Last week, as I was reached the half-way point in my trip here in Nepal, I started contemplating how best to spend the rest of my time. I had planned to visit Chitwan National Park and the neighbouring village of Sauraha after my Pokhara trip. However, anticipation was killing me and I decided to move my jungle trip up a bit. So on Friday 9th November, I took a short flight south to Chitwan. The weather was much warmer than Kathmandu, which has started to get fairly chilly in the evenings. I arrived at the hotel, Travellers Jungle Camp, around midday. It was a beautiful spot, with well-kept gardens and cheerful, friendly staff who collected me from the airport, which was 30 minutes away from Sauraha. They sat down with me and planned my stay, giving me precise timings for activities. This is a hotel that definitely doesn’t run on Nepali time!
After deciding on my itinerary, I was shown to my room. I was delighted with it, as it was not only immaculate, but had a bath with hot water. For someone who has had mostly cold showers since the start of October, this alone was a massive bonus to my trip!
At 3.30pm I returned to the hotel restaurant to meet my guide, Salik, who took me through the town and around the local area, pointing out birds and animals as we went. I got my first glimpse of the elephant hattisar or stables. I can’t say it was pleasant seeing these beautiful animals chained up as they were, but it was certainly interesting to see them up close. We kept walking, and we had a close encounter with what Salik believed to be a snake which was hiding deep in bushes. We think it had just raided a bird’s nest but the foliage was too thick to be sure.
Continuing our tour, we walked along the banks of the Rapti river to an area which was meant to be good for spotting rhino as they came to bathe in the evenings. However, we weren’t in luck. Eventually, we came to a museum with a rather small and random collection of bones, print casts and information boards about different animals. Walking on, we came to the outskirts of the town where it meets the river, where a number of small bars and hotels were situated. We stood on the river bank watching the sun go down as well as looking at a rather toothy and large marsh-mugger crocodile which was resting on the opposite bank. As the sun set, we made our way back to the hotel.
That evening, I was brought with 3 other guests from the hotel to the Tharu Cultural Programme. This was a show put on by the native Tharu people, with dances and traditional music. It was entertaining and the building was packed out with people from many of the hotels around the village. Apparently the dancers did the same show every single night!
After a decent night’s sleep, Saturday arrived. I got up very early to go for my elephant safari at 6.30am. The place was quiet when we arrived, with just a few tourists milling around. I got my photo taken with one of the elephants before being shown to a tower to climb onto another elephant for the safari. I was joined by 3 strangers and the mahout (driver), which to me seemed a bit much, even for an elephant. However, we turned out of the clearing and across the river, pausing so the elephant could take a drink, then headed off into the jungle. It was a strange sensation, riding through the trees and bushes at such a height, but it was certainly the best way to see wildlife. Along with peacocks and other birds, we saw a few herds of spotted deer, some wild pigs, the occasional Rhesus Macaque monkey and another marsh-mugger. Sambar deer lay in dense thickets, chewing the cud, the sun was slowly rising and making itself visible through the trees, and everywhere I turned there was something to look at. We marched through for nearly 2 hours, but I was disappointed that yet again that the rhinos and big cats had avoided us.
Emerging from the jungle, we were greeted by a crowd of tourists waiting for their turn on the elephants. I was glad I had one of the first trips in, as I may have seen a lot less wildlife as the day got busier and more people were traipsing through the jungle.
I headed back to the hotel for a hearty breakfast, and changed into clothes that I didn’t mind getting wet. At half 10, another guide from the hotel and I walked down to the river where an elephant was being washed. A couple of people got the chance to get in the water and help, and after my guide had a word with the mahout, I was invited in. I was helped on to the elephant’s back, and I had sat there for only a few seconds before the mahout called something out in his own language, and I received a face full of river water from the elephant’s trunk! Again and again I was showered by the elephant, until I was completely soaked through. I couldn’t help but laugh, even as other tourists stood on the banks taking pictures of me. The guide also had my camera and took photos as I was doused with water. The mahout began to lead the elephant into deeper water, before calling out something else. The elephant quickly knelt on one side, making me slide straight off into the river! The crowd laughed, probably because of my surprised scream as I fell off. The mahout helped me back up, and as soon as the elephant was standing up again, he called for her to shoulder me off again. I could understand why the people on the bank were laughing as I couldn’t stop laughing myself!
Eventually, the mahout brought me back to the shore and the elephant lay down in the water to let me off. A few tourists asked for a photo of me after I got back on to dry land, with my clothes and body soaked through. I was never more grateful for a hot bath than when I got back to the hotel!
After the hilarity of the morning, I was happy and excited for the afternoon; a canoe ride down the river before a jungle walk and a visit to the elephant breeding centre. The canoe ride took off from the same place where we watched the sun go down the night before, and as soon as I saw the boat I was aware of just how low it sat in the water. I got in nervously, as I knew that one wrong move would throw us all into the river. Sitting down, I was feeling a lot closer to the water than I liked, but as we set off from the shore, I quickly lost my nerves and started to enjoy myself, letting my fingers drift in the cool water. There was so much to look at; swifts and sand-martins skimming low over the river in droves, wader birds rooting around in the shallows for food, golden ducks flying from the banks in couples, a mongoose diving into the rocky areas of the shore looking for snakes or bird eggs, and a number of crocodiles that were either lying in the sun or slipping into the water and swimming right under the boat! I was lucky enough to see another type of crocodile, the gharial, which has a long, thin snout and is a fish-eating croc, which posed no threat. The marsh-muggers we saw were huge, and I wasn’t sure I liked being quite so close to them.
The canoe ride was enjoyable, and soon we were steered towards a bank to disembark and continue the journey on foot. With just my guide with me, it was easy to slip through the vegetation quietly, picking wild plums as we went, and it was nice to get to see more wildlife this way. I imagine that with a group, it would have been much harder to see anything, but we kept quiet as we walked. A wild pig ran across our path, leaving behind a wake of destruction where it had been digging around for food. We saw more spotted deer, and were right above a marsh-mugger as it lay on the bank soaking up the sun. We went deeper into the jungle and I came across a water snake skin, perfectly intact, with even the eye-caps still in place.
Walking further, we didn’t see much but we became aware of a sharp smell. The guide told me that this was the scent of a rhino. We kept going along the path, until suddenly the guide threw his arm in front of me and we quickly turned back the way we came, half running up the trail. We had been less than 5 feet from a rhino, far too close for comfort. We ran back to a thicket where I was told to quickly climb a tree and stay there until it was safe. The guide moved forward again, and we were surprised to find 3 army soldiers coming along the path, heading towards the rhino. My guide stopped them and warned them, pointing out the grey mass lurking in the bushes. From my spot up the tree, I could just see its back and ears through the vegetation. Slowly, the soldiers moved forward, beating sticks against trees to spook the rhino and encourage it to move away from the trail. Eventually, it ambled off deeper into the jungle, and I was helped out of my perch to continue the hike. Talk about a walk on the wild side!
A couple of monkeys, birds and termite mounds later, we emerged out of the jungle and headed across a clearing towards the elephant breeding centre. Lots of baby elephants stood with their mothers as the staff threw down massive bundles of fresh grass for them to eat. It was even worse to see the little ones chained to posts, and some clearly wanted to get closer to the people standing watching them. I was able to get some beautiful photos of them though, and after a while my guide and I turned away and headed back to Sauraha.
The final morning of my trip was another early one, as I was up to go bird-watching at 6.30am. It was very misty, which didn’t make it very easy to see birds, although I did see some gorgeous white egrets and storks by the river, along with smaller birds which hopped along the path in front of us. Again, as it was so early it was still very quiet, but as we walked on we came across a few groups who were also out bird-watching. I was surprised that there was any birds left to see, with the noise some of the people were making! I suppose the time spent running around in fields and poking around in hedgerows as a youngster had taught me to keep quiet when looking for animals and birds, but a few people in the groups clearly hadn’t the sense to keep the noise down!
After the walk, I was greeted with another filling breakfast before heading off to my room to pack my things, read for a while, and generally take it easy until check-out at 12pm. I had a last walk around the town before I was collected by the hotel staff and taken back to the airport for my flight home.
I really can’t stress just what a brilliant trip it was. Before booking it, I had started to doubt if I would go at all, but I’m so grateful that I did. It was a fantastic, unforgettable experience!, and one that I would recommend to anyone.