Meet Rekha and Sushant. She is the planner, he is the ideator and between them they manage to pack quite a punch. It started with Rekha’s dreams of Caving in Meghalaya, got jazzed up with Sushant’s passion for biking road trips and ended up becoming a double adventure trip of a life time! Read on as Rekha shares an account of the madness that was their super active, spontaneous holiday in the hills.
“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows
– Japanese Proverb.”
Fear lives within each one of us. It makes us do things by sometimes taunting us about being coward and sometimes by giving us enough confidence to overcome it. What’s my fear? It might sound funny, but my fear is of missing out on the wonderful moments that life has to offer.
So I travel. Often.
It is this fear that has always been the base for my trips, new experiences to overcome this fear. This quest of doing more led Sushant and I to sign a pact – to take one trip combined with one adventure every year on my birthday. And keeping with this tradition, this time we zeroed in on Meghalaya for Caving.
Friends asked, “Why Meghalaya? Who in their right mind would think of visiting a remote, North East State of India, during the bone chilling winter of December on a motorcycle and top that with an adventure of CAVING?”
“We would!” we said in unison.
Our Route: Guhawati – Mawphalang – Mawlynnong – Cherrapunji – Shillong – Guhawati
With just a rough sketch of our route map, we took off from Mumbai to Guhawati. The first leg of our journey started from Guhawati on a hired Royal Enfield. Because we were on a bike all by ourselves, we didn’t want to make a very rushed trip hence we decided on doing caving towards the end of our trip so that we have enough time to relax in Cherrapunji.
Adventure before the Adventure
More than 400 kilometres and four days later, everything was going fine, till the time our bike broke down. Just as we entered Mawlynnong, the most popular village in Meghalaya and the cleanest village in Asia, our bike refused to start. Sushant examined the bike and came to the conclusion that there were gear issues and we would need a mechanic. The village did not have a bike mechanic and the nearest mechanic was in Shillong, a 3 hour drive away from the village.
Now, Mawlynnong is a village deep inside a mountain, with barely any access to public transport. There are private vehicles and buses that come with tourists and visitors for a day trip. But what we had was a 200 kg Bullet to transport to Shillong. How were we supposed to do that?
The only option was to load the bike on a truck and take it to Shillong. If you thought it was that easy, wait till you read this, the village didn’t have a truck.
What it did have was a mini tempo! How do we do this! It was half the length of the bullet and barely looked like it would make the trip to Shillong itself, let alone carry an elephant of a bike on it’s delicate back!
What we needed was rope, lots and lots of it. Once we had that in hand, with the help of the sweet villagers, Sushant got started on loading the bike up to the mini tempo. Barely did the front wheel touch the front end of the tempo, and.. it stopped. That was it. Practically half of the bike was in the tempo and half of it floating outside!
Imagine trying to fit Hulk into a Santro – ya that’s exactly how this looked like!
With the terrain from Mawlynnong to Shillong being treacherous, we had to be extra careful with this heavy bike not falling off the tempo. For safety, we tied the bike by rope and locked it so that it stood still.
Just like that, even before the adventure of caving begun, we had our share of adventure ferrying the bike on a tempo from a remote village through various mountains and hair pin turns and reaching the mechanic in time at Shillong. And I have to admit, it was my and Sushant’s most memorable memory of the bike trip.
Let’s Talk Caving
One adventure got over and it was time for the next adventure – Caving in Cherrapunji. “What is caving all about?” You might ask?. Imagine you are walking through a rainforest and spot a tiny crack in the rock that you wold never imagine a human could fit through. Now squeeze through it, try a short trek, crawl, climb the rocks, wade through cold water – caving is all that and more!
About Krem Mawmluh:
Not many people know that Meghalaya is blessed with beautiful caves and that caving is a popular adventure activity to be done here. Out of the many wonderful caves, we choose Krem Mawmluh because it is a great base to start off if you are keen to pursue caving as a sport.
It is supposed to be the fourth longest cave in India and is 7 kilometers long. Situated in Cherrapunji, Krem Mawmluh is a grade 2 level cave in terms of difficulty. If I had to compare it with other caves like Krem Ri Blai, Krem Chympse, I would rate this cave as intermediate. Mawsmai Cave in comparison is an easy, touristy version as it has lights installed, steps made by the government for the convenience of the visitors. The route for Krem Mawmluh starts from behind Mawmluh Cement Factory which falls on Mawmluh-Laitkynsew road. To explore this cave, you need reliable caving gear and an expert caver with you as a guide.
Our cave guide for the day was Maan, an expert caver from Meghalaya Adventure Tours. Maan asked us to assemble near the start point at 9.30 a.m. After a quick round of introductions, we changed into our caving gear that consisted of caving suits, rubber boots, helmets (very important) and headlights.
Have you ever seen the suit that a miner wears? It’s an orange colour oversized jumpsuit to protect you from the sharp rocks and the dirt inside. How cool! Imagine our excitement when we saw them. It’s not every day that we city people get a chance to wear a mining suit. After our successful transformation from jeans and tees clad city folk to being all set in caving gear, we were now all set.
After a thorough gear check, clicking few selfies with Maan, we started walking towards the cave. It’s a 20 – 30 minutes of easy to moderate hike towards the cave. It is an enjoyable hike with few patches of uphill and downhill routes. The initial patch of the hike is an open ground with sun toasted brown grasses all around. But, as we got nearer to the cave, the forest starts changing its colour from brown to green. It looked like a tropical rainforest now. After an enjoyable walk, finally, hidden behind the bushes away from the complexities of the world, it was standing tall with open arms welcoming us to explore it. What a sight it was!
Safety First – Gear Check Again
Before we could enter the cave, Maan wanted to crosscheck all the safety measures once again, so we checked our suits, boots, helmets and the headlights, everything was perfect and we were ready to go.
Mann is very passionate about caving and nature and one important thing he told us is, “Respect the caves, do not take anything from the cave, what is of the cave should be with it. Be careful! Do not touch any formation inside the cave as these are fragile and take hundreds of years to form, one wrong move and it would be destroyed. So, just enjoy its beauty.” With these words, we made our first move to the cave.
As we were about to enter the cave, we heard some squeaking sounds, we looked around and saw a bunch of Black squirrels. Yes, black squirrels! Maan told us that its very rare to spot these Black Squirrels and even though he has been to this cave countless times, this is the first time he spotted them too. How lucky we were to spot these beauties, we thought!
The entrance of the cave is a narrow cavity that is sandwiched between two rocks through which at a time only one person can squeeze in. This is followed by a downward climb on the rocks to reach the ground. Maan went first and showed us few techniques of climbing the rocks that we would need inside the caves. We followed him and squeezed ourselves through the cavity.
I felt like the peanut-butter filling in a sandwich. The only difference being I wasn’t sandwiched between a bread, I was sandwiched between two rocks. The gap between the ground and the entrance hole is pretty huge and you need to be really careful while climbing down to avoid any fall. Suddenly, I found myself hugging the rocks, no, I was not in love with the rocks, I was just negotiating my next step because one wrong move would mean falling on the ground. Remember a scene from Spiderman clinging to the wall and slowly moving ahead? For that moment I was just like a Spiderman spreadeagled on the rocks with one hand reaching out to the sky and the other hand to earth. In order to get a good grip while climbing down we stretched each muscle in our body, tried all kind of weird positions, twists and turns and finally managed to come down and place ourselves on solid ground.
From being a sandwich to being a Spiderman, caving brought out all my hidden talents.
Caving Sights and Sounds
Everything looked so different. There was darkness all around; the only light that we could see was from our headlamps. Slowly, the chirping of the birds, the squeaking of the squirrels, the rustling of the leaves and the sunlight following us started fading away and all that we were left with was silence. Being subjected to the constant noise in our everyday city life, the darkness and silence was very comforting. We slowly started moving in.
Apart from the limestone formations, caves are also great to encounter cave habitats which are called Troglobites. Inside the cave, one can expect to spot cave spiders, fishes, bats, and beetles to name a few. The first species we came across was the most common one, Bats. While, we were sweating it out inside the cave, one little fellow was enjoying his afternoon nap perched on to a corner. Oh, how we wished we could have also taken a quick nap just like him! We didn’t want to disturb his sleep so we left him and started walking.
The damp smell of the wet cave was soon filling our lungs. As we went deeper, we saw a huge Swiss Cheese; not literally, basically it’s a rock formation that resembles a cheese. This name was given by professional cavers, they name most of the things inside the cave, doing this helps them in navigating their way through the cave passages and also in remembering the various natural formations.
A different world lies inside the cave; there were many interesting formations made of water, sandstone and limestone. There were calcium ponds – milky still water made of calcium. We walked on false floor; a unique formation that was not a ground, under this floor was a flowing stream. The foodie in me would like to call this false floor as “caramel chocolate brownie” because its texture looked exactly like a dessert. Everything in the cave was awe inspiring, but my most favourite thing was watching the Cave Pearls being formed. These are tiny little droplets of water slowly dripping on bed of calcium; end result of this was the calcium pearl. These pearls take many years to form, thus making it one of the precious things of the cave. Looking at these marvelous formations, I was thinking about the magical ways of nature in which it creates wonders around us.
With these thoughts running through my head, we reached the Gold Fish Pond, the spot that I was dreading the most. I hate cold water and here I was, standing, wading through waist deep water. Holding on to the left side of the wall, one by one, we waded through the water. Maan had asked us to avoid the right side as it was deeper. This was just the beginning. With half of our body submerged in the water, we now had to climb the 6 foot rock to reach the other side. The water in our gum boots was already making it difficult to climb, but Maan made it easy by showing us a simple technique of removing the water while climbing the rocks. It was a saviour.
Few more steps and we reached our final and most popular section of the cave “The Hanging Garden” called so because of the Stalagmites and Stalactites formations everywhere. Stalagmites grow from the ground whereas Stalactites grow from ceiling. Apart from these formations, there was a unique structure called Pillar, which is formed when Stalagmites and Stalactites touch each other. We were extra cautious about touching anything or walking anywhere as we didn’t want to spoil these beautiful formations. We clicked few photos of the hanging garden and headed towards the beach. Did I just say beach? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the final stretch of our route is called the beach because of its resemblance to a seashore. The beach actually had sand and a pond. We settled at the beach and gorged on some biscuits that Maan was carrying for us.
Maan told us that this pool is a mixture of five different rivers that makes its way through the various passages of the cave and it’s quite deep. At the beach, we must have spent half an hour to an hour chit chatting with Maan about various topics like caving, problems faced by the people of Meghalaya, its political scenario etc. Thanks to Maan, we got local perspective of things happening there. Maan also explained to us a lot of things like how these are formed, how the cavers record readings, how they map the interiors of the cave etcetera. Post our conversations, we decided to switch off our headlights and enjoy the darkness and the silence. It’s an experience that I would never be able to describe.
“If you ever go caving, I would recommend that you too switch of all the lights and just stay in that darkness for few minutes.”
After moment of solitude, we gave the beach a last look and started our journey back. The path that was a stranger to us some time back was now a long lost friend. It was much easier for us now to follow the same path we trodded earlier. While going back, Maan played games with us by testing our memory on the route. I would like to say that we weren’t that bad. As we walked along, straight ahead what seemed far far away we could see a sharp stream of light piercing towards us. It looked magical! What was that we wondered, realising instantly that it was an indication that the cave exit was just a few meters away. The initial climb down at the entrance was now a climb up to the exit. This time, we didn’t struggle as much as we did last time, like pros we climbed up the rock and squeezed ourselves through the two rocks and came out of the cave.
By this time, daylight was vanishing and dusk was setting in. Relishing the fond memories of caving, we started walking through the forest. Midway to our base, we decided to spend some time at the edge of the mountain to catch a glimpse of Bangladesh Plains.
At the edge, all three of us just lay down for a while and looked at the thick forest that was hiding the cave in her belly. Looking at these mountains, one could never imagine that behind this thick foliage of plants lies a beautiful passage to the undiscovered earth. This thought made us smile and we headed further. After few minutes of walk, we reached our base the cement factory, our driver was already waiting for us. We exchanged our final pleasantries with Maan, thanked him for sharing his vast knowledge about Caves and taking care of us.
The best part about caving is you never know what adventure you would be encountering next, there is always an element of surprise waiting for you at every step. The feeling of getting lost in an unknown world of darkness is definitely going to be with me for life long. I am adventure activities junkie. But the satisfaction and peace that I got from caving is unmatched. My fear of the unknown gave me confidence to overcome it and dream more.
Cave photography needs a lot of patience and time. If you are an amateur photographer who wants photos for memory, using your camera flash and headlight does the trick. Focus your head light towards the object that you want to shoot so that you have enough light to capture the image. You must have seen the halo effect in some of the professional caver’s pictures – that is thanks to the headlight. The headlight is focused on the caver from behind so that the photographer gets a silhouette effect of the caver.
Contact and Cost Details for Caving:
- I booked this trip through kipepeo.com. The company is an expert in trips to North East India. This place is run by Piran Elavia, a very knowledgeable and helpful person. He really helped us getting in touch with a mechanic while our bike broke down.
- You can also choose to book the activity of Caving directly through Meghalaya Adventure Tours.
- Caving costs Rs.5000 for two people that includes expert cave guide, gear and snacks to eat during caving.
Things you should know:
- If you are claustrophobic, then please avoid caving.
- Listen to your guide’s instructions carefully.
- Follow your guide’s footsteps; you never know what lies ahead of you.
- Do not touch or vandalize any formations inside the cave, it takes years to form. Always ask your guide before touching anything.
- Be prepared to walk a lot, climb and wade through water.
- Never panic, stay calm and enjoy the beauty.
- Avoid wearing new clothes. By the time you finish caving, chances are that your clothes might be torn due to the sharp rocks and get messy thanks to the waist deep water.
- Avoid wearing jeans, cotton or tight clothes that get heavy once wet and limit your movements. Dry fit and stretchable clothes are a good idea here.
Food and Locals:
- Meghalaya is a paradise for non-vegetarians. So much so that even for breakfast you would get pork and rice.
- Don’t worry if you are a vegetarian though. You will get veg options at most places.
- Food we tried: jadoh, jhur sdieh, tungtap, muli khleh and dohneiiong. The only thing we missed trying is the local rice beer or Kiad Um.
- Respect the locals and their culture. They are not very friendly, but are helpful and happy people. They take time to open up, one of the reason might be the language barrier. Mainly, in the interiors, locals do not speak hindi or English.
- Before clicking pictures of the locals, please take their permission.
We explored the Khasi side of Meghalaya and covered four places Mawphlang, Mawlynnong, Cherrapunji and Shillong.
- Mawphlang – A small quaint village surrounded by mountains on all four sides. It is a place to experience one of the last few remaining sacred forests of Meghalaya. We stayed at a family run farmhouse called “Maple Pine Farm.” Great rooms, good food and hospitality. The entire farm is run on solar power and windmill. It is owned by James and his family.
Contact Person: James – 09856041205.
- Mawlynnong – You can stay at any of the guesthouses run by locals at cheaper rate or you could stay at the village guesthouse which is costlier than the guesthouses. I would recommend a day trip to Mawlynnong instead of a stay unless you want to stay with the local and know their culture.
- Cherrapunji Holiday Resort – This was our best stay in Meghalaya. Again, it’s a family run resort. The rooms are pretty decent, but their hospitality is just too good and so is their local Khasi cuisine.
Contact: 09436115925 / 09615338500.
- In Cherrapunji, you also have other options like Saimika Resort, Serene Homestay, very basic stay for backpackers and low budget travellers on the route to Double Decker Bridge.
Contact: +919436739655 / +919615252655 or email on [email protected]
- Shillong, again has many options right from luxury hotels to budget ones depending on your taste and preference.
- Maan and his company Meghalaya Adventure Tours is doing an excellent job of cleaning the trash inside the caves that get accumulated during the rains.