The Making Rivers and Oceans

Renee Godfrey, Assistant Producer on Human Planet, explains her favourite part of making Rivers and Oceans.

One of the most magical ways of living with rivers is found in the Khasi Hills of North East India; an environment, during monsoon season, engulfed by raging rivers. Searching for the secrets the deep Khasi tribal valleys and villages hold is a dream come true for any adventurous film maker.

Once a part of Assam in Northeast India, the tropically lush and verdant massif of Meghalaya stands proudly above the pancake flat plains of Bangladesh. As the Southwest Indian monsoon moves its moisture laden way up the Bay of Bengal and over Bangladesh, the Khasi Hills are the first major landmass it meets. Huge teams of nimbostratus clouds tower and linger with excited intent at having reached their destination – one of the wettest places on our planet.

With each twist and turn of the road, new and magnificent vistas are revealed. There is an air of mystery to the geography – its tropical forest draped in orchids, misty ridges, impossibly steep and seemingly inaccessible gorges, and moody rivers all begging to be explored.

During monsoon, the Khasi are faced with dealing with biblical amounts of water falling from the sky. Their traditional villages magically appear from nowhere through the enchanted forest, all cope wonderfully with days of downpours.

While the crew are all kitted out with umbrellas and waterproof jackets, Khasi society is lacking in such Gortex items, rather the women weave curved bamboo and palm leaf rain shields or ‘knub’ to protect themselves from the beatings of rain. There is also one, very unique and magical Khasi solution to coping with the rainfall; one that the Khasi are particularly proud of, and that is what I have come in search for.

During monsoon, the rivers intersecting Khasi villages swell greedily and become raging rapids washing away anything in their path. Faced with the problem that man made bridges and walkways of concrete or wood rot and are destroyed by the forces of water, the Khasi have come up with a unique and organic architectural solution using what mother nature provides - they have learnt to make living bridges from tree roots.

Ficus elastica, or more commonly, the Indian Rubber Tree, is a loyal and useful character in the colourful cast within the forest canopy. Perched wisely on huge boulders or alongside riverbanks, the ficus trees sit, adorned with party streamer like aerial roots. Each root shoots out in medusa style fashion, on a mission to find soils with greater stability. Well rehearsed in the shifting moods and flows of the rivers, the help of these loyal root tendrils keeps the ficus trees standing strong. By encouraging the aerial roots across impassable rivers and gorges, bridges form and areas once impassable became accessible.

To find the root bridges takes dedication and concentration. An impossibly steep and knee numbing descent takes me down through layers of forest into the enchanted Khasi world.

Local villagers have made tiny steps down the steep gorge slopes, plunging into the heart of the forest - hundreds upon thousands of pebbles smoothed by years of Khasi feet trotting up and down.

Each pebble marked by footprints of times past, each with stories to tell as they take the weight of the local tribes.

As I hop across streams, sway dramatically over rickety steel bridges with heart in throat, too scared to look down at the white water below, my curiosity drives me on. These bridges of ornate organic architecture are hidden within this fairytale forest and these endless paths will, I know, eventually unveil their wonder.

Three hours into the trek, a small perfectly manicured village, Nogkriet appears at the end of the steps. Just beyond Nongkriet, I look up and am transported into an unbelievable scene; a mix between Alice in Wonderland and Lord of the Rings – colourful spiders look on from silvery webs and at any minute I expect to see fairies dancing around the bamboos. There in all its magical glory is the 200 year old Umshiang double decker root bridge. Sitting with an omnipotent grace, the bridge is bejewelled in aerial roots of all shapes, ages and textures – like a Monarch draped in regal gold – the ficus; treasure is equally as impressive and precious.

The Khasi of Nonkriet village have trained the roots of one single ficus tree on two levels across the river; the result, a surreal double decker root bridge sketched into the forest landscape like some sort of magical computer generated graphic on mother nature’s stunningly crafted film set; nature’s magic.

Renee Godfrey getting to know the local Khasi women. 
’the local women pass by on their way to the rice paddies and stop to stand and stare with as much wonder for the blonde haired foreigner, as the foreigner has for their root bridges!’


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