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Published: April 3rd 2012
We sit quietly on the banks of the river. The calm waters reflect the diminishing glare of the late afternoon sun as it sets to the west, lulling us into wonderfully absent minded reverie. The storks, herons and other water birds seen during the day have since vacated the river and there is little sign of the crocodiles known to frequent these shores, save for the occasional bark from a watchful and cautious mutt lazing in the surrounding sand, alerting those around to a possible silent, lurking menace. Across the river, as the sun completes its descent, the alluring stillness of the Chitwan jungles will steadily sever into murderous action as hunters rouse for the night, hungry and dangerous. It is blissfully clear that on these shores we are worlds away from the icy chill and desolation of the Himalayan Mountains, whose white peaks have since disappeared behind a pre-monsoon haze. Despite the nostalgia brought on from thoughts of the Annapurna’s, I am quite satisfied in this most serene setting...
It’s never easy saying goodbye to those closest, but having done so twice in the past weeks, I’m struck by the distinct emotional difference between leaving loved ones
behind, and being the ones left behind. In this instance we found ourselves in the latter position, both our fathers having left Pokhara in the days prior to our departure for the steamy jungles of Chitwan National Park, leaving us to lament their absence and indeed the absence of other family whom we miss. It’s not that we didn’t feel sadness when we had twice previously left our families in England, but that situation is aided greatly by the fact it coincides with the mysterious precipice of adventure and the promise of what lies ahead in setting off for foreign lands. Deceivingly, it distorts feelings such that the full impact of how much we miss family and friends can only be fully experienced in such moments as those when loved ones are the ones departing on their own journey, as was the case in Pokhara.
Following these goodbyes, Amy and I had little idea or plan as to what we would do for the remainder of our time in Nepal. We didn’t quite have the time required to trek and fully experience the mountains around the Kathmandu valley and north in Langtang National Park, and either way, returning to
the city of Kathmandu itself after experiencing the Annapurnas and Pokhara held little appeal. Thus we decided to head south for warmer temperatures and hopefully, a little adventure in the jungles of Chitwan, home to tigers, rhinos, sloth bears and all manner of other fascinating creatures.
After a largely uneventful bus ride south from Pokhara, most of which I spent asleep, and a slightly more eventful search for some decent accommodation in the peaceful village of Sauraha, on the banks of the river and on the very edge of the jungle itself, we settled ourselves in the very friendly and relaxing Riverside Hotel. I reserve the right to call a hotel itself relaxing when the manager of the place spends most of the day snoring loudly in one of the numerous hammocks situated within its grounds. Despite his sloth like habits, his staff were very friendly and efficient and when actually awake, we found the manager to be most helpful also.
We decided upon this particular hotel as we wanted to spend some time simply doing nothing at all; basking in hammocks whilst enjoying the sun, drinking a few bottles of Nepal’s finest and playing the odd game
of chess where high on our list, together of course with the occasional jaunt into the aforementioned foliage to seek out that which gives this region such renown. The deciding factor was the location of the hotel, which as the name suggests, is on the banks of the river itself.
During our first morning, we had finished a very decent breakfast and where putting our plan into effect with great efficiency – Amy lay in a hammock doing little but reading her book whilst I sat in the shade typing some notes I had made from the Annapurna Circuit. Of course, in my absent mindedness, it took me some time to realise the scene taking place right behind me – six elephants had somehow crept up along the banks of the river at the behest of their mahut masters and were bathing in the cool waters of the river. I say ‘crept,’ but as Amy delights in describing to others, my powers of observation are sometimes a little lax (apparently, when we lived in Yeonsu I failed to take note of a rather large neon sign in the town centre, welcoming newcomers to the city! I still say it
was erected during our occupation of the city but we agree to disagree, naturally).
As we later discovered, during these morning bathing sessions, a number of tourists tend to congregate on the river banks and partake in the process by jumping on the elephant’s back and generally getting soaking wet. However, on this particular morning, to our luck the river’s edge was absent of tourist activity and so we found a decent patch of sand to rest and simply watch as these beautiful creatures enjoyed the respite from the increasing heat of the day!
We initially resisted the offers from the mahuts to join in the bathing process – there is something about the presence of ‘mahuts’ and in particular, the infamous bullhorn, that draws pause when it comes to elephants. It’s well documented how in numerous countries, they are seriously mistreated, harmed and taken advantage of in the name of bringing in that all important tourist dollar! However, we had read that the elephants of Chitwan are treated with care and respect and indeed, saw the elephants grazing freely across the river in the grasslands of Chitwan for numerous hours each day, and so, on our final
morning, satisfied with the outcome of our ethical inquisition, we decided to partake in the fun!
To mention dilemmas, we opted to explore the surrounding jungle via a guided jeep safari, after giving consideration to the numerous other options for doing so, as a jeep would allow us to cover the most ground and hopefully, see more animals, though we were aware of the effects of engine noise and how it could potentially scare away some of what we came to see.
Indeed, three hours into a torturous safari ride, where I can assure you not a single stretch of smooth resembling track was crossed, and it appeared as though, frustratingly, that would be the result of the day. Even after the rare occasion where we spotted an animal, be it a colourful peacock hiding amongst the undergrowth or spotted deer, carefully picking its way through dense forest; our guide was sure to whistle at these wary creatures, who naturally responded to such prompts by rapidly fleeing the scene. Still, our trust remained in our guide and eagle-eyed driver that they could deliver sightings of more exotic creatures, such as the Single Horned Rhino, indigenous to the jungle
and grasslands of Chitwan or the notorious Sloth Bear, locally described as the most dangerous animal in these parts, given its incredibly short temper and willingness to defend its territory. I find the latter all the more remarkable since these jungles are infested with tigers, which I half heartedly tried to spot through the thick, high grasslands, but as with the Snow Leopard in the Himalayan mountains, I knew my chances were slim.
Following our departure from the mildly interesting Crocodile breeding farm, I concede that I considered the trip a waste. But, suddenly, our luck began to change and one by one, different animals began to emerge, beginning with crocodiles along the riverside and even wild boar feasting on scrub bushes in the nearby undergrowth. Indeed, as we approached the banks of the river, the tree line faded and gave way to less dense grassland and eventually as the river neared, sand banks which had emerged from the desperately low river. It was in such sand banks our guide excitedly indicated a number of very fresh tiger prints leading from the river into the cover of the long grass.
Our excitement at the discovery of the tiger
tracks was fleeting – a matter of meters down the dirt path, our driver spotted something unseen by the rest. Halting the jeep immediately, he quickly climbed out and scoured yet more long grass, returning to inform us that there was a rhino concealed somewhere in the grass. Silence descended on our small group, each rising on the jeep trying desperately to catch a glimpse of a wild rhinoceros. Sudden movement alerted us to a distant patch of gray, barely noticeable at this distance, but there we remained, silently hoping the rhino would come into better view.
As we waited, unknown and unseen by all in the vehicle but Amy, a mongoose frantically attacked a snake in the grass mere meters from our position wildly swinging the snake in doing so, such that all I noticed was the blur of the white underbelly of the snake before being dragged by the mongoose further into the grass and out of sight. Such fantastic flurry of activity was quickly displaced in our minds however, as the rhino had stirred...sensing a potential enemy nearby and starting its approach to our position, ready to defend its position!
Purposefully, it emerged from its
dense coverage, muscular, squat, tank-like in appearance, its single horn protruding menacingly, its beady eyes fixed on our jeep. Rhinos have notoriously bad eye sight, but at the distance we found ourselves, together with the determination of its movement, it knew exactly where we were. Amy enquired of our guide as to the foot speed of a charging rhino, to which the alarming and unforgettable response came: “Faster than car!” The immediate worry in his voice was all too clear, as our driver forced the jeep into gear before accelerating away. Luckily, the rhino lost interest at our retreat, simply continuing across the dirt path, once more into the cover and safety of the surrounding grasslands.
Much to our relief, the safari ended on several high notes; seeing animals in their natural, wild habitats is spellbinding; it generates such awe, be it Sumatran Orangutans, Himalayan Griffons or Single Horned Rhinos. As we sit in our familiar evening spot, enjoying another beautiful sunset on the banks of the river, I save a thought for our good fortune thus far on our journey...
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