?Quick! Jump and save your life,? were the last words the students of the Wah Engineering College heard that fatal day on June 19. On their way to join an excursion team at Lalusar Lake, a mistake by the jeep?s driver plunged the vehicle into the ferocious Kunhar River, killing instantly two of the students.
The magnificent Lulusar Lake sits at 11,200 feet above the sea level, approximately 325km away from Islamabad. However, the spine chilling experience of the engineering students is a stark reminder of the state of neglect of our tourist sites. The state neglect of the area, local residents claim, leads to at least one such accident every season in the area.
Lulusar Lake is situated almost 30minute drive from Jalkhund, which is 40km from Naran. Apart from its beauty, which fans insist is unmatched by any other scenic site in the Kaghan Valley, the lake is also known for being the main source of Kunhar River, which flows through the entire valley before joining Jhelum River.
But to witness such a picturesque landscape, the tourists have to put their lives at risk; the entire journey is fraught with dangers of all kind.
Tourists are entirely dependent on whatever information they can glean from local residents; there is no central tourism office in the area which can provide information about routes, safety and weather conditions to the visitors. Neither are the commonly used routes ? be they driving tracks or paths for pedestrians ? marked by signs and directions. These may seem like small things but a simple warning sign on a route that danger lies ahead or ad vance information about impending bad weather can mean the difference between life and death in such areas.
Consider the day long trip to Lulusar Lake from Jalkhund or to Lake Saiful Malook from Naran or to Payye from Shogran. All three of these famous and most popular sites in the Mansehra district have witnessed no attention from the government.
There are no metalled roads and only jeeps can take one up to the destination; and on the way, the vehicle has to cross hurdles such as improvised jeep tracks which are prone to land slides, dangerous corners that need to be negotiated as well as slippery and muddy glaciers where the slightest mistake can put an end to the journey for all the travelers.
Easily accessible and reliable information is essential in such parts of the country especially as the cellular network does not work in many parts of the area. And this can only be provided by the government.
This is also why the need for a response mechanism in the case of an accident is so urgent. The nearest medical facility in case of any emergency is hundreds of miles away in Balakot, says Seth Mutiullah who owns a chain of hotels in Naran. He tells Dawn that there is only one basic health unit in Naran but it does not offer services of a doctor or other proper facilities. ?I always tell tourists to carry a first aid box with them.? But such basic aid is of no use during major accidents.The body of one of the engineering students was found several miles away from the accident scene after a full day because there is no infrastructure available for timely rescue operation. Even if a diver had tried to rescue the unfortunate students, he could not have swam for more than a few minutes in the river?s freezing waters.
No wonder then that the ordinary citizens of the area are so disappointed with the government which does not provide them with what they think are basic facilities. ?In this heaven on earth there is not even a bench that tourists can rest on; in such circumstances we cannot even think of bigger issues such as rescue services or medical assistance,? Kamran Khan, a tourist from Rawalpindi, laments.
However, the government does not have to play a role by offering services and spending money. In some cases a little vigilance can also help which is not too costly. Jeep drivers are a case in point. Local residents are skilled and many can handle the jeep well but those who come from the plains to earn a quick buck rarely have the required skills. Their only concern is to earn as much as they can during the fourmonth short tourist season, from June till September every year. And neither is there any rule in place to stop them.
The driver who was driving the jeep occupied by the engineering students was one such novice who had bought his first vehicle nine months ago. ?Either he just did not know how to drive or he thought he was immortal and hence could take foolish risks as the road from where the jeep skidded is not considered dangerous locally,? a friend of the deceased students told Dawn on the condition of anonymity. The driver?s name could not be ascertained despite repeated attempts; he had made his escape.
?Mountain driving is a skill in itself and drivers from plains always run the risk of not only jeopardizing the lives of their passengers but also blocking the narrow roads, creating problems for fellow commuters,? says Shaukat who regularly drives tourists to Lake Saiful Malook.
?Eighty per cent of those driving the jeeps do not own a valid license,? says Jamil Jadoon who has driven all kind of vehicles from light to heavy trucks.
He also expresses regret at the manner in which private tour operators fleece innocent visitors. ?The government should rein in such tourist operators by issuing licenses which should be provided after proper scrutiny.? His words rang in one?s head during a stop on the way to Naran; a road side hotel owner had deliberately blocked a road by causing a land slide, forcing stranded tourists to spend the night at his place. Surely, it would not cost the government too much to put an end to such activities
Article by Nasir Iqbal for Daily Dawn