As a nature enthusiast, the Chitral Gol National Park (CGNP) has always been on my bucket list. Located in the valley of the Hindukush and a two-hour?s drive from Chitral city, CGNP harbours the world?s largest population of Kashmir Markhor (a kind of mountain goat) and is known for its unique flora, fauna and landscape. The park and its surrounding mountains is also the abode of the snow leopard, wolves, lynx and a diversity of other species.
CGNP should be on every Pakistani?s must-see list. The park is not only rich in biodiversity but is also the home of Pakistan?s national tree, the Deodar, the national bird, Chuker, and the national animal, Markhor. The park is also a reserve for the globally endangered Snow Leopard.
A path less travelled
Before leaving for the park, we packed some snacks and edibles to take with us as there is no hotel or restaurant in CGNP. Embarking on the track to the main park, we stopped at the observation point, Chewdok, a must-see for any visitor to the park. From Chewdok, we could get an exceptional bird?s-eye view of Chitral city and the Chitral River gushing down.
Chitral Gol Natural Park is home to the country?s national tree, animal and bird and should be on every Pakistani?s bucket list.
Another thing that caught our eye on the way to the top was the 300-year-old Deodar Cedar tree named Chaghbini by the locals. According to my friend, Asif Murad, the name Chaghbini means ?resting under the shade? in the local language, Khowar, and can be traced back to a time when local labourers used to bring snow from the mountain top to the summer palace or Chitral city and would rest under the shade of this huge Deodar tree on the way.
The main road to the park is a zigzagging, 25-kilometre-long dirt track. The drive up can often be difficult but makes up for it in natural beauty: the track passes through dense oak forest and meadows. There are ample opportunities to sight a small, wild mammal or a bird sitting in the bush or flying far off above people?s heads.
A fellow nature enthusiast, Mr Iltaf, advised me to keep my camera ready at all times ? for any mammal, reptile or bird can make a ?surprise? appearance. I took Iltaf?s advice to heart and always had the camera on and ready to snap a picture.
Nature, up-close and personal
There are more than 24 peaks extending over 3,000 metres in the National Park. Most of the northern parts of the park are above the tree line and have many high mountain peaks covered with snow. A few springs and glacial streams in this area flow down and join the Chitral Gol (Gol is the vernacular name for stream) which in turn flows into the Chitral River near Chitral city.
Using a spotting scope at the main observation point in the park, you can observe the Markhor with its characteristic sturdy, spiral-shaped horns. You?ll feel as if you?re watching a live scene on the Discovery channel or the Animal Planet channel.
It is notoriously difficult to spot these mountain goats because they camouflage easily with their surrounding habitat, but a local guide was kind enough to help us find them. We observed a female Markhor along with her kids as they climbed downhill to the river for water. The mother Markhor was guiding her kids through a safe and easy route ensuring they avoided the risky spots. From this point, we could also see the beautiful Spin Ghar mountain range (?White Mountain? in Pashto).
On the way to the top, we also saw the famed summer palace. Even though it?s now a worn-down building, it reflects the region?s past glory and is historically significant. It was used as an administration block in the past by the Mehtar of Chitral.
On either side of the zigzag track, diverse and vibrant seasonal flowers can be spotted. These flowers bloom throughout the summer months from April to early June.
We trekked the park for some distance along the built paths that expose visitors to the wilderness and the park?s natural beauty. Chalghoza pine and Deodar trees, which are the prominent vegetation near the top.
While trekking, we observed a lot of fallen, dried and rotten chilghoza nuts, one of the most expensive dried fruits in the market. According to Asif, the tracks lead to Ramboor Valley and Garam Chashma, a site of sulphur hot springs 52km or a two-hour drive from Chitral city.
At the end of our trek, we chose not to stay overnight and headed back to Chitral city. But if you chose to do so, there are camping grounds at the Chaghbini top in the park where visitors can stay a night or two.
A traveller?s paradise
What drew me to Chitral was its national park, but there is plenty more to do in the region. Chitral city has many historical places such as the Shahi Mosque, which was built in 1924.
Other places to see include Tooshi Conservancy, a conservation area for Markhor, the famed polo grounds of Shandur, Broghil National Park, Mastuj, Booni, and Bamborat (where the Kalash cultural festival is held every August).
But if you do head north, don?t miss CGNP. It is one of the few places in Pakistan where one can observe nature at its finest.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2017.