Till few years ago, only handful of adrenaline-junky tourists would dare to take the non-existing road to Ratti Gali Lake – one of the most beautiful tourist destinations of Neelum Valley.
A single-lane unpaved track just wide enough to accommodate a single jeep was the only route to the base camp. After almost two and a half hour long back-breaking jeep ride, you have to track for another 45 minutes to reach the scenic lake located at 12,000 feet above level – though it takes locals only 20mins as they are well acclimatized and unlike many tourists from the urban settings habitual of long walks.
The steep land around the lake full of wildflowers with high mountains in the backdrop would make all the trouble you went through worth it.
Now the flowers are gone as the track from the base camp to the lake, which was supposed to be used by tourists, is being run over by the mules, crushing the wildflowers that once used to welcome people coming there.
You would see hundreds of colorful jeeps on the main Neelum Road near Dowarian, waiting to take tourists. They charge around Rs12,000 for the round trip.
Due to the lack of management by the local authorities and over tourism, the beauty of Ratti Gali is fading away.
Muhammad Raees Inqalabi, who was among the first tour guides of Ratti Gali and set up the tent there for tourists, laments the lack of support from the government.
Now there’s a whole camp city at the base camp where he had set up a single camp 7-8, he said.
He said that the locals do what they can do but without government support, things won’t change.
A tourist from Multan, Shahid, who was there for the first time, said “I am very sad after seeing how a beautiful spot like Rati Gali Lake is being destroyed.”
Horses and people walking on the track side-by-side reminds him of Murree’s Mall Road.
Liaquat Hussain, another tourist, said at least the government should make separate tracks for people and horses.
Band of heroes
There is a handful of locals ensuring that there’s no garbage around the lake.
These are the young men who are there to sell tea and boiled eggs to tourists. It’s part of their daily routine to collect the wrappers and other disposables that tourists leave behind and take it to the base camp. Tanveer, who is the leader of the group, said that the government institutions have ever cooperated with us. Their official have allowed us to sell items here on the agreement that we will keep the lake clean.
Rati Gali Lake is becoming warm
What’s more worrisome than the fading beauty of Ratti Gali is the rising water temperature of lake.
Till few years, the lake was so cold that no one would dare to go into the lake and take bath. At night, there would layer of ice on the surface but now this seems like a distant dream.
Now, tourists coming there in the summer season, easily take a dip in the lake.
Studies say that rising global temperatures linked to climate change are causing the glaciers to rapidly melt.
What do environmentalists say?
Deputy Director Environmental Protection Agency Sardar Muhammad Rafique said that the average temperature of the region has risen two to three degrees centigrade.
In places like Ratti Gali, this is even higher as thousands of families along with animals are living here permanently, he said. These activities are hampering the environment.
There’s a need to gather stats on the number of vehicles and people coming to the area as increasing human activities are damaging the environment, Rafique said.
Azad Kashmir Tourism Department
Head of Azad Kashmir Tourism Department Rashid Hanif Qureshi said there around 400 4x4 jeeps that take tourists to the lake.
Apart from this people who have their own off-road vehicles often their vehicle to the lake.
Besides this, there are around 150 camps around the base camp that caters to tourists, he said.
To protect the environment, the vehicle are not allowed to go beyond the base camp. A track is also being built for people going on foot, he said. Qureshi also said that toilets are also being built to ensure hygiene.
A tourist destination committee has been set up with the help of locals that is responsible to keep the lake clean.
Responding to a question, Qureshi agreed that there is a need to have master planning to ensure limited number of tourists to be allowed to each tourist spot at a time.