A walk in the park

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October 25th 2010
Published: October 25th 2010
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Having successfully completed the trek to Chitwan National Park, we decided we had better take a walk within it. In truth, the park was always the objective and the trek just an interesting way of getting there. This is not to disparage the trek, which turned out to be a most serendipitous little walk, but more to highlight how much I've been looking forward to spending some time in one of Asia's premier national parks. I only hoped that the means did not end up trumping the objective. What appealed most about Chitwan was that here, unlike almost all other national parks in Asia, they still allow visitors to enter the park on foot, giving anyone who wishes to do so the opportunity of having a close encounter with some potentially very dangerous creatures. We wished to do so very much; so, on our arrival in Sauraha (the location just outside the park where all the cheap accommodation is located), we booked ourselves a full days jungle walk with the incomparable Mayaram of Kingfisher Jungle Trekking Tours and then took ourselves off to bed, fully expecting the next day to be nothing but a walk in the park.

Unfortunately that morning Anny woke up feeling ill and had to stay in bed, meaning that it would be just myself and two guides, Hup (Mayaram's son) and Dez (a guide in training), who would venture into the park. We met at half six in the morning on the misty banks of the river Rapti, which forms the parks northern boundary, and set off down river in a dugout canoe. The boat was punted by a villager who used to live in the park but who now, due to the government having relocated all villages from within the park, lives outside it and works as a boatman ferrying tourists up and down river. Speaking to Hup, who was himself a resident of the last village to be moved, it seems as if the relocation programme has been a success. The park is now free of all Human habitation and the villagers, as promised by the government, have been given access to basic services and education, enabling many of them, Hup and the boatman included, to find jobs as guides, boatmen, mahouts, waiters and shopkeepers, in the service of Sauraha's burgeoning tourism industry; which is itself an indication of the relocation's success.

Our early start bore the desired fruit and we found ourselves slipping quietly downstream as the first boat on the river. The guides scanned the river's muddy banks and the tall elephant grass that bordered it for wildlife. Most of that which was spotted was avian in nature, the highlights being the very large and decidedly evil looking lesser‑adjutant stork and a colourful family of peafowl. It is not unusual to spot crocodiles sunning themselves on the river's banks, but as the morning was unusually misty and cloudy, these cold blooded animals had yet to drag themselves from out of the swamp's warm waters. Then, in the distance, Hup spotted a male rhino that was bathing in the river. Unfortunately, upon hearing us approach (rhino have exceptional smell and hearing, but very poor vision), he climbed the banks and disappeared into the tall grass. We attempted to approach on foot, but by the time we had reached the spot and disembarked, the rhino was long gone. The low grey clouds that had been above us all morning had began to spit with rain, and by the time we had reached the point where we were to begin our trek, it had started to rain pretty hard.

The initial stages of the trek cut through the gnarled trees and low vegetation of some riverine forest, before following a path through the incredibly tall elephant grass that so dominates parts of the park. The elephant grass is a recently naturalised species, that is suspected of being bought here from South Africa. In a little over ten years this massive grass has quickly spread to many areas of the park, not least those abutting the river. No animal here can eat it and once it has established itself nothing else can grow there. It is proving to be a real nuisance; for us as well as the animals. By this time of year the government has usually cut a path through the grass in readiness for the jeep safaris that will enter the park in the winter, but due to a very late monsoon the route had still to be cleared. This meant that for two kilometres, in the increasingly heavy rain, we had to forge a path through the sharp stems of this gargantuan grass. By the time we had reached the other side we were all soaked to the skin, badly scratched and covered in blood. The blood came not from the scratches but from the many leaches that had attached themselves to us while in the grass (upon returning home later that evening I counted 36 leach bites covering my entire body).

It may be presumed that due to our drenched clothes, our scratched arms, our mud-caked shoes and our freely flowing blood that we were not really enjoying ourselves. Not the case. I actually found the situation both thrilling and hilarious, and my guides seemed to share in my enthusiasm. Hup and Dez are both 25 (ten years my juniors) but we quickly found ourselves getting on brilliantly. They were both great fun and, especially Hup, exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about the park and its wildlife. It was this winning combination that made a potentially pretty grim day incredibly enjoyable. We took an early lunch in the shelter of a watch tower, where we all stripped naked to wring out our clothes (the water came out pink) and to remove more leaches.

We ate a lunch of Dhal Bhat that Dez had carried in a tiffin box, whist weighing up our options for the remainder of the day. Hup was determined to find me some animals but, as he explained, to do this would require us walking further into the park, returning not to Sauraha as planned, but instead to a village further away to the west, from where we would need to catch a couple of buses in order to return. I think that, given the inclement weather, Hup was unsure as to whether I was as keen on a sighting as I professed, and for the same reasons I myself wondered if he was as keen for me to have one as he seemed, but when I enthusiastically agreed to his alternate plan he was clearly very excited. He explained how, like us, tigers had a dislike for leaches which when it was raining, caused them to walk on the open paths rather than in the forest in an effort to avoid them. So, with renewed optimism and full bellies, we gingerly put back on our muddy, bloody and still wet clothes and set off on our new route which lead away from the elephant grass and entered the tall trees of a Sal forest.

We had been walking for an hour through the forest, all the while keeping quiet and continuously scanning the trees for movement, without so much as a squirrel being seen. The path underfoot was very muddy and the rain was stronger than ever. One of the reasons that we were walking this way was so as to visit one of the small lakes that dot the park and which, in the dry winter especially, are such a magnet for animals. We left the main trail and took a direct route through the undergrowth to try and get a decent view of the lake. When we came upon some pampas-like grass Hup knew that we were close and he signaled for silence. He stepped forward the final few paces to the lake and scanned it for animals. I could see his shoulders tense when he turned to the right, and when he looked back over his shoulder to beckon me forward I could tell by his smile that he had found something. Sure enough, in the long but very narrow lake, only six metres in front of us and standing up to the top of its head in water, was an adult rhino. We could see only its horn, its eyes and its two huge ears that were constantly moving, independently of each other, in search of the slightest sound. Hup said that were it not for the rain the rhino would have heard us approach and have moved off.

We were so focused on this rhino that was happily blowing bubbles from each end and occasionally shaking its head, that for some minutes we failed to see another rhino that was out of the water on the bank to our left. Thankfully, it seemed that this one was also unable to hear us, as had it been able Hup assured me that as it was a male it would have surely charged. Both guides carried bamboo poles as protection, but I didn't trust their efficacy against a full throttle rhino. Hup reassured me by telling me that three times he's had to fight with a rhino - go for their unprotected lips apparently - and that each time he has won. He also said that Mayaram, his father, had been almost killed by a rhino and that every year guides are lost to them. We had been standing in the pouring rain watching, at absurdly close quarters, these magnificent creatures for many happy minutes when Hup decided that we had chanced our luck enough and that it was time to back away.

This spectacular sighting elevated all our moods still further and put an added spring in our squelchy steps. From rhino lake we trekked to a second lake near where, at a crossing of straight paths that afforded long views in four directions, Hup had previously spotted many tigers. We spent a long while exploring both areas but neither gave us any more sightings. By this stage it was three O'clock, and if we were to stand any chance of getting back to Anny less than two hours later than the previously predicted five thirty, we had to keep moving. The final two hours of walking took us back into riverine forest where we were able to spot some large herds of spotted deer, and a couple of solitary barking deer. All the animals were very skittish and shy, but occasionally Hup could get them to pause before fleeing by imitating their calls. Eventually we came again to the Rapti river where, just before we called across the boatman from the village on the opposite bank, we had our final sighting; a three meter gharial crocodile lazing on the bank.

The journey back to Sauraha involved two buses, a minivan and a horse and cart. We rode on the roof of all of these except the latter, which found us cramped together in the little cart being bumped and shaken by the stony, uneven tracks. Riding the buses' roofs was much more fun, even though, now that we were no longer walking, the wind and rain quickly chilled our bodies. The buses were driven at alarming speeds down some very bumpy, very narrow and winding roads, all the while overtaking as many other vehicles as possible. To stay on the bus I had to brace myself against the metal bars of the luggage rack in anticipation of a sudden and violent movement in any one of five directions. I had to also keep my eyes facing forwards, as a swift branch to the side of the head quickly and succinctly informed me, not just for low branches, but also for the low slung and no doubt live power cables that buzzed narrowly over our heads. All in all an exciting end to a thrilling little walk in the park.

At seven thirty when I returned to Anny I found her in bed, where she had been all day, and still feeling rubbish. We went to eat some food but Anny hardly touched hers and she barely had the strength for the walk back to the hotel. Anny had already missed out on the walk and she was not confident of being well enough for the elephant safari we had booked for the morning. We cancelled her ticket that evening with an understanding Mayaram and decided to see how she felt in the morning. Mayaram said that if she felt better it would be no problem for her to join me; as it transpired I had to take the elephant ride on my own. I'm sure Anny, had she been there, would have enjoyed the experience a great deal, but I found it to be a little pointless. It was of course great fun to get to ride an elephant but any chances of a significant wildlife sighting were, it seemed to me, precluded by the number of elephants that all entered the small area of forest together, and especially by the shrieks of the excited tourists who all seemed to view the elephant safari as nothing more than a thrill ride. None the less it was pleasurable to feel the ponderous gait of an elephant below me and delightful to feel, when our elephant snacked on what must have been her favourite tree, her whole body vibrate with pleasure.

When I returned to Anny I found her feeling much improved and we made a spur of the moment decision to cancel that mornings coach back to Kathmandu and instead to go and see Mayaram and to book another full days trekking. Mayaram and Hup were both delighted at our decision and gave us a significant discount on the jeep safari we booked for that evening, and also the following days trek. We got a full refund on everything we had cancelled with Mayaram, both that morning and the previous one, and we also managed to get the coach ticket transferred for two days later. As it turned out we could not have travelled that day even had we still wanted to as it was Tika day, another celebration day that is a part of the longer festival of Dashian, and the coach was not running! Still, we felt happy with our decision and looked forward to that evenings jeep safari into the community forest, the more so as Mayaram was to be our guide.

We saw a mother rhino and her year old son, we saw sambar deer, spotted deer and barking, we saw a mugger crocodile, a tree-pie and a red beaked blue magpie, we saw stork and we saw boar, we saw eagles and we saw monkeys. In terms of sightings it was an exceptionally productive safari, very successful, but what made it especially memorable was the infectious passion of Mayaram. Mayaram has been guiding for 31 years and he still, upon sighting a rhino gets as excited as someone witnessing one for the first time. He was always smiling and continually educated us by sharing with us some small pieces of his vast acquired knowledge, as well as telling us stories of his previous encounters and close shaves with leopards, tigers, rhino and bear. It was an amazing experience to view these animals in the company of such a genial, intelligent and loving man.

The trek that we enjoyed the following day was much the same as the one I went on two days before, except without the rain and with the added company of Anny and a decidedly batty, but very lovable lady from South Africa who, with her infectious humour and joyously manic demeanour, reminded me of female version of my good friend Willem (agent Morstat). We again got to see rhino at incredibly close quarters which is so much more of a thrill on foot than in a jeep or on an elephant, as well as deer, crocodiles, many many birds, a couple of snakes and, right at the very end, near where we saw all the deer two days earlier, we were lucky enough to get a brief sighting of a male sloth bear. We were walking in a line with Hup at the front, who had his bamboo pole slung over his shoulders with his arms hanging loosely from it, and myself just behind him. It was late in the day and everyone was lost in their own thoughts and not really concentrating on the path, myself included. I just happened to be looking in the right direction when the bear stepped out of the forest and onto the path ahead of us. I sort of squeaked a little and pointed, in order to get Hup to look up from the ground, but by the time he did the bear had disappeared back into the forest. We gave a nervous chase into the very dark forest, but thankfully the bear managed to avoid us.

This encounter with one of the park's lesser seen creatures was a fitting end to a memorable four days in the jungle. We did not get to see the elusive tiger that most people come here hoping to see, but just being able to walk in the forests in which it lives was an experience in itself. A couple of times on the second trek we knew we knew we were very close to a tiger sighting; once when a troupe of Langur in a neighbouring tree began to scream, shaking the branches and looking at the ground, something they will only do when they see either a leopard or a tiger; a second time when we found some very fresh pug marks. The visceral thrill of knowing that one of these powerful killers was probably within a hundred yards of us was exciting and very humbling. At other times on the trek we would disturb some creature in the grass which would bolt away in a crash of foliage, leaving us standing stock still with rapidly beating hearts and massive, nervous grins. This thrill is definitely addictive and we are both already looking forward to our visit to Bardia National Park, Nepal's other large park, which has much the same animals as at Chitwan, but with hardly any other tourists.

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11th November 2010

Hi guys, I'm just catching up on your blog (on company time - he he). Thank you for the Drongo picture - funnily enough, John sometimes calls me a drongo so we particularly appreciated that one! ;-) By the way Costa is just not the same without you Scott - it has gone right down hill!! Love Blane x

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