Descending through an otherwise inaccessible landscape is the biggest draw of an expedition for me. So when levels lined up for me and Nick Bennett in October 2022 to paddle a vertical kilometre from the Meghalaya plateau to the Bangladesh plain, we jumped at the chance.
Part 1: Upper Riwang
Launching our laden boats onto the river in the late afternoon, a gorgeous few kilometres of grade 2/3 greets us. Colonialists knew Meghalaya as ‘Scotland of the East’ and the name’s not unreasonable, squinting through tartan-tinted glasses at the misty pine hillsides I could almost be on the Orchy (though the rash vest gives it away). Open read and run soon gives way to gorge, we swap pine for jungle and are introduced to the rather perpendicular nature of the Upper Riwang.
Jamie Conn’s river notes describe ‘inventive portaging’ and the meaning quickly becomes apparent, our progress dwindles and we soon have to make camp. The night is cold and I wake up to see Nick breakfasting in his sleeping bag, certainly an unusual Meghalayan river sight!
Soon we exit the first gorge and blissfully smash out ten kilometres of read and run in an hour, before entering the four kilometres that will occupy the next twenty-four of our lives. This section is savage, we portage pretty much everything in all manner of ways, making glacial progress along the sides of steep choked-out boulder gardens and unrunnable falls. A clean mega slide in the afternoon raises our spirits but is immediately followed by more choss and we wearily make camp two kilometres in.
Escaping the gorge takes us to midday of day three, this morning we manage to run quite a lot, though the statement ‘there’s a chance it lands on rock, but I can’t see the bottom and there’s no way to portage’ would sum it up nicely. Elated, we boost through ten kilometres of flat before exiting for the mega portage we’ve been waiting for. A set of huge unrunnable waterfalls is downstream and we know the only way around is hiking out and round to the put-in of the lower section, already exhausted from our morning we hike our loaded boats two hours up to a village before attempting to find a way back down to the river, we make our way down an obvious looking trail through a farmer’s field but it soon peters out and we are lost, tired and watching the sun set. A covered bamboo platform is our saving grace and we elect to spend the night there.
Part 2: Lower Riwang
The 5 am sunrise wakes us and we meet the owner of our premises, he directs us towards a different trail down to the river. Whether this is to help us or evict us, we are not sure, but stoked we quickly pack up eager to get going. However I soon realise my spraydeck is missing, a panicked thirty minutes follows as we retrace our steps through thick plantation, thankfully I spy it wedged under a fence and holler at Nick who has walked all the way back up to the village. Embarrassed but relieved, I follow him down the steep trail to the Lower Riwang and despite the delay, we are on the river by 7 am.
The first rapid is a ball-ache portage and we wonder whether we are destined to hike our boats all the way to Bangladesh. However, suddenly we are in the midst of stunning clean grade 4 boulder garden. Honestly, this section is incredible, beautiful jungle brimming with life surrounds crystal clear rapids of every description, and they all go! Before we know it we arrive at the Wah-Blei confluence, the volume ramps up and we are running some of the best rapids of the day. Our campsite that evening is a Meghalaya classic. Flat warm rock under a maze of stars and an accompanying jungle soundtrack creates canoe camping at its finest.
Day five starts with fifteen kilometres of beautiful gorged-in flat. Countless side streams hint at un-run potential from all directions and soon we arrive at the lower Kynshi put in.
Part 3: Kynshi
Over the previous days dreaming of the classic drops of the Kynshi had kept us plodding through many a portage. However, the relaxed attitude soon wanes as we fire overconfidently into the first few warm up rapids. Through the force and colour of the water it becomes pretty apparent the river is high. Our spirits are pretty low as we continue our portagefest and I accidentally fire me and Nick through a big stopper we are both lucky to get through. Marginal lines through Griff’s Gash don’t help the morale. When we reach Fifty-fifty (another big portage at this level) and subsequently a classic camp spot we decide to make camp early. We are exhausted, beaten and stop for the first time in days. We sit and appreciate the grand walls of the Kynshi gorge, read, eat dinner and collapse into sleep as soon as night falls.
A new day on the Knyshi brings us a flock of twenty hornbills who swoop overhead as we breakfast. Today is going to be a good day. We finally start to enjoy some of the named rapids.
I’m paddling terribly, super tired, with no power, any pictures of me looking stylish are lies. I scrape through everything with a grin though and at these levels the in-between rapids are awesome. Even Nick’s backband breaking doesn’t dampen the mood, he whips out his suture kit and gets to work, swarms of butterflies enjoy his salt-drenched hat while he stitches, soon Doctor Nick is done and we paddle on. We reach Mainline Masala Two, the last big rapid on the Kynshi. I opt to go first and end up slightly more mainline than I intend, punching the meat I somehow tail stall through unscathed. I thank my loaded booty for the assistance and turn to watch Nick’s attempt; the smooth bastard greases through without a splash.
We reach the Liam camp spot by lunchtime and spend a couple of hours chilling and swimming in the crystal clear fairy pool. We make the decision to paddle out in the afternoon and enjoy the beautiful flatwater before taking out and walking up to the village of Ranikor in sight of the Bangladesh border. We find the nearest restaurant and order two of everything. We are tired happy boys.
I loved this trip. It was brutal at times but it was a privilege to spend six days descending Meghalaya. I’d find it hard to recommend the Upper Riwang. This section was very full-on for limited reward and this was with what I suspect was perfect flows. Any lower and the good rapids would get pretty bony and any higher you’d have some pretty terrifying portages to contend with! The Lower Riwang on the other hand would be top of my Meghalayan recommendations, in fact, it’d be pretty rude to run the Kynshi without this gorgeous one (or two) day warm up (not to mention it halves the dreaded Kynshi drive-in). So many thanks to Nick for accompanying me on this mission, as long as you keep topped up on a steady supply of chocolate and spicy peanuts, he’s the best expedition buddy/personal photographer you could ask for.