Sleeping with rhinos and bathing with elephants

Exploring Chitwan National Park (Thursday 27th February – Sunday 2nd March)

On Thursday 27th February, Sam and I headed to Chitwan National Park for a long weekend of exploration. The day started well. We got on a micro bus with pupils from Bhupu who were on their way to a competition in Lumbini. But after only an hour we were involved in our first traffic jam since arriving in Besisahar. A bus in front of us had broken down whilst turning a steep corner. We were only delayed by about half an hour though although cramped up in the micro bus it felt like longer. It also happened to be Shiva Ratri. The festival celebrates the god, Shiva, who smoked a lot of weed and so many people smoke ganja on this day. It’s described as being ‘not legal, but not illegal’ to smoke weed on this day. Our bus was stopped many times by children who set up road blocks to collect money and give out tikkas. 3 1/2 hours after we set off we arrived in Chitwan Bus Park and we were treated to Dahl baat from Bikash, the teacher accompanying the students. He then put us on a rickshaw to take us to the other side of town where we would catch the next bus. The rickshaw took about 5 minutes and we were soon on a bus to Tandi. We changed at Tandi for Sauraha, the tourist hub for Chitwan National Park. We were dropped at the first hotel and we walked and checked out hotels until we got to River View Jungle Camp. Here we were offered a very appealing package deal. We bartered for a while and then accepted the final offer given to us. It included 3 nights of accomodation, 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches and all the trips and activities we wanted to do.

That afternoon we met Mangara, our guide for our stay, who took us on our first trip to see Harnari – a traditional Tharu village. We started off in the Tharu Cultural Museum and then headed around the village. Village life here was different to village life in Kaski. The village was surrounded by the community forest, home to wild elephants, tigers and rhinos, and the villagers’ only protection from them is a thin electric fence that is only switched on at night! We also met a 19 year old girl with her first baby. It is crazy to think that I am her age in just a few months and if I lived here I would already be married. The houses were made from elephant grass, mud and clay. A lot of the buildings were built on stilts to protect them from the inevitable flooding come monsoon season. We were also shown how the villagers produce their own biogas from dung which they have a ready supply of. I felt somewhat guilty walking in and out of people’s homes and judging them. I definitely felt like a tourist, something I hadn’t felt in a while being so settled in Besisahar. But it provides men like Mangara with a job they wouldn’t otherwise have. Sam joined in with a game of cricket but was swiftly bowled out three times in a row! That evening we headed to see the Tharu Cultural Show. A mixture traditional Tharu dances – our favourite was the peacock dance but the most entertaining part of the show was the voice of the man introducing it! At the end, when all the tourists got up to dance, Sam and I left. It felt so false now that we had danced at locals weddings and celebrations so we instead headed to dinner at K.Cs.

The next morning we were up early for our elephant ride. We were the first people to arrive and again I felt extremely guilty when I saw 25 elephants lined up waiting for tourists to clamber on to them. They were only here because of people like me and I flinched every time a mahout hit an elephant because it wouldn’t go the way the way they wanted it to. I know that a metal bar hardly hurts an elephant because it’s skull is so thick but it was still hard to watch. I popped to the toilet and when I got back a huge number of tourists had arrived. Mangara showed us to our elephant, Akta Kali (‘Kali’ means female elephant in Nepali) and her mahout, Hari. The elephant ‘s movements were steady but they moved us a lot and it was extremely hard to sit still – especially when going up or down hill or crossing a river. Hari managed to lead us away from the other noisy tourists and we saw spotted deer, bucking deer, 3 peacocks (one of which was performing it’s mating ritual), gharial crocodiles, wild boar, guinea fowl and a few monkeys. The whole experience was amazing – it was my first time being so close to an elephant but I was very aware of what a touristy thing it was to do. We then headed back to the hotel for elephant bath time. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was so scary being sat on an elephant with nothing to stop us falling off but it was so much fun when she raised her trunk full of water and splashed us with it. I headed back to our room for a shower but with some time before lunch I went back down to the river. By this time there was only one elephant left in the water and a handful of tourists. The elephant was Raj Kumari and her mahout was giving her a massage. I watched captivated for ages before i was asked if I wanted to help him. He collected me from the bank and within seconds my clean clothes were soaked in the deep, muddy water. I helped to massage Raj Kumari (princess) with a rock for half an hour before Sam came to get me as I was late for lunch. I hated leaving as the experience was so special and intimate but I promised myself that I would return the next day. It was nice to do something that no other tourists do and I enjoyed this much more than the elephant ride or even the bath time which hundreds of tourists flock to see and participate in every day. After a quick break for lunch, Mangara took us to the river crossing for our jeep safari. We crossed in a canoe and set off in one of the smallest jeeps but we were definitely the luckiest group that day, if not that week! We saw a group of bison, numerous spotted and bucking deer, wild pigs, finishers, mugger and gharial crocodiles, an astonishing 6 rhinos and an even more unbelievable 3 sloth bears (a mother and her 2 cubs – sightings are extremely rare as they are nocturnal creatures). We also visited the Gharial Crocodile Breeding Centre. They only eat fish so, unlike the mugger crocodiles, they are not doing particularly well in the wild. We arrived back at the lodge gobsmacked at what we had seen and absolutely exhausted! We rested before having dinner at Al Fresco’s and then we headed to bed early in preparation for our early start for birdwatching in the morning. I was woken up by a call first from my Dad and then from my Mum about my bank as my card hadn’t worked earlier in the day. Agreeing to call the bank as soon as they opened the next day, I hung up. But I couldn’t get to sleep as I could hear noises just outside our room. I looked out the window but couldn’t see anything and I eventually fell back to sleep. Less than an hour later we were woken by the gardener and other hotel staff banging on our door. A rhinos was sleeping behind one of the rooms further into the lodge. It had walked right passed our room and I am convinced that was what I had heard. We were standing less than 5m away from a huge and dangerous beast and I was terrified. The staff wanted me to take photos though and so I stood taking photos with flash on while the rhinos lay asleep. When it moved its head everyone ran and i went back to bed convinced that it had been a dream.

Our wake up call was no usual wake up call. The gardener was back urging me to put shoes on and grab my camera because the rhino was eating on the other side of the river. Sam twisted his ankle running to see it and the gardener grabbed some oil and gave him a massage immediately. I’m still amazed by the fact that almost every Nepali knows how to treat a twisted ankle and which oils they need to use to massage it. He gave Sam another massage later in the day too and Sam is convinced these massages are the reason that his sprain didn’t cause him too much grief – just as well as our trek is getting closer and closer. We had tea and then Mangara took us on a birdwatching walk along the river. We passed by a centre for retired elephants and again I was entranced by the majestic beasts. We then went to a museum filled with specimens of animals (including foetus’) which were all very interesting. We then headed back to the lodge for breakfast and after I walked down to the river for elephant bath time. Raj Kumari’s mahout, Hari, recognised me immediately and called me over to help him. This time I was being watched by tourists who also wanted to join in. Only two were allowed to but only for a few minutes and they only did it to get their picture taken and after that I was the only person allowed to help. I stayed for 45 minutes and I was upset when I was told we were finished. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to ride her back but when I saw her stand up for the first time I was glad I didn’t. She was enormous and had a bad temper. I had only seen her lying on her side in a completely calm state and hadn’t appreciated either her size nor her temperament. She was beautiful though. We went for lunch and then headed out for canoeing. Unfortunately it was raining so we only saw a few crocodiles on the banks. We then headed into the jungle on foot for an hours walk which was absolutely terrifying when Mangara said that last year he had been with a group when they had been charged by a rhino and a man had been seriously injured. I was very happy to arrive at the Elephant Breeding Centre. I could spend a year there. I loved it so much. We saw baby elephants running around riding each other and we were even lucky enough to see a wild bull stroll in. He was soon rejected by every female and then chased away by mahouts who threw rocks at him. They didn’t want him to mate with any of the elephants who had young babies (which was most of them) but Mangara said he would be back at night to try again when the mahouts were asleep. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy! I had an absolutely amazing time there and seriously considered becoming a mahout. A bit different from my plan to be a doctor! We had to leave though (against my will) and after buying some jungle honey we headed back to the lodge. We ate dinner at Accoustica Shisha Bar and packed our bags in the dark as there was no power. Annoyingly my camera died and there was no power all night so it never charged!

We had breakfast and were driven in a jeep to the bus park. We said goodbye to Mangara and got on our first tourist bus this trip. The bus was much more comfortable than anything we had been used to so we were disappointed when we had to change at Dumre and get the busiest public bus the rest of the way home. I felt so sorry for Sam who sat in the aisle seat as it was by far the most crowded bus we’d been on and I couldn’t get the window open. We think it was particularly busy because it was Losar – Tibetan New Year.

When we eventually got home Freya, Olivia and I ended up in a practice for the festival, Holi. It started off as a simple water fight between the three of us and two boys that live above us but escalated rapidly until every child in the town was pelting us with water balloons that weren’t full enough and so felt like rocks and coloured water.

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Chitwan. I am now even more in love with elephants than I was before which I don’t think anyone thought was possible. I would recommend a visit to Chitwan to anyone!

I hope all is well with everyone. We’re heading to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, on Monday (an 11 hour bus ride). Sorry this post is so belated, I haven’t had access to a computer and have resorted to using Olivia’s kindle. It took so long to type this and I have cramp in my hands so I hope you enjoyed reading this!

Love to all,

Emma xxxxx