KHASI & SOUTH GARO CAVES | MEGHALAYA
Meghalaya’s luxuriously rich flora and fauna, fuelled by some of the heaviest rainfall in the world, has been a wonderland for thrill-seeking travellers for decades. What was hitherto hidden, however, was an incredible system of subterranean caves that ran deep below the green hills in the Khasi, Jaintia and South Garo regions.
Led by the intrepid Brian Dermot Kharpran Daly, a caver and wine-maker from Shillong, the Meghalaya Adventurers Association began exploring and mapping the caves in 1992. Now more than a thousand such caves, including South Asia’s 10 longest cave systems, are open for any traveller. Nothing can prepare you for the thrill of a vast underground world—rivers and creeks run through them, crystal-clear ponds appear out of nowhere, “cave pearls”, perfect calcite spheres, are scattered along the path, massive stalactites and stalagmites hang majestically, and an incredible variety of sculptured rock formations, millions of years in the making, offer limitless visual delight.
Photo: Vishal Sabharwal/Coloursofnature.in
Then there is the sheer excitement of being deep in the underbelly of the hills, exploring tiny passageways and massive halls, squeezing through rock formations, rappelling down narrow shafts, or following a subterranean river, all in the spooky light of headlamps.
For the East Khasi hill caves, Cherrapunji forms the base. Krem Mawmluh, just half a kilometre away, features a large subterranean river system, and Krem Phyllut has a massive “fossil passage”, an older area of the cave through which a river once ran.
Jowai, a hill town that forms the base for caving in the Jaintia Hills, is 64km from Shillong along the Shillong-Silchar National Highway. Krem Um Lawan, the longest and deepest cave in India, is the main attraction here. It dates back to the Eocene Age (35-56 million years ago), and has some spectacular cataracts and waterfalls.
For the caves in the South Garo hills, Tura, a town situated at the base of Nokrek mountain, is used as a base. Siju Dobakkol, the third largest cave in India, and home to thousands of bats, is probably the most popular caving spot in the country.
Air India flies Kolkata-Shillong, and return airfare starts from Rs 24,320 (ex-Delhi) and Rs 21,142 (ex-Mumbai). The Meghalaya Adventurers Association, based out of Hotel Centre Point in Shillong (for details, call 364225210), provides caving guides and equipment, as well as customized packaged adventure tours.
THE ESCAPE FESTIVAL | NAUKUCHIATAL, UTTARAKHAND
The “getaway” music festival is the curse of Indian indie. The lure is easy to understand—spend a few days camping in the foothills of the Himalayas or on the banks of a river, and listen to eclectic, edgy music with hundreds of like-minded people. But 2010’s Ladakh Confluence, set 11,500ft high near Leh, came to an abrupt stop after protests by local tour operators. 2011’s Ujaan Festival, due to be held at the beach town of Frasergunj at the border of the Sundarbans, was cancelled after concerns about the event’s ecological impact.
The criticisms and concerns are all valid. Music festivals are hardly low-key events, and they’re often rightly seen as urban “invasions” by local communities shut out from the festivities.
Photo: Vijay Kate
But the Escape Festival (starting 20 May), at the Naukuchiatal Lake Resort in Uttarakhand, seems to have got something right. The fest is now in its third year, and is one of India’s few “camping” festivals, in the spirit of European festivals such as Glastonbury.
“We thought carefully before scaling up our event from the little private party that it started out as,” says Escape founder L. “Mama” Tochhawng. For one, the festival is held at a rented-out resort, and doesn’t encroach beyond its pristine 32-acre confines. Tochhawng and his team also seem to have their priorities right. “In 2010, which was the year we had an influx of over 1,000 people, we looked seriously at keeping our carbon footprint minimal,” he says. “We also had to make sure that local communities were involved and participated at all stages of the festival.”
The three-day festival has three stages, and the line-up for 2011 includes glitchy dubstep duo Teddy Boy Kill, and alternative acts Menwhopause and Indigo Children. There will also be plenty of interactive events, including guitar and drum workshops with many of the participating bands, and a “Flee” market with stalls from local artists.
Naukuchiatal is 35km from Kathgodam, and 41km from Nainital. Both towns are well connected by bus and train to Delhi and Dehradun. The Ranikhet Express and the Uttaranchal Sampark Kranti Express ply daily between the capital and Kathgodam. Once there, taxis and buses are available at the Haldwani roadways bus stand. Festival passes are priced at Rs 2,500 and camping packages start at Rs 6,700. To book, visit www.escapefestival.in
OUR NATIVE VILLAGE | HESSARGHATTA, KARNATAKA
In search of peacocks
I remember being at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, a couple of years ago. My daughter, 12 at the time, would have been disappointed if Donald Duck had not been around to shake her hand and sign her slam book. But there he was, fabulous blue eyes and such an outsized smile we could almost say hello to his epiglottis. That’s the guarantee of a Disneyland—you get your ticket’s worth. No such luck at Our Native Village, on the outskirts of Bangalore, where we recently spent a couple of days in search of peacocks.
In fact, the resident turkey of the village had just died. If we wished, we could milk the cow, we were told. That’s the big difference between “doing” Disneyland and “doing” Our Native Village—fictional animals are guaranteed in the former, real life and nature are elusive in the latter. Maybe that’s why we loved it. My daughter didn’t complain. Instead, she learnt to play gilli-danda and went cycling across the open grassy savannah landscape.
But I get ahead of myself.
Down with a cough that wouldn’t go away despite intense medication, I needed to get away from the city. At one time such places would have been called sanitariums. But Our Native Village is an eco-resort for holistic healing.
So we woke up at 6am for a walk in 600 acres of forest with the air full of the smell of fresh rain. When we got back, there was hot breakfast waiting, much of the produce brought in from the organic farm on the property.
Don’t be silly—of course you can get an Ayurvedic massage. This is south India, where there is no healing without a good oil rub or a shirodhara (a mesmerizing warm drip of medicated oil and milk on your forehead). Even better was the sound massage my wife wanted—lying on a wooden table while a therapist played 50 strings in the hollow below her. The vibrations had her stress knots all straightened out—somewhat like a trance party, except this was bespoke for an audience of one.
I don’t know when, perhaps between reading the P.D. James mystery below the coconut tree in the afternoon and drinking the delicious jaggery-spiked coffee in the evening, my cough decided to abandon me. Talk about holistic healing.
Our Native Village is located in Hessarghatta, 40km north of Bangalore, off Tumkur Road. A night’s stay for two costs Rs 6,800 (exclusive of taxes). This includes room cost, breakfast, lunch, dinner, group yoga, meditation, use of the pool, and certain village games and activities. There are also special multi-day packages. For details, visit www.ournativevillage.com
Katiyar is a Bangalore-based content and communication consultant.
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