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May 10th 2013
Published: May 12th 2013
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As predicted, there was no hot water on Tuesday morning, so a cat's lick had to suffice before setting off for Chitwan. I took a taxi with Patricia and Marissa (twins from Germany who were on a different, bus but ended up at the same lodge as me) to the bus station, and we were put on separate buses, headed for the same place.

Throughout the five hour journey, I was right up front, next to the driver. I soon got chatting to a woman named Cindy, from the US. She's been travelling for fifteen months. I listened with interest to her travel stories, and we later decided to buddy up and find somewhere to stay. She'd written a list of lodges, so upon stepping off the bus, we spotted a guy holding a sign for Gaida Lodge (Gaida meaning rhinoceros) and set off with him to check it out. As it happens, it was dead cheap and just what we were looking for. A single en suite room for 400 Rupees (£3) per night? Yes please!

Cindy and I were both interested in the elephant bathing program, so we decided to go ahead and book it for that afternoon. And wow, what an experience it was.

During the walk to the river, our guide showed us huge areas of weed plants. He said it's legal to grow weed here, but illegal to smoke it. I later found out that the Gaida Lodge Special Lassi contains weed, so I'm interested to try that!

He also showed us 'Namaste plants' (which Madan said are called 'Touch-Me-Nots'😉. When the leaves are touched, they fold closed. I was fascinated, and kept stopping every few steps to touch them!

When we reached the river, the mahout brought his beautiful elephant round, and instructed her to lay down. Then he gave us rocks and showed us how to scrub her skin. I felt bad doing it too forcefully, but he ensured us that we wouldn't hurt her. Her skin felt like really tough leather. Still, I maintained a relatively soft rubbing motion, so I probably didn't contribute too much to her cleanliness.

It was such a thrill being in the water with her, but her every movement had us jumping back to avoid being crushed! Then she 'passed motion', and it was huge! About two foot long! Truly a floating log. Still, we continued scrubbing. The mahout said we were allowed to climb on her and even sit on her back when she stood up, but Cindy and I both declined for ethical reasons. It was refreshing to meet someone who feels the same way I do about elephant exploitation.

It was amazing and also a little bit sad to see such a magnificent beast responding to human instructions. When the mahout told her to spray herself with water, she did. When he told her to stand up or lay down, she did. The only command I remember (because we found it so amusing) is "pizza hut" (or something like that) which means "back up".

The elephant's left eye looked like it had a cataract, or possibly even blindness, but the mahout and guide didn't seem so concerned. Her other eye was quite bloodshot. I remember reading the horrifying ways in which mahouts train their elephants (I don't want to detail it here as it genuinely hurts me to even think about it, but I suggest you Google it if you're interested), and I couldn't help but wonder if he had inflicted these injuries on her. Whilst it was a wonderful experience, being so close to such a beautiful creature, I felt a little sad that she is, essentially, being held in captivity, and being exploited for her strength and novelty value.

In the evening, I relaxed in my room with the windows open, listening to the chirping and croaking of lizards, frogs and all manner of insects outside. There's nothing quite like laying silently in the middle of the jungle (safely tucked within four walls and mosquito nets, I hasten to add!) and just enjoying the orchestra of wild sounds around you.

On Wednesday, I enjoyed a lie-in, then got up and met Cindy at the bar area. We relaxed in the lush surroundings until it was time to set out for our less-than-£30 (including park fee) jeep safari. We were joined by a Canadian guy, an Argentinian woman, and later, two British girls. We walked down to the river, took a dug-out canoe across, then walked for about ten minutes to the edge of the jungle, where we caught the jeep and headed into the park.

In 1950, the park was home to over 800 rhinos, but poaching and ruling class hunting holidays reduced this number to less than 100 by the end of the 1960s (despite the introduction of various conservation laws and societies in the late 1950s). This decline prompted the government to take stronger measures against poaching, and thus the Gaida Gasti (armed rhino patrol) were put in place to prevent the species from extinction. Chitwan National Park was eventually established in 1973, and granted World Heritage Site status eleven years later. Unfortunately, the park's protection took a back seat during the civil war of the late 1990s, and poachers seized their opportunity, thus reducing the population once again. Following the war, the troops returned to their conservation duties and there are now approximately 500 Asiatic rhinos living in Chitwan National Park.

We were driving for a good two hours before we saw anything more than birds (albeit, beautiful birds, such as Kingfishers). Our first sighting was an Asiatic rhino, taking a dip in the lake. We climbed out of the jeep to get a closer look. Wow. What a sight! We obviously couldn't get too close, but we were close enough for good viewing. Luckily, I remembered to wear my classes, and the guide brought binoculars along, too.

Further along, we saw cranes by the side of the lake, and some spotted deer drinking. Then, a few minutes later, we saw another rhino. He walked out onto the path on which we were driving, and proceeded to lead our jeep! Every now and again, he turned to look at us, then continued walking. At times, we were as close as 100 metres to him! It was absolutely amazing! Then, after about fifteen minutes, he strolled off the path and back into the jungle.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at the crocodile breeding centre, which I didn't find particularly interesting, if I'm honest, although the toilet (which was smelly and full of bugs) was appreciated. We wandered around, briefly checking out the caged crocs, then relaxed outside until our driver and guide were ready to roll again.

Throughout the day, we saw another nine rhinos, but none as close as the first two. We also saw boars, rhesus macaques, grey langurs, white-throated kingfishers, an eagle (carrying a dead lizard) and several other bird species. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any tigers or leopards, but the rhino sightings more than made up for that.

All in all, we were in the jungle for about five hours. We were filthy, tired and hungry, so we grabbed dinner back at the lodge, then retreated to our rooms to scrub away the day's dirt.

Despite not falling asleep until around 2am, I woke up at 6am. I tossed and turned and couldn't get back to sleep, so I checked my emails. Happy days, it turns out I have a last-minute flight reschedule. I'm now leaving Kathmandu on Sunday afternoon, rather than Monday morning, and I have an extra leg added to the journey. So I'll be travelling for around 37 hours, door-to-door. Woop-f*cking-woop. I tried to see about amendments, but Cheap-O Air are pretty lame, and to save the hassle, I think I'll just suck it up.

After sitting at the lodge bar for a couple of hours, Cindy and I set out in search of an ATM. En route, we saw the injured baby rhino (that we'd previously been told about, and who may or may not be an orphan, depending on who you ask) out for a midday stroll! We got to stroke her and walk along side her. How many people
can say they've petted a rhino? I love my life!

We stopped at a cute little restaurant with a huge beautiful garden for a few soft drinks, then wandered back to the lodge, followed by an entourage of stray dogs. They seem to like sitting with us in restaurants and following us on the streets. Cute!

In the evening, I spent an interesting hour talking to one of the lodge staff who also carries out tiger monitoring. He told me there are 125 adult Bengal tigers in Chitwan. I shocked him with details of the horrific conditions that elephants are forced to endure in Thailand and he explained that they are extremely sensitive animals. Then, Madan and his friend Prakesh arrived and we spent a few hours catching up over dinner and drinks. It was so nice to see Madan Wadan after nearly two years, and he's still as cheeky as ever!

Madan told me that two men had been killed by a tiger in Chitwan the night before. I Googled it online, and sure enough, there it was. One man was dragged from his bed by the tiger, and a second man intervened to try and save him. Then a third man tried to help. The first and third men were subsequently killed, while the second escaped with injuries. It made me less inclined to wander around the lodge after dark!

The next morning, Madan made an early departure to Dharan. It's a shame we didn't have more time together, but the nationwide bus strikes of late restricted our plans somewhat. Anyway, I actually managed to stayed awake after Madan left at 7am, so I chilled in the garden area, had some breakfast and did some reading. I was soon joined by Cindy, and we chatted and laughed about life for hours on end, swapping comedy recommendations and travel stories.

Then the rain came. No, I lie - the hail stones came. Big blocks of ice. I kid you not, some were up to an inch in diameter and could probably cause a substantial amount of pain. We hid under the shelter of our regular table until it stopped, kicked back and chatted some more, then set out to the nearby village.

Sure enough, whilst out walking, the rain came down again, but this time without the icebergs. We waited it out for a bit in the ATM booth, then ran across the road to the bar we were at the day before. Cindy sensibly brought a rain mac with her. By the time we got there (literally a 20 second dash), I was drenched. We ordered drinks and waited again for the rain to stop.

We had a browse around the shops and I bought yet more trousers. Not Aladdin pants this time , though. These ones are hard to describe, but they're open-sided, so will be ideal or warm weather. And only £3-odd a pair! Result! I also bought some beautiful wooden rhinos and Ganesh statues, which are intricately carved to perfection. Then, we walked back in the dark, and the whole time, I had the tiger attack in the back of my mind. Doh!

We had a few lemon juices at the bar, then I bid fair well to my fab travel buddy. It has truly been a pleasure spending time with Cindy and I look forward to meeting up with her again in the future.

And so concludes my wonderful time in Chitwan! I was very sorry to leave, and would happily have stayed longer.


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