A writer goes hunting for adventure in land, water and air in the Scotland of the East.
Watching dawn break over Meghalaya’s verdant hills from inside a hot-air balloon is an unforgettable experience. Photo By: Sudhir Shivaram
When I landed in Guwahati in early March, the Mumbaikar in me was looking forward to cooler climes—it was my first trip to India’s northeastern region, and I had been tracking the weather diligently. To my surprise, it was humid. But an hour later, as my cab left the airport behind and crossed over into Meghalaya, the heat had all but dissipated, and a cool drizzle cut through the stuffy air. Gopal, who was driving me, claimed that unpredictable rains are remarkably predictable in Meghalaya, making any journey on the winding hill roads something of an escapade. As thrilling as the fresh, blue sky and thin air were, the ascent would pale in comparison to the adventures that awaited me.
I was travelling with a group of writers for the first edition of the Meghalayan Age Festival, a 10-day celebration of the state’s natural and cultural heritage. The campsite was near Thadlaskein Lake in the Jaintia Hills of eastern Meghalaya, and the next few days offered a slew of activities: from exploring the well-known living root bridges and Shillong’s soulful live music culture to gorging on the state’s many porcine treats. But what got me revving were the more adrenaline-inducing activities. I was ready for a conquest—on land, air and water.
The festival’s name had piqued my curiosity enough for a quick Google search. Turns out, as per the Earth’s geological age, we’re currently in “The Meghalayan Age,” the beginning of which dates back 4,200 years. Crucial information about this chunk of our geological history was discovered in the rock formations of Krem Mawmluh, an ancient limestone cave in Meghalaya, and hence this slice of Earth’s history is named after Meghalaya. The state is home to over a thousand such caves formed over centuries of rainwater cutting through rock, of which many remain unexplored. We visited one such cave.
Krem Amkrung, near Lakadong, was two hours away from our campsite and had not yet seen any tourists—ever. After a quick briefing by our guide, Purdie, we head out. Frequent showers mean that water-logging is always a threat inside the caves. Fortunately, the weather was agreeable that morning. We set off on a road that got progressively narrower, till we reached the forest. Dressed in thick caving suits, shin-high gumboots and a helmet, we made our way into the jungle surrounding the cave.
In the forest every rock, boulder, tree trunk, branch and root seemed to be enveloped by a coat of emerald moss, embraced by a web of vines and tendrils. As we descended, it got visibly darker as the canopy became thicker and the trees taller. Matching the deep chromatic tones, chirpy birdsong was replaced by the buzz of insects. After a two-hour trek, we reached the mouth of the cave; the large semi-circular opening brought back memories of the gaping maw of Phantom’s cave—a lasting memory from one of my favourite comics. I entered, and stood still in the pitch-black darkness. I heard water flowing to my left. Switching on my helmet’s headlamp, I spotted a miniature waterfall, writhing over bulbous rock formations.
Our progress into the labyrinth was slow, for the walls and the floor of the cave were wet, and often slippery. We didn’t crawl on all fours, but I did stumble a fair bit. Every time my palms would graze the rock, I wondered if I was touching the leathery, scaly skin of a crocodile. Soon, we were sharing space with stalagmites big enough to remind me of Ladakh’s ice stupas. The passage got trickier once stalactites joined the bandwagon. We were now navigating around these spectacular formations, and I winced every time I was directly under one, preparing myself to be skewered like a kebab by a stalactite.
I did, however, find cave pearls. Formed by a continuous concentration of calcium salts around a grain of sand, their polished appearance is due to moving water. Found only in limestone caves, it seemed like the stalagmites and stalactites were guarding this treasure. Awestruck, I wanted to walk deeper inside the cave to discover more wonders, but outside, light was fading. It was time to head back to our campsite.
Flowing water was the absentee architect of our caving adventure, but it was very much the focus for our second. We headed south to Shnongpdeng, where the clear waters of the Umngot (Dawki) river sparkled. The river runs between the West Jaintia Hills and the East Khasi Hills district, and flows beyond Meghalaya’s southern border into Bangladesh. The path from the highway to the river was lined with delicate bamboo shacks-on-stilts, tempting travellers with the aroma of red tea, a local favourite. While I would have loved to set up camp by the river’s pebbled shores, I was in for a more novel treat: scuba diving!
A small stretch on the western river bank is the operational base for Pioneer Adventure Tours, run by childhood friends Jason and Adrian, who also have a campsite of their own. The water was crystal clear, revealing a rocky river-bed which only appeared shallow. I was tempted to dive into the shimmering water, but Jason got me started with a sedate spell of kayaking while Adrian got the gear ready for my dive. I was conscious not to tire myself too much, and let the kayak bob with the flow. Save for a tiny current, the water was still, as were the anglers vying for a basket of fish that sunny afternoon. The abundance of fish, coupled with very clear water, is exactly why this section of the river is a great spot for scuba diving.
Experienced divers can venture forty feet underwater at the deepest point in the river, where massive catfish that can weigh over forty kilograms can be spotted along with the fierce and large tiger mahseer. Since I was a first timer, Adrian took me through the hand signs and only about twenty-five feet deep. Once in, insulated by the snug scuba suit, I could sense the temperature drop as we descended. The golden mahseer and catfish I spotted were no gargantuan beasts, but beautiful to observe, nonetheless. I also gravitated towards the massive, algae-coated boulders strewn across the river bed, they reminded of the mossy rocks of the jungle leading up to the cave. ‘As above, so below.’
In what seemed like no time, we were back up. The disappointment on my face must have been evident, because as I peeled off my scuba suit, Adrian suggested I get my adrenaline rush from cliff-jumping. This entails leaping from a series of rocky ledges on the western bank, which make for nifty diving boards at the varying heights of six, 15 and 22 feet. The first level was easy enough, but some of my confidence wilted as I stood at the precipice of the second cliff. The water was clear enough for me to spot the boulders I was diving past a little while ago, and they seemed awfully close to the water surface. It took a crash course in basic optics from Adrian before I mustered enough courage to jump. For the amount I had built it up in my head, the jump was too short-lived. In hindsight, getting someone to record my jump in slow-motion would have been a good idea; at least I would be able to watch the video when Mumbai’s heat becomes unbearable. I didn’t go for the third jump—the aroma of pork fry and red tea convinced me to relax by the river bed.
With my water and land-based adventures ticked off, it was time to take to the air. The night before our upward journey we swapped stories at our camp over platters of Khasi roast chicken and jugs of bacchhi (locally brewed rice beer). One of our companions told us how his hot-air balloon landed in the middle of the jungle on a previous excursion. The rest of the evening I thought about his “wild adventure,” and the experience of finding one’s way back from the wilderness. I wondered where I’ll land up.
There was a nip in the air when we took off just after sunrise, my eyes glued to the landscape. We rose above the clouds that hung low over hills and valleys, adding a gauzy, white tint to everything I saw. I was floating 1,700 feet above ground; from my vantage point, I spotted the villages nestled in the hills, with the vermillion and neon blue-painted houses standing out like beacons. We soared above pine forests, the undulating green broken only by houses made of bamboo and cane. I flirted with reckless fantasies of landing amidst the jungle, but (un)fortunately for me, we landed quite safely, close to
On my day of departure, I sat with my nose pressed against the plane window, staring at verdant hills filled with promises of adventure. I was already dreaming about this northeastern neck of the woods, picturing a home where the clouds and the trees were my neighbours. I tell myself, I could stay here chasing adventures. It’s a hypothesis I am happy to test.