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Published: April 28th 2014
After 8 hours on a bumpy hot bus I arrived in Sauraha, an entry point to the jungle of Chitwan National Park in the lowlands of Nepal, to be greeted by a welcoming committee of 20 odd hotel touts all shouting and jostling in a bid to convince me to go to 'their' hotel. It was a sweltering 36 degrees which perhaps didn't help my decision making process but I was tired from the journey and couldn't face the walk from the bus station, which as ever was out of town, with my rucksack in the heat. So a deep breath and I headed straight for the mayhem. One guy who seemed quite genuine pointed out that there were no taxis which as I hadn't booked anywhere and didn't fancy the walk left me in a slightly sticky position, so I went with him. In the end I didn't stay at his hotel which although nice was more in the centre of the village whereas I had it in my head that I wanted to be by the river - the next few days were all about relaxing and chilling with a nice view before starting my next trek. Nevertheless I
felt quite guilty when he then refused to accept payment for the ride - it's rare I find myself trying to insist that a hotel tout take a fare!
6.30am the next morning I was walking alongside the river to the place where myself and two Chilean girls from the hotel would begin our canoe safari.... with an increasingly sinking feeling that it'd be more of a tourist spotting safari that a wildlife one! In the 10 minutes it took we saw 3 canoes go by, each packed with 8 or so tourists and guides, all with their cameras ready for the wildlife which i was convinced would have long since fled for quieter parts of the jungle if it had any sense. Clambering into a long wooden canoe carved from the trunk of a single tree we were each given a little wooden low stall to sit on less we become victim to the trickle of water that was slowly leaking in to the bottom of the boat (I tried not to think about the crocodiles we were hoping to see at that point). Then a quick push from the shore and we were off. And despite my
initial trepidations I thoroughly enjoyed the next 90 mins. OK so surprise we didn't see any rhinos or large animals but just the experience of being paddled slowly downstream was amazing - peaceful, passing small fishing villages with locals wading across to the jungle side to find fire wood, shallow rapids to negotiate, stunning views of the low lands through the early morning mist and trees rising tall and straight from the river banks. There were several guides in the boat with different clients so if I missed what ours was saying about a particular bird, and it was largely birds we saw (yes it seems I am a bird nerd) then I could usually hear its name and information repeated in stereo down the boat. The guides got most excited about a peacock that flew overhead (unmoving in trees is the more typical behaviour seen apparently) but I liked the brilliant blue plumage of the kingfishers we kept seeing in tree tops and diving in front of us (yup, a complete bird nerd).
I'd seen longer canoe trips advertised and wondered if I was missing out, but after 90mins on a hard seat I was rather glad to
be starting the next part of the mornings adventure. I've been on jungle walking safaris in Borneo and other places on my travels, each with a lasting memory that involves being eaten alive by a variety of biting insects and blood sucking leeches which invariably seem to love me more than anyone else. For once though I seemed to have timed it right, arriving before the rainy season so all of the nasties were, well I don't know where they were but not out on blood patrol which made for a much nicer experience. Before setting off we were briefed on what to do should we encounter any potentially dangerous wildlife. As we started to go through the list of run in zig zags, run for a tree, climb the tree, throw your bag on the floor etc I started to get deja vu of the Okavango Delta in Botswana where we'd encountered a rather grumpy stampeding buffalo. Although he finally veered off before we had to climb the tree we quickly went through steps 1 and 2 - once is enough and I hoped we didn't get similarly instructed by our guide on this trip!
When we immediately
came across a tiger paw print I was slightly skeptical - very skeptical if I'm honest. But we kept seeing them on the trail over the next few hours, along with tiger poo and trees that had been used for a bit of claw sharpening... we didn't see their owner but given my guide had last seen one in january that was never likely and given we were on foot I don't think it was a bad thing! The walk itself was lovely - it was still relatively cool and not at all humid, although when we broke the cover of the trees the heat and strength of the sun was quickly felt. We had two guides who were great at spotting what we missed through the often quite dense undergrowth - skittish deer quietly bounding away, monkeys in the trees above and as we passed a stream, two crocodiles snoozing in the grass along the waters edge. The highlight was the two rhino's, the first of which we could have mistaken for a large boulder it blended in so well and was so still. Standing munching slowly and quietly on leaves we were only about 10m away. A few
minutes later we found another, this one having finished feeding was sound asleep lying on its side, tail and ears ocassionally twitching with the odd stretch of the legs whilst in deep slumber. We moved on to the rivers edge for a short break, peering through the foliage just in case anything interesting turned up and then onto a couple of with viewing platforms with fantastic views across the flat plains and tree tops. I was glad I'd opted for the walking tour over a Jeep tour and as we headed back to town found myself contemplating a longer day walk if only I had more time!
Back in Sauraha I went for a walk along the river and got lunch (my new discovery - chilli chips, amazing!) at a small riverside cafe, a few tables and chairs with everything seemingly cooked over a single stove in a hut. The family who ran it were friendly but left me alone with a cold drink and my book whilst I slowly melted in the afternoon heat. That was until the man started shouting Miss Miss at me and pointing to the opposite bank. A rhino! I spent a good hour
watching as he slowly walked along the river bank and then down into the water for a refreshing bathe. By that point word had gotten around and quite a crowd of locals and tourists had gathered. Two fishermen polling their respective canoes came round the bend in the river and initially tried to sneak round him. The first just got passed when it was spooked and suddenly went from lazing in the cool waters to making a fast bid for the bank, threatening to take out the boatmen directly or through the waves it was creating. I've never seen two canoes move so fast as one quickly reversed backwards and the other sped forward to gasps from everyone on the bank. Comedy to watch as all ended well but it could have turned out badly for the boatmen.
Another 6.30am start, this time for an elephant safari. I'd been in two minds on doing this from reviews I'd read but then a few people had recommended it so I'd decided to give it a go. The safari's happen in the community forests rather than the national park itself but they're big enough that you don't feel crowded out by
other tourists, at least not on the early morning tour. The hotel owner gave me a lift down to the forest on his motorbike, worth mentioning only for the fact that I really, really, really hate motorbike's so arrived somewhat shaken and had to peel my fingers off the back on the bike where I'd been holding on so tightly! The rules here seem to require the driver to have a helmet, as a passenger, well bad luck, you're on your own. I was immediately distracted by the comedy of the elephant embarkation stations though - basically you climb a ladder to a platform and the elephant is reversed up against it. There's then a delicate moment where, unless you're over 6ft with long legs, you step on the elephants bum and clamber into the basket on its back. It's easy enough if you're the first in the queue but somewhat more tricky if you're last when there's rather more contortion required to squeeze in - each basket takes 4 tourists. As I was on my own I needed to wait for another 3 people - a few possible groups went past and I looked to the hotel owner but
he didn't move. Then I realised what he was doing.... 4 people in the basket is so much more comfortable if they're not all large adults! Suddenly I was being pushed forward and ended up sharing with a nice Chinese lady and her two small children. Then we were off.... Pulling straight up to the elephant ticket station to collect our ticket for the park. It really was hilarious, everything you might expect but at elephant height rather than person height. I was a little concerned as we started that the initial incessant chatter from the little people would scare any wildlife away, but I have to say after an initial shhhh from the mahoot followed by intervening ones from me and their mother along the way they were as quiet as mice and rather good at spotting things!
Elephant safaris are rather like canoe safari's I decided, great fun but in short bursts. Our tour lasted just under 90mins and by the end I was glad to be clambering back over the elephants bum. It's not the most comfortable ride, rolling around on a hard seat with your legs wrapped around one of the corner bars so you
don't slip through the gap all whilst trying to dodge being wacked in the face, leg or body by branches pinging back into position as the elephant makes its way through the forest. Initially we were in a queue of 4 or 5 elephants but their mahoots soon steered them in different directions and we were on our own. Much like on the walking safari the mahoots kept in contact with a series of whistles and calls (or failing that mobile phones) if anyone spied a rhino or other large wildlife. Moving slowly through the forest in the early morning light was lovely, birds tweeting, monkeys above, deer crossing the path ahead and another peacock, this time not flying. We headed down to, and then into, the river so the elephant could drink, hoping he wouldn't decide he fancied a swim as well. Then finally on the way back we spotted rhinos hiding in the undergrowth, this time a mummy and baby! As the mahoot steered the elephant to trample into the undergrowth and encourage them out I was reminded of African safaris where guides would rev a jeeps engine in a bid to make a snoozing lion get up
(I know they snooze a lot but!!). Not quite the experience I was looking for but we were able to watch them behaving naturally for a good few minutes before the trampling began.
Back at the hotel I collapsed onto the veranda with a cold drink in time to watch the elephants bathing - after a hard mornings work carrying tourists around they are taken down to the river to bathe and have a good scrub. 36 degrees in a country with power sharing isn't much fun so then after a cold shower and a few minutes laying on my bed watching the ceiling fan not moving I retreated to my riverside cafe where at least there was an occasional breeze off the river! I had one last activity to do though which again I was in two minds about. To be honest I'm still not sure what I think about it. This was the elephant breeding centre. The walk down there took around 40 minutes and was lovely, through small villages and passed fields, some of which were a lush green now even before the monsoon rains. The centre was set up so animals would no longer need
to be taken out of the wild. That part I was OK with, but given that these days the elephant safaris use privately owned elephants (i.e. not the ones at the centre anymore) I struggled with its purpose other than as a tourist attraction. There was a very good info centre at least in terms of animal physiology, behaviour and the myriad of 'tools' used to train the elephants (most of which are used to in some way prod, poke, wallop and otherwise cajol), but less on their current use. The baby elephants were allowed to roam free much to the delight of many of the visitors, but the adults were each teathered to a post by a metre or so long chain around one of their ankles. I understand that they are taken out for exercise walks during the day but I did have to keep reminding myself that this wasn't a rescue sanctuary of the kind I've been to before. I spoke to other people on the way round who said the elephants and conditions here were far better than at other equivalent centres they'd been to in other countries. Would I make the decision to go again
with hindsight though? To be honest no, but then I don't do zoo's either so that's probably just me.
Next up - hiking in the Himalayas (again!), the scurge of altitude sicknesses and food poisoning and my last days in Nepal :-(
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