The seeds for a Meghalaya trip were planted a few years ago when Zorba Laloo emailed the Alaska packrafting crew for tips and advice on his newly acquired boat. Zorba and Shane Hu were the only packrafters in India, then Shane moved to Canada and Zorba pulled in a handful of young Khasis who wanted to play outside. These guys were very fun, definitely the highlight of the trip. Banjop will paddle anything. Eleazer hooked us up with a night in government housing. Banshan took me to buy a tailored suit, but the shop was closed so we got ice cream instead.
Brad Meiklejohn and I used the trip as an outreach pilot project for the American Packrafting Association. Alpacka donated 4 boats and we taught a 3-day swiftwater safety and rescue workshop for a group of (mostly) Camp Fire Trails proto-guides (Zorba, Banjop, Annie, Naomi, Ban, Banshan, Banker, Greg the caver, Eldo, Eleazer, Mac, missing someone?), then cycled 120 students through packrafts and presentations on adventuring and environmental concerns.
I’m told that Meghlaya is not representative of India. Villages were clean and we weren’t mobbed as tourists (we didn’t see any other tourists the entire three weeks). The rivers were much cleaner than I expected; water bottles are scarce, unclaimed shits are rare except for near the few villages on the river banks, and the locals drink straight from the streams. However, the rivers are under immediate threat from coal mining, limestone quarries, and human waste. This region is teetering between two destinies: polluted waters vs. conservation. Hopefully our propaganda with the school-aged Khasis will help promote conservation.
The rivers are burly. The rivers have only been explored by the local packrafters and a team of UK kayakers led by Joe and Dan Rea-Dickins. Half of our days were first descents. Unfortunately, given the difficult access and technical rapids, it is not the ultimate destination for class III packrafters. It is the ultimate destination for Class V creek kayakers who want to do a lot of exploring, scouting, and portaging.
Google Earth imagery is high resolution, and you can identify the slope break ~8-12 km upstream from Bangladesh where each river transitions from Class III boulder gardens to mixed IV/V sievy big-boulder gardens and bedrock pool-drop rapids. The class III runs were gorgeous; deep in lush green canyons, similar to the Barranca Grande in Mexico. The class IV rapids were scary. I remember agreeing that the Veracruz, Mexico, rivers had class IV rapids with class III consequences. Meghalaya felt like class IV rapids with class V consequences.
The amount of driving was rough. Shillong (Zorba’s home, our hub) is at the top of the plateau, the drainages split like fingers from the plateau, so to drive from one river to the next you have to climb all the way back to Shillong. Seemingly short distances take a long time and we were typically on the road twice as long as we were in the water. Eventually we realized we needed to plan 2 or 3 nights at a time, just to keep from driving back to Shillong. The roads are actively being worked on, and will hopefully be more manageable soon.
At the take out for each run we were surrounded by shy kids fascinated with our boats. We handed them off, and usually waited an hour for the boats to make the rounds through all the village kids. They loved them. The young kids would whistle for their turn with the boat. Most of the adults were missing teeth and couldn’t whistle, so they had to yell threats to get their turn.
At the end of our stay we were joined by Dan Rea-Dickins, an accomplished kayaker from UK. Dan added a lot to our team, enabling us to seek and run some of the class IV rapids. When Dan first met us he said, “I just want you to know that I have total respect for packrafts.” His unsolicited confession made it sound like he meant just the opposite. But he definitely appreciated the portage weight and liked how the boat handled in the water. He has even ‘liked’ the American Packrafting Association on Facebook, so you know it must be true love.
Zorba and his parents’ generosity was unbelievable. They opened their house to us, fed us, washed our dishes. They are proud of their work and business ethic, and well-connected to politicians and business owners throughout Meghalaya. With progressive politics and environmental concerns, I hope their influence continues to promote recreation and conservation.
I’ve got notes on the four rivers we explored (Umngot, Umiam, Umngi, Umrew)… I’m not motivated to type them up now, let me know if you want the river beta.