Chitwan’s Chamber of Secrets

For our third day walking in Chitwan we were accompanied by Bishnu and a guide named Givonne, as Krishna had a wedding to attend. Bishnu informed us that December is considered the best time to get married in Nepali culture, which explained the music blaring in the distance at 6:45 am. We could actually hear the distant dance beats while in the jungle for most of the day! After again crossing into the park in a dugout canoe we saw three spotted deer bucks with small antlers still in velvet through the thick fog. Soon after four patrolling soldiers passed us, quickly returning to let us know a rhino was just around the bend in the road. Our party of four joined theirs to walk slowly past the animal which was grazing right beside the 4WD track. Everyone was urging us to be careful and sometimes when the rhino would move the whole lot of men we were with started running to distance themselves from it. Sean said the whole situation had really gotten his adrenaline going and just shook his head at the fact that I hadn’t felt like we were in any real danger; I guess it’s hard to imagine such a bulk of a creature running at the high speeds they are actually capable of.

Later we climbed a watch tower to wait for the fog still blanketing the ground to burn off. Just as we left the tower Bishnu whistled from above and we climbed back up to see a second rhino that had appeared in the grass. A peacock flew over it with its long tail drooping in the air, which would have been a perfect picture had I been fast enough. The rest of the day was spent in an area of the park we hadn’t visited yet, and Bishnu was working hard to find us a sloth bear. At one point we heard a barking deer, which really does sound like an agitated dog. About midday we came across a forested area characterized by a labyrinth of interconnected underground tunnels large enough for a person to crawl through. We spent a while searching them with lights and sticks for a massive python known to frequent the area. Bishnu told us the tunnels had been formed by a river that no longer existed and further excavated by animals like wild boars.

There wasn’t much else for new observations though and we spent the last half hour before sunset in a tower overlooking a large swath of short grass, hoping against hope to see a bear in our last minutes in Chitwan. There was no such luck but we did see yet another rhino grazing in a nearby wetland. As we passed it on our way back to town we discovered a total of three rhinos noisily feasting on vegetation in the shallow water. There was also a stork standing in the water which was so large I momentarily mistook it for a calf! It was quite the picturesque ending to our wonderful Chitwan trip.

We hurried to beat the dark, the sunset beautifully silhouetted by the towering elephant grass. As we walked through a last bit of forest to get to the river we came across a sambar deer standing in the trees. It was maybe the size of a mule deer doe but a giant compared to the other three species of deer we had seen. The next morning Raj rode along with us on a tuk-tuk he had arranged to take us to the bus terminal. We couldn’t believe how well he had treated us from the moment we stepped into his office until we got on our bus to leave.

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Elephant Centre #2

Our safari was over so we left Madi in the morning fog to catch the first of 3 buses required to get back to the main hub of Sauraha. Walking along the river, Bishnu and Krishna pointed out a spot where a cremation had recently occurred, marked by a scattered pile of burnt hair. We arrived at the bridge (under which lived a resident cow) where the highway crosses the river just as the bus was arriving. It was packed full so we climbed the ladder at the back and sat on the dewy luggage rack atop the bus. This method of riding was actually quite enjoyable, especially compared to being among the crush of people below us. From the top we saw some more wild chickens and a barking deer, with small pronghorn-like antlers. Upon arriving at a checkpoint we had to descend and ride inside the bus, as apparently exterior passengers weren’t allowed in the district we had crossed into. There was only standing room and Sean was forced to stare at his feet for the duration of the ride as the ceiling wasn’t high enough for him to even lift his head. Eventually two seats opened up and we were virtually forced by the locals to take them even though there were older people who should have had them first (maybe they were sick of being crushed by the huge white folks trying to keep their balance in the aisle).

When we got back Raj surprised us by having gotten us a deal at a hotel that was luxurious by our backpacking standards. It had beautiful grounds and we sat in cushy chairs right beside the river for lunch, which was the perfect setting for Sean to romantically remove a tick from my arm. We decided we wanted to spend one more day in the forest trying for a sloth bear so after signing up with Raj he walked with us to the other elephant centre near town, yet again free of charge. On the way we ran into a semi-tame rhino that had been found injured by harassment from locals and brought to the centre for veterinary care. Somehow it wasn’t bothered by the masses of tourists encircling it for pictures while it grazed.

At the centre we saw an 80-year old retired elephant that moved so slowly it was allowed to range freely. Another was being treated for an infected toe injury, eating medicine packaged in bundles of vegetation and obediently standing and lying down as commanded to receive care from the veterinarian. There was an adorable calf only a month old and it was heartbreaking to see it and the others chained so tightly. While leaving we passed several big males coming in from the forest loaded with branches for feed and guided by drivers who stood right behind their ears. The males all had their horns cut flat for the safety of their drivers. Raj told us that being an elephant driver is a job passed down through generations and most at Chitwan are from India.

Crocs to Culture: A Traditional Ho-Down in Madi

Today didn’t involve quite the same big game thrill as yesterday, but walking through a forest inhabited by such charismatic creatures as elephants, tigers, bison, python, and tropical bears will always provide some degree of excitement to the traveling Canadian. We started the day launching off the north bank of the Rapti River in a dugout canoe just as the sun began burning a hole through the thick layer of fog. Once on the south side we were back in the national park and pretty well picked up where we left off on our walking tour the night before. For an hour or so we followed a road that paralleled a small stream, stopping quite frequently to hear Bishnu’s description of different bird species we came across. The most memorable of which were iridescent blue kingfishers and the rather mundane looking, but interesting whistling duck.

Soon we were passed by the leaders of a large group of locals who were on their way to harvest rice somewhere upstream. As we didn’t feel like falling behind them and having them scare away all the wildlife, we kept pace until a side trail veered off to the north and back to the river where we were able to spot a mugger crocodile and several different bird species. After this we made our way to the gharial crocodile breeding center. The gharial crocodile is a piscivorous (fish eating) species of croc with a very narrow snout. In this region the species is basically on life support, as the wild population would soon go extinct without supplemental stocking by the government funded facility. The main threats to the population relate to pollution and overfishing, which severely depletes their prey base.  The short visit to the breeding center was interesting, as it let us get up close to some adult gharials (through a fence), which you would be really lucky to do in the wild.

We walked for a few hours southwestward, past a Hindu temple, and along a long road that tigers frequent before stopping for lunch at one of the many army barracks that house soldiers protecting the wildlife from poachers. The locals eat rice (and everything else) with their bare hands, but Emily was offered a fork after ending up with all sorts of food in her hair and down her shirt. After stuffing our faces we headed back into to the forest along a small track behind the barracks. We managed to see a couple of soft shell tortoises and to hear some unseen beast in the forest behind the pond. Most exciting of all for me was when we came upon a huge downed log lying beside the path. Bishnu started tapping on it with his stick and I thought he was trying to coax a python or something similar out the other side. In an effort to spot the serpent (and confident I could outrun anything without legs) I walked to the opposite end and shone my headlight into the surprisingly large wooden cavern. It was then Bishnu and Krishna both laughed and asked if I saw anything. When I declared the log snake-free Bishnu explained that a rather aggressive sloth bear regularly used the tree as a mid-afternoon napping place and that they were not looking for snakes at all.

As the sun got low on the horizon we headed south along a network of roads and trails until reaching the river that formed the southern border of Chitwan National Park. We waded across the sandy bottom and made our way across the rice paddies on the other side to the village of Madi. The village looked like it belonged in a National Geographic, with yellow mustard fields small enough to be worked by hand interspersed with grass-roofed clay huts. Children were everywhere, some of them running up to greet us with marigolds. Our homestay however was much less rustic than expected and we visited with a couple other tourists while we waited for supper. Dave was a retired, 70-something year old American Emily was particularly disgusted by as he loved to brag about his 23 year old Nepali “girlfriend”. Harry was an outgoing Australian student whose company we enjoyed much more.

After another delicious dinner of daal bhat with all the fixings, the locals invited us to a dance. It started off very awkwardly with the locals sitting across from us against the wall intermittently singing while our friend half-cut Harry did most of the dancing. Fortunately it didn’t take too long to liven up and soon all the locals were up doing their traditional dances along to their drums and folk songs. They started pulling on our arms to get us to join which would have been dreadful if Sean hadn’t had a fair share of rakshi (homemade rice wine) and the ones pulling on my arms hadn’t been a group of sweet little girls. Their names were too complicated to grasp over the loud music, but a group of about four girls between 5 and 14 years old wanted me to accompany them all night as they danced and sang. I held their hands and tried to mimic their traditional dance without feeling too stupid, and they even got Sean to join in! They loved it when he would take their pictures and squealed with laughter every time they looked at themselves on his camera screen. The younger girls would talk my ear off in Nepali when we’d take a break and I wish I could have understood them.  Bishnu was also right in on the action and surprised us with his impressive moves. He told us the next morning that he had also been fueled by copious quantities of rakshi.

The girls I was dancing with were fairly well dressed against the chilly night, but there was one girl and a couple of boys with much less clothing and no shoes while their hair was a mess and it was obvious they didn’t get baths very often. They watched from the edges of the gathering and were shy to join in. When I motioned to one of these boys to join our dancing circle he looked like he wanted to but only would if I held his hand. The other girls who were so sweet to me yelled at him and smacked his hands away. It was sad to witness and I danced with him alone for a little and showed him some pictures of himself which made him smile despite his sheepishness. Sean figured this was an illustration of the caste system, which is a dominant social structure in Nepal based on strong divisions between social classes. I was surprised to see it in action in such a small rural village where it seemed especially strange to exclude neighbours so vehemently.

In Search of the Sloth Bear: Ducks, Boars, a Tiger & Rhinosaurs

We left Sauraha early with our guides Bishnu and Krishna for the park (Sauraha is a town right across the river from Chitwan National Park, which is bordered on both sides by rivers). We crossed the Rapti on a long and narrow dugout canoe that sat so low in the water we were just above the surface. We had seen a large crocodile not far from our location the night before and I was half hoping to see it appear in the thick morning fog. Once across we entered the jungle after Bishnu’s safety talk: rhinos have poor eyesight so run in a zigzag or hide behind a thick tree; sloth bears must be fought off with a stick if you fail to scare them off with noise, and total avoidance was our only hope against a wild elephant.

Throughout the day we walked 20 km through grassland and jungle and we saw and learned so many things I should have been taking notes so as not to forget any of it. Small but still fascinating discoveries included sloth bear sign (scratches on trees, their scat – full of shiny termite heads that resembled seeds, and digs in the soil where they had searched for termites and roots), tiger sign (scratches on trees and on the ground to mark territory, tracks, and horrible smelling urine), huge rhino tracks and their orange-coloured urine, crocodiles, flocks of florescent green parakeets, 4 lesser adjutant storks on a nest and soaring above us, big ruddy shelled ducks, colourful common moorhens and dozens of other unique water and songbirds. Bishnu knew them all well and frequently pointed birds out for us, including two species of kingfisher, one a brilliant blue. We also saw a changeable hawk eagle (with a quail-like crown feather) and other snake-eating birds of prey, a honey buzzard, dragonvine (a spiky, medieval looking vine), strangler fig (a vine that chokes trees to death and thickly shades the canopy), rhino apple trees with smooth pinkish bark, herds of spotted deer, one big buck with enormous antlers in relation to his body size, a palm-sized spider on a web Bishnu saved me from walking through, hog deer, barking deer and many wild boars that would skirt across the trail ahead of us, exploding from their tunnels in the walls formed by the almost 20 foot tall elephant grass. In the forest leaves the size of dinner plates fell with the sound of fat raindrops.

For lunch we headed up a lookout tower which offered beautiful views over the grasslands and over to the Churia hills in the distance. Bishnu told us that after the grass has been burnt in the spring hordes of all kinds of species can be seen at once from the watchtowers. We had finished eating when we noticed a rhino in the towering grass close to the road we had walked on to reach the tower, but we never could have seen it from the ground. As we watched it grazing we noticed a calf close behind it, small enough that Bishnu figured it was less than a year old.

From there we started working our way towards a waterhole in hopes of spotting a sloth bear. On the waters edge we saw a turtle and a large, lazy crocodile basking in the sun, but no other critters. We paralleled the body of water until we heard a commotion in the nearby grass and a menacing snarl, followed by a splash in the water – we had spooked a tiger! Not a minute later we heard a greater commotion, more snarls and the surprised bellows of a rhino, spooked in turn by the tiger! Following a great crashing of the grass, many more bellows were heard as the first rhino ran into a second one! The grass was so tall these three beasts had been in close proximity to each other and not even been aware of it. On the other side of the wetland we excitedly crept back to an open area where we traced the rhino’s movements by the swaying swaths of giant grass. After much anticipation (and deliberation between Bishnu and Krishna on where we should be) we heard another splash and one rhino appeared on the edge of the water. He wasn’t really facing us but close enough to the same lazy crocodile (who hadn’t blinked an eye throughout the whole episode) to catch them both in the same picture. All of us, even the guides who are both veterans, were thrilled at what we had just witnessed.

Carrying on, we walked through various vegetation types and habitats narrated by Bishnu who made it all the more interesting with his jokes and stories. Walking down a wider trail through less dense forest, Krishna heard yet another rhino so we made our way through the trees towards it. Suddenly there were two right in front of us! We crept around for better views and Bishnu told us it was a female with an older, basically grown juvenile (about 5 years old) that she had allowed to remain with her. So that was a total of 5 rhinos in one day! Nearing sunset we reached a river where we waited for a man in another dugout canoe to come fetch us as it’s not allowed to overnight in the park. While we waited we watched a black and white checkered kingfisher diving into the water for fish. Once across we walked over hummocks made by rhinos and into a nearby village to a family run guesthouse. There was a small scorpion in my bedroom and Sean kindly took a hit to his karma to kill it for me. During a delicious supper Bishnu entertained us with a story of his daughter suffering from a large tick inside her ear, so needless to say I had a stressful night not being accustomed to such abundant creepy crawlies yet.

Our First Rhinosaurous

Once arriving by bus to Sauraha, we walked into town and found Nepal Dynamic Eco Tours, which had very good reviews online. There we met Raj and his sister Doma, who is a leader in conservation and one of the first Nepali women in the field. Newspaper articles on the walls mentioned that their mother had been killed by a rhino 7 years earlier. Raj was not at all a pushy salesman and took his time explaining our options to see the park (walking, jeep, canoe or elephant safaris). While Doma told me all about her recent encounter with a sloth bear while guiding a jeep tour, he took Sean to see a lodge we could stay in for the night. Once they returned we got settled in the lodge, rented bicycles and met back up with Raj for a guided visit to the elephant breeding centre which he didn’t even charge us for. I had never seen an Asian bicycle before and thought it didn’t have any brakes until Sean and Raj pointed them out, laughing at me dragging my feet in the dirt.

We rode through the village on a mix of gravel and asphalt, maneuvering around big elephant droppings. We passed grass-roofed huts made of bamboo and clay amongst big gardens and hand-worked mustard fields. Domestic buffalo, goats, chickens, ducks, dogs and kids were everywhere, while adults went about their day. We shared the road with tractors, horse-drawn carts, local kids piled onto shared bicycles and even elephants with their riders sitting right behind their big ears. When we got to a shallow river we left our bikes and walked over a bridge made of sandbags which has to be reconstructed every year following the monsoon. Raj had got a call from a friend about the whereabouts of a wild rhino currently in the area so we hurried past the breeding centre and into the forest where after 25 minutes we came across an army camp. We hadn’t even paid for this excursion but Raj had pointed out trees, birds and insects to us all the way and answered all our questions about the area. The soldiers directed us around the camp, where we spotted our first greater one-horned rhino right away (or rhinosaurus, as the Nepali guides referred to them).

We crept closer finding a good vantage point with some trees for protection. As we watched it munching leaves, Raj explained that rhinos have good smell and hearing but very poor eyesight, so we should run in a zigzagging pattern if it were to charge. The male rhino didn’t look too unlike a real dinosaur, with big plates of armour and a face that reminded me of a lizard. We were within 50 yards and got lots of good pictures. On the walk back we ran into a big heard of spotted deer, a bright orange wild chicken (yes they’re actually wild) and a very big peacock.

Upon return to the elephant breeding centre we saw about 5 mothers on very short chains, most with various sized offspring. It was sad to see them with so little room to move and some were rocking back and forth, which Raj told us was their way of asking for food while Sean was sure it was a sign of mental distress. The elephants are owned by the Nepali government and the females are used for safaris while the males are used for patrols against poaching. Raj told us a wild male named “Renaldo” frequents the area and has bred several of the captive females.