“After practising in a flat pool for a week, we jumped straight into the Terminator!” says Shiningstar Basaiawmoit, a 21-year-old from the rural interiors of Meghalaya’s Bhoi District. “We didn’t even have helmets or a life jacket. But we weren’t scared.” Near Law Byrwa, the small village of 120 families where Basaiawmoit lives, the Umtrew river gushes in full force. And on it, the “Terminator” swirls — a Class 4 “advanced” rapid which is considered challenging for even the most adept kayakers.
Basaiawmoit started learning how to kayak two years ago, around the same time as his friend, June Borlang Lyngdoh (21). Located a short distance from the main village, 56-year-old Australian Ian Vincent’s Shillong Whitewater Village camp has, over the past few years, become a kayaker’s hotspot in the Northeast — it is where enthusiasts from the world over gather every year to experience Meghalaya’s famed currents. “One day, we were observing Ian’s son, David, kayaking in the river. We got curious and asked if we could try it out. That is how they started teaching us,” says Lyngdoh. Dominated by well-equipped groups of international enthusiasts familiar with rivers across the globe, kayaking isn’t something that has caught the attention of Meghalaya’s local populace yet.
But when it comes to the two boys, it is easy to see where their athleticism and flair come from. A canal with run-off from a nearby reservoir runs through Law Byrwa, where they grew up. Young kids jump off a bridge into the water, before swimming and climbing back up for another dive. The surrounding terrain is thickly forested, filled with streams and rivulets that flow into the Umtrew. “Growing up in Bhoi, as kids, we never stayed home. Our lifestyle involved exploring the forests and the rivers,” says Basaiawmoit.
Just last month the boys competed at the Malabar River Fest in Kerala. In its sixth year, the competition is already the biggest kayak festival in Asia. Though the main event honours were taken by distinguished international paddlers, Basaiawmoit was placed third overall amongst the U-21 participants. “They are naturals — and have learnt very fast. Within a year, they participated in kayaking competitions in Rishikesh and the Kali River Fest in Karnataka,” says Ian, an expert paddler himself, who moved to Meghalaya from Australia in 2015 after falling in love with the kayaking-friendly landscape of the state.
This is despite certain disadvantages — especially economic — the boys have had to face. Lyngdoh is one of eight siblings and his mother practises farming while also helping locals as a seamstress. Basaiawmoit has five siblings and his mother, who works in a nearby water bottling facility, is the head of the family. He is studying in Shillong to earn his motor-vehicle mechanic certificate. “We used to exchange a single helmet and take turns on the Terminator. Now a lot of foreign kayakers who come to the camp help out by giving us their helmets and other accessories,” says Lyngdoh.
However, the waters remain choppy when it comes to getting sponsorships and support. Ian and his wife, Sheela have managed to help the local paddlers find sponsors to participate in kayaking competitions by collecting funds from friends and by holding Kayaking classes, but budgeting future trips remains a difficult task. “The Malabar Fest had the backing of the Kerala government. At the moment, we don’t have that same support for the sport. Kayaking in Meghalaya can go anywhere, depending on future support,” says Ian.
In the Northeast, kayaking is not a very well-known sport — something Basaiawmoit and Lyngdoh want to change “We hope that as pioneers of kayaking in Meghalaya, we can show people that kayaking is an enjoyable sport. Many are also not aware that non-competitive recreational kayaking can be a great past time,” says Lyngdoh.
This October is when the two will have another chance to prove the same: the Meghalaya Kayak Festival, which has attracted top kayakers in the past, including then-world champion Aniol Serrasolses in 2016, will take off at their very own Umtrew River. “Whenever I reach town on Monday, I can only think of getting back home in the weekend and going to the river. Here I spend most of my time watching a lot of kayaking videos on YouTube,” says Basaiawmoit, who spends most of his weeks in Shillong as his exams are around the corner. For them, the heart is always with the river.