Today is Sunday. No work happens on Sunday’s. The mizo people are good Christians and Sunday is for church and church only. They go three times through the day. I however am not a good Christian and so would like to use my time to see some of the surrounding area of Mizoram on my day off. Compared to the last few days, the roads feel very quiet.
We head south towards Thenzawl, it’s 60km on the map, I’m told it will take a minimum of three hours to reach there. I don’t believe it. After driving for an hour and only covering 25km on the heavily potholes and twisty roads, I start to believe it.
We take a diversion to find the largest Banyan tree in Mizoram, it is a hugely impressive specimen supported by a network of huge prominent buttress roots from which a vast mass of strong limbs reach out skywards in 360 degrees. I’m a real tree geek, I can watch, read about and observe trees happily for hours, I find ancient trees spiritual and feel humbled in their presence.
Today, after three days, I finally solve the dragging brakes on the truck mystery. I’d heard a high pitched brake squealing coming and going as we’d been driving over the past few days. It never seemed to stay on, I tell Michael he should get the brakes adjusted. He says ‘why?’, ‘Due to the squealing’.
‘Oh that’s not the truck, they are insects!’
I’ll be damned. It makes total sense now how it comes and go’s regularly, but I am amazed that a cricket or other insect, could make a sound so high pitched and piercingly loud.
Happy that our brakes aren’t going to fail anytime soon I move onto the next pressing issue, diesel. Our tank was low and with today being Sunday our chances of being able to buy fuel is greatly reduced. Place after place, garage after garage are all closed. I start to think of a plan B, offering extra cash to take someone’s personal Jerry cans, or spending the night in the jeep. On arrival into Thenzawl after over three hours of motoring, we finally see a station that is open. Relief.
We fill the tank and look around at the surroundings, Thenzawl is a more open and spacious area with some small planes which makes it quite unique in Mizoram where flat space is of a premium and seldom come by.
It’s around 11:30am when we pass through town and the streets are full of people. They’ve come from the church and are all neatly turned out, there’s a real community feel, everyone seems to be involved. I notice a conservation sign in the town warning of big cats, leopards and tigers – easy to forget you are in the India forests where in remote areas, big cats still roam.
We drive onto our destination, Vantawng waterfalls, just a few kilometres south. The access road takes is through forest and brings us out at a vantage point, from which we can look down at the hugely impressive falls from afar. Water cascades down three large tiers and the falls drop over 200 metres in total. Its a natural beauty and we have it all to ourselves, tourism doesn’t exist here as yet.
Whilst the view is excellent, we’re a long way from the falls so we decide that we should try to find a way down the steep valley side and to the base of the fall. We set off on a path we have assumed leads to the river floor. It starts out mellow and after a short while steepens sharply to a set of slippery mud steps. We slither and scramble down holding trees and vegetation to lower ourselves as the path becomes more and more committing. A few bamboo ladders in disrepair allow us to descend down over some steeper and sketchy rock faces and eventually we end up on a narrow rock ledge. It’s off camber, with only a foot hold width on slightly wet mud sitting on the rock. The sheer drop to the outside is around 40 feet onto rock below. I don’t like it, I make a mock attempt but as I feel my supporting foot slide on the camber my head just says no and my legs give out. I’m usually up for anything but here the drop and lack of grip meant the risk/reward balance didn’t seem right and with wobbly legs we decide to back track. Evacuating from this valley would be nigh on impossible.
The Munsyari lads had both easily skipped across, a lifetime growing up in the Himalayas and a combined weight likely equal to mine made them considerably more light and sure footed.
As we had slid down a lot of the steep slope and steps to reach here, Michael suggests taking our trainers off and hiking bare foot to gain more grip on the climb back up. I tie my laces around my neck and let my trainers dangle around my shoulders. The difference in grip and feel is incredible. Wearing socks and trainers every day means I have soft skin and the floor hurts the soles of my feet at times but the direct connection with the ground feels liberating; I must walk barefoot more often.
I later learn that to visit the foot of the falls you must take a guide and access from the river downstream rather than from above. Feeling a little frustrated that we had bailed out of something, we were intent on finding the next waterfall the tourism secretary had told us about which was also nearby.
We locate the car park and walk down, this is a lot more accessible. A few locals are hanging out as we get our first glimpse of the impressive site. A wide horseshoe shape fall with a cave behind allowing you to walk behind the falls and see them from all angles. Hot and bothered from our jungle slither down the precipice at Vantawng, we couldn’t wait to get under this fall and spend an hour or so cooling down under the fall and swimming in the river rock pools below.
We decide to drive back a different way to seek out a remote village I had read about on the internet, home to the worlds largest family.
With no idea if we could actually find them and if we did, what we would do when we got there, we decide it will be an adventure whatever the outcome.
I drive over a long narrow steel bridge standing high over a river. Rounding the corner on the other side I look back at the bridge and am shocked to see one of the supports has collapsed. I’m glad I saw this after we passed over it, and not before!
We are chasing the light now and the relentlessly winding and potholed roads don’t go hand in hand with being in a haste.
I round a corner in a village and a small blue Honda comes squealing into view, flat out and on our side of the road. I brace myself for our first collision, he slams his brakes and squeals to a halt leaving a long track of black rubber.
He has to take some time to gather his thoughts, then decides it was my fault and gesticulates till he feels better. We all laugh and carry on reminded that in India there are not really any rules, especially on the road.
We pinpoint the side road on the map that we believe will take us to the village where Ziona lives with his record breaking family. It is a further few kilometres drive up to the isolated hill top village, we ask directions to their home. We seem to be getting a slightly frosty reception so far. It is a Sunday, church day, it is now dark and it is around dinner time and we are planning to locate the house and visit unannounced as a group of outsiders. I guess the locals have every right to be a little suspicious or unfriendly.
We locate their home, correction, their compound. With a set of gates enclosing their home, church, school, medical store and other outbuildings, this is a village within a village.
No one speaks more than a couple of words of English or Hindi, so communication is hard. They let us into their home. The downstairs is an open communal space, women (wives presumably) are rolling out breads and cooking dinner, kids are playing and some men sit on the perimeter.
The patriarch Ziona has a gold throne. He also has 37 wives and the total family size including grandchildren is 189 people! He has created his own religion to allow multiple spouses. There’s clearly a system here and a sense of order to the place. It’s downright bizarre to experience.
We talk in broken English to a son for a while. A little while later, the church doors open and the drums start beating, afraid that we’ve overstated our welcome and may be the victims of a cult ritual, we say thank you, leave a tip and say our goodbyes.
As we walk out of the family compound, people are spilling out of all the village homes onto the street in the pitch dark and streaming down the street to the compound and the church to the sound of the beating drum. They have been summoned, it is totally intriguing and downright crazy. I sense mr Ziona must be a badass to keep his family and the village community in check and in the palm of his hand.
We continue on with the final leg of our journey back to Aizawl. We pull over for a comfort break in the countryside and the sky is incredible, with no light pollution the stars shine brightly to the soothing background noises of the crickets and frogs.
It’s been an eventful day!