Long-time Friend of Alpacka, Filmmaker, and Guidebook Author Zorba Laloo on the Making of His New Boating & Packrafting Guidebook
“Meghalaya Rivers” is a testament of life and the spirit of exploration that special places on our planet still affords those who are curious and restless.” ~Zorba Laloo
If you follow Alpacka Raft on Instagram, you may occasionally see exotic, stunning photos from India and Nepal taken by Zorba Laloo (@zorba.meghalaya). Laloo is a long-time friend of Alpacka Raft and user of our packrafts. He’s also a documentary film maker and now, a river boating guidebook author, with the recent publication of, “Meghalaya Rivers.” Laloo first discovered his love of river running while on a 2200-kilometer, source-to-sea river expedition, which he followed with additional lengthy river trips. He and his partners were among the first to use packrafts in Northern India. He became so enamored with the sport that, in 2012, he received the ‘Golden Paddle Award from the American Packrafting Association for his contribution in promoting paddlesports and river conservation. Disappointed by the lack of opportunities for students to experience the outdoors in Meghalaya, he also co-founded Campfire Trails. His organization works closely with villages to help them design and develop sustainable eco-rural tourism projects and has so far educated 2000 students. In celebration of the release of his gorgeous, photo-filled book, we asked Laloo a few questions about his life, love of packrafting, and his new guidebook.
Alpacka Raft: Why boating? Why packrafts?
Zorba Laloo: Packrafts, being ultralight, packable and durable seemed like the perfect craft for our steep hills and remote rivers of Meghalaya. I started paddling in 2010 with my friend Shane Hu. We begged his Mom who was on holiday in the United States to bring 10 kgs of Alpacka gear over. She had to leave some of her shopping behind for our stuff! We could barely afford boats and paddles at the time, so we definitely couldn’t afford to pay for shipping and import tax! We started exploring rivers straight off the bat, learning about paddling as we went along. YouTube, online forums, and the Alaskan packrafting crew taught us, and rivers became the classroom. There was some pretty interesting carnage and swimming at the beginning. We also don’t have a culture of learning to swim as part of our schooling here, so I learned how to swim in whitewater, at the age of 30.
AR: Can you give me a synopsis of the book?
ZL: It’s 300 pages, full color, stellar photos, folk stories from various rivers, chapters on the wildlife, flora, geography, history, culture, trip reports, river descriptions of various grades, and pretty usable maps! Much of the information in the book is also unpublished elsewhere. This project brought together teams of some of the best expedition kayakers, packrafters, outdoor enthusiasts and the collective skill sets of experts in various fields from Meghalaya and around the world! Six years in the making, “Meghalaya Rivers,” is a full-featured guide to the rivers of Meghalaya with bits about paddling in other parts of India thrown in as an added bonus. This is also the first book of it’s kind from a country with 1.38 billion people.
AR: What inspired you to put this book together?
ZL: India as a whole attracts a lot of people, but outdoor pursuits are only in their infancy in this vast country. Little is known outside about the North East of India, much of it shrouded in the mystique of it being “tribal” hills, inflated reports of militancy and generally being unsafe for travellers. River guides and trip reports of popular paddling places are not hard to find, but finding any data on an “off the map” region which is not mentioned a lot in popular media is even more scarce. The Lonely Planet guide book has over 1000 pages for India, yet Meghalaya doesn’t even get 10 of those. We wanted to write a book that would not just be a paddlers handbook, but also a book that would appeal to a wider audience and help attract paddlers of various grades. Northeast India offers a lot to the intrepid traveller, and Meghalaya is right in the thick of it. Also, we hope that the book would be something that locals would be proud to share and reflect the area accurately.
AR: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when putting it together?
ZL: Funnily enough, it turns out that it’s actually not that easy to write a book. There may have been times that we wished we wrote a pamphlet instead! We banged our heads against the wall about the content we had and how to get that into words. Sometimes research teams would go to a place to find out some cool folk stories that would be absolutely awesome to get into the book, and then on a second visit we’d be told that we couldn’t print it as the elderly lady who could turn herself into a fish (or crocodile depending who you spoke to) was still actually alive and didn’t want to be named. Or we’d look at a GPS point on the map and be like, nope, that can’t be right. And that would mean two friends taking a day to go verify the point again. But because the time was grossly underestimated, it turned into a crazy walk in and out with some sketchy night paddling and some gear being lost to the river boss in the process. Language also proved to make things interesting, especially while getting information from villagers on river banks and the interviewers sometimes being foreigners. Meghalaya shares an international border with neighbouring Bangladesh, and the Indian Government is a stickler for detail regarding this. We took close to eight months to get our maps vetted by them; at times, we felt pretty low with this process. During the time it took to write this book, we’ve also lost two kayaker friends, and my father also passed away a year ago. Knowing all this, and looking back at our journey, the book feels quite heavy in our hands. “Meghalaya Rivers” is a testament of life and the spirit of exploration that special places on our planet still affords those who are curious and restless.
AR: What were some surprises you encountered on some of the adventures you were on while writing the book?
ZL: I’d actually like to narrate them, but many of the stories are already in the book! Many of the other stories are best shared over a campfire on a paddling trip. This reminds me of a video I saw of Roman Dial sharing a tale with his friends on a river trip. Everyone was seated on the ground and on mats around a fire. While the details of that story are not relevant to this question, I do feel that that particular video captures the essence of what it is to be out messing about in nature with a bunch of mates. Some of the surprises we’ve had on our adventures are in our book, some are not. And i’m sure both will be shared over countless more campfires around the world again by all those involved in this project. Considering the river community is so well connected, i’m sure that stories, printed or not, will travel.
AR: How can people find/buy it?
ZL: We’re currently working with our publisher, Penguin Random House India, to get it across India and Nepal. Through our network of friends or using international post, we can also mail it out to people. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Facebook.com/MeghalayaRivers and Instagram on @meghalayarivers.