The residents of Islamabad are indeed lucky that they live in one of nature’s most beautiful spots, where the mighty Himalayan Mountains emerge from the Potohar Plateau. Driving or trekking up the roads or trails winding up these foothills, known as the Margallas, is an unforgettable experience laced with excitement and fascination at the diversity of flora and fauna, minutes away from an urban lifestyle. After all, there are not many places in the world, where troops of monkeys can be seen creating mischief in the trees bordering your lawn and lost leopard cubs in your garage.

My love affair with the forested slopes of the Margallas, began over four decades ago. My only regret being that I have not been able to explore many of the wonders that lie hidden amongst these hills, waiting to be discovered by someone as curious and footloose as I have been. Age and years of physical stress has now begun to take its toll, reducing the range and scope of my ramblings, but an overpowering impulse still forces me to take up my ‘trekking staff’ and head outdoors.

My most interesting encounters during these ‘walks in the woods’ involve the apes. The ones that inhabit the Margallas are Rhesus Monkeys, who move down to the lower slopes during winter snows, in search of food. With an abundance of wild figs and ‘Goolar’, some of these families appear to have settled here on a permanent basis, because they have found an additional source of sustenance – humans. Motorists driving up the road to Daaman e Koh or Pir Sohawa, often stop and feed these creatures with bananas and other titbits – something, which in my opinion, should be avoided for two reasons. First it is risky, for having lost their fear of humans, these apes are liable to become aggressive in a bid to grab food and second - easy access to stuff they can eat, may affect their natural instinct to search for health giving nourishment that nature has provided to them.

Nonetheless, a true ‘monkey experience’ can only be had, not from the confines of a motor vehicle, but by taking the trails through their habitat. Many years ago, one of my local friends told me about a place beyond Pir Sohawa, where there was a rock pool and some interesting caves. The next weekend found me trudging through pine trees and wild berry bushes in search of the reported spot. I found not only the pool, which was a rocky depression fed by a trickle of water, but more importantly discovered the place to be inhabited by a troop of simians. My arrival was heralded by a wave of excited noises in the fig trees, whose source soon came into view in the form of funny faces, large and small, peering at me with undisguised curiosity. Remembering, whatever little knowledge, I had regarding the species, I slowly sat down on a ledge bordering the pool, keeping my eyes averted from the trees above and demonstrating no signs of aggression.

I was soon rewarded by the appearance of a large sized male, who emerged from the undergrowth and sat down across the pool, contemplating me in a most philosophical manner. I kept my eyes down, sneaking sidelong glances at him and suppressing a desire to laugh. Minutes later, the whole family of this alpha male and troop leader, climbed down from the trees and ranged themselves around him. I felt as if I was a circus animal being given the once over by a crowd of spectators and this role reversal amused me no end. Suddenly, two youngsters detached themselves from the group and skirting the pool began to walk towards me or perhaps my rucksack, which carried sandwiches. Their exploration (or foray) ended quite abruptly, when the leader of the group produced a throaty sound, at which a female (probably the mother of the two erring young ones) detached herself and rushing to her offspring, literally scolded and nipped them to rejoin the others.

I was amazed at the way the creatures had communicated and the almost human-like family hierarchy. I then made the mistake of moving, which prompted another command from the ‘chief’, at which the entire troop, less the leader, disappeared amongst the trees. The latter continued squatting and looking at me, then with a contemptuous spitting noise, he turned and walked towards the bushes in an exaggeratedly dignified manner that made me burst out in laughter. He stopped, looked back and baring his teeth in a gesture of defiance disappeared into the forest. I returned home that eventful day, with another story – a story about my discovery of the Monkey King and the intruder that had dared to invade his realm.