Back to basics in the jungle of Chitwan

Posted: December 22, 2010 in Nepal
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Two weary gringos stepped off the bus at Sauraha to be greeted by the driver from the Tiger Residency Resort. Having booked an all inclusive 2 night, 3 day package from Kathmandu for only $100 per person, we had expected the accommodation to be rather primitive. However, we were pleasantly surprised to discover the ‘Resort’ was actually rather nice. Located on the edge of Sauraha town, it was quiet and the rooms and food were good for the money. We had a briefing with Chitra, our local guide for the next few days, and then took advantage of a 1hr chill before the activities began.

Eyes like an eagle

But strength sadly not of the bear. Joined by two friendly French peeps, we walked to the Chitwan National Park museum for some nature lessons. En route, as we passed the Government owned elephant stables (most elephants in Sauraha are captive, bred to support tourism and to carry out important work within the park) I casually looked out over the jungle plains and saw two large shapes emerging from the river bed. By chance I had spied two rhinos, a mother and calf. I didn’t register at first because spotting rhinos is hard and rare, let alone within 5 minutes of turning up.

I gave Chitra a nudge and he beamed back at me “Rhinos quick quick let’s follow them” and set off through the fence towards the beasties. Within 5mins we had followed them into the jungle and watched open mouthed with astonishment as we saw the baby and mother rhinos eating from the trees and bushes. Up close rhinos are impressive – not only are they huge and imposing, but their back and sides are covered with armour plating. They are like natural tanks.

The Chitwan rhino is the rare one-horned Indian rhino which was being poached to extinction during the Maoist insurgency. However, the good news for nature lovers is that since stability has returned to the political landscape, animal conservation is once more a focus and the population has risen slowly since 2008. Fingers crossed.

Through the mist

Early the next day, Wednesday, we set off on a canoe trip up the Rapti River which dissects the park. The experience is eerily beautiful. At 07.30 the river is enshrined in a fine, cold mist that reduces visibility to less than 5m. Crocodiles patrol the river and whilst you can’t see or hear them, their silent threat gnaws at your soporific mind and the temptation to put your hands in the warm shallow water teases.

Occasionally you can make out the shape of other boatmen and local mahouts riding their elephants to collect grass. Sitting in the wooden dug out canoe, you can imagine what it was like to be an early explorer in the virgin wilderness of Chitwan. Haunting, thrilling and calming in equal measure.

The morning’s fun was spoiled somewhat by a far quicker than planned jungle walk to the Elephant Breeding Centre. Feeling cheated by the 40min instead of 90min walk, we were dismayed on arrival at the centre. We had expected a place where elephants roamed freely, instead we were confronted by the depressing vision of over 20 elephants shackled to wooden posts with heavy iron chains. Inside we wept. Muneeza and I refused to take photos or spend anytime there; we told Chitra it wasn’t good to see these animals in chains and waited outside the centre for the others.

Elephant bathtime and safari

Bathing an elephant in the river is an experience that will leave an indelible memory and a smile on your face that takes time to fade.  We hadn’t planned for this but as we sat riverside and enjoyed a hot lemon tea (good for my worsening man flu), one of the mahouts started to bath his elephant. I said hello and he then waved us down to join him. Mange tout.

I spent the next 15mins standing and crouching next to the largest land mammal in the world, pouring water over its head and body and scrubbing its coarse skin. At first I was quietly crapping myself because elephants are huge and have been known to kill their mahouts in apparently random acts of aggression. Still, you only get one shot so don’t let the opportunity pass. It’s quite incredible to think that I have scrubbed an adult elephant as it snoozes in the midday sun.

In the afternoon we went on an elephant safari having been assured by Chitra that the mahouts in Chitwan treat their elephants kindly. Sitting atop an elephant as it ambles through pristine jungle is an odd experience. One the one hand it is exciting but on the other it is bloody painful and your legs and butt hit the numb zone. However, the pain paled into insignificance compared to the child like thrill of seeing something so huge between my legs for the first time in my life!

Having seen very little wildlife but nevertheless enjoying the view, our mahout’s keen eyes picked out a lone rhino as we were returning to camp. The animals are more tolerant of elephants than noisy jeeps and they effectively mask the smell of humans, so animals don’t disappear before you even knew they were there. We sat and watched the rhino as it chilled, then walked off into the jungle. It was one of those kodak moments best enjoyed with your eyes instead of obsessing about photos.

Bumpy bumpy road to 20,000 lakes

On Thursday we hired bikes (only $2 for the afternoon) and headed off with the vaguest of routes and plans to the 20,000 Lakes. 20,000 Lakes is an area of the jungle that floods during the monsoon to create thousands of small pools of water. In the current winter dry season, there are a few large lakes that are renowned for bird spotting.

The ride to the lakes is amazing. You cycle over bumpy dirt tracks, past elephants standing in people’s gardens, with lots of eager kids shouting “hello”. Each Tharu village has a different feel and it’s intriguing having a glimpse into people’s lives, albeit slightly voyeuristic. Before the entrance to the jungle you cross a river via a narrow, rickety wooden bridge that is wide enough for one person. The bridge also serves as the umbilical cord between the grass cutters in the jungle and the local villages, so patience is required to pick a clear spot to cross.

The ride through the jungle was amazing but both of us had a little squeaky bum time when we were told that rhinos, tigers and sloth bears are often seen in these parts. After a little hesitation, we pushed on encouraged by an English dude called John who was cycling to the lakes. A bit of an ornithologist, John gave us an intro to the bird life surrounding the lakes and proved an interesting companion. We left having spotted many birds and two crocodiles. We got back happy but with sore backsides from the crazy paving.

Sauraha Orphanage

We decided to spend an extra two days in Sauraha so we could help at the local orphanage run by Santa. Santa is inspirational – she left her cheating husband because he refused to look after the orphan children who had little support. She spends everything she earns on giving the 3 kids a better future. Yep another humbling experience!

Having taken Santa to the local stores to buy lots of food for the family, we then spent the next 2 afternoons entertaining the kids, Basanti (11), Sujan (9) and Bishan (7). Basanti is a gentle girl who loved to take Muneeza’s hand and show her around the small town. Her smile could light up a city. Sujan is the pocket dynamite, the attention deficit crazy kid who has to be in charge and wants everything (remind you of anyone?). He is hilarious and always playing the fool. Bishan is quiet and shy but a lot of fun when he warms to you. He loves affection and holding your hand when you walk.  All 3 of them left a big impression on us.

They are incredible and fantastic with each other. We took them for a walk to the riverside to see the elephants and treated them to an ice-cream only to learn that it’s bad for them at this time of year due to the cold and risk of respiratory infection. Oops, bad uncle. We were sad to say goodbye but will hopefully come back to Nepal and visit them again and if we can, help further with Santa’s plans for the children.

Hope you enjoyed the latest update. Happy Christmas to everyone

love james & muneeza x

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