My journey to the centre of the earth.
Picture this - suppressing a powerful urge to dive in, I begin to take tentative steps into an olive green pool. Almost at once, the cool water pours into the trenches in my shoes. As I wade forward, its level rises from ankle to hip, as rapidly as its temperature falls. The air above is still and chilly.
Now imagine this whole scenario taking place in pitch darkness – my experience with caving.
Deep under the earth, is the entrance to the cave proper
Caving in Meghalaya
I visited Meghalaya on a friend’s recommendation of Chalo Hoppo, a young and budding travel company based in the North-East. With their assistance and heaps of reading, stalking aka ‘researching’, I drew out a map of the state, jotted down distances to cover and time needed for travel and penned down an itinerary. My trip included a week of great locations with the mainstay being one adventurous activity at each of them.
While scanning through travel blogs, I stumbled across caving or pot-holing, a sport that involves exploring and navigating your way through caves. Prior to this, the only ‘caving’ I knew of was the family trip to Ajanta-Ellora. The idea of trekking through a dark hole, something I’d only seen in movies before, electrified my adventure buds.
Meghalaya is replete with natural formations of limestone deposits and consistent rainfall. I tried out the guided excursion to caves for beginners through the Meghalaya Tourism Department.
Keep calm and suit up!
‘Krem’ is a Khasi word for cave, and ‘Mawmluh’ is the village that it is situated in. Krem Mawmluh is a 7 km long cave that is located deep in the bowels of Cherrapunjee. Going by that analogy, I was inside its colon for a week
In order to descend into the cave, an early morning hike began from Mawmluh Cement Factory into the thickening - up, down and through the Jaintia hills. Thirty minutes into the climb, we arrived at an indiscernible fissure between the life-sized rocks. Complimentary to my outfit was the provision of an indispensable headlamp; the fastening of which completed my `Orange-is-the-New-Black’ look.
Orange is the new black
The entrance of the cave is a narrow chamber which is 2.5 ft in height. Folding our bodies in half, we squeezed through miniscule openings in between the rocks. This was when the day turned into night.
The narrow entrance to the cave
Right from the starting point, the cave was fraught with dangers and grave risks. Not knowing what to expect in the pitch darkness, I focused my headlamp downwards to throw light upon the irregularities in the flooring. Simultaneously, I had to duck to miss the serrated rock formations hanging from the ceiling and watch out for jagged edges jutting out from the walls.
The perpendicular drops
Along the craggy terrain, there were vertical drops in both the ground and ceiling. We had to navigate a fraction of the cave by belly crawling, while we covered the other parts standing upright with our bellies in our mouths.
When in doubt, watch out!
Leaping past holes and avoiding the ditches, I prayed hard that my next step on another wet, shrunken boulder would hold. Bless the rubber gumboots that made me surefooted, for I skipped a heartbeat as often as I skipped past the holes in the ground.
Slips, trips and falls really hurt
Most of the passages were horizontal with a few angled climbs. Infrequently, when the route got easy and my vigilance slacked, I was jolted back to attention by an overhung boulder that would slam hard against my (fortunately) sheltered head. In places that had narrow footholds, imbalance got the better of me. Yet, grabbing onto the only sturdy surfaces available came at a price, as saw-toothed edges cut through my hands.
The cave was largely inhabited by bats who sounded us of their proprietary status by periodic screeching and low swoops. The only other form of life that we saw were creepy crawlies in and around the placid pool. The arduous trudging through the basin magnified four-fold, once we were submerged waist deep. My water clogged boots and soaked jump-suit contributed to the impedance as I plodded through. When I reached the orifice located a few feet above me, I found it impossible to lift my legs onto the thigh-high crevices to hoist myself up into the cavern. After the struggle of pushing and shoving, half my body made it into the manhole and the rest of me wriggled through.
Me with Joshua – the instructor
The Final Destination
Tourists are generally taken only up to 3.5 km of the cave, and then back-tracked to the entrance. The final halt is at ‘Hanging Garden’ which rightly gets its name from a landscape rich in stalactites, stalagmites and pillars of dripstone formed by their unification.
The Hanging Garden
When we reached the end point, we turned off our headlamps and sat in complete darkness. Similar to a night trek, but without any stars above or any illuminated spots below. Our eyes tried to reflect even the tiniest speck of light but there were none to be found.
This was one of the most overwhelming feelings. The tranquillity was palpable in every moment, as everything around us seemed to be frozen in time.
What it feels like on Mars
The raw interiors of the earth
The experience in the cave was everything that high school geography taught me and many things it didn’t. The imagery that lay in front of me wasn’t part of the earth I’d ever been exposed to before. It was a space so staggering, it beckoned me to question if I was standing on this planet at all.
Gushing water cuts through the ear-shattering silence
Below the clefts and chasms in our path, ran fresh water streams with multiple mouths further along the contorted terrain. The temperature difference over these areas created faint clouds of mist. The wet passages were adorned with ancient fossils signifying the millennia passed on earth. Sandy surfaces forming beaches emerged from inside the cave itself, a scene so surreal you have to see it to believe it. The geometrical mineral columns couldn’t have been sculpted by any less than the best artist. This had to be a mystical land.
The formations in the low-hung ceiling
Confined within the indented boundaries of this extraordinary abyss, my day spent as an underground astronaut is one I highly recommend.
1. Flying in to Guwahati is your best option.
2. Uber plies from Guwahati to Shillong.
3. Cherrapunjee is a 90 minute drive from Shillong. There goes Day 1 of your itinerary.
4. The sun sets in Meghalaya around 5pm. So start early.
5. Krem Mawmluh is primarily a horizontal cave for beginners.
6. November to February are the relatively dry months.
7. Read the next point after you stay at Sai-e-Mika Resort in Sohra.
8. You're welcome.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Nidah Kaiser
Photographs by Nidah Kaiser