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Nepal’s Wild Kingdom

“They can’t see very well, but their sense of smell makes up for it.” “If they charge, run in a zigzag and throw something away to distract them. Oh, and if there’s a tree, climb it.”

That ended the safety instruction from Padam, our guide for today’s safari. Padam also had a stick and a 6-inch knife, reassuring defence against a charging rhinoceros or marauding tiger. I suppose I could back him up with harsh language if we were attacked.

Nepal is a land of incredible contrasts, where life imitates the landscape. The gulf between rich and poor is reflected in the contrast between the 5-mile peaks of the Himalaya in the north, and the tropical forests of the southern Terai plains.

After two weeks exploring the Kathmandu Valley, we headed south to the warmth of Royal Chitwan National Park and one of Asia’s best wildlife experiences.

Finding a room with a view

The park covers 1400 square kilometres at the centre of the Terai, bordering India in the south and the Rapti River floodplain to the north. Since it was established in 1973 wildlife numbers have recovered from the historical slaughters led by Nepalese and British hunters and loss of habitat caused by mass migration following the control of malaria in the 1950s.

Today Chitwan is home to a variety of animals, including elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, leopards, sloth bears, deer and monkeys. Freshwater dolphins and crocodiles live in the river systems, and bird-watchers can spot over 400 different species.

Accommodation varies widely. Lodges inside the park offer luxury and isolation for more than $150 a night or you can pay $5 to $50 a night in Sauraha, the local village on the park’s boundary. Your chances of seeing wildlife are good wherever you stay.

Sauraha straddles the river and retains a rural feel, providing direct access to the park through a ranger’s office and informative Visitor Centre. It’s quiet and friendly with all the essential facilities, and we found a good mid-range lodge called the Royal Park Hotel.

The buildings were cool and spacious, constructed mostly of local materials. There were terracotta floors, huge marble bathrooms and high thatched roofs. Each balcony overlooked the river, a compelling backdrop for the daily procession of wildlife. We had stumbled on a bargain; $35 a night, including an all-you-can-eat cooked breakfast.

Organising a programme

Wildlife activities can be organised through your lodge, ranger’s office, or guide services in the village. Lodges charge a little more but make sure everything goes smoothly, saving the hassle of organising entry permits and relying on minimum numbers for activities.

If you’re organising your own guide, ask to see their licence and references. Chitwan can be a dangerous place; many people are killed each year by wildlife, some of them tourists!

Four types of activities are available, each costing between $10 and $20, and they can be combined to form your own programme: 1. Jungle walks. Explore the jungle on foot, tracking and viewing animals in their natural habitat. 2. Canoeing trips. Visit peaceful wetland sanctuaries of the Rapti River, home to waterbirds, crocodiles and (rarely seen) freshwater dolphins. 3. Elephant safaris. This can be the best way to view wildlife. A trek through the jungle is exhilarating, but an excursion through the grasslands surrounding local Tharu villages is equally interesting. 4. Jeep safaris. These operate in the early months of the year after water levels drop, and allow access to more remote areas.

Padam, the resident senior guide at the Royal Park Hotel, assembled a comprehensive three-day itinerary for us. Activities were scheduled for the best game-viewing times of early morning and late afternoon, leaving time for relaxing and independent exploring.

Evenings were a time to reflect, courtesy of a misty orange sunset and well deserved drink, and the atmosphere turned to expectation as heightened senses strained to decipher new noises.

We would recall the day’s adventure with fellow thrillseekers or attend cultural performances given by the Tharu people, the area’s original inhabitants.

In contrast to the Kathmandu Valley, there is no pollution here and none of humanity’s frenetic noise. The stars seem to fall from the sky and our minds discovered a new calmness, surrounded by the sounds of nature.

Be very quiet, we’re chasing rhinoceros!

We loved our four days at Chitwan. But the images of our safari will stay with me forever – the comical expressions of disbelief on our group’s faces at Padam’s “safety instructions” for avoiding a charging rhinoceros, and the sheer exhilaration that followed:

We continued indian-file, filtered sun lighting the jungle trail as monkeys played somewhere above. At a tangled collection of tree roots the trail ended and the jungle gave way to open grassland. Nobody made a sound.

Padam scanned the landscape. “Shhhh,” he mimed, a finger against his mouth, then pointing to the north-east. By the dry creek-bed, only 20 metres away, was the female rhinoceros and her baby. We had been tracking the animals for an hour, but this was our first view of them.

“They know we’re here, they can smell us,” whispered Padam. We sat mesmerised by our first (and very close) view of rhinoceros in the wild. Then I noticed the wandering eyes. Everyone was doing the same thing. We were all surveying the area for a suitable tree to climb!

Nepal truly is a land of contrasts. I never thought we’d be tracking wild rhinoceros through tropical rainforest in a country dominated by the Himalaya – home to eight of the world’s ten highest mountains.


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