Interview by Deno Dolie
Exploring the mystical Northeast of India is on the top of the bucket list for many, and with the region becoming increasingly accessible, a growing number of local and foreign tourists have been visiting the region in recent years. That said, I personally believe that the real joy of traveling to the Northeast lies in exploring the local gems – in the unknowns.
This is where I would like to introduce Samuel Duia from Shillong, a passionate traveler, and founder of ‘Duia Trailblazers‘ – a Govt. recognized tour operator based in Meghalaya whose unique offerings include expert local tours, village stays, local food & culture exploration – and more. Most notably, Samuel and a team from Bangalore Adventure School (BASCOOL) recently discovered an unexplored canyon in Syntung village – now named (by Samuel’s ‘first descend’ team!) as ‘Upper Shonghang Canyon.’ I chat with Samuel about his venture, responsible tourism, canyoning, and of course, their recent canyon discovery – in detail!
Samuel Duia – Founder of ‘Duia Trailblazers‘ Meghalaya posing in front of the ‘Upper Shonghang Canyon’ discovered by his team!
Deno: Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Samuel Duia: Hi, I am Gerald Samuel Duia, founder of ‘Duia Trailblazers’, I’m an avid adventurer, explorer, instructor, tour guide/planner, and photography and outdoor enthusiast. I graduated in Tourism Administration from Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong. I am really passionate about traveling and exploring new places, meeting new people, trying, and also learning new things.
Deno: How would your friends describe you?
Samuel Duia: Well, my friends would call me “Khun ka Mariang” which means “Nature’s Son” and they tell me that my habitat is in nature’s lap. I think it is so hahaha.
Deno: Tell us more about your background, and your passion for travel, and of course, how you went about starting ‘Duia Trailblazers.’
Samuel Duia: Well, I have always been passionate about exploring in my own state, learning the various lifestyles, the rich biodiversity, and the culture of our very own people of Meghalaya. Since then I continued to promote places in a sustainable way through photography which I acquired few skills with help from my media friends. I have been in this field for more than 8 years now. I use to guide and take my friends out to various places and this led me to venture slowly into the tourism industry.
After graduation, I was certain that I wanted to pursue something in travel, and promoting local tourism in my state, so I signed up for various adventure courses, and in March 2018 I started Duia Trailblazers. With the skills and knowledge that I acquired from my explorations and experiences, I try to curate everything for people to travel and try out different things other than visiting the usual crowded spots in Meghalaya.
Duia Trailblazers is a govt. recognized Tour Operator based in Meghalaya which focuses more on Eco Rural Tours, Culture & Heritage Tours, and Adventure Tours. We work at grass root levels by rendering services from the locals from guides, accommodation units, local food, and related services. In a way, we are generating employment for the locals and trying to erase the urban evils of city migration and related matters.
Deno: You guys made a very cool discovery in Shonghang canyon! Please share more details about your team’s ‘First descend.’
Samuel Duia: Three hours drive from Shillong in Syntung village, there is a waterfall popular only among the locals. Locals call it Kshaid Shonghang. There is a narrow gorge immediately above this waterfall. This beautiful section is 475 meters long and was carved out of sedimentary rocks by flowing water over millions of years.
There was no documentation or local knowledge of any human traveling through this piece of earth. Our team was the first set of humans to travel through this section. In technical terms, this is called ‘first descend’. As per international Canyoner’s protocol, the team that does the first descend gets to name the canyon. By keeping the local sentiments in mind, our team decided to name it “Upper Shonghang Canyon.” Because this is above the Shonghang waterfall and there is another technical canyon after the waterfall which is not descended yet.
“Upper Shonghang Canyon” was recently discovered by Samuel Duia, and his team from Bangalore Adventure School (BASCOOL)
This discovery was a collaborative effort between Duia Trailblazers and Bangalore Adventure School (BASCOOL). I collaborated with some of the most enthusiastic and smart folks from BASCOOL – namely Gokul Ramachandran – lead Instructor, Rajesh Raj, Mukesh M U, and Askarali. Here’s a quick view of our canyon adventure, that started way back in 2019 . . .
Samuel Duia: In October 2019, Gokul (Lead Instructor – BASCOOL) noticed the possibility of a canyon from the topographic maps, while researching the terrain around Syntung village in Meghalaya. He then reached out to me to discuss exploring the possible canyon. I obviously got excited too and went around collecting more information from the local villagers in the area. While all this was happening, the COVID pandemic came around and delayed our plans.
In April 2021 we finally visited Syntung village, to execute our plan to descend the canyon. With the help of my friend, Mr. Pal, a meeting with the village headman was arranged; he was very receptive to this idea – and gave us permission to descend and even assigned two local guides for the team. We were also given assistance for staying and food arrangements.
That same day evening, we made short treks to both the top and bottom of the canyon. The next morning, the team (without the local guides, as they were not technically equipped) finally ventured to descend the canyon. It rained a lot, and the water level in the canyon was a little higher than the previous day but, still, we assessed it to be safe. So, we all entered the canyon with a jump into the deep slot section. Here are some amazing photos we documented :
The recently discovered “Upper Shonghang Canyon” in Meghalaya
The beauty of the ‘Upper Shonghang Canyon’ will fill anybody’s heart with awe. It has lots of jumps and mandatory swims in cold water. That also means, those who want to experience it must be comfortable with water and it is important that you get guided by an able leader who has knowledge of swift water techniques.
Deno: Is the ‘Upper Shonghang Canyon’ open to tourists?
Samuel Duia: Upper Shonghang is a technical canyon because it ends with a mandatory rappel of 40ft height out of which 25ft is an overhang. Also, one will need the knowledge of Swiftwater techniques to travel through this canyon. However, we believe that we can make an exit path (steep climb) just before the waterfall. Once we set up such an escape path, we will be able to open up this canyon to the general tourists who do not have the requisite rappelling training or those who simply want to skip the rappel.
Deno: For a newbie like me, can you explain what is canyoning, and what it entails?
Samuel Duia: Canyoning (aka canyoneering) is a mix of many sports; it includes trekking, rappelling, route finding, jumping, sliding, swimming, and stemming. When all of these are done in a canyon as a team, it is uber fun. Hence, the term “Let’s go play in the canyon” is used instead of “let’s go canyoning!”
Duia Trailblazers work at grassroots levels on promoting this sport and also on imparting training to the locals so they can generate employment through these activities safely and responsibly.
Deno: What’s the best way to explore Meghalaya for someone traveling in this region for the first time?
Samuel Duia: I would always recommend venturing out with a trusted state Govt. recognized, and registered local tour operators, local transporters, local guides, and everything Local. In this way, one can truly enjoy a meaningful and valuable experience when in Meghalaya.
I am not saying just here (in Meghalaya), but one should always seek local services first be it in any part of the world. I am saying so because at the end of the day the locals know their place best. And if anyone is traveling for the first time to Meghalaya, we as a local tour operator would be delighted to be yours at your service.
Travelers from Mumbai enjoying a breathtaking breakfast at Laitlum with Duia Trailblazers, in Meghalaya
Deno: Can you tell us more about ecotourism in Meghalaya?
Samuel Duia: A lot of people are talking about ecotourism but hardly all understand and practice it. Meghalaya is known for its natural beauty, living root bridges, caves, flora & fauna, etc. In the past few years, we have seen a lot of damages done by tourism to various eco spots due to mass tourism, a few living root bridges have lost carrying capacity, fossils in cave walls are damaged, scratched and etched with tourists’ names, disturbing visuals, and colors of viewpoints erected in any place where one wants to, so on so forth. And, the most dangerous thing is people who have money but little knowledge about tourism venturing into this industry.
We are passionate about tourism and also the longevity of its resources, we try to do things responsibly and sustainably. And, if not our future generations will simply perish and be forced to venture to other means of livelihood. We need more entrepreneurs and stakeholders who understand and know where their food comes from. High hopes!
“We provide professional guided tours to remote and exclusive villages, experience a day or two with us in the rural areas, learn more and take back warm moments with you and cherish them forever.” ~ Samuel Duia – Founder ‘Duia Trailblazers’, Meghalaya
Deno: What’s your take on the impact of the tourism industry by Covid 19? When do you think people can freely travel again?
Samuel Duia: We were the first to get hit and the last to recover. There are various tourism service units that have been badly hit especially the ones who have just started out their own ventures. Plenty of youths in this industry have lost their jobs and are forced to venture into other means for livelihood and some not at all. We are one of the fastest-growing industries but with travel restrictions, we are bound to decline at a fast pace. Looking to the bright side, on the other hand, it helps nature to breathe and regain back from the busy activities of visitors in many places.
COVID is unpredictable at the moment, we don’t exactly know when will people be able to travel again. But, I believe if we are responsible enough we can conquer and get through all of this soon and we will be able to travel again and enjoy nature in a more responsible and sustainable manner. Till then I urge everyone to stay calm and safe and follow all health protocols. Together we can do this.
Travellers Berhard and Gisela Friedrich from Hamburg, Germany enjoying the landscape of Laitlum with a cup of red tea.
Travelers from Princeton University. Exploring Meghalaya with Duia Trailblazers.
Deno: Thanks Samuel for this interesting chat. I am already excited to plan a canyoning adventure with Duia Trailblazers – hopefully soon. One last question before you leave, if you’re having a bad day how do you make it better?
Samuel Duia: We are so blessed in Meghalaya that we can go for a 2hrs drive to any location and naturally it makes me feel better simply by gazing at beautiful landscapes, farmlands, waterfalls, rivers and you know sometimes just gazing at the stars makes one feel better.
Samule Duia and friend climbing a fig tree [Photograph by Samuel Duia]. Follow Duia Trailblazers on Instagram. Hope you plan your trip to Meghalaya soon!
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