The Garo Hills - Part 2 / by David Johnstone

Balpakram National Park - The Land of the Spirits of the Dead

Day One: Saturday 24th March 2018

Situated in the South Garo Hills close to the Bangladesh border, Balpakram National Park is a biological hotspot famed for it’s plethora of flora and fauna. Gazetted in late 1987, the park covers around 350sqkm which includes the surrounding community reserves. The park itself - some 240sqkm - contains no human settlements though there are remains of overgrown and rewilding village farms, occupied previously before the government purchased their land.

The park consists of deep, forested gorges etched out by rivers, extensive limestone formations, caves and a stunning plateau - often referred to as the ‘Little Grand Canyon’ -  the remnant of an ancient Pre-Cambrian peninsular shield. 


Before the Christian and Hindu got to them, the tribal people of the seven North Eastern states (The Seven Sisters) were animist. Myths and legends abound in the region and no more so than Balpakram, the Garo people holding deep religious and cultural significance to this sacred place. It’s where the dead wait for their afterlife to begin, tethering their cattle to trees and washing their charred, cremated bodies in the pools of blackened water.

After breakfast and the usual formalities, we passed the gate into the park itself, our jeep moving slowly for 12km through a pitted, churned up (though dry) jungle road. We eventually reached the plateau, an eerie air to the place surrounded by mist and cloud and the haunted calls of cicada. There was very little visibility so the actual views into the deep valley were somewhat inhibited and would remain so throughout the day. The walk - it was no more than that - was a 14km loop to the western rim through grassland and occasional patches of stunted forest. There were snatched glimpses of Indian Pied Hornbill and Serpent Eagle but any hope of seeing elephant had long gone with the trail a fairly busy route for local tourists. 

The main action was down in the valley, no doubt, where the thick jungle harboured a multitude of mammals including Clouded Leopard, Bear, Slow Loris, Western Hoolock Gibbon and, allegedly, Tiger.

Despite the conditions, which helped to keep down the already humid temperatures, it was a beautiful walk and an education on Garo culture. 


I heard a low, deep grumbling and the movement of branches - there was a distinct smell in the air too - time to get back in the jeep


On the way back I decided to hop out the jeep and continue walking alone for around 4-5kms. It’s incredible how, even in daylight, the jungle gives you a sense of unease, every rustle or movement makes you stand stock-still, nervously waiting to see what’s causing it. As darkness fell - and I got closer to the site of known elephant activity - I heard a low, deep grumbling and the movement of branches - there was a distinct smell in the air too - time to get back in the jeep.

The 12km jungle road to the camp

The 12km jungle road to the camp

Day Two: Sunday 25th March 2018


After last night’s close encounter, I was hoping to see the real thing today. Dipu had assured me that we’d be going off the beaten track to a place few Westerners ever get to see, 6kms along the jungle track, down into a steep wooded valley and traversing a riverbed, an area known for harbouring elephant.

Meghalaya still has a large population of this wonderful animal, second only to Assam in the region. Numbers are unclear though there could be up to 500 individuals within the wider park area. Sightings are fairly common too. How long this remains is open to question. The state is fast losing it’s forests. Much of the land is privately owned by villages and, as population has increased, the forest cover has dramatically decreased, reserve forests burnt or hacked down for short term gain. It’s happening everywhere, not just in Meghalaya.


Bitten to shreds by a variety of plants and insects after a tricky, sweaty descent (“one mistake, big mistake” my guide deadpanned) and having passed elephant rest areas and plenty of evidence they were active here, I reached the riverbed below. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Pools of green-blue crystal-clear water, wedged between massive scattered boulders framed by lush untouched rainforest. I’ve seen natural wonders like this before and it’s one of the principle reasons I travel, to see them again. As a multitude of butterflies flitted along the sandbars in the early morning sun and the footprints and scat of elephants were seen on a nearby beach it felt like a lost world. And it stretched for miles in every direction.

We crawled our way up into the ‘Bat’ cave, cooled ourselves down in the ‘A/C’ cave and headed along the river, stepping, jumping and crawling over ever larger boulders. The scenery was magnificent in scale and beauty. Hoolock Gibbons hollered in the surrounding jungle.

We had lunch by an incredible natural dam - an enormous slab of limestone splitting the river in two -  and I pondered the timeline when this natural event might have occurred, whether civilisation had begun or even whether we’d came down from the trees. Back in the here and now, I cursed myself for not learning to swim as the guides cavorted in the gorgeous natural pool. 

We hiked back along the river and up into the valley whence we’d came, a thunderstorm overhead. I again walked back along the road though fatigue and heat got the better of me. No elephants but a spectacular experience.


Back at the forestry lodge, the power was gone and would remain so until I left the next day. There seemed to be a profusion of mosquitos and, despite a night under the net, I added to my bite count picked up from the forest below. 

Next morning was to be my last at Balpakram. I was disappointed to leave. I could easily have stayed here for at least a week and hopefully have got the permission to go further into the park. But it’s not that easy. With so little information available it’s nigh on impossible to plan ahead and get the necessary equipment, guides, supplies and permission. Since I’ve now visited and know the routine there may be an opportunity in the future if I did return.

But the reality is that time moves on.

It’s always sad to leave a place knowing in the back of your mind that you may never set foot there again. There’s melancholy when you leave the people who’ve helped to make your experience a wonderful one.  


Travel can often leave you with a deep sense of loss and an inate sense of time passing you by


Like looking in a rear view mirror, the present disappears into the distance and is back-catalogued. All that’s really left are the fading memories of people and place - a diary entry, a sketch, a photograph might pique the imagination and momentarily reflect back the names, faces and sensory glimpses of the overall experience but those real, living moments are consigned to memory and to poignancy.

Travel can often leave you with a deep sense of loss and an inate sense of time passing you by.