Takeaway

Oranges, forests and serenity: Meghalaya’s Nokrek

Ramzauva Chhakchhuak | Updated on August 05, 2019

Homegrown: The Indian wild orange, found in the forests of Meghalaya, is more tart than any lemon   -  IMAGE COURTESY: RAMZAUVA CHHAKCHHUAK

Nokrek in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district is not your usual tourist spot. But it is rich with forests and folklore

At first glance, the ‘mother of all citrus fruits’ found in the forests of Meghalaya looks like a miniature orange. But don’t be fooled by its appearance. It is likely to be more tart than any lemon you may have tasted. The Indian wild orange or Citrus Indica is special, found in the Nokrek National Park in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district.

Nokrek was our destination. Located some 300km from state capital Shillong, it is not your usual tourist spot. It is closer to Tura, the headquarters of the West Garo Hills district, and the drive to Tura from Shillong can be an adventure in itself.

Of the two routes available, the older one — the road more taken — runs along southern Assam. The other, recently reopened, is said to be unsafe and runs through the heart of Meghalaya; there have been reports of travellers being robbed. But my childhood friend and I chose the second route when we decided on a road trip to Nokrek in early October last year. Part of the motivation came from our desire to witness Wangala, a harvest festival. The other incentive was the chance to drive an SUV that a friend had just bought.

Roads in the Northeast are some of the worst I’ve travelled on. Meghalaya is an exception and the road to Tura did not disappoint us. We cruised at 60km an hour on stretches, often passing through wilderness. We saw no other vehicle for miles on end. Signs of human life emerged only when we crossed towns such as Shallang, Mairang and Rongjeng, where we stopped for tea.

The uphill drive to the base of the Nokrek Peak, just ahead of the Nokrek Biosphere Reserve, was quite a challenge. Before going up the steep road, we stopped at Asanang, the venue of the harvest festival, to fortify ourselves. A meal of rice and local pork curry later, we were back on the road.

The road to the peak was a kuchcha one, almost impossible to negotiate during the monsoon. Along certain stretches, we saw villagers selling chayote (a kind of squash), sweet pumpkins as well as the famous orange, locally known as the memang narang. The local drink bichi, prepared with fermented rice, was also on sale — in old beer or liquor bottles with corks made of leaves. We had a taste of the drink after we reached our guest house at Nokrek: It was on the sweeter side, though the pungency of the fermented rice was unmissable.

Lush earth: The abundance of the forests can be seen from the mountain peaks   -  IMAGE COURTESY: RAMZAUVA CHHAKCHHUAK

 

We looked at the green landscape and the surrounding hill from a balcony made of bamboo slats on the edge of the guest house compound. But that was not our final destination. We went up a few more kilometres to find a patch of grassland with a few houses on top of a hill. One of the families living there were our hosts at Nokrek.

It was late for a trek to the peak, so we went for a stroll, followed by two friendly dogs. We walked up a track covered with mud and stones, trod on bush-lined paths, hopped over the trunks of fallen trees and even came by a waterfall where we took a dip. The best find of the day was an abandoned house built on stilts. It seemed it had been placed as a scenic relaxation spot for travellers like us. We spent some time in the house in the wild, and then went back to our hosts.

A bonfire greeted us on our return. The night air was moist and our hosts wanted us to pitch our tents inside an open hut. After a dinner of Garo-style pork and chicken curry, chillies and sticky rice, we called it a day.

Early next morning we started for the peak. Like the local oranges, the rich forests of Nokrek are centuries old. They are also the source of local myths and folk tales about people who turn into tigers and other wild animals. As we went further into the dark woods, we started feeling cold, despite the bright sun overhead.

The forests are home to the wild pitcher plant, many varieties of orchids and fruit trees. There are also a number of wild animals such as elephants, though, thankfully, we didn’t encounter any. We did, however, spot elephant dung when we finally reached the peak after a trek of about two hours.

Even at the peak, the woods were so thick that we could not see beyond a few metres. If you want to see the forests from a vantage point, you need to climb up a high metal tower there. I am scared of heights, and found the climb scary. But after a fearful 15 minutes of hesitant climbing, I finally reached the top. I could see how rich and abundant the land really was. The forests looked like a green canopy stretching towards the sky. This was a journey I wouldn’t forget in a hurry, along with the taste of the wild orange.

Ramzauva Chhakchhuak is a writer based in Shillong and Bengaluru

Published on July 19, 2019

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