After Pokhara, we were on our way to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal and I was looking forward to seeing the wildlife and getting some good photos. But the picture of Annapurna at dawn was still haunting me, I was indeed fortunate. The day was clear and I kept turning my head around to see the Annapurna massif slowly receding into the distance. I felt a twinge of regret.
The drive to Chitwan would take 4.5 hours and we would be leaving the cool heights of Pokhara and descending to the warmer confines of the Terai. The temperature progressively got warmer and the vegetation more lush. Progress was sometimes slow, the monsoon rains had left massive potholes in the road and all cars and trucks had to slow to a crawl as they carefully drove around them. We kept ourselves fortified with biscuits and chocolate; travelling always gives me an appetite.
I arrived and checked into my hotel which was in Sauraha, a village close to the park. The receptionist explained the itinerary for the next two days; it was a packed schedule. I took a refreshing nap and emerged ready for Chitwan. That evening I attended a Tharu cultural program performed by members of the local Tharu community. I loved the peacock dance.
Chitwan National Park is a World Heritage site and a very popular place for viewing wildlife. It has 930 sq km of dense forest, lakes, marshes and grasslands with tall elephant grass that provide cover and shelter for large animals. Chitwan is famous for its one horned Indian rhinos, leopards, the rare Bengal Tiger, deer, wild pigs, sloth bears, monkeys and several species of birds and butterflies. One of the best ways to see these is from the back of an elephant, it is truly a unique experience.
Early next morning I left for an elephant safari, the highlight of the trip. We drove a short distance to the boundary of the park and were greeted with an astounding sight. There were about twenty elephants standing in line, swaying gently with their heads pointed in our direction, patiently waiting for us. They had “howdahs” on their backs, each capable of carrying four passengers. Luckily, there were three tourists besides myself from my hotel. The tour director soon selected an elephant, her name was Champakali. We climbed onto a boarding platform. She stood next to the platform and the four of us stepped onto her back and sat at the four corners of the square howdah so that our weight was evenly distributed on her. It was a snug fit; the four of us were literally and figuratively jammed “back to back”. The mahout gave an order and we were off on our elephant safari.
A ride on an elephant is unlike any ride you can imagine in daily life in the modern world and so it is worth taking a few minutes to describe. Imagine seated about seven feet off the ground within the confines of a small wooden cage, the howdah, with your feet dangling over the side of a large, strong elephant. The elephant is moving forward but has a characteristic roll from side to side, so you are swaying left to right as you move forward. Plus, as it moves, its hips gently rise and fall so you are also moving up and down. This last movement is accentuated if you are seated in the back row, over the hips. In essence, you feel you are moving in all three spatial dimensions. It takes a little time to get used to. I soon adjusted to the rolling, rocking rhythm and settled in for the hour and half long safari. Scenes from old Indian movies of kings and emperors in jeweled howdahs on richly caparisoned elephants went through my mind; no harm in letting your imagination run wild on occasion.
We waded across the river Rapti (shallow in winter) which forms the boundary and entered the reserve. It was early morning and a mist still hung over the river and swirled across the treetops. Gradually we entered deeper into the forest. The sounds of civilization were slowly left behind. All around us were huge trees, we were immersed in a sea of green. Champakali deftly picked her way forward, occasionally breaking off a particularly succulent branch and munching it contently as she walked. We saw the iridescent blue and green of wild peacocks and heard their raucous calls. We saw strutting colorful jungle fowl and heard the metronomic rat-a-tat of woodpeckers. Soon we came across several spotted deer, a herd of wild pigs and sambars. The sun finally broke through the mist and the morning chill slowly dissipated. We became aware of the unmistakable buzz and whine of insects and big spider webs close to our faces. I was glad for insect repellent and long sleeved shirt and hat. We plodded on for another hour. The trees seemed to grow closer and denser. We heard rustling in the treetops and looked up to see monkeys jumping from tree to tree or staring at us. Our anticipation heightened; would we see something BIG?
Suddenly, we saw another safari elephant approaching us and her mahout excitedly pointed in the direction of a rhinoceros they had just seen. Champakali was off in flash, it is amazing how quickly such a large animal can move if she puts her mind to it. In minutes we saw the rhino grazing placidly, totally oblivious of the excited humans and elephants. Our mahout got us as close as possible and we spent some time admiring and filming the magnificent rhino, with its prized horn and coat of armor clearly visible. This truly was the highpoint of the safari and I consider myself very lucky to have seen such a rare animal in the wild. At the end of the trip, I thanked Champakali (a banana for her) and her mahout, posed for some photos and returned to the hotel in excellent spirits.
I spent the afternoon in a comfortable, reclining lawn chair with a good book (an essential travel companion) on the hotel lawn. I let the warmth of the sun soak into me and gradually dosed off to the soothing cooing of doves in the trees. What a difference from winter in north eastern US!
This article was first published in Du-Kool, June 2015