In the midst of the foothills of Meghalaya, in the wettest place on Earth, is a curious example of the way men and nature can work together. The area, due to the huge amount of rainfall, is patterned with rivers, streams, and waterfalls and the Khasi peoples of the area have learnt how to cross them without using man-made materials. For perhaps 500 years the Khasi people have used their knowledge of nature and limited resources to their advantage.
They grow their bridges.
The Ficus elastica is a species of Indian Rubber tree with a multiple series of root systems that stretch out in many directions and allow it grow on unstable terrain. Take a bunch of these roots, then, and train them across the river using a hollowed out truck so that they take ground on the other side, and wait patiently for your bridge to grow. It only takes 10-15 years…
We visited the area of Cherrapunji, Megalaya in October last year, post-monsoon, post-summer, but it was still bloody hot. We checked into the family resort which sits just a stones throw from a couple of the bridges, and took off down the track to check them out.
The crème de la crème of the root bridges takes a little more effort to get to. Actually, a lot more effort to get to: 5km walk down the road, followed by 1.5km down steep steps (3400 in total), and across some flimsy steel wire bridges. In that humidity. Urgh.
We arrived at the tiny village of Nongriat in the afternoon, and made our way across a double-decker root bridge to the tiny guesthouse on the other side. The guesthouse was a small four-double bedroom house set up and run by the village itself. When word got out that we were waiting there someone arrived and unlocked the place. We set our stuff down in the rooms and inspected the sparten furnishings. There was rat shit on the bed spreads – not surprising considering we were in the middle of a forest – so I picked up the sheet to shake it outside. In the process I happened to move the matress and discovered a mass of GIANT ANTS scattering around. I think I may have squeaked, and jumped back. I hate ants. Give me rat poo any day.
I fixed the situation the best I could by spraying insect repellent on them. Then I thought of a better solution: Angelo can sleep there. His bed had less ants, but a giant spider. I couldn’t win. I just hoped I would forget by nighttime.
Hungry, we headed into the village hoping to find a small shop or restaurant. Nongriat is so small in fact that there are only 15 houses or so there. One man pointed us to a house that would maybe make us some food, and they rustled up some plates of noodles for us.
The following day we paid a local guy to take us to the waterfall. I had read a pretty dramatic local legend about this waterfall: something along the lines of an evil stepfather killing his baby step son and cooking it, and the mother comitting suicide over the edge of the waterfall because she ate it and then found out (weird). All drama aside, we trudged off into a humid and sticky rainforest, following a small track over numerous small root bridges. It was pretty dodgy in parts, but nothing we couldn’t handle, until the end. We had arrived at the waterfall, but to get down we had to manouvere across a steep-ish hill, and climb down a steep-er rock. Everything was continually coated in a sheen of fine spray from the waterfall, and it was surprisingly slippery. We watched unalarmed as our guide sauntered down easily in his jandals. It wasn’t until I heard Angelo cry out and slide down the rock and smash into another at the bottom that we all froze and paid attention.
He was lucky (smart?) in that he had tried to cross a very slippery part by placing all his weight on his bum. But he lost grip and then slid down 10 or 15m, into a hole between two rocks, where he smashed his elbow and twisted his foot, and eventually came to a stop in some slow-flowwing water. A hit to the head would have been serious, not to mention a logistical nightmare for evacuation. After some minutes of quiet recovery, and our guide looking on bewilded but amused, he told us not to bother coming down. I ignored him of course, and then regretted it immediately. The swim was refreshing, although, perhaps not worth the risk.
Washing in Nongriat is simple: head to the river. We took down our towels and eased into the freezing stream overlooking the ‘Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge.’ We chatted with some local women who laughed at our pitiful attempt at hand washing, and tried to avoid being caught in the viewfinder of an Indian tourist’s camera wearing shorts and singlets. The Khasi people are noticably different to people in other parts of India. They have the eyes more common to South-East Asians, which makes sense: geographically, they are close to Myanmar. They have their own language – actually, multiple languages. And the women wear a light green and white chequered cloth over their clothes, instead of the common sari.
The only thing worse than going down 3400 steps, is going back up. Thank God we had left our packs at the resort and only had to carry small day packs. The villagers have to make this trip a couple of times a week to pick up supplies. I tried to give my most encouraging smile to the men who were carrying huge planks of wood which I’m sure they appreciated…
This, to date, has been one of the highlights of my trip. It may not seem like much, but it was strange and wonderful, and the people were so friendly.
And, root bridges – genius!