I was staying at a government resthouse along with a few friends and the plan was to see the historic town of Kalabagh as well as take a boat ride up the Indus gorge.
The good old caretaker was telling us how the 2010 floods had inundated all the historic villas and resthouses on the banks of Indus when our boat arrived to take us up the Indus gorge. All the prominent villas and resthouses in Kalabagh have their own mini docks to board - but, seemingly Kalabagh’s best days are over, and today, not many boats or ferries ply the Indus.
So what started as a short boat ride became one of the most memorable and scenic venture into the wild west. Soon we crossed the 1928 railway bridge constructed by Clutha Works Glasgow. Originally, it had a wooden floor which was later replaced by a metalled road with a narrow gauge railway line running through the middle. The historic Bohr Bungalow as well as Peepal Bungalow stood magnificently at the shores in all their glory testifying to the good days Kalabagh had seen once upon a time.
As we headed north, we crossed the ancient town of Mari on our right. One is amazed to see ancient Buddhist or Hindu temples dotting the small mountains next to Mari -- and this speaks of the rich Indus valley history. Apparently no Hindus live in the area anymore.
The gorge became narrower as the boat pushed its way up. On our left side were Karak and Kohat districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province while Mianwali and Attock districts were on our right. There were rugged mountains on the left (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) while somewhat greener mountains on the right (Punjab). The wilderness was complete, barring small hamlets of gypsies or fishermen. We occasionally crossed rickety cable carriages made by the locals to take the villagers from one side of the river to the other.
Soon we saw a relatively large and well-made cable system spreading across the Indus near the village of Peer Pahai at the banks of the river. This was the site of the Kalabagh Dam.
Being a non-technical person, I still don’t understand why Kalabagh Dam cannot be made to store the flood waters as this would not only save our towns and villages from destruction by floods but will also keep the water level steady in lower Indus and Sindh.
A short distance from Kalabagh, I saw my dream being fulfilled -- to see Soan River merging into the mighty Indus. Contrary to popular perception, Soan River is a substantial body of water and looks almost equal to Indus River, owing apparently to multiple small rivers and streams flowing into Soan across Attock district.
About 20 minutes away, on the left banks of Indus, is the historic town of Makhad. But what caught our attention before anything else was an ancient Hindu temple. We decided to explore the temple but found no plaque to tell us about the history of the seemingly important monument. The apathy of the tourism and archaeology departments was visible.
We could see ferries bringing disciples of Makhad shrine from Kohat and taking them back. Here, we visited the shrine of Hazrat Ali Chishti which also has a wonderful library. The library had thousands of books in Arabic and Persian dating back to nearly four or five hundred years. We were treated to famous Makhadi halwa as well as locally made biscuits.
Later, we visited the main shrines of Pirs of Makhad - one of them had come from Lucknow and the other from Baghdad at some point in history. The pirs were close to the British and enjoyed a great deal of political influence in the area.
Unfortunately, we did not have the time to thoroughly explore Makhad town but then there should always be a reason to go back to a place.
It took us slightly more than an hour to reach Makhad from Kalabagh in our speedboat; local boats normally take three to four hours for this journey.
The way back to Kalabagh was smooth, except it was becoming cold. The sun was slowly going down and the various shades of light in the gorge were truly amazing.
In the 1915 Mianwali gazette, I had read about a "hamlet called Kukranwala Wandhan lying opposite Mari and a couple of miles above Kalabagh, [which] is an excellent place for watching what is often a most glorious sunset". The 1983 gazette mentions a number of dignitaries enjoying sunset at Kukranwala without naming them, so we decided to add our names to the prestigious list of visitors.
Kukranwala is a couple of miles north of Kalabagh opposite the ancient town of Mari and one has to trek a narrow alley along the rocky gorge to reach Kukranwala. It is perhaps the only village of Punjab where you can reach by road from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The village is on the right banks of Indus along notorious hill torrent Khartoub and to reach the village, you have to go to Shakardara in Karak and then take a jeep trek down to Kukranwala. During the recent floods, the chief minister of Punjab visited Kukranwala so many times that people thought that Kukranwala may be declared a tehsil in itself.
At Kukranwala, Indus starts leaving the narrow gorge and starts entering the Punjab plains and widens up. Looking west, one sees amazing view of rolling mountains, a colonial angle iron bridge in the distance over the vast expanse of mighty Indus and the sun setting in the horizon leaving behind the sky on fire. Close your eyes and imagine. It was indeed a splendid spiritual experience and the only comparable experience I ever had was seeing the sun setting on Rakaposhi in Hunza.
Perhaps this was the reason that a princess from Hunza came to Kalabagh some 50 years back but that is a story for another time.
While heritage and tourism has yet to be prioritized by the government, it is not too much to ask for some basic facility to reside at Kalabagh with decent boating options to explore the ancient temples at Mari, visit Makhad Shareef and enjoy the sunset at Kukranwala. The weather is great from October to April and Kalabagh has a lot to offer to heritage and adventure lovers.