Sunday, May 07, 2017

Abode of the Clouds: Day 2: 3600 Stairs & the Living root bridges of Meghalaya

I was woken up by my Phone’s alarm at around 5:30 AM and it took me a couple of seconds to gather my whereabouts. Rarely do I wake up that early and this of course was a rare occasion. The chill in the morning air drove away the cobwebs of my sleep quickly and I got ready to head out on the Day 2 of our Meghalaya Trip. The plan was to hit the seven sisters falls first and then the Arwah caves before returning to the resort for breakfast. Gurjyot and Nikhil, 2 of my cottage mates opted to sleep in while the third one, Prathamesh joined me in heading out. Although the scheduled departure time was 6 AM, the resort grounds had a deserted look till around 6:30-6:45 when people started trickling in towards the bus. Once the bus was almost full, we started off and I breathed a sigh of relief – too soon. We had to stop again mid-way as two “Late Lateef”s decided to join us at the last minute. This unexpected break gave me a chance to click some macros while we waited. The latecomers were welcomed into the bus with a round of slow claps and the journey finally began in earnest.

First Stop – The Seven sisters falls. These are a group of seven streams of water falling off a cliff face into the valley. We had a great view of them from a nearby resort grounds. However, on that particular day, the sisters were feeling a bit shy and chose to hide themselves partially behind a veil of haze. Me and my ND filter felt let down and had to content with a few clicks of scenes around the resort grounds. The puzzling part is that, even with nothing much to see, it was a hell of a task to get people to board back into the bus to proceed to Arwah caves. Finally after much pleading and threatening, the group was back in the bus and we started moving again.

Arwah caves is a cave system featuring multiple tunnels, many passage ways and prehistoric fossils. One interesting feature about the way to Arwah caves was a choice – Relaxing walk vs Rigorous walk. As Robert Frost once put it,
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could”

My choice here was not difficult though – I had in my mind a much rigorous walk which I would need to take later in the afternoon. So for now, I chose the relaxing walk. In the Arwah cave system, there is a stream of water flowing through it and the sound of the flowing water along with the acoustics of the cave adds up to an awesome experience. There were multiple passageways to be explored- most of them ending up as dead ends or no entry boards. Still, exploring them was fun and before we knew, it was time to head back.

On reaching back to the resort, the main activity was to streamline the luggages for the downhill trek. All unwanted weight had to be shed as 3600 stairs would make you pay for each gram of weight you decided to take along. My experience with the Chennai Trekking Club had helped me plan ahead and travel as light as I possibly could. There was nothing I could leave back so I just took the time to sit and enjoy the scenery. Once everyone was satisfied that they had gotten to their lightest backpacks, we set off. Destination – Tyrna village, the base point for the downhill trek. On reaching there, the group of 52 were split into 4 groups of 13 each with a guide assigned to each group to take us down. With a mixed feeling of excitement and horror in my heart and a silent prayer on my lips, I began the descent.

The steps that took us downhill were built as a part of the MNREGA scheme. Solid concrete steps, sometimes a bit narrow but still a solid foothold. Sometimes they looked a bit steep and people among us who had a fear of heights faced a bit of difficulty negotiating them. After a few hundred steps, the muscles in my legs started complaining. After a few hundred more, they started cursing me. Periodic sips of orange flavoured glucose – a throwback to the good old CTC trek days kept me going till our first real halt – The Long root bridge, the longest living root bridge in existence.

The first thing that strikes you when you see a living root bridge is how harmonious it is with nature. You cannot make out where the tree ends and the bridge begins. For those who are not aware of this wondrous creation, let me brief you. These bridges are made from the living roots of rubber trees. When the roots are still pliable, they are guided across a river/crevice using steel cables or betel tree trunks. When these roots strengthen and stabilize, it forms a bridge across the expanse. This process takes about 15-20 years before the bridge is usable. Once the bridge is operational, it will in principle, last for many hundred years as long as the trees they are made from remain healthy. No one actually knows when this practice began. The earliest known mention about a root bridge was in 1844.

We rested our sore legs for a few minutes at the long root bridge. But the sun was about to set and for safety purpose, we needed to reach out campsite before dark. We had to stoke the dying embers of our stamina and resume the trek again to the sleepy village of Nongriat – The home of the double decker root bridges. About an hour later, sweat dripping from each and every pore, able to count the muscles in my leg just by the way how they were paining, I heard the victorious whoops of people who had already reached their destination. Few moments later, it came into view – The Double Decker bridges. There are a few moments in life where words fail you and you just stare wide eyed and gape jawed at the awesomeness in front of you. This was one of them. Two living root bridges and a mini waterfall in the stream leading to them. To borrow the words of a fellow traveler- Nijaguna, “What a time to be alive...”.

I didn’t waste any time before taking a dip in the cool waters of the stream. You could literally feel all the pain and tiredness being washed away along with the sweat and grime accumulated on your body during the trek. For that moment, everything was at peace. Once the darkness started creeping in, we left the falls behind and made our way to the campsite. A mini village made of tents and a welcome sign that I will always remember “ ChaloHoppo village welcomes you”. Tents were assigned quickly. My tent mate was a fellow Malayali – Abhishek. 

Once the bags were deposited in the tent, we made our way towards the Bonfire which was being setup at one end of our camping site. The sky was clear and the stars were starting to make an appearance. This felt like the perfect night for some star trail photography. Let me get into my briefing mode again. Star Trail photography involves tracing the movement of the stars across the sky due to the rotation of the earth. Although we had tree cover on all our sides, above the tree cover, the sky was clear and the stars were in full attendance. Out came the tripod and my trusty Nikon. The arrangements were made, some of the other photographically inclined travelers joined me and soon we had a mini forest of tripods with cameras on them all pointing towards the stars. I had to content with taking 12 shots with 5 min shutter speed each as these long exposure shots suck the lifeblood of your camera battery like a thirsty vampire. 

While we photographers were tracing star movements and identifying constellations, another group went to war around the camp fire. A dance war between 2 kingdoms – Maurya and Shaurya. I don’t have much details about it because by the time I made my way to the campfire, one of kingdoms seem to have forfeited the gory battle pursuing the dinner bell and the others were in discussion about how to get their hands on the promised spoils of war. My stomach led me to the dinner table and once the call of hunger was sated, we were back around the campfire. Soon the rigors of the day came home to roost and it was time to call it a night. I slept as soon as my head hit the pillow – My first night in a tent – beneath the stars. Another trek awaited us on the next day – Towards the Rainbow falls and its unearthly beauty. 

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