A strike!? A student strike… I could not believe my misfortune. Here I was in Delhi, about to embark on a three week trek into the foothills of the Himalayas… It had taken months to organize the expedition, and now I paced in my hotel room like a caged animal, wondering if the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh and the Assamese plains were ever going to materialize… Tomorrow morning, we were booked on the only flight to Dibrughar, but the students had blocked the airport to draw attention to the Arunacheli independence movement… And the flight, of course, was cancelled. Our group consisted of seven anxious anglers, avid sports-fishermen ready and willing to explore exotic destinations in search of the world’s prized gamefish. Yesterday, like good tourists, we visited the Taj in Agra, and while at the old fort, I watched with slow-motion horror, as my camera strap strangely unlocked, sending my only wide angle lens crashing to the ground, disabling its focus control. Was this to be an omen of things to come…?A FISHING TRIP?
Back home, during the planning phase of the trip, our friends and relatives would invariably ask the same question? `Why go fishing in India?’ India was famous for her mahseer (barbus tor), a species that once roamed throughout the major river systems, but like the tiger, it had been hunted to near extinction. Today, save for some stretches of the Cauvery River in the South, the majority of India’s wild mahseer populations exist in the tributaries of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Recently, India has facilitated tourist access throughout most of the Northeast. In Assam, Restricted Area Permits are no longer required, and In Arunachal, small groups (minimum 4 tourists) may obtain 10 day access permits.
With the world growing larger, finding a sanctuary or geographical paradise, is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in such densely populated areas as India. The North-eastern states, or 7 sisters, like most border areas of the world, have had a history of conflict, namely between India and China. Many aboriginals still protest India’s occupation, forming an underground which occasionally reaffirms its resolve through militant action. In Nagaland and Assam, the underground is more active, but in Arunachal, protest is done more peacefully.
As it turns out, my angst lasted less than an hour. As we arrived at his home, our group leader, John Edwards of Tiger Tops made a few phone calls, booked us on another flight to Guwahati, gathered more jeeps, and requisitioned a helicopter… And poured me yet another gin - in almost the same breath. In the end, the student strike only added spice to our adventure…
John Edwards is a chronic explorer, who works for Tiger Tops/Mountain Travel, a tour company which pioneered treks throughout the Himalayas and its surrounding areas. John has twenty five years experience in jungle tours, especially in Nepal, where he has built spectacular lodges catering to a wide range of clientele. Those interested in watching tigers from the houda of an elephant, river rafters, mountain climbers, photographers, naturists, all may practice their bliss amidst breath-taking surroundings. Although forced to be a Jack-of-all-trades, I believe Edwards is mainly a mahseer fisherman at heart, and together, our group was on a mission; to fish one of the last angling frontiers, in search of a specimen that time itself, had forgotten…
THE FIRST GLIMPSE
Created by the slow roar of tectonic plates that splintered the rock buried beneath the sea and carried it into the clouds, the Himalayas are testimony to the cosmic insignificance of Man. Their ancient peaks, weathered like the wrinkles of an old man’s hand, made the Rockies pale in comparison. When our jet banked its wings and crossed the mighty Bhramaputra, the sun’s brilliant, dying rays meandered along the river, ushering us into a corridor of silver and gold. A lone island immerged out of this shimmering divine fire as we descended towards our destination. `That is Peacock Island’, John said. `Legend has it that those who see Peacock Island for the first time must always return, at least once during there lifetime.’ After spending the night in Itanagar, we flew by helicopter up the rest of the Bhramaputra (at ground level much of the way) occasionally passing by villagers paddling their skiffs, fishing or moving their herds. These are true `boat people’ who, each year, must suffer the wrath of the monsoons and rebuild their homes.
Upon landing in Pasighat, we met Ozing, John’s charming Adi agent, who led the convoy of three jeeps into the heart of an impenetrable jungle. We had arrived on the last day of the monsoon which, much to our chagrin, ended a few weeks later than anticipated. This meant the rivers were still high and murky, and most of the fish would still be upstream beyond our grasp. As always when battling with less than ideal conditions, catching big fish was going to be a challenge.
We headed up the Siang, one of the Bhramaputra’s main tributaries, on a mud road barely one car wide, which was great fun on sharp turns, overlooking bottomless chasms. Most of the Villagers were part of the Adi tribe. They live in a spectacular rain forest, cultivating rice wherever the forest will let them. We enjoyed stopping occasionally in a few villages such as Boleng, where inevitably a crowd gathered to watch the pale foreigners. Several wood bridges span across the Siang, allowing for magnificent vistas in the morning mist. Upon visiting one of them, John explained the dangerous task that certain British colonialists had in establishing first contact with the natives in the Northeast (including those who were head-hunters.) Conflicts would occasionally result in a few dead British officers, which invariably led to costly retaliation expeditions to punish those `responsible’ for the offences. The sight of a British regiment snaking its way upriver on boats accompanied on shore by cavalry units mounted on elephants crashing through the forest must have been no less than surreal. Eventually, the British grew tired of such endeavours and drew a border line which excluded these traitorous regions.
AMIDST THE ANIMISTS
Adi are Animists; they celebrate several festivals a year, many of which include the sacrifice of a `mithun’, a semi wild bull. Dance plays a significant role in Arunacheli rituals; their costumes are extravagant. In the war dance we witnessed, the men wore feathered headdresses and displayed their petrified tiger jaw medallions. One day, a middle-aged, beetle-nut chewing Adi man came to our camp and with the help of our translator opened a theological discussion with me. He asked me if I was one of those… Christians. Although my birth certificate does have something Roman and Catholic scribbled somewhere, I assured him that I worshipped the River and that I revered many of the rivers I had frequented in my travels. He, in turn, revealed that he worshipped the Sun, which was the same as the river since they both brought life to people. He then shook my hand. Although I probably weighed 75 pounds heavier, his vice-grip palm almost brought me to me knees (this brought a chuckle from my colleague Jeremy, a UK designer who when fishing was slow, seemed to enjoy how the local village girls were fascinated by, and often attended to his long hair.) The Adi men have incredible musculature. They have spent every day, from sunrise to sunset either working, hunting, or carrying insane loads on their heads and walking remarkable distances. It puts the western ` three hours of aerobics a week’ to shame.
On our next to last day in Arunachal, our fishing efforts were rewarded when Peter Gamarano, a retired US Navy commander landed a spectacular, large specimen which we thoroughly photographed and then released.
THE LAST STRETCH
We then moved to Assam to fish the Bhorelli, another mahseer river that was still murky from the late monsoons. Here we completed daily rafting runs pausing to have lunch on shorelines rich with fresh tiger tracks. We stayed at the Bhorelli anglers club who offered us the grandest of Indian hospitality, and the food… Well, I certainly don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. But if I did, I’d probably use `deeeeelicious’. On our last day, while visiting a tea estate, Rocky Kelly, a 76 year old Rhode Islander who’s business card reads `retired and really enjoying life’ came back to camp with great video footage of the group amidst a large group of wild elephants.
Although we had stayed three weeks, our focus on fishing led us to many missed opportunities in terms of exploring the numerous ruins, or experiencing new cultural exchanges. The hidden land is vast, and we hardly scratched the surface. But perhaps the legend of Peacock Island is true, for already I feel an invisible pull, leading me back. Last I herd of John Edwards; he was leading yet another expedition deep into the Jungles of Arunachal. This time it is a team of anthropologists looking to record two elusive rituals, the Reh and Boori Boot. Among the other known festivals practiced in Arunachal are Mopin, Solung, Losar, Kahn, Sangken, Ohilyale, Tamladu, and the Nakum. For those interested in exploring this magnificent part of the world, John Edwards and Tiger Tops can organize `custom-made’ itineraries. If they can’t do it… then it simply can’t be done. In Guwahati, we had the pleasure of encountering V. Abrahum, the deputy resident commissioner, who said to me `If one tree has to be cut here, I want to know about it’. I hope this concern for the North-East’s environment perseveres into the new millennium, such that the world is granted the opportunity, and the privilege to treasure this exotic land.