India's River Umngot is the best Camping Spot
January 1, 1970
Dawki – Meghalaya’s Hidden Paradise
In the December of 2015, I was busy exploring the hidden gems that North East India had to offer. For two out of the six days I was there, I was adventuring across the mountainous landscapes of Meghalaya. Particularly – Shillong and Dawki. On the 13th December evening, the jeep jerked to a violent stop at a dead end in the middle of the misty Khasi hills. Waking to consciousness and mighty unimpressed with the mud wall before me, I looked with question marks for eyes at my fellow travel mates. “We are in the right place,” they assured me. “We have to be.” I didn’t think the forest would be taking responsibility if we weren’t, but I decided against snippy comments. Telephone signals are tremendously hard to find in the mountains and my phone was out of range. As was everyone else’s. We were to spend the night camping before the clear waters of River Ungot, India’s only transparent water body in the north-eastern paradise state of Meghalaya.
A steep trek through the dense jungle later, my feet touched the cold, wet banks of the river Umngot. A river gurgled before me, reflecting a blanket of stars from the vast sky. It was 6:30 pm and I was in one of the extreme ends of north-east India; Dawki, in the state of Meghalaya. Indian Standard Time did not do justice to this land’s diurnal cycle – the sun began its ascent as early as 4 am and left the skies with equal urgency, 11 hours later.
The Adventure of Solo (but not lonely) Travel
I was traveling across two states with a bunch of six boys I’d only met two days before, when the trip began. My travel companions had quickly caught on to my tendency to plunge right into the deep unknown and had decided to keep tonight’s plan a surprise. Now, as I squelched my bare feet into the freezing sands, I saw a spot of light floating in mid-air, like straight out of a Harry Potter movie! I looked at the boys with a quizzical look and they grinned back at me. For the next day and a half we were “Kayak across the river, come to campsite.” Right then I transported myself straight into the pages of a Greek mythology novel and imagined myself as Charon, transporter of dead souls to the Underworld. “I want to be Charon!” I explained, perhaps a little too loudly. I was met by looks of confusion that I luckily did not have to answer as a stranger suddenly emerged into existence.
“For Jason’s Camp?”
We hollered back in affirmative. The light belonged to the man on the boat, who was miraculously using a single oar to bring along another empty boat with him across the pitch black waters. I had already made up my mind to be the lead oarswoman on one of the boats and ran towards them to claim my place.
The minute we were done packing ourselves and our luggage to the kayak, we set off with a powerful push. It was mid December and the temperature was exactly 1 degree C. It was surreal to be gliding noiselessly across black waters into a black night with nothing but the stars to guide us. Far from experts at astral navigation, we settled for dallying around in the currently till the light, gone for a while now, popped back to life on the other side of shore, seemingly floating in thin air again.
And that was how I experienced Dawki for the first time.
Campsite Shenanigans at Dawki
We were greeted by the cosy picture of four tents lit up by a bonfire crackling away into the cold night. Not much else was visible in the inky night, and that was perfectly fine by us. Jason and his brother, Robin had set up dinner for us, complete with Lalchai or red tea, a North-Eastern favourite. Predominantly grown in Assam, this tea produced a deep reddish liquor and is consumed without milk. Sweet and deliciously warm, it is the perfect beverage to have on a freezing December night. That night, dinner consisted of a mix vegetable curry, a potato dry curry, yellow dal (lentils and rice. Plenty of yogurts and mango pickles completed the meal. The entire spread was laid out at a gazebo 500 metres from the beach. Its glowing yellow lights were the only sign of illumination for miles around. It was all of 7:30 pm and the entire space was pitch black.
During winter, being in the extreme east of India, I got to witness a spectacular sunrise. From four in the morning, the dark skies were captivated by a dull golden throbbing that got brighter and brighter until I could see a huge orange ball make it way across the sky. Frozen as the air was, it was impossible to not join the sun in greeting the new day, a day that already felt so precious, all I wanted to do was hold it close to my heart before it sped away. That morning, for a rare moment, my mind was not racing with the dread of the unknown. That morning, I was golden.
A sudden burst of energy hit me straight from the sun, and I made up my mind to warm myself up by running across the boulders that bordered our campsite on either side. This part of the mountains were mostly rock. We were inset in an island paradise, with the campsite sitting on a cove sheltered by the rock face that rose magnificently behind us. The graphite shone with streaks of silver and peach and glimmered deliciously in the glowing sunlight. My breath clouded before me in surprised shocks before disappearing into the air. For a split second, I thought of my toasty sleeping bag with something akin to nostalgia before shaking myself up and breaking into a run. It began with a short jog across the sandy shores where the silvery waters carried their silvery fish and came to kiss the sandy shores a thousand times. This soon gave way to a narrow rocky path from which the boulders abruptly began. And so I started climbing. Each boulder was taller than I was (I am a good 5 feet 7 inches tall). I scrambled over them by throwing myself over each rock and then dragging my lower body up with the upper body clinging on to the indents with dear life. This continued for two hours until I paused to grab my breath hand found myself half way up a steep, vertical rock face that seemed ever so slightly impossible to descend. Because I was smart enough to not go climbing mountains armed with a delicate iPhone, I have no photos to show for this moment, so my words will have to suffice.
Colours, Colours Everywhere
Picture this. Iridescent blue-green waters winking up from a depth of 60 feet. Boats seemingly levitating over the transparent waters. The other side of the mountain towered behind the river in jagged curves and angles, forming multilevel cliffs before greeting the vast sky. I drank in the view with unblinking eyes while peeling layers of warm clothes off me until I was left in a t-shirt and shorts. I had to tie multiple layers around my waist till I felt like a pack horse making my way down the rocks, but I made it down. Now I was itching to head to the other side. I saw that a few of the boys had woken up by now as well, and motioned wildly to them. “Let’s explore that way,” I enthused, gesticulating wildly at the rocks and streams that waited for us like a forgotten paradise.
The first thing that arrested my senses were the sheer number of colours that the landscape held. The ochres and ambers and silvers of the rocks were complemented perfectly by the cool aquas, ceruleans and emeralds of the waters and the moss that thrived in the cool environment. Everything from sea slugs and snails to little silvery-blue fishes darted in and out of my toes, delighting my deprived city-girl imagination.
Adventure Sporting at River Umngot
The colours sped by in an increasing blur of brown-orange- grey-blue-green-silver-brown and round again as I explored the mountainside to my heart’s content. As the sun reached its peak in the sky, the group and I gathered on the shores of the cove to begin our round of adventure sports. It began with ziplining across the crystalline rivers to get to the other side, only to jump off the cliffs from 20 feet above right into the blue. The transparency of the waters morphed depth perception – for all intents and purposes, it felt like we were jumping straight into the rocks. Always one for adventure, I decided to see how far I could push myself. After having basejumped into the cold waters to my heart’s content, I refused to boat service and decided instead to swim across the breadth of the river. The crystal clear waters shimmered myriad shades of turquoise. Armed with nothing but a life vest and a whole lotta optimism, I began my journey across the river. Alternating between swimming and back floating, I could tune out the rest of the world and be amazed at the astral show that the clouds were putting on for me. Heavy grey and white clouds swirled about the heavens, with gaps in-between them allowing the sunlight to highlight random parts of the river. The chiaroscuro created by the clouds was breathtaking.
Leaving the crystal paradise that I had already began to consider home was something of a painful experience. Already attached to the kindness of the people and the lush landscape, I made fervent promises to return and absolutely refused to leave until I had bid goodbye to every rock and plant, every inch of the beach and every boat I had been in. When it was time to really leave the space, I knew that a part of me would forever line on here – young, independent and carefree, absolutely impulsive but not careless. Straddling the insouciance of youth and the more nuanced foresight of adulthood. When you truly live a place, not just in it, there are great or subtle changes that you cannot look back from. For me, it was the beginning of being comfortable in my own skin and holding my own while surrounded by bunches of people who were nothing like me. I do not know if I will ever be back there; but if you haven’t been there yet, explore a hidden paradise cove nestled between the Khasi and Jaintia hills, and ask for Jason. Prepare to find yourself and lose yourself; magnificently so.