Friday the thirteenth. April 2018. The four of us climbed out of the stationary vehicle, grateful for the short break. Stretched into the distant mist was the rocky landscape of the dry river bed we had weaved and bounced through for the better part of an hour. Bones ached, and muscles were sore. A thought in my head said I wouldn’t want to do this bit again. I spoke too soon. This is an account of one fine day that year.
Three days earlier, I had landed in Assam, the gateway to the Northeast, on my way to Mechuka, in Arunachal, near the border with China. Baro, Gudi and Piliya picked me up from Mohanbari airport in Dibrugarh, and we headed east. We would take a circuitous route through river crossings, dense forests, Buddhist hamlets and tribal belts. On the third day, we were on schedule for the river crossing. At least, that was the plan. It turned into one fine day…
A spot of bad luck
Rain dogged us for most of the way. After a while, I ceased to notice the sound of the wiper as its arc rubbed across the glass. We sped past the thatched-roof houses of Kebali and Meka villages. Chatter was in a mix of Apatani, Hindi and English. The metalled road soon gave way to a muddy forest track. Protesting suspension springs added their strains to the mix of sounds.
Turning off the main road, we left the forest canopy of the Lower Dibang Valley for the wide rocky bed of the Sisseri River. The Leica X Vario had been consigned several potholes earlier to the safety of the backseat between Gudi and Piliya. Riding shotgun, I needed both hands to keep the phone from falling out when making videos. Ours was conspicuously the only vehicle crossing the rocky river bed, a fact that Baro alluded to. But we paid it scant attention.
The rickety wooden bridge that would take us across a rivulet was intact. But up ahead, at another stream, things went south soon after. The overnight rains had churned the placid stream into a spate of gushing water. The hope of a crossing looked dim without a helpful bridge. It was to be a long bone-jarring journey back.
Things were not all bad yet. A setback, yes, but other routes would get us to where we wanted to go.
An hour later, we found ourselves back in the woods, literally. This time we met vehicles coming from the opposite direction. Baro flagged one down. A tiny Maruti Alto. We asked if the road ahead had any obstructions that we should know about in advance. The driver said there was a patch of water, but looking at our SUV, he said it shouldn’t pose a problem; after all, he had come through it.
Well, that sounded good. If a tiny Maruti Alto could handle that patch of water, then so could we. Spirits sufficiently buoyed, it was time to restart taking some shots and video.
Twenty past noon, we came up to the water’s edge. The rain fell in a persistent drizzle. On the opposite bank, a bus with passengers was making up its mind. Another SUV was reaching the far shore, having pressed through the current, its path clearly visible in its wake. If a Maruti Alto could cross….
So in we went.
What happened next mustn’t have taken more than a few minutes. A rear tyre jammed between two submerged boulders. And then the engine stalled. We were stuck in the middle. After failing to restart the engine, Baro opened his side of the door. That’s when the water that had earlier appeared quite benign rushed in with a tremendous force. Immediately the cabin floor was engulfed in water. The first thought that crossed my mind was, “Where’s my camera?” The X Vario was in the backseat.
There are no photographs of the ill-fated crossing and no video either. Heaving against the current, we dislodge the rear tyre and push the car back to shore. In a way, the tyre jamming between the rocks saved the car from being swept downstream. Back on shore, spark plugs cleaned, the engine sprang back to life.
Twice foiled, we decided to drive back to Dibrugarh for the night and take the ferry across the Brahmaputra the next morning.
Almost five years later, in 2022, the four of us reunited for a repeat trip to Mechuka. Gudi confessed that even now, she gets nightmares of this incident. Baro and Piliya hadn’t spoken about it to anyone.
When the going gets tough
While there is no record of our mid-river incident, this video gives a good impression of the problems we faced on that day in 2018
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