The wettest place on earth
Thank God i’m upwind of the chickens. Each rogue gust engulfed me and my companions in the nausea inducing stink of caged poultry. The Indians didn't seem to care but the chickens looked wretched. Twenty to a wicker palette, six palettes in two adjacent stacks of three. The ones above defecated on those below. Because the woven palettes were not not rigid the combined weights of the upper two palettes slowly crushed those in the lowest palette. The two stacks sat towards the rear of the boat's narrow corrugated steel roof. Beside them, my bicycle, then us. A three stroke engine toiled at the hand of the Indian driver behind us and the boat tracked along the edge of a sand bank which is isolated between the banks of the Brahmaputra river. I leant back and fished a near empty pack of dates from my food pannier. Dark, curious eyes followed each movement closely. I turned back to face the river. The naked midday sun seemed to get hotter as we arced southwards. It radiated off the tin roof and off the tropical blue river.
|The chickens, then the bike, then us|
We pulled alongside one of the sand banks. Its damp mass rose steeply from the water, ten feet high. Three men detached themselves from the group and removed their sandals. They leapt from the boat's roof and hit the bank heavily with wet smacking noises. One tried to scramble straight up the soft wall before him but as he swept a leg onto the level it crumbled under his weight. He scrambled for purchase and arrested the fall by digging in both arms above him. Our group laughed and cheered. The other two departèes tracked along the edge of the bank to find a kinder gradient. The sandbank seemed barren, I didn't know what they were doing there.
That was halfway. The crossing took two hours and at some moment during that time we left the Indian state of Assam and entered its southern neighbour, Meghalaya.
We would land thirty kilometers east of Bangladesh in the West Garo hills which comprise the western third of Meghalaya. The approach felt like we were beaching on a tropical island. Another sandbank rose ahead of us, steep, but not so steep as the midway island. Further up the gradient was a scattering of locals. A few approached as we neared. Their clothes were filthy. Sun bleached shorts and garishly patterned long sleeve shirts, the sort you would see in second hand shops.
We bore towards the bank at speed. If the skipper made any attempt to slow it was imperceptible. We crashed into the bank with a heavy crunch. No eyebrows were raised so I decided this must be common practice. A wooden plank was extended from the tapered prow to bypass the lowest and steepest gradients of the bank. A team of six men began to haul the first of three mopeds across the gangplank which was only a foot wide. Despite bypassing the lower slopes it was a formidable task to drag the weighty bike up the remaining meters. The momentum of their initial push stalled a few meters short of flat ground. Lean, stringy calves strained taught, tendons rippled under in the sunlight. Flip flopped feet scrambled for purchase and for a moment it seemed their cargo might drag them back into the water. One quick thinker lashed down hard on the kickstarter, a second near the handlebars revved the engine and sand fizzed backwards under the spinning rear wheel. The driver reduced the revs and with a coordinated heave the whole party was finally carried upwards to safety.
A loaded touring bike is heavy, maybe forty kilograms, but nothing on the mopeds. Accordingly my departure was less dramatic and it was with a smile of ignorant wonder that I pedaled my first meters into a landscape the like of which I had never seen. The southern edge of the Brahmaputra fed directly into a striated ecosystem of minor rivers and lakes. Narrow isthmus corridors of lush, ankle deep wildgrass snaked around and across the waterways like a great draped spiders web. The web was clad in garish, saturated greens of such brightness that my eyes took a moment to adjust. In places the land corridors widened and rose several meters above the waterline. On top clustered copses of palm trees. They swayed languidly in the afternoon's breath and in their leafy shade were sun dappled homes of bamboo and straw, surrounded by a few meters of bare, swept ground.
A wooden fishing boat of fifteen feet or so drifted past on one of the lakes. Inside sat its white clothed tenant clasping a long, drooping fishing rod of bamboo. The air felt thick and muffled, drowsy, like in a surreal semi-dream. I could just as easily be picking my way along the twisted root bridges of a fantastical city of tree houses, hundreds of meters above the jungle floor.
This tropical Venice felt both magical and fragile in equal measure. At their highest the delicate houses were only meters above the waterline, the narrow land corridors even lower. Never mind monsoon season, a good piss might be enough to drown some of these walkways. I pushed my bike over a rickety woven bridge which spanned a thirty meter outflow, it creaked alarmingly. It occurred to me that a failure would cut off the entire riverside population from the mainland.
My sense of the frailty of the land was not ill founded. The mercurial river on which this land and it’s inhabitants depend has already claimed swathes of land. Flooding is frequent due to an earthquake in 1950 which deposited silt into the river and reduced it’s depth. The maze of sub rivers that so enchanted me was once dry farmland. The next monsoon may finish the job and completely submerge this delicate utopia and the livelihoods it supports. One particular flood in 2012 displaced an estimated 1.7 million people along the Brahmaputra.
The symbiotic relationship between human and river has also claimed many lives. Between 2012 and 2017 more than 500 people have been killed by flooding.
A 2015 Assamese government climate change report offers little encouragement. Climbing temperatures are producing heavier, less predictable rainfall during the monsoon in place of the normal, continuous levels. Northeast India relies on the southwest monsoon to ship water from the Bay of Bengal. Last year in Assam, along the border of which the Brahmaputra runs, the annual monsoon brought almost a third less rainfall but was preceded by periods of extreme rainfall which was caused the flooding. When combined with increasing glacial melt, the result is likely to be flooding of increasing frequency and severity in the coming years.
I later discovered that for northeast India, unpredictable monsoons paint only half of global warming's portrait. The impacts extend far beyond the deceivingly benevolent Brahmaputra. Since landing on the shores of Garo, I had spent five days thrashing my way up and down more sun drenched hills than me or my legs care to recollect and finally reached the state capital, Shillong, ‘the abode of the clouds’. The predominantly Christian city seemed more culturally familiar as a European than any other Indian city I had visited. It's a young crowd and in the evenings university students from various north-east tribal regions spill into the streets and then spill into bars and cafes. The variety of tribal languages and dialects mean English is the common tongue.
‘Cherrapunji’ is a nearby town which proudly claims the title of ‘the wettest place on earth', although this nickname does it a disservice. There is far more to draw you here than rampant moisture. A quick Google of ‘top sights of Cherrapunji’ may give you some idea of what this place of unparalleled natural phenomena can offer. Having given myself only two days to explore the area I had to decide between geographical wonders like the fourth highest waterfall in the world, a series of ‘living root bridges’, where over centuries the locals have trained tree roots to span ravines more than fifteen meters across, and cave networks housing sixty million year old mollusc fossils.
Cherrapunji is also known as 'Sohra'
|The outskirts of Cherrapunji|
I settled first for the Nohkalikhai waterfall which was a mere hour out of town by foot. I could sleep there before returning the following day to visit some caves.
Alongside ‘the abode of the clouds’, Shillong is also nicknamed ‘the Scotland of the east’. For me though, Cherrapunji provides a much better Scottish imitation, geographically as well as the obvious comparison of being the wettest place on earth. Steep sided mountains clad with tropical forest gave way to rolling, shrub covered heathland interspersed with narrow bony streams and wide rivers.
As I wandered down the earthen jeep track towards the falls, I felt that Cherrapunji's dramatic title was a touch misleading. The sun beat down through clear, thin air and hard baked the ground, the plants and grass were thin brown and dry. The place looked like it hadn't seen rain in months and I suspected a dropped match would produce wildfires of California-esque proportions.
|Pretty baked for the wettest place on earth|
Somewhat confused by the inconsistency I continued through the scrubby heathland to catch the sunset over Nohkalikhai's 1100 foot freefall. The proximity of the fall from town meant it had become commercialized. I leaned against the metal rail of the viewing platform beside a restaurant with a local from Guwahati, a neighbouring town to Shillong. He assured me that this was a bad time to be here. The waterfall was very low and would be more beautiful during the monsoon. To me though, it was pretty mind blowing.
|Not bad as camping spots go|
The following morning I explored the stalactite ridden, fossil toting Arwah caves and then stuck a thumb out beside the road to return to Shillong. My hitch host was a lifetime local and confirmed my suspicions regarding the tinder-dry landscape. The past few years had been unusually and increasingly dry. The June-September south west monsoon had been light across the whole of northeast India. Last year Meghalaya alone received 45% less than normal. Given that two thirds of the north east population earn their living from agriculture, the dryness is a worrying prospect.
It was a relief back in Shillong to discover that the Indian Government is attempting to address the issue, at least on the surface. Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I spend large amounts of my city based time in cafes. This is partially due to a indulgent coffee addiction and partially because cafes often provide unexpected and interesting encounters.
During a particularly indulgent afternoon of cake and coffee in a local bakery I quizzed the waiter about the origin of the coffee, asking whether it was local as Meghalayan farmers have recently begun commercially producing their own coffee. I hoped to taste a local brew. My inquiries were met with a blank stare. I realised after a few repetitions that the waiter didn't speak English. I was just about to waive the question when an answer was given from behind me.
“No, no, it's not local.”
I turned to find a small lady with a lank, dark bob-and-fringe haircut and narrow, squinting eyes framed by rectangular black glasses. She sat with a small smile which creased the sides of her mouth. She had an espresso in hand.
What followed was one of those conversations of such interest and excitement that we seemed to bypass most the of introductory small talk, including the exchange of names. Before I knew it I was seated across from her, completely absorbed in tales from her recent trip to Israel where she had been researching cutting edge technologies which sustain agricultural practice in countries with little or no rainfall. The mission was on behalf of the Indian Government. I later discovered her name was Val.
She told me of hydroponics, where plants can grow in vertical stacks and take their nutrients from water based solutions of minerals and nutrients instead of soil. This allows more plants to be grown, faster. Imperatively for India, and particularly northeast India, it removes the reliance on rainfall patterns. She also told me of drip irrigation where water is precisely provided on a plant by plant basis to minimize wastage, popular in drought or low rainfall countries.
These measures are intended to be spread around the northeast to counter an increasingly unpredictable climate and an expanding population. Such measures are particularly important in the northeast where unsustainable ‘Jhum cultivation’ (effectively slash and burn farming) is popular and hastening the reduction of their natural resources.
It is hopeful that the Indian Government are looking to new technology to combat global warming. With India's vast population though, perhaps the efforts of individuals will be of equal or greater importance to policy making. Early on during my time in Shillong I met one such aware, motivated individual. Winward is a twenty year old BMX rider. Lean, wiry, with a dark moustache and goatee under the sharp wide cheekbones of northeast India. In May this year Winward will attempt to cycle more than 5000 kilometers through India, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Nepal in just twenty five days, riding 250 kilometers per day. If he succeeds he will have entered the history books because he is attempting to do it on a BMX. He already has sponsorship from Red Bull, and has pledged a considerable proportion of the sponsorship money to planting trees around Shillong. The bravery, ingenuity and awareness of individuals like Winward will surely make a difference in overcoming the challenges facing northeast India.
Northeast India is one of the most socially and geographically engaging regions I have ever visited, and I have only seen a tiny portion of it. It is a place of outstanding natural beauty, inhabited by ancient tribes whose religions, customs and languages are extensively dissimilar and varied. Unfortunately, as the effects of climate change are becoming clear across the world, in California, the poles, even perhaps the unusually hot summers we have had in Britain the past few years, so the effects are emerging in northeast India from dreamy banks of the Brahmaputra to the ‘abode of the clouds’. There are those though, like Val and Winward, who are aware and resisting with the platforms and skills that are available to them. Their energy and commitment is humbling, and gives me faith that this incredible corner of the world will be protected and preserved for locals and future travellers alike.