Day 62 – Location: Chitwan National Park; Nepal
Me, Reznas and Marcus were up at 6am to hop into a narrow wooden canoe with Narayan (now decked out in his green park guide uniform) and some other tourists. The canoes are hollowed from a single trunk and sit below the waterline, ours was fully loaded so there was only an inch from the water to the top of the canoe. Water swished around the bottom of the canoe and there were very uncomfortable wooden seats which sat flat on the bottom. Wet bums were the order of the day.
Despite the discomfort the surroundings were very nice. The river was bathed in mist slowly rising off the water, as the sun peeked through. It was really quiet, a lovely atmosphere. The river isn’t very strong and we were paddled along for about an hour. Along the banks were birds like storks and we even saw peacocks up in the trees. Quite bizarre when you’re used to seeing them wandering around in posh estate gardens in the UK. One of the guides was constantly pouring water out of the canoe bottom with a cut-off bottle. I hoped he wouldn’t have to speed up or we’d be getting very wet.
We didn’t see much beyond river birds, trees and long grass, but it was a nice trip, aside from the painful bum and legs from the cramped position. At one rapid section waves sloshed into the boat soaking my feet and legs. There wasn’t much you could do about it – anyone moving at all would cause the boat to rock in an alarming manner anyway. We dropped off the other tourist group who climbed into the jungle for a safari walk, and the rest of the trip was much comfier with the extra room. We saw a Gharial crocodile on the bank, with its long snout peppered with long teeth. They’re endangered here and a breeding plan has released some more into the wild.
We stopped next to the long grass and disembarked. We were walking to the elephant breeding centre nearby. On these safari walks you can get up close and personal with the animals, which can sometimes be dangerous. The guide book warns of the attacks that have occurred on tourists in the park from the wildlife. The guides only have a bamboo stick for protection, so you listen to them and do as they say if you run into trouble. Narayan briefed us on the dangerous animals and how to deal with them. Most only are aggressive if they have young nearby.
With rhinos you run for trees to climb, and try and get out of their line of sight as their eyesight is poor. You can throw clothes, cameras, bottles and bags to try and divert their attention. Wild elephants you shouldn’t encounter in this season, but normally you’d just back away and hope for the best. Tigers are so rare they aren’t a problem, but loud noise and sticks can sometimes deter them – otherwise you’re in big trouble. The most dangerous animal is the sloth bear, as it’s really aggressive. With them you need to group together, make lots of noise, and try to hit its sensitive nose and head.
The possibility of encountering animals like this becomes very real when you are completely surrounded by grass higher than your head, only able to use your ears and eyes to spot movement nearby. We weren’t in the long grass for long though, and it soon opened up to a bushy plain. We passed fresh rhino dung, but couldn’t see any rhinos. Up ahead Narayan spotted some spotted deer, which scarpered when they caught wind of us. We entered the trees and there was a sudden explosion of movement in the undergrowth. My heart rate doubled wondering what was coming. It turned out to be some wild pigs which ran off. Narayan spotted a green parakeet up in a tree and Marcus erected his tripod to get a photo. With my big zoom broken, my parakeet was a little dot on the photo, whereas his was almost full screen.
We wandered through the trees and Narayan motioned to stop. Up ahead he pointed out a massive herd of spotted deer, maybe around 100 of them, grazing in a clearing ahead. There were a few stags. Very nice to be able to get this close to the wildlife. As we got nearer they caught our movement and trotted off into the undergrowth. We passed termite mounds scattered beneath the trees, some with signs of damage where bears or other animals had broken inside to munch on the little critters. Soon we reached the elephant breeding centre and saw other people again.
The centre was a small info room and then a line of tall shelters underneath which the elephants were chained by the back foot. These elephants are used in a breeding program and also trained to ride by the army patrols (who stop poachers) and other work. They are trained from a young age to follow commands and get exercise every day. There’s all manner of tools used in the training and command of the mighty beasts. There were probably around 30 adults and a number of youngsters, plus a few babies. They rocked rhythmically back and forth on their short chains, like they were walking without being able to walk. Although it seemed pretty harsh, from the write-up it seems their lives are pretty decent as far as captive animals go, they’re well fed and get out at least twice a day.
One baby wasn’t chained and was up at the visitor fence (you can’t get too close to the chained ones due to this). It was cute and we could touch its weird hairy skin and when I held its trunk it grabbed my hand playfully. It was pretty cool. There wasn’t much else to see and we walked back across a footbridge for a jeep pickup back to the lodge.
After lunch the friendly resort owner asked if we wanted to bath with the elephants. You only need to pay a small tip to the handler. We agreed and went along the riverbank to the beach area where all the elephants from the nearby working elephant camp were here getting their daily wash. The handlers lead them into the river, sometimes with tourists on their backs, and they’re trained to squirt water onto their riders. Afterwards they lie down in the river and the handlers wash and scrub them with stones. A big one with a painted face was commanded to lie down so me and Reznas could climb up on it, needing a leg up from the handler. I grabbed on tight to the neck strap (there was no saddle) and we went into the shallow river. On command the elephant doused us with water from his trunk quite a lot and we laughed at other screaming tourists getting the same treatment. The water was pretty nasty filled with poo and other niceties – not stuff to swallow! Then the elephant lay down and rolled over throwing us into the river, which is pretty normal. We climbed back on, had some more washing and were led back out. It was good fun. The elephant was quite happy for you to come close and stroke her, and the trunk was strong when I shook “hands” with it.
I popped back to the lodge to grab my camera as Marcus received the same treatment, and returned to capture the end of the bathing. The elephants were very obedient as their handlers washed and rode them. One guy had such good balance he could stand on his elephant’s back as it bathed and walked around. The elephants seemed to like lying in the river, their trunks poking out like snorkels. The info in the breeding camp said that 70% of their air comes through the trunk.
After a much needed shower we departed for an elephant safari, getting a jeep back to the breeding centre location. Here there were loads of elephants with handlers and high wooden platforms where you could board the elephants. There were lots of tourists getting on board. Me and Reznas climbed onto a young elephant. There’s a square wooden platform with rails all around on the back of the elephant, and two Nepali guys joined us up there.
We’d been warned about the comfort of these platforms and had brought extra padding, which turned out to be a very good idea. We set off, the handler sitting on the neck and armed with a big stick which he rapped the elephant on the head with, plus a small metal spiky stick for emergencies. We were taken to, brilliantly, the elephant-height ticket office. My shirt I’d brought for padding came loose and fell to the ground. I told the handler and he shouted a command, and the elephant picked it up with its trunk and handed it to the guy! Awesome! It was a bit covered in mud and elephant snot but intact.
We moved rapidly with a train of other loaded elephants across a shallow river and along a path in the jungle. It was noisy with everyone talking and shouting and I feared our chances of seeing anything were zero. We forded another river and entered the jungle again. Here the elephants split up a bit and we ended up going through paths right through the trees – with us having to shove branches out the way. I had to take my flip-flops off as they were almost wrenched away by branches. We forded a canal which was completely covered in plants, looking like ground from a distance.
The handlers were shouting to each other from time to time and we veered across to a clearing where they’d found a rhino! Sweet! They’re usually hard to see on the elephant safaris not being too fond of the animals and the noise of the tourists. They are white 1-horned rhinos only found in Asia. It was light grey. Unfortunately I didn’t get time to get any good photos and most of the view was of its bum. It looked great though (the rhino, not its bum). Its armour-plated hide looked invincible. Around it were about 5 elephants and it wasn’t bothered by the noise and proximity, grazing and wandering off slowly. The elephants didn’t hang around for long which was good, not disturbing it too much. We sauntered off and I was really happy to have seen one of Chitwans big animals.
Now we went completely separately from the other elephants and were all alone in the jungle following a network of paths. All you could hear was the sound of the jungle and the elephant moving through the undergrowth. We saw some monkeys in the trees and on the ground, and some deer really close. They aren’t bothered by the elephants at all. Our height was just right for spiderwebs and a number of times we got them in our face and hair, with the spiders crawling on us. Fortunately they weren’t the big ones I’ve seen everywhere else in Nepal. Nearby we heard a mighty roar and discovered it was an elephant, I’ve never heard them roar like a beast before, I thought they only trumpeted. After another twenty minutes we didn’t see much else and came back to the starting point, getting off and getting a jeep back to the lodge.
With no other activities for the day, me and Razmus headed out along the riverside on a walk as the sun got lower. We entered a plains area and spotted a bright blue kingfisher on a dead tree in the river. I found a camera memory card on the ground here and decided to rescue it as it was late and most people are only here for a few days – maybe I could find the owner. Now and again we could hear mighty roars from an elephant at one of the camps which sounded in distress.
After about half an hour we reached the government elephant camp where tourists were getting guided tours. We walked around, it was similar to the breeding camp but there were bull elephants here, some with amazing huge tusks. They made the elephants I’d seen in Africa look tame. You can see why ivory reaches such a high price, it looks fantastic in nature.
We ran into Marcus who had been taking pictures all day. One of the elephants decided to produce his penis for us, it was about the length of my forearm! We moved on before he got any untoward ideas about our sexy European bodies!
We found a guy who was making parcels from leaf strips filled with rice. These are fed to the elephants like snacks.
We walked out of the camp up the road through a lodge ground where we’d heard there was a baby rhino. Sure enough we found it chilling out on the grass, surrounded by people. It was just grazing and pretty cute, not bothered by the people at all. Someone told us it had been rescued from a tiger attack; it had a scar on its face which was plugged with material. It had been infected and very weak and was still recovering. As we watched it, it got tired and lay down and started to sleep, not caring a damn about the people snapping pics all around it! Cool.
Just ahead was the elephant camp for working elephants, the light was very nice in the sun and the wisping smoke from the burning piles of elephant poo all around added to the visual ambience.
We walked through this and back along to the sunset river view, where we stopped at a bar for a drink. Then we returned to the lodge for dinner, not dahl baht fortunately.
That evening we chatted to the American lady and I got some movies and music from her and Reznas, having no media since my hard drive crash in Thailand. I looked through the camera memory card I’d found. It was only photos from the last few days chronicling a couple’s travels in Chitwan. They were joined by a man with a massive white beard who looked a bit like a crazy Santa. Unfortunately there weren’t any photos of their accommodation, but they’d been on an elephant safari. The lodge owner called the elephant safari people to ask about a Santa lookalike. I left the memory card with him in case he managed to track the owners down. It was pretty weird seeing the photos from people you’ve never met, quite a personal thing. There was nothing juicy in there though, just the usual snapshots. They’d pretty much done everything that we had in Chitwan. I wonder if it will get back to Santa and his friends one day.