MEGHALAYA: Abode of the clouds
Meghalaya is one of the ‘Seven Sister States’ in North East India. With three million people, it has a relatively sparse population for India but, despite its size, it is home to a diverse mix of people and cultures. The Hindu population, predominant across India, is present in Meghalaya but this is really the land of the Garo, the Khasi and the Jaintia peoples, as well as a diversity of other ethnic and linguistic groups.
So too is the landscape different from the greater subcontinent. Some years ago, planning a trip to India, I decided to cancel and go elsewhere, as I was itching to visit a country with good native forestry, and I felt India simply did not have it. Little did I know then of Meghalaya “the abode of the clouds” (from the Sanskrit), a state that is 70% forested and is home to India’s only humid sub-tropical forests.
The cloud forests which blanket the Meghalayan foothills of the Himalayas are spectacular, as it is the area which receives the most rainfall on Earth (Kannampilly, 2013). This huge rain influx has helped nurture the forests and caves that are unique amongst Indian states and are, rightfully so, the pride of Meghlalaya.
BACKGROUND TO THE EXPEDITION
Surprisingly, the ﬁst interest in the scientiﬁc recording of caves in Meghalaya was carried out in 1922, by the Indian Museum Expedition. They surveyed a total of 1.4 km of cave. Seventy years later a group led by Simon Brooks gained access to the relatively closed state, quickly finding 9 km of virgin cave across a wide region. By 2017, what had become an annual and well established international expedition, a thousand caves were explored or partially explored, yielding 468 km of surveyed passage.
Meghalaya 2019 saw 30 members from across Eupope and India take part, including four Irish cavers. It ran for four weeks in February including a one week pre-expedition, which I was not involved in. This year exploration work was carried out in the East Jaintia Hills District, following on from the three previous years’ expeditions in this area.
We had two teams in three different base camps:
Team One spent a week in Tlang Moi village; then moved further east to Muallian village for the remaining week and a half. Team Two camped near Krem Shrieh for eight days; then joined Muallian village base camp. Krem Shrieh cave, the focus of Team Two, had previously been explored in the year 2000, with survey work left incomplete. Nineteen years later the cave was fully surveyed, extended and photographed, becoming India’s 6th deepest and 7th longest limestone cave.
My first few days involved exploring a large area of forestry, where we found some interesting but very short caves. It was a great chance to experience the above ground environment and to get a feel for how the expedition would run. Many hours were spent walking beneath beautiful canopies or in the open and dry river gorges of the Meghalayan forests. We met village headsmen and talked to agrarian labourers, all of whom were intrigued by us and our strange activity. It was also a good time to experience expedition life and the enjoyable routine of daily caving and evening rest.
Within a few days the reconnaissance work of numerous small teams began locating caves of a more impressive stature. While certainly nothing special in terms of better won ﬁnds, I enjoyed an early short cave, totalling 250 m in length, called Um Sngad. This was reached after some fairly severe machete work in dense forestry, leading down to a large void inside an enormous doline. A vertical pitch of 19 m dropped to a ﬁne relict cave consisting of a series of chambers to one side and a series of meandering drops to the other. I got a good taste here for the excitement of discovering new virgin cave.
Then one evening as Um Sngad was ﬁnishing up, over the campﬁre my partner and her team spoke of the vertical cave they had visited that day. Even its name Krem Um Ladaw or ‘Steam Cave’ fascinated me. It was described as a steaming hole in a dry river bed with massive pitches and enormous cavities, ‘like something from a Yorkshire cave, only bigger and more intimidating’.
KREM UM LADAW
The next day and, for approximately a week after, Krem Um Ladaw was pushed. It is truly beautiful cave with big airy drops and an entrance pitch lit by a shaft of sunlight. The steam which rolled out of the cave would cause a refraction of the light, resulting in a rainbow of colours through the air! Abseiling down to the horizontal streamway was via six or seven pitches at 115 m depth. Most pitches were horizontally separated by short ledges, often at an angle to one another, meaning that a shaft of light from the entrance would disappear completely from sight, only to return on the next pitch.
I recall standing, waiting for my turn on the rope with my lights out, as I listened to frogs on the ledges around me, whistling in the dark. Suddenly, the caver on rope below let out a yelp in shock. She too was experiencing the local wildlife, as a freshwater crab emerged from a crack in the wall, to greet her at her face level! For an enormous and somewhat ominous cave, it was surprisingly ﬁlled with life, such as frogs, crabs, prawns, ﬁsh, and fungi. This in itself is not surprising as essentially the cave is a pothole in the bed of what would be a large river during the wet seasons. One would expect river life to get washed into the cave but we were not expecting what was next to be discovered in Krem Um Ladaw.
It was in the horizontal passages, in pools 100 meters below ground, where dozens of very large blind fish were first seen. Expedition biologist Dan Harries would return the following day on hearing of these impossibly large fish. Troglomorphic, or cave adapted, fish are typically restricted in growth to a relatively small size, due to the low nutrient environment in which they feed. The majority of the world’s 250 trolomorphic fish species range from two to 13 cm (Harries et. al., 2019). The Um Ladaw fish however are much bigger, with the largest individual measuring 40 cm in length. In fact, as a species with evolutionary regressive features, such as a lack of eyes and skin pigmentation, they have been subsequently confirmed as the largest cave fish species in the world! (Harries et. al., 2019).
Krem Um Ladaw was a spectacular discovery and its exploration, surveying and completion of photography and biological investigation trips amounted to a sizeable portion of the 2019 expedition. All in, the cave was surveyed to completion at over 115 m depth and 3.17 km in length.
As the expedition began to enter its final few days I became involved in one last cave: Retdungkhur. Other groups had begun to explore this cave while I was involved in Krem Um Ladaw and I knew little of the nature of it. However the plan was to finish by survey all of the side passages and minor sections, leaving the on-going and unexplored upstream segments as a lead for a future expedition. The cave, like all the caves in our expedition, was reached via some very beautiful forestry. These daily walks, enjoyable as they were, would be very humid and most of the caves we explored were were dry. So, great was my pleasure upon arriving at the rising of Retdungkhur and finding crystal clear river pools emerge from the entrance. A quick and cooling swim and we shortly entered the cave.
The initial passages were tight, maze-like and dull. Upon finding something like this at home I would probably described it as very decent cave but one got used to very high standards in Meghalaya! After a little route finding through narrow and low passages the cave changes completely, when suddenly one hears a boisterous river up-ahead. Emerging on hands and knees from the low crawl passage the caver finds himself in an enormously spacious river stream passage.
Prior to arriving in Meghalaya I anticipated that all of its caves would be pretty horizontal streamways. Despite how much I liked the Meghalayan caves, most that I had explored were vertical and dry, and this was not not as I had expected. Retdungkhur finished off the expedition nicely for me; giving me a taste of the more classic style of Meghalayan river cave. The main streamway passage is of epic proportions and is highly varied, with areas of rapid flows following on from areas of silent pools with fine calcite decorations. These pools contained many fish while on the ceiling of the largest chamber, thousands of bats could be seen roosting.
This beautiful chamber was particularly memorable to me and it represented the joy of Meghalayan caving. Photographing it was an honour and well deserving of one of my large and coveted Meggaflash PF300 flashbulbs. That bulb helped in more ways than one. The photo model became very cold from standing for a long time in the river, so she placed the just-fired bulb within her oversuit. The heat it produced as it slowly extinguished saw her quickly return to a manageable body temperature and spirits, all round, were quickly lifted! All in all, the cave yielded 3.7 km of virgin passage and the massive main passage remains to be be explored to conclusion.
Thus the expedition came to an end and our basecamp was quickly disassembled as torrential rains moved in and threatened to wash the road way. We escaped in very close time and, despite numerous jeep breakdown and repairs along the way, we were very grateful to return to the city of Shillong.
By the end of the expedition, the main achievements were:
- 12.3 km of virgin passage surveyed;
- Cumulative total surveyed passage in Meghalaya passed 500 km mark!
- A new species of great importance found.
Meghalaya 2019 was a fantastic expedition, run by a fantastic, seasoned and well experienced crew. On top of that and never to be played down, as a 37 year old caver it was great to be one of the youngest on the expedition! ;P
I remained a further two weeks in India. Despite having travelled a reasonable amount in my life, India is the county I wanted to visit most since I was a teenager. While my interests developed and other places came to be of greater priority, I was glad to finally get there and not to be disappointed. The few weeks I spent after the expedition, mainly around Meghalaya state and Darjeeling, were really enjoyable and left me with a big desire to return. The shock in variety of culture, language and peoples; the sweetness of the many people we met, the stunning mountain scenery and, not to mention the best cuisine in the world, left me wanting more time there.
A shaft of light in the entrance to Krem Um Ladaw
I would like to finish by dedicating my efforts here to my partner Becks Kelly who helped to get me to a place I always wanted to be. I would also like to add that the very vast majority my photos presented here were taken by just the two of us, with no other helpers – no mean feat I believe, considering the size and complexity of some of the shots.
Harries, et. al., 2019. The world’s largest known subterranean fish: a discovery in Meghalaya (NE India) of a cave-adapted fish related to the Golden Mahseer, Tor putitora (Hamilton 1822). Cave and Karst Science 46, 3, 121-126
Kannampilly, A., 2013. “The Wettest Place On Earth: Indian Town Of Mawsynram Holds Guinness Record For Highest Average Annual Rainfall”. Huﬃngton Post. Viewed on 11th June 2020.