A cable car carrying six children and two adults dangles hundreds of metres above the ground in the remote Battagram district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan on August 22, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Islamabad: It began as any typical Tuesday morning journey to school. Around 8 in the morning, six children and two adults boarded the makeshift cable car in a mountainous village in northwest Pakistan.

For years, these local cable cars, called ‘Dolly’ by locals, have been a regular mode of transportation for the residents of Allai located in Battagram district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The makeshift cable cars reduce a challenging nearly two-hour road journey down a steep mountainside and across a river into a mere four-minute ride.

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However, the regular trip on August 22 turned into a nightmare. Two minutes into the journey, two of the cables supporting the car snapped, leaving the children, aged 10 to 16, hanging some 900 feet above dense forest.

The precarious suspension lasted for the next 14 hours as army personnel and courageous locals raced against time to save them from what could have been a fatal plunge.

The challenging operation involved army helicopters and a zipline system battling against strong winds to rescue the passengers. Pakistan’s military called it an operation of “unprecedented difficulty.”

The prayers of distressed parents were finally answered. There were scenes of joy and relief across the region as all eight individuals, including the six children, were successfully rescued from the cable car.

Why do locals rely on homemade transport system?

The journey from Pashto village, nestled in the Battagram district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is a daily routine for hundreds of students.

Ali Asghar Khan, a local headmaster, told local media that it was common for students to rely on the chairlift as the schools were located several miles away and situated in a mountainous area with no safe crossings.

In the impoverished Battagram district, the cable cars offer a vital mode of transport. Families depend on these locally-assembled gondolas, often built from scraps of metal and repurposed vans.

These makeshift cable cars serve as vital links, facilitating journeys to schools and even hospitals.

However, these cable cars have inadequate maintenance, posing potential hazards. The gondolas have been involved in disasters previously.

In December 2022, at least 12 school children were rescued after being stranded mid-air in a cable car incident near Abbottabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Locals risk the journey to save time

Nestled within Pakistan’s stunning landscapes, a network of cable cars traverse the lush green valleys, connecting isolated communities and drastically reducing travel time.

“These cable cars serve as a lifeline for the people as it reduces hours-long journeys into minutes” said Mehmood Khan, a resident of Allai region. A one-way journey cost as little as Rs50 ($0.20).

These cable cars, while perilous, serve as essential crossings for rivers and shortcuts between mountain valleys, significantly reducing travel distances due to lack of infrastructure in the mountainous region. Khan said that despite dangers linked with the trip, locals frequently use the service because it saves time and money and “make their lives easier.”

In response to the recent incident, Pakistan’s interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar has ordered “safety inspections for all private chairlifts to ensure their operational safety.”

However, lack of investments in new infrastructure in the remote regions means these cable cars will continue to serve as the primary transportation method for people in the mountainous region.