The Abode of The Clouds / by David Johnstone

The Natural Wonders of Meghalaya

Sohra (Cherrapunjee) - 6th to 16th March 2018  

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Filled with stunning mountain landscapes, tropical forest and spectacular waterfalls, Sohra (Cherrapunjee as the British called it) in central Meghalaya, North East India is a treasure trove of natural wonders.

The East Khasi Hills are home to the Khasi people who have their own culture and language, quite distinct from the rest of India. On first impression Meghalaya doesn’t feel Indian at all, more similar to the Chittagong Hill Tracts peoples of southern Bangladesh.

However, unlike their Bangladeshi counterparts, the Khasi are largely in control of their own destiny and are a peaceful, warm and self-sufficient people.

 

On first impression Meghalaya doesn’t feel Indian at all

 

The two hour drive from Shillong to Sohra was spectacular, the views intense and jaw dropping, the air clean and invigorating. The road was good and the villages clean, relatively litter-free compared to Bangladesh.

I had no real idea of how long I’d stay at the guesthouse I’d booked, the Laiaiker Inn, but when I arrived the owner Yai helpfully suggested I take a cheaper room at 1000rp a night (around $16 dollars/11 quid) and I was perfectly happy to downsize and save a little whilst I was here. 

The room was basic and spartan but clean with cable tv (showing EPL games live), a decent bed and a hot tank to boil up water for my bucket shower. It felt like travelling back in time to places I’d stayed years back. Yai fetched a desk from the local school and I was all set to do some painting at long last.

 

THE LIVING BRIDGES OF NONGRIAT (AND THE BRUTAL WALK TO SEE THEM) 

Meghalaya is perhaps best known for it’s Living Bridges (they featured on the ‘Living Planet’). These natural wonders are formed by Fig trees intertwining either side of a riverbank and give safe passage to the indigenous Khasi people during the heavy rains of the Monsoon season from May to July. Found near the village of Nongriat, around 20kms from Sohra, it involves descending 3000 steps to get there. By all accounts very hard going. It’s made worse by the uneasy gait one takes walking down - and the horrificication that you’ll need to do the same ascending back. Gulp.

 

I hobbled down past small tidy villages who consider this a walk in the park

 

Halfway down my legs were like jelly, shaking like leaves. And it was hot too (and would be hotter still on the way back) with little tree cover. I hobbled down past small tidy villages who consider this a walk in the park. It was gloriously scenic, spectacularly beautiful, like a lost world - vertiginous mountains and tropical forest, throngs of butterflies and the persistent calling of cicadas.

Sadly there was an absence of birds hence the amount of flying insects. Unfortunately where there’s tribal people there’s generally two things: the hunting and killing of anything that moves coupled with slash-and-burn agriculture. Both are brutal for the natural environment. And all too common.

 

Both are brutal for the natural environment. And all too common.

 

At last the Double Decker Bridges came into sight. Astonishing in it’s beauty and complexity, they now need a helping hand from Man. There’s a lot more human traffic here and a lot more foreigners which came as a surprise. Still, I was one of them and I fully understand why other people would want to visit something so breathtaking. I moved on quickly - there was no need for a guide - and was gloriously alone on another Living Bridge soon after. I would then take a path for an hour towards Rainbow Falls and it’s blue lagoon. 

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE

Sohra/Cherrapunjee is statistically the wettest place on the planet. With almost 464 inches of rain a year, it fairly lashes it down particularly in the wet season when the landscape of abundant waterfalls are filled to the brim.

Despite this, the area often suffers from drought caused mainly by deforestation, land degradation through rapid population growth and soil erosion issues. What should be rich, fertile soil in the Khasi Hills is washed straight into the plains of Bangladesh, nourishing it’s land but filling it’s rivers and inland lakes (haors) to bursting point causing flooding and devastation - though it doesn’t help that they’ve destroyed their forest too.

It’s impossible to grow rice or other crops here and, unless there is a sea change in environmental perception, the problem can only get worse.

Rainbow Falls, cascading down four steps of steep rock face and some 250-300 feet in height, emptied it’s water into a serene pool of the most glorious aqua, crystal clear and inviting. One can only imagine what this looks like in the Monsoon season. I stayed for an hour basking in the tranquility, moments to savour.

The sublime Rainbow Falls

The sublime Rainbow Falls

UP THE HILL BACKWARDS

It was time to take the brutal walk back up to Nongriat. It went on and on and on for what seemed like an age but more likely an hour or so. I stopped countless times. It was with great relief that I reached the top, caught my breath and stretched my tightening muscles. It was seriously hard work and I was drenched in sweat.

Nohkalikai Falls - a slither of water, for now

Nohkalikai Falls - a slither of water, for now

A little later, I took a beer with my driver, Bit, to the hauntingly beautiful Nohkalikai Falls some 6kms from Sohra. It’s the fourth highest waterfall in the world with a drop of 115 feet and it’s capacity increases 20-fold during the Monsoon. As water tumbled down into the deep, green gorge I reflected on the beauty of it all unaware that I’d be looking at three days of muscular disability ahead...

I’ll elaborate further on my stay at the Laiaiker, the artwork I produced, the people I met and the Khasi culture in my next posts.