The rocks below looked wet and mossy and I wasn’t the slightest bit convinced. I had to launch myself off the edge of the canyon and into the river below without slipping or breaking any bones.
This was exactly like the time I had a disagreement with two horses, on a school trip. I was caught in the middle and emerged wounded, and with a lifelong wariness of horses. Was I really prepared to chance it again?
By now, my slightly impatient Khasi guide, who was already bobbing in the water below, waved me on encouragingly. There was nothing to be done, except to take a leap of faith hoping the Khasi gods had heard my fervent prayers for a safe landing.
I’d arrived at Mawlongbna, a few days earlier, checking Nagaland (hills), Assam (plains) and Meghalaya (and its lush green plateaus), off my list. Most people refer to the North East of India as if it were one homogenous block, but nothing could be further from the truth in terms of the sheer diversity of culture and landscapes. If Arunachal has the towering peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, Nagaland is an endless series of low undulating jagged hills and Meghalaya, a vast expanse of lush green highland plateaus crisscrossed by rivers, gorges and waterfalls.
Mawsynram – best known for stealing Cherrapunji’s thunder (and tagline) – the new wettest place on Earth
Given that this was my second trip to Meghalaya in two years, I decided to venture further afield from the tourist favourites of Shillong and Cherrapunji, into unexplored terrains. First stop, Mawlongbna. It’s one among a cluster of three villages in Mawsynram – best known for stealing Cherrapunji’s thunder (and tagline) – and the new wettest place on Earth.
This part of Meghalaya was believed to be underwater millions of years ago, and the treasures here are extraordinary. Enormous limestone caves, endangered (and fascinating) pitcher plants, and prehistoric sea fossils abound. And if that’s not enough, the village council is also developing the region as an adventure tourism destination.
Before coming here, I’d never heard of Canyoning; a sport which involves travelling down river canyons, literally through the river, by walking, jumping or swimming, and as my body hit the inky green waters below I wasn’t quite decided if this was crazy fun or just plain crazy!
When I emerged from from the water, sputtering and gasping, Jack, my Khasi guide who had been showing me around Mawlongbna for the last couple of days, was grinning from ear to ear. At least someone was smiling. I have to admit though, I did feel pretty good. I’d jumped off a 20 foot canyon into the river below and lived to tell the tale.
The next hour was amongst the most exhilarating of my life!
I have always loved the ocean, growing up by the coast, and here in the chilly green waters of the Umkhakoi, I was in my element, forming my own special bond with the river, taking to canyoning like a duck to water. We swam and jumped from rock to rock, scaling ledges, sliding down the rock face, all the time trying to avoid slipping over the smooth and occasionally mossy river stones. For my city bred self it was a cathartic, rejuvenating experience, under a bright blue sky.
Despite the largely benign river currents, what made the entire exercise a bit tricky were the large perfectly rounded craters that dot these parts of the state. Local legends refer to these as the footsteps of great beasts that roamed the earth millions of years ago. In Mawlongbna you can visit Ka Iew Luri Lura, the fabled ‘animal market’, a section of the plateau where rock formations resemble the footprints of animals.
As per folklore this was the site of a local weekly market where animal gathered to trade, in the days when they could still talk! The more scientific explanation to the craters, however, is that when the hills of Meghalaya rose from the Bay of Bengal, the sea water left behind certain deposits that have eaten into the rock, creating these ‘natural potholes’ giving the whole region a surreal moon like appearance.
While they make for excellent little personal plunge pools in calmer sections, here in the river they were ominous. Jack however knew the river like the back of his hand and he guided me expertly, ensuring that I didn’t slip down any murky holes.
For all the fun it was a physically challenging experience and the sense of achievement was palpable, when the canyon finally ended and the river emptied out into the serene Umkhakoi reservoir, where I could float, face to the sky and tall canyon walls behind me. Amidst all the adrenaline pumping action, it was a blissful moment of calm.
Know before you go:
Mawlongbna is a village in the Mawsynram region of Meghalaya’s East Khasi hills. The village is located 75 kms away from Shillong and share taxis are available, and the drive time is approximately two hours.
The Mawlongbna village council has set up cottages, called Travellers Nest in the protected community forest which have all the required amenities. The rental of Rs. 2500 for a cottage, includes all meals, a guide from the local village for the period of your stay and some of the adventure activities. Activities include ziplining, kayaking, caving, and other water based adventures.
Hoshner Reporter is a travel and documentary photographer and co-founder of The reDiscovery Project. He is currently working on a long term project focused on capturing the history and culture of India, through its people, festivals, and monuments