In the thick of things: Chitwan National Park, Nepal
The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he’s not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.
– Ogden Nash
Lurching along on the back of Anjali the Elephant, the unearthly glow of fireflies mirroring the stars, it was not a tiger’s fearful symmetry I hoped for. We’d begun our ride too late and it was time to head back. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder about local rogue Dhrubé, whom a typical headline described as “Lovesick wild elephant on killing spree”. If he took a fancy to our Anjali, we’d be mere collateral damage. Was that why our mount seemed reluctant? I was picturing a raging tusker plunging towards us when our elderly guide’s mobile phone pierced the night with a bright tinkle. “I’m in the jungle,” he apologised. “Yes, I’ll be home in time to milk the cows.”
We were in Nepal. But we weren’t busting our chops for superlative mountain vistas, nor steeping ourselves in contemplation of medieval monasteries. We were on a Himalayan safari tracking tigers, not trekkers.
Off a tourist bus from Kathmandu to Gaighat near Mughling (7am from Kantipath, US$6/Dh22), we jumped into the back of a jeep from Chitwan Bamboo Lodge and headed south along the serpentine, sculpted gorge of the Trishuli River towards the lowlands bordering India. The noon heat began to rise off the tarmac as we wound around corners, dodging careening trucks and renegade bikes, but the wind was in our hair and we didn’t care. Past the ramshackle commercial hub of Narayangadh, we turned off the highway and onto a dirt track to rattle through a land of rice fields and thatched huts, interspersed with scattered bursts of sal forest. We were approaching Chitwan National Park, a relic of the malarial wilderness that once barred the entire southern border of Nepal and stymied the ambitions of the British Raj. Today, the park spreads over 932 square kilometres of savannah and jungle, providing refuge to some of the last populations of Royal Bengal tigers, Asian one-horned rhinoceroses and long-snouted gharial crocodiles, along with about 500 kinds of birds.
We spotted two dozen species of said birds the next morning as we ventured out of the roomy bamboo and thatch cottages of our tiny resort in the sleepy village of Meghauli to the forests buffering the park proper. Our guide was as engaged as ever after nearly 50 years in the business, though warier since surviving a goring by a rhino three decades earlier (an event captured mid-air by an alert tourist with a camera!). “There’s a golden oriole,” he nodded, before pointing animatedly at an unusual crested raptor high up in a silk cotton tree. “Oho! I haven’t seen one of those for years. A black baza.” On the way back he dryly commented on a series of high, creeper-encrusted wire fences. “A Korean wanted to build a zoo here; he spent thousands and thousands of dollars on these enclosures. But he didn’t bribe enough people, so it never happened.”
Back at the lodge and sheltered from the blazing sun, we had a hearty lunch of rice, lentils, fresh vegetables and chicken curry. Then we trooped off to the river to bathe Anjali before riding her into the sunset. The cool waters of the shallow river were as much a relief for us as for the pachyderm, who wallowed about as we scrubbed her thick, spongy head with pumice stone. She was the resort’s first major investment, resort manager Raju Pariyar informed me proudly later that evening. She’d cost a small fortune and it had taken 15 days to walk her from India to Nepal. But owning one’s ride was the first step towards a resort’s self-sufficiency. No wonder they didn’t skimp on snacks – rounds of rice the size of polo balls, mixed with molasses and wrapped in leaves, disappeared down Anjali’s gullet like so many falafel. Raju was apologetic about our uneventful ride, but promised the following day’s jungle walk would make up for everything. Who knows, he teased, “you might get lucky”. I gazed at the lurid painting of a tiger behind him and smiled.
The next morning, we forded the wide, placid expanse of the Narayani in a wooden canoe. After the clogged waterways around Meghauli, the river appeared to us as a sea, vast in its glassy yet irresistible undertow. Almost immediately the guides began pointing out 15-foot gharials basking on the banks, their stick-like snouts extruding into the water, and then, 60 metres ahead of us, a magnificent rhino began crossing. We drifted, he waded, a dark waterline moving up his massive, armoured flanks until he rumbled onto a sandbar in a plume of dust. We disembarked farther on, into the park, and began walking through the liana-slung trees. Five minutes in, the lead guide gestured at us urgently to stay down and quiet. A group of gaur (Indian bison) lurked ahead, their superbly muscled 900-kilogram hulks glistening darkly through the thick vegetation. The guide tiptoed up to 15 metres away to try out a dinky-looking camera, but as soon as we approached, the herd thundered through the bush away from us.
We headed for a small lake, and right on cue another rhinoceros was spotted. It lumbered through the grassland, stopping frequently to graze, until it sank submarine-like into the waters, a heron statued on its back, beak arrowing downwards with the angle of its host’s approach. We perched on a trunk some 75 metres away, casually munching on oranges until a startled boar reminded us there was more to see. Moving deeper into the jungle, we savoured the expertise of our guides – now pointing out the deep scores of a tiger’s claws in bark – alerting us to a playful troop of macaques swinging through the canopy. Then, in hushed tones, the guide sighted two wild elephants across a burnt clearing. There was no question of hanging about – it was a measure of the danger they posed, relative to rhinoceroses, that we immediately headed in the opposite direction.
We weren’t the only ones spooked. Scattering a river eagle, a jackal, a flock of toucans and a herd of spotted deer, we were hacking a path through thick jungle towards a clearing when there was a sudden hubbub – local villagers illegally harvesting grass and wild tubers. They’d mistaken our olive-suited guides for park wardens and taken fright. You should be worried about the wildlife, not wardens, our men scolded, and they departed, grinning sheepishly.
We settled down for a lunch of egg, potato and roti. But now the lead guide’s eyes grew round, and with an expression flickering between delight and apprehension, he pointed into the tall, coarse elephant grass ahead of us. There, a mere five metres away, backside as big as a barn, was a rhino. As we frantically signalled for quiet, it bucked away with a great rustling. It was an exciting moment, and one that had not passed, for 10 metres away, half-concealed behind a great tree, were two more leviathans, resting. Would you ever trust a rhinoceros’ slumber? We did, and finished our sandwiches at our leisure.
The hot day passed as a highlights reel might. In and out of forest, savannah, scrub and riverine ways, we spotted only one other group of tourists. Presumably the rest were all scrumming around Sauraha, the popular entry point to Chitwan, where the only tiger you’d see would be on the front of a beer bottle. In Meghauli, we had more of the wildlife to ourselves.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the expanse of grassland fronting the ghost town of the controversially evicted Tiger Tops Resort, with its dozen empty elephant stalls and fancy lodges. As we mounted a rickety lookout, we sighted no less than six rhinos, trundling noisily through the vegetation, oblivious to the puny humans gawking at them. I began to understand the desire of maharajas to master these grand potentates of the animal kingdom (by hunting them), and the belief that a rhino horn (currently retailing at US$65,000 [Dh240,000] a kilo on the black market) can cure just about anything. As if to rub in this very human vainglory, we were then treated to the sight of a dancing peacock.
Replete, we headed out of the park along a broad jeep track. But was there more? The guides slowed and quietly picked up small rocks. There was a perceptible haze of dust in the air, and the jungle around us was unnaturally quiet, as if in hiding. We stopped, started, then stopped again, not quite knowing what we were doing. And then we reached the Narayani and trotted down to the sandy bank, where the guides nodded at the damp imprint of a huge paw. With an inflamed sun sinking redly before us – we’d been walking for close on 10 hours – this was perhaps as close as we needed to get to a 225kg cat with three-inch teeth. And didn’t we need a reason to come back to Chitwan?
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