River-Rafting and Moonlit Serenades in Arunachal Pradesh

Finding friends and fresh flavours in a town in the Northeast.  
Kameng River
The Kameng River originates in a glacial lake in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, and eventually meets the mighty Brahmaputra. Seppa, the town that hosts the Kameng River Festival, is situated on the banks of the sky-blue river. Photo: Fabiola Monteiro

It’s a full moon night and I’m being serenaded by the king of Naga folk music. Guru Rewben Mashangva—54 years old with long, wispy hair and a deep, soulful voice—is singing of gypsy women, lost loves, and staying young forever. He is everything I imagine a rock star to be. I’m sitting with newfound friends outside my tent, bundled up against the cold mountain air, my hands wrapped around a bamboo mug of homemade marua (millet beer).

I’m in Seppa, a tiny town in Arunachal Pradesh for the Kameng River Festival, a celebration of music, adventure sport, and local culture named after the sky-blue Kameng River. The festival is the community’s attempt to bring tourism to this part of the country—the district shares borders with the Tibet Autonomous Region—and to introduce travellers to the ways of its tribal communities: Nyishi, Galo, Sajolang, Aka, and Puroik. It’s a first for the community—and for me. I’ve never been to northeast India before, and this is my first time camping outdoors too.

My adventure began four days ago, when I had to make the arduous eight-hour journey by road from Guwahati. It was exhausting and the roads are terrible, but every time I opened my eyes from my light slumber, a different landscape called out for my attention. Before dawn, I remember seeing dark, massive clouds in the sky. Later in the day, tiny waterfalls trickled down slopes and every now and then, snow-capped mountains appeared in the distance.

Food at the Kameng River Festival

Steamed bamboo shoots, local greens, and roast pork frequently make an appearance at meal times. Photo: Fabiola Monteiro

When I finally got to Seppa around noon, I had lunch by the riverside. The Kameng flowed along, shining in the sunlight, as I chomped on bits of spicy mithun, a bovine animal that inhabits these mountains. There was an array of vegetables I’d never tasted before—each more flavourful than the next—but my favourite was the delicately steamed bamboo shoot.

Food and adventure sport are the festival’s biggest draws and I spent the rest of the afternoon sampling pickles, chutney, and rice cakes from the numerous food stalls that lined the grounds. Through the day, I saw youngsters line up for paragliding flights from the closest mountain, while others made a bee line for the enclosure dedicated to paintball fights. In the evening, I watched a fashion show featuring home-grown talent, young beatboxers, local dance performances, and a folk music performance by Guru Rewben Mashangva. Most of the people around me were locals from the main town who, like me, seemed to be having the time of their lives.

River rafting along the Kameng

The Kameng River is suited for gentle rafting trips. The stretch near Seppa, is gentle with few rapids. Photo: Hage Duyu

The next morning, I braced myself for the white-water rafting experience, scheduled for 11 a.m. Ever since I learned I would be rafting, I had imagined giant rapids swirling into one another, and me having to hold on for dear life. But the waters were surprisingly calm and the whoosh of the oars, as they rhythmically slapped against the water, soothed me. Each time we hit a bump, the women in the raft burst into a chorus of giggles, easing my tension. Sunrays filtered through trees on the banks, and I felt the icy water lap against my hand. It was a far cry from the racing heart I expected.

Later I discovered how the Kameng River provides for the town. At an exhibition of indigenous techniques, I saw how the Nyishi tribe turned pieces of bamboo into fishing implements. There were cages and baskets, but the one I found most fascinating was a contraption that functioned like a dam that stemmed the river so that the flow slowed down to a trickle. As a result, the fish were forced into the narrow space, and could be easily caught. The haul was divvied up between tribes that live on both sides of the river. It was a simple and ingenious use of materials that were readily available.

Nyishis in Kameng

The East Kameng district is home to five tribes, including the Nyishi community, who still practise the indigenous way of life. Photo: Hage Duyu

Seppa, I learned over my weekend there, was all about the simple pleasures. On the way back from the river, I stopped by a vendor’s stall, drawn by her display of fruit and vegetables. There were tubers that looked like sweet potatoes, and large citrus fruits that I mistook for oranges. We ping-ponged a bit trying to conquer the language barrier, until much to her giggling daughter’s delight, she cut a fruit up and handed me a sliver of the rangpur, a local cross between a lime and a mandarin. I found the outer layer sweet, but once inside, the sour punch hit me. Along with the fruit vendor and her daughter, I sucked on the fibres of the citrusy fruit, relishing its flavours.

I had come to Seppa for adventure sports, but it was the rich, local culture that bowled me over. In the company of new friends, I sampled fresh flavours, sipped unusual brews, and listened to music unlike anything I’d heard before. It was a chance to learn about a part of my country with which I was entirely unfamiliar. Plus, I got to wake from my tent every morning, to views of cotton-candy clouds touching the mountaintops.

For more trip ideas in Northeast India click here.

  • Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She loves beaches, blue skies, and baking, and is most centred while trying a new cake recipe. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro.

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