From mountains to savannahs the journey from Pokhara really demonstrated Nepal’s embarrassment of riches with regards to geography. Located in the Terai region, Chitwan National park consists of dense sub tropical forests and open plains of grassland criss crossed by rivers which act as a focal point for its diverse range of wildlife. One horned Rhino, Bengal Tigers, Spotted Leopards, wild elephants and Sloth Bears are the big five in Chitwan and we managed to spot two just hours after we arrived.
I had bought the stay in our lodge as a birthday present for Sarah and it lived up to the pictures with tropical gardens, hammocks and clean rooms with hot showers, a pleasant arrival after a long coach journey from Pokhara. After settling we went to explore the area. A river establishes the parks northern border and it was here that while walking we spotted our first rhino bathing on the other side of the river, blissfully unaware of the groups of people including us excited by its appearance. Later on that evening we also saw crocodiles and an elephant as we watched the sun set over the grasslands next to the river, enjoying our first encounter with the wild animals of Chitwan (Annoyingly we decided not to bring our camera out with us that night)
Elephant bath time was on the agenda the following morning so we rented bikes and got hopelessly lost in rural Nepali villages before discovering the bathing area was 5 minutes walk from the bike shop. We were saddened by what we found here, perhaps foolishly I had imagined the bathing to be an opportunity to help the mahouts wash and play with the elephants in the river. Instead we found a queue of tourists in life jackets waiting in groups of four to sit on the backs of the elephants and get sprayed before the mahout pulled on the elephants ear with his spike to shake off the group ready for the next ones. I knew beforehand that Elephants here are working animals and was well acquainted with the idea coming from India where it is common to see elephants constantly hit with spikes to keep them in check. But we had both refused the option to ride with elephants there in the hope that here in the national park we would encounter better treatment of these wonderful animals. However on the approach to the baths I witnessed one mahout heavily laying into an elephant with his club for I assume, not performing his duties well enough, something I am glad Sarah did not witness as it upset some of the Nepali women to my side. For this reason we decided not to engage in the activities and against the advice of the guide books opted to do a walking jungle safari the following day rather than on Elephant back. That night we did a quick recap of what to do when encountering different animals and booked an hours canoe into the jungle followed by a days jungle safari on foot (in case you were wondering; rhino- run up a tree, tiger-back away maintaining eye contact, sloth bear- fight, leopard-panic)
The morning canoe ride was a beautiful way to start the day, watching the sun rise over the water surrounded by rare water birds and crocodiles. Despite at times the boat being so perilously close to the water level I was half expecting a crocodile to fall straight into the boat during his morning swim. Our guide for the day was Ram who was accompanied by a young assistant as it is compulsory to enter the park with two guides. Unlike in other countries, guides in Nepal don’t carry rifles so if we did encounter any trouble we would be relying on the talents of Ram with his bamboo stick. The day started in the jungle and after just a few minutes we spotted a herd of deer, though they were quick to scare and move off. Stumbling across another group we encountered a large male rhino fast asleep from about 10 metres away and Ram decided it would be dangerous to get closer as the rhino may be less than impressed getting woken up.
The grasslands were next up, and we hoped for a clearer view of the animals than in the dense Sal forest, we weren’t quite prepared for just how close we would come. After a quick doze in the shade following lunch we were woken by Ram from the viewing platform, he could see a rhino off in the distance approaching a water hole. We set off in pursuit and after a while found the rhino in plain sight just the other side of a small clearing, Ram did some calls to make we wouldn’t surprise the rhino, instead he turned and we watched each other for a precious few moments before he wandered back into the tall grass.
After around half an hour of cutting our way through 5metre tall grass we heard a grunt from close distance and both our guides were instantly motioning for us to run, in particular the young guide to our rear was almost running past us in his panic, seconds later we were running past a large male rhinoceros just 3 metres away from us facing the opposite direction. We made it to the nearest tree and were preparing to climb if we heard movement towards us. Fortunately we didn’t and it turned out there where two rhinos walking one after another and we had walked right between them (hopefully you can forgive us for not pausing to whip out the camera), the grunt was a warning to the other animal that humans were close, Ram assured us that if we had bumped into either one of the animals at such close quartets it may have been a slightly more troublesome escape. Nevertheless me and Sarah were both buzzing of a primaeval high and our guides were shaking our hands and hugging us as they thought we were lucky (where was this luck in India we asked ourselves).
We finished the day walking back through the jungle, me secretly hoping to bump into a tiger or leopard neither of which joined the party but just knowing they were somewhere in the same jungle was a nice thought. Getting back to town in time for Deepwali celebrations so there were flowers and colourful chalk painting lit up by candles outside every door. We had our final Chitwan meal with Elena and Felix who had arrived from Pokhara, and Sophie and Dennis who we had met trekking. The following morning we head to the capital! People have told us Kathmandu is crazy and difficult but we are both very much looking forward to it and refuse to believe it can be as daunting as the urban jungles of Northern India.
The link for the flickr album is now on the Pokhara post