Having found a river which Jamie Conn described as ‘better than the Upper Dart’, we loaded up the car and headed into Ladrymbai – a small mining town in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. We intended to travel back that evening to our base in the capital after calling in at one of my favourite restaurants on the outskirts of town. But instead of a chicken butter masala, we were greeted by dozens of police officers armed with everything from automatic weapons to scary looking sticks.
Despite this, my initial feeling was disappointment; I had only had crisps for lunch – and maybe a KitKat but I couldn’t remember in all the commotion. My hunger soon subsided as we saw local people running, panicked, in the opposite direction. Soon, the police leapt into their vehicles and beckoned us to follow. Not one to shy away from a high speed chase, our driver joined the convoy. We sped through the town as shop owners pulled down their shutters and ran for cover. Soon, the streets were deserted and we pulled into a fuel station to untwist our melons.
It was unfortunately quite clear what we had been running from. In a move which would make Thatcher wince, coal mining in Meghalaya had recently been banned overnight. That’s not to say that the decision was not somewhat justified; the industry was almost entirely unregulated and relied principally on ‘rathole’ mining, where workers dig outwards from narrow, unsupported holes in the ground. The waste from the process is often dumped directly into local rivers, raising their acidity levels to a tooth dissolving and crucially undrinkable pH3. As a result of the ban, there hadbeen several demonstrations in the area – some peaceful, some less so. We had found ourselvesin the epicentre of one of the most serious riots to date. A mob had attempted to enter the town and two (or possibly three) protesters had been shot and killed by police.
Don't drink the water – mining polution in the Jaintia Hills
Feeling somewhat out of our comfort zone, we called our good friend Greg in Shillong. Once again proving the ‘one degree of separation’ theory which exists only in Meghalaya, his brother in law was an officer at the local police station. He invited us to the station compound, finding food and a comfortable office in which we could spend the night. Before attempting to sleep, we spent several hours in the operations room, where important looking senior officers answered call after call on multiple mobile phones. Armed policemen periodically left and reentered the compound throughout the night. Directly behind us, dark eyes watched from behind jail cell bars. We were advised to leave early the next morning but as we attempted to do so, we encountered roadblocks of burning coal and tires. The streets were still deserted and the few local people who braved the outdoors warned us not to continue. The bodies, it transpired, had not yet been recovered.
The morning after – smouldering remains of a road block in Ladrymbai
We returned to the station for several long hours before traffic began to flow again. Eventually persuading our driver that the road was safe, we continued our journey. When we finally arrived in Shillong, I was surprised to find that the events had been widely unreported. This type of tragedy occurs so frequently, it seems, that a sense of apathy has spread across the city only 4 hours drive away. Despite the difficulty of the situation, I feel that it was appropriate that we were there to witness these events first hand. In search of rivers (or indeed, a chicken butter masala) we sometimes witness things that some would rather we didn’t see. But these, I find, are generally the most important. We have had the most amazing adventure so far, travelling across India by road to discover India’s whitewater potential. Meghalaya continues to deliver the goods with several new multi-day sections discovered this season. We’re making a web series which you can watch on the The Outdoor Journal. I’d like to thank Palm again for their continued support.