On a recent visit to Soon Valley, environmental activist Attiya Noon is captivated by the sights and sounds that surround her. Bearing witness to the magical spectacle that is the flight of the migratory flamingoes who visit the valley every year, she is mindful of the importance of persevering the pristine beauty of this wonderland by adhering to the principles of sustainable tourism.
It was the kind of cold that numbs your toes and hurts your ears; but the adrenaline in my system was a barrage breaker that evening. The sun was speedily setting over breath-taking views at Uchali Lake, Soon Valley, but we were on a mission in our dodgy speedboat that was more noise and less speed as it weaved through hundreds of migratory ducks who would squawk away, petrified by the crude intrusion. Suddenly without warning, somewhere in the middle of the lake our boatman turned the boat off, letting it drift. There was a reverence to the silence in the middle of the lake, punctuated only by the occasional squawking of a frightened duck. I peered into the distance trying to magnify the horizon, where the edge of the lake was still some distance away. We could see what looked like pink clouds lounging near the bank on the far end of the lake, but couldn’t yet tell if they were what we had risked venturing out for, at sunset.
And then it happened. Just as our cameraman confirmed their presence with his super-powered lens, a whirring sound carried to us over the silent waters of the lake and we saw a flock of flamingoes rise, pink and powerful against the orange hues of the evening sky. The flight of these flamingoes towards us and then across from us was mesmerizing and haunting at the same time. Mesmerizing because with their black-tipped wings, beaks and majestic flight, they were glorious in their beauty. And haunting because somewhere in my heart I knew this would be the only time in my life I would witness this spectacle. I didn’t cohere my thoughts on why I felt haunted until later, but I knew I had just been granted a very special privilege.
The jarring sound of the engine came on and we made our way back across the lake that had taken on the subtle form of objects in miniature paintings. Our boatman’s incessant chatter on his cellular phone (which impressively had coverage across the lake) was the only thing that reminded me of the existence of civilization. Otherwise, in Soon Valley, nature has a way of taking over; outside of us, and then it penetrates within, healing us from the inside.
By the time we reached the modest, but serviceable, TDCP resort at Khabeki Lake I knew why I had felt haunted out there in the middle of the lake. I knew that the world was becoming smaller and smaller for these brave and beautiful birds that fly thousands of miles to be guests at places that aren’t their home, for the winter. And while I wanted more than anything for more people to experience the magic like I had, it contained the danger of taking away one of the last bastions available to these magnificent creatures.
There was already a heart-breaking amount of trash at the shores of the lakes. The by-word of ‘eco tourism’ being bandied about is absolutely vital if humans are to be let in to these pristine, untouched landscapes. These are hallowed spaces and people must enter as pilgrims there to witness the wonder of nature, not as conquerors out to create more space for malls and amusement parks. Activities to the tune of nature trails, bird watching, fort excursions, even selfie spots, can be organized and will be hugely successful. Anything more dramatic and flashy will convert Pakistan’s precious ‘lochs’ into yet another thoughtlessly ‘developed’ nature reserve – case in point, the Murree that we all remember, and the Murree that we have now.
As for me, I will let Wordsworth express what was added to the repertoire of my memories at Uchali Lake, one spontaneous weekend:
By William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed and gazed but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.