“We die. We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we've entered and swum up like rivers…I want all this marked on my body. Where the real countries are. Not boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men…That's what I've wanted: to walk in such a place with you. With friends, on an earth without maps."
~Michael Ondaatje, “The English Patient”
The Kaladan River is curiously shaped. Like a sinewy serpent of gigantic proportions, it winds its way west from steamy tropical jungles in Myanmar; curves sharply north to form the international border between India and Myanmar; bends its muscular flow to the west deep into Mizoram; then curves southwards leaving India, past Myanmar again; and then straight into the waiting seas of the Bay of Bengal. Not hurried in its gradient, but with a steady flow pulsating between seasons, the Kaladan resembles a python with its muscular girth and movement in the tropical mountains. Sometimes silent, often still, but very capable of bursts of astonishing speed and ferocity.
The geology at river level is amazing. Centuries of action of water on rock have carved out canyons that are complex in shapes and designs. Rock formations in some areas look more like modern art installations. Sloping river valleys flow deep, while other stretches have steep cliffs towering above. Bands of rocky striations lash the riverbed horizontally in some places, which are unnoticeable at river level and are only visible in satellite imagery from space.
Its legends and tales are not easily found in popular literature and books. Like many things in the North-east of India, it requires time, a curious mind and an adventurous attitude to experience and share in its secrets.
"Connecting the dots". This is the essence of outdoor adventure travel. Sure, you need to have some competent "outdoor sport" skills and good old-fashioned grit to accomplish it, but the allure of being able to join seemingly disconnected places on a map has a certain pull to it. We had initially explored Kaladan with the Ribexpedition
team in 2012,
using much larger boats and an international crew. The large size of the boats and the difficulty of navigating in rocky canyons of extremely swift water had left two sections of the river un-run at the time. This stayed in my mind and I made a promise to our team leader, Andy Leemann,
to come back and complete the run.
By 2015, our pursuits in the outdoors in Meghalaya had gained a few more enthusiasts and we put together a small crew to finish the unfinished sections from 2012. After studying the maps and gathering more information from locals along the river, I had proposed that we paddle in March and the team agreed. Our starting point was where the river curves westward into a confluence in Mizoram after it left the international border. This always seemed to be a special place to start, so after 32-hours of driving through all manners of roads to get there, we inflated our boats with gear and started the journey.
The plan was to paddle 80 kilometers in two sections of the remote river, located in a region with difficult access and mixed tribal cultures close to international borders (the vast majority of tribals are not known for being a boating people, so we were probably regarded as crazy fools at the beginning). We also had two first-time paddlers of whom one was a non-swimmer and one an occasional paddler in our crew of five.
But we did remember to pack enough food to feed a village. Our plan was simple, if we encountered any difficulty, we would simply eat our way out of it.
Our crew was a colourful mix; Banjop Iawphniaw, a stoic Shillong Mawlai lad and the first Khasi kayaker; David Ingty, a scuba dive master from Shillong with immense professional experience in the outdoors; Max Koplin, a half German-half Khasi adventure and travel enthusiast; Mark Zomawia Zote, the only family man in our group, a government auditor with a penchant for astronomy, poetry and a talent for turning mushy maida into perfect chapattis using only the kayak paddle blade and shaft.
Large trees of various species stood as silent solitary sentinels scattered at different vantage points along the banks of the Kaladan. They towered over other tropical flora and it was evident that people used the shelter of the branches for rest, overnight halts, meals or smoking their freshly caught fish on bamboo beds. Set against these idyllic settings, our lunches turned long and languid under the shade and the panoramic views.
As the horizons darkened, nights of driftwood fires would light up the canyon walls as the breeze whipped the flames and smoked up the hills. With Orion as our companion and watch every night, the only interruption into our sojourn was the occasional blinking lights of an international flight overhead. Just a few kilometres above us, but worlds removed. The plane’s lights winked at us in stark contrast to the awe we derived from being in the womb of nature’s force.
There, in the canyons, we found the humility of our human scale.
Human presence was evident at many points along the river but was mostly unobtrusive. Devoid of major “development projects”, the pace of living equated itself with the seasons. Like in most other parts of North-east India, the few locals we met mostly left us to our own devices and interacted only when approached. And when hospitality was given, it was genuine and heartwarming.
We passed as silently as ash falling through the air. We witnessed the meander of the river and were participants of the white noise when paddling through rapids. The long river journey became meditative, as well as spiritual. Our mind wandered on long flat stretches and our attention was demanded when it flowed swift. We probably have seen more than we remember. And remember more than we have seen. We will also probably be back for more.ALSO WATCH: 80km Of Adrenaline-Infused Adventure On The Kaladan River In Mizoram