Chitwan, Nepal - (map)
Royal Chitwan National Park lies close to the border of India, in a subtropical plain. Home to rhinoceros, tigers, sloth bears, monkeys, deer, and over 450 types of birds, it is a superb place to view wildlife. On our first morning visiting the park we decided to take a canoe ride into the park and from there, walk through the jungle on a guided trek. Walking through the jungle is not particularly safe, but it is the most exciting way to see the wildlife up close.
Floating down the river in a dug-out canoe offered a front row seat to the bird life: white egrets stood gracefully on the water's edge, a huge stork (the largest I have ever seen) stood in a small cove eating in seclusion, a rust colored duck dunked happily, kingfishers sang along the shore while sandpipers peered out of their nests, holes in the sandy river bank. The variety and multitude of birds was amazing.
Forty minutes down stream the canoe hit the shore with a thud and our two guides jumped out. Immediately they both started jumping up and down in frantic motions - I thought is must be a strange Nepalese ritual dance asking the gods for protection before entering the jungle. But then I understood their funny movements when I saw a snake slithering between their unprotected flip-flopped feet and escaping into the river. Welcome to the jungle.
We walked across a sandy area and entered woods. The guides stopped to give us brief "survival" lessons:
Lesson 1: Rhinos have terrible eyesight but have keen senses of smell and hearing. Their bad eyesight makes them vulnerable so they compensate by charging when they sense danger. So upon sighting a rhino, climb the nearest tree, scaling at least eight feet off the ground. If there are no trees, throw your backpack to the ground to cause a distraction and then run in a zigzag line (rhinos have a hard time turning their large bodies quickly). As if that wasn't enough to make me cautious, the guide informed us it was rhino mating season and the male rhinos are much more aggressive than usual. In fact, a Nepalese student had been killed the previous month by a charging rhino.
Lesson 2: Sloth bears can be extremely aggressive. When encountering a sloth bear gather in a close group and start yelling and waving your arms, pretending to be one large foe. Both our guides carried large intimidating sticks to defend the group in case of an attack. Later, they admitted of all the animals in the park, they most feared the bear.
Lesson 3: Tigers hunt by night and would be a rare sight. If one did attack, there is not much we could do about it, so try not to worry. Very comforting.
None of these lessons made me feel particularly good about our walk but now there was no turning back. We were in the heart of the jungle, far from any roads. Lessons over, we began our trek. Every tree I passed I wondered if I could climb. As a kid I climbed many trees, but that was decades ago and I am not so confident in my climbing abilities now. The best time to perfect rusty skills is not when a rhino is charging, but it is a good inspiration to try.
A couple meters later the branches overhead began crashing and swaying. Gray Langur monkeys jumped through treetops, fleeing from our intruding group. Soon we passed wild chickens and then barking deer in a small clearing. Barking deer are quite small and bark like a dog when alarmed. The amount of wildlife we saw in ten minutes of walking amazed me.
Our group left the wooded area and entered grassland scattered with small trees. The elephant grass, taller than our heads, surrounded us and made it impossible to see more than a couple meters in any direction. As we followed a dirt trail the thought we must be crazy to walk in the midst of wild animals crossed my mind several times and I gave Tim stern glances to communicate this. Careful not to make too much noise we talked in whispers and made our steps as light as possible. The temperature was scorching hot and the humidity so thick I could swim in it. Sweat dripped off our noses and down our backs.
Suddenly, both guides stopped and motioned us to stand still. My body froze and so did my heart. Not far ahead two rhinos grazed. I could see the big round behind of the closest rhino and watched as it slowly turned toward us. The guides made quick upward hand movements signaling us to climb a tree and at lightning speed I quickly scaled the nearest tree, my heart beating so hard I was sure it would break through my chest. High off the ground I had a clear view of the closest rhino. It was a magnificent creature with gray thick skin resembling layered metal armour.
It's ears perked forward and it's nostrils widened, taking in deep breaths of human and absorbing our presence. Tim was still looking for a tree to climb when the rhino began running and let out a thunderous roar. I screamed and could only breathe again when Tim was safely high in a tree and the rhino had passed. We waited in our trees for what seemed a very short time when the guides told us to climb down. I think I could have stayed up there all day. I hugged the tree, thanking it for being there for me when I need it and descended. It took all my courage to begin walking again for the last few minutes had been some of the most frightening in my life. Only four more hours of walking left!
The rest of the walk was comparatively uneventful. Thankfully, we had no more live rhino encounters but saw lots of evidence of their proximity - huge fresh heaps of rhino dung, deposited to mark their territory greeted us often and their immense footprints in the soft mud reminded us to remain alert. By lunchtime we were safely back in town and I was never so glad to see civilization. People eating at outdoor restaurants, motorbikes, and souvenir shops insured me there were no charging rhinos around - besides, there weren't any good trees to climb.
Chitwan, Nepal - (map)
Michelle and I sat on the back of the elephant with two other passengers. The four of us were crammed uncomfortably on top of a square railed platform with our backs to each other and our legs hanging off the corners like the four points of a compass. The driver sat along the elephant's neck. He steered its leathery ears with his bare feet and we lumbered down the dirt road to the Royal Chitwan National Park.
The park entrance is quite far from the elephant camp, so we spent the first hour bouncing through the villages and forests nearby. Quiet village life went on around us - a group of basket-wielding women in hot red and pick saris laughed and socialized on the way to the fields. An old man cast his fishing net across the knee-deep water of a meandering stream. A young woman made breakfast on the adobe hearth outside her mud and thatched wood home. Close to the park entrance, herds of water buffalo grazed in a green pasture. We tiptoed through it on a multi-ton elephant and although I was dying to take photos of the people, I couldn't bring myself to do it from the back of an elephant. It would have had too much of a "look mommy, natives!" feel to it, don't you think?
Everything changed once we entered the fringe of the park. The foliage deepened, the bird life hummed around us, and we spotted a rhino after only five minutes. To our surprise, the elephant driver bounced us to within a foot of the mud puddle the two-ton animal wallowed in. The rhino barely lifted his head to look at us before dropping it back into the mud apathetically.
He was built to fight, like a prehistoric tank. Thick wrinkled body armor protected him from head to toe and even his tail fit neatly into a protective fold that kept it free from danger. I could picture him fighting off anything from a Jurassic Park movie.
Seeing a rhino on an elephant was light years away from yesterday's experience on foot. We didn't need to worry about climbing trees, for one thing. But even more amazing is that the animals in the park seemed oblivious to our presence. We were invisible to everything, like the two sleeping sabar deer we spotted. If they had spotted us on foot, I would have only seen their rear ends running away. But today, they simply looked up at us a few feet nearby and went back to sleep.
After we realized that we were safe up high on our elephant, we began to talk freely. The rhino's diamond shaped ears perked up with catlike twitches, but his eyes told him that the elephant in front was too large to charge. He looked up at us only occasionally and pretended we weren't there.
Shortly after we moved along, a brilliant blue peacock sailed from tree to tree above our heads. We passed rhesus macaque monkeys on the ground, cuckoos calling their own names, and wild chickens scuttling in the underbrush. But I really wanted to see another rhino and was happy to see not one, but two munching on grass in a clump of trees. Again, we stepped in close and watched freely as they ate.
Five minutes after leaving this pair, we crested a small hill and almost - literally - ran into a rhino on the other side. The driver looked as startled as us.
When it was time to leave, we ambled back to town alongside another group on an elephant. The drivers joked and knew each other well and egged on by us, soon started racing each other down the dirt streets through the village. Racing clearly wasn't a common occurrence here, because the same villagers who didn't look up this morning now shook with laughter as we passed.
Our elephant deftly lumbered into the lead, but the opposition was clearly faster. So our driver zigzagged us across the road like a racecar driver guarding his lead. But our lead proved hard to hold and the challenger soon raced ahead of us. Happily, we stole back to the front when the other driver stopped paying attention.
It has to be said that racing an elephant is really uncomfortable. It is like racing in a car with wood seats and egg shaped wheels - you just bounce in all directions. But in the end, we arrived to the finish line first and were rewarded by being the first group to hop off and soothe our aching butts.