Nohkalikai Revisited – Pandemic Perks

Shrouded in a mist of white, we stood there staring at nothing. There was nobody other than the five of us. The gushing sound of water, arising out of nowhere, echoed in the background as if trying to hush our overexcited voices.  A row of empty shacks lay behind us. The entire place looked completely different – peaceful and serene. If I minus the shacks and the ugly green building, the place looked exactly like how I had seen it more than 15 years ago. We were at the viewpoint of Nohkalikai waterfall, the tallest plunge waterfall in India at a height of 1115 feet.

“Thanks for nudging me to come here,” quipped BIL, my bother-in-law, as we waited for the clouds to clear. My nephew and sister had taken up their respective vantage points, all set to capture nature’s delightful drama that was expected to unfold soon. BIL and I walked around, making the most of the empty surroundings. Everyone patiently waited for the surroundings to clear. We all knew that having Nohkalikai just to ourselves was once in a lifetime opportunity – perks of the pandemic.

Pic 1: A prominent notice at the entry gate and all shops and shacks remain closed.

Three years back when I happened to pass by Nohkalikai while trekking to Nongriat, I was in for a shock. (Read my trek story here.) The place was teeming with tourists and backpackers. There were vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of shops selling all kinds of local wares were lined up on one side of the viewpoint. A restaurant with a direct view of the waterfall bustled with activities adding to the already cacophonous situation.  All of these completely doused the brilliant gorgeousness of the waterfall. It was a complete contrast to how I had seen the waterfall several years back, when tourism was yet to take off in North East India. Tourism boosts local economy and needs to be encouraged but tourism with no focus on sustainability is sheer foolishness, and that’s just what’s happening in Meghalaya. I do hope the authorities take control of the already deteriorating condition.

Nohkalikai is the pride of Meghalaya tourism and is located in Cherrapunji, about 2 hours away from the capital city, Shillong. Cherrapunji, also known as Sohra, is one of the wettest places on Earth. Its lush green layered hills and low hanging clouds appeals to your senses evoking a frenzied sense of ecstasy. And, I say that with no exaggeration, whatsoever! However, it remains overcrowded with tourists throughout the year. As a result, it’s been over a decade that we stopped visiting Cherrapunji. This year was different. Due to the pandemic, Meghalaya had shut its borders and there were no tourists in the state. Tourist places remained closed for several months and opened up in mid-October, but only for the locals. This was our opportunity and off we went for a drive to Cherrapunji. As expected, it was deserted and we had all the fluffy clouds, the winding roads, the tall pines, the layered hills just to ourselves.

Pic 2: Clouds kiss the ground here.
Pic 3: Layered hillocks in varying shades of green.

Nohkalikai, however, happened only because I insisted. Other family members were not too keen as everyone felt, “How many more times will we see Nohkalikai.” I knew with nobody around, Nohkalikai would look completely different. The glorious waterfall would dazzle like it did several years back. And, right I was! There’s no denying that Nohkalikai is one of the most stunning waterfall in India.

Getting a clear view of Nohkalikai is quite often like the roll of a dice given the fickle nature of Meghalaya’s clouds and rains. This time it was no different. It was 4.00 PM by the time we arrived and the thick clouds didn’t seem to have any intention of clearing at that time of the day. However, knowing the weather like we did, we decided to wait for a while. There wasn’t much hope as it was the fag end of the day.

Pic 4: The clouds recede steadily revealing the waterfall as a thin strip of white.

But it turned out to be a very fruitful wait as nature rewarded us with the most spectacular show. The clouds started moving slowly, the sun popped up once again, the green hills started gently making their appearance. The show was turning out to be way better than we had anticipated. The curtain was raising and it was like a drama unfolding in nature’s amphitheater.

Pic 5: And there it is….

The sparkling white beauty made a glamorous entry cascading on the stage of green forested hills. The reflective white strip singularly stood out plunging amid a dozen shades of green. The clouds moved further and then disappeared altogether while displaying the still pool of turquoise down below. It seemed as though the mighty plunge needed some much deserved rest.

We stood there gorging on every single act, not a word from any of us. Slowly the clouds came back, the curtains were drawn, the show was over, and once again we were staring at nothing. “Let’s get going,” said someone.

Pic 6: The clouds start coming back and eventually covers the waterfall completely once again.

Up Through the Forest Wilderness

An Arduous Climb Alongside Nohkalikai Waterfalls

We climbed, climbed, and climbed along! Will this ever end! At every turn, I hoped to see some flat land but there wasn’t any and every turn only revealed another steep climb through the same set of rugged, uneven rocks. I glanced at my watch and it was 2.30 PM. That means we’ve been climbing constantly for 3 hours now. “Just 10 minutes more to the top”, said Droning, our guide.  I knew I couldn’t take his word for it. As a 15 year old village boy, he can easily do it in less than that time.

We were tracing our way back from Nongriat after visiting the Double Root Bridge and the Rainbow Falls. The usual route is a pathway constituting 3600 concrete steps but we were on a different route. The path where we were walking, rather climbing, was right beside Nohkalikai Falls, which happens to be the tallest plunge waterfall in India, falling from a height of 1115 feet (340 metres).  And, that very well explains the steep climb. It was like walking up a vertical wall of that height.

We got carried away when we heard about this route and embarked upon it without putting much thought onto it. To top it, we had missed breakfast and had hardly eaten anything. Not just that, we ran out of water pretty soon. And, I for one didn’t have a single sip as I was saving it for my cousin, who needed it more.

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Pic 1: The steep climb laid out through rustic moss-covered stones

We had no clue about this route and got to know about it from some travelers the night before at Nongriat. The jungle route appealed to us and we had decided in an instant to go through that route instead of the usual concrete pathway. A quick chat with Droning to gauge the safety of the route with respect to wild animals and if it would be slippery was enough to seal the deal. Droning, however, miscalculated our capability and estimated that it would take us 2 hours to reach the top. He had said it takes him an hour, so by our standards it would be 2 hours. How wrong he was!

Also, it was only later that we discovered people climb down the route but seldom climb up. It’s not a very popular route and many people don’t know about it. Backpackers, trekkers, and adventure seekers walk down this route to go to Nongriat and then go back up through the concrete pathway.

Rajat and Ashwin, two of our newly made acquaintances had joined us too.

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Pic 2: Resting a while to catch our breath

The jungle was alluring and too glamorous for words! The initial 2 hours was simply fascinating. I felt the five of us were like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five unearthing a secret trail attempting to solve a dark and deep mystery. Tall trees and thick shrubs adorned either side of the steep rustic moss-covered stone steps. The sun passed through the miniature openings in the thick foliage making varied patterns on the path we walked. The entire pathway had a generous dose of Bay leaves scattered all over.

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Pic 3: The climb continues through as the sun’s rays filter through the thick canopy. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Every view appeared unique yet the same, all at once. Once in a while we came across these huge and delicate spider webs housing an elegant spider, proudly sitting right at the center. Gorgeous velvety butterflies fluttered every now and then spreading a blast of colours across their path. Some were tiny while most were really big, almost the size of a man’s palm.

A sweet jungle fragrance filled the air and our eyes feasted on multiple shades of green, sometimes interspersed by few browns.  Wild flowers of myriad vibrant hues scattered here and there were a source of constant delight uplifting our spirits and minds. I felt transported to a different realm. I wished I could take this jungle home and make it part of my everyday life but I couldn’t and have to make do with potted plants in my tiny little balcony.

There was nobody other than us in the trail making it even more enigmatic. The only people we met was a British couple going down the path towards Nongriat. They had come driving all the way from England and were exploring the remote corners our country.

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Pic 4: Delighted to meet people from across the continent (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

As we started walking, we found plastic bottles, chips packets, chocolate wrappers scattered all around. Though this path was less littered compared to the concrete pathway but it was disturbing nevertheless. Even a place like this, which is not touristy and less frequented was not spared. Initially, we just exchanged discontent about this among us.

Soon the discontent got the better of me and I started collecting them in a spare bag I had and by the time we were done with the climb, my bag was full and there was no more space in it. It was a great feeling to find the British couple doing the same and they were stuffing garbage in their pockets. I had another extra bag, which I handed over to them.

After about 3 hours of continuous climb, we were drained. The tiring uphill trail coupled with an empty stomach was increasingly becoming tough for everyone. Our water supply of 2L was almost exhausted, which was anyway insufficient for six adults. We had expected to find a water source enroute in the jungle but there wasn’t any. Our focus had shifted from the enchanting surroundings to ourselves. The enthralling jungle was failing to divert our attention anymore and was becoming more of an ordeal that we wanted to get over with.

All of us were pushing ourselves. My backpack felt heavier than it was and with no water my throat was parched. My sisters were struggling.  While one of them kept complaining about a supposed hamstring in her thigh muscles, the other was finding it more demanding than the rest. She kept drinking glucose water and spraying Volini on her calves to keep her going. She was getting me worried if she could at all make it to the top. At one point where I was further ahead, she even napped for a few minutes somewhere in the trail – I have no clue how she managed to do that on the almost perpendicular flight of rocky and uneven stairway.

To keep myself going, I devised my own strategy. I started counting the steps and set myself a goal of 30 steps at a time. After 30 steps, I would rest for a few seconds and start towards another 30. I would silently congratulate myself for completing 30 steps and heave out a sigh of relief of having progressed a little ahead.

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Pic 5: We just reached the top, the azure blue sky is just fascinating

Towards the end I was so dehydrated that it was getting increasingly difficult for me to move on. Desperate, I requested Droning to run ahead and get some water for us as we continued our climb. After an arduous 4 hour climb, the jungle gave way to tall brown grasses on either side indicating we were almost at the top. A little while later the hilltop appeared in the form of a vast and sprawling meadow. What a moment that was! Phew! At the same time Droning arrived with a bottle of water. We guzzled up all the water in split seconds like raindrops on a parched land. After quenching our thirsts, we moved ahead and soon spotted Nokalikai falls shining in the bright afternoon sun.

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Pic 6: The direction shows you can walk down this path, and we walked up instead!

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Pic 7: Nokalikai Falls – note the steep wall beside it, that’s the path we walked up!

Today, as I look back it feels good that we had chosen to walk that path. Several memories besiege me –

  • Agony of the 4-hour near vertical climb winding through the thick green canopy
  • Stepping through hundreds of fallen dry leaves strewn over moss-covered rustic stones
  • Maneuvering billions of crisscrossing gnarling roots that even God himself cannot map
  • Feasting our eyes on the myriads of colourful flowers and butterflies
  • Mushrooms and lichens of various shapes and sizes
  • Amazing and unusual insects by the dozens
  • And much more……….

All of this I wouldn’t have known had I taken the concrete pathway.

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Pic 8: We encountered several such gorgeous beauties. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

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Pic 9: A stick insect, insects that camouflage like twigs (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

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Pic 10: The skeletal remains of a leaf (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Constant