if conserving Trail-3 is better suited to a caring NGO using a public-private partnership. Civil society needs to raise its voice for conserving Trail-3 or we risk losing it to plastic bottles. Use volunteers or paid workers, put up a toll charge, set up water stations on the route, educate visitors, fine them, ban them — do whatever it takes but please don’t let the lovely Trail-3 get ruined!