A November 2000 trip
to Nepal by Ozzy-Dave
Quote: 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, an area boasting one of Asia’s best wildlife experiences.
If you like this journal and want to explore more of Nepal, then check out:
Not Trekking in Nepal for some great walks through the Kathmandu Valley, and
Where Have All The Freaks Gone? for an in-depth look at Kathmandu.
TIP: Sit on the right hand side of the bus for the best views.
At the Chitrasali bus stop the scene resembles the first day of a Christmas Sale. 100 touts prepare for battle in the hope that you haven''t booked anywhere to stay. We were OK because we''d organised something from Kathmandu - wise move. We lugged our packs across a small bridge over one of the Rapti River''s estuaries to the lodge jeep, then it was a 10-minute drive into Sauraha.
The first two things we noticed was the lack of pollution and the temperature. It''s 28 degrees celsius, sunny and clear - compared to five degrees, foggy and smelly when we left Kathmandu.
The village is beautifully sited along the banks of the Rapti, adjacent the park border station and information centre. Straight away you respond to the peaceful, laid-back feel of the place. It''s a rural Tharu village, not very big, where water buffalo, elephants, oxen and cows wander and tables and chairs are informally scattered along the river at strategic vantage-points.
Bottom line - nothing too commercial and very relaxed.
The Royal Park Hotel occupies a prime position in the village. It overlooks the river in a nice pocket of bushland right next to the park border and visitor centre. The huge thatched-roof bungalows have high pitched ceilings, perfect for the warmer humid climate, fans, terracotta floors and a marble-tiled bathroom you could have a party in. Natural materials from the surrounding area have been used in their construction.
There''s an informal outdoor bar that provides excellent views of the river and abundant wildlife, and a central dining area where all meals are served. Breakfasts are an all-you-can-eat feast of western-style cooked meals, pastries, cereals and Nepalese standards. For lunch and dinner you can arrange to order ala carte or let them serve you from a fixed menu of specialties.
The hotel is a joint Nepalese/German venture that has established a solid reputation, allowing it to employ many of the area''s best guides. You will have a guide assigned to you for the duration of your stay and our guide, Padam, assembled a full 3-day program based on our preferences and the best times to undertake the activities we selected.
The 4-day package we organised from Kathamndu included return transport, accommodation, meals, non-alcoholic drinks, all activities and park fees for $140 each. We calculated we could have saved around 20% by organising everything ourselves - small price for the convenience.The walk-up rate for a room only is $25 a night, including the breakfast feast.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 9, 2002
Royal Park Hotel
Sauraha Village, Royal Chitwan National Park
Attraction | "Elephant Trekking - part one"
1. Prepare yourself to be uncomfortable. You'll be riding in what is basically an upturned table. Anything longer than a couple of hours and you'll have trouble walking again! Try and convince the elephant's owner to le tyou ride on the neck for a while - it's much more comfortable.
2. Bring fast film for your camera and a telephoto lens. 400-speed film minimum, and try and use a lens longer than 210mm. We also had some success "pushing" 400 film a couple of stops to 1600 for more flexibility.
3. Watch out for overhead branches - you're a lot higher now.
4. Take plenty of water, it gets pretty warm.
THE FIRST TREK
This was a late afternoon trek of around two hours - one of the better times to view wildlife. And with the sinking sun glowing gold, the atmosphere was wonderful.
The "boarding station" is at the park entrance adjacent the hotel. We climb on, four to an elephant, and head southeast, through neighbouring grasslands and across the Rapti River to the thicker jungle.
Along the grasslands we saw many waterbirds, jackal, mongoose and peacocks, as well as the odd water buffalo. We'd both forgotten how much fun riding an elephant could be - it had been many years before in Thailand and Myanmar when we had last trekked through the jungle on these pleasantly plodding pachyderms.
Into the jungle we plunged and our guide circled, skilled in the art of tracking our quarry which was, of course, rhinoceros. Before long we were on the trail but not before we stumbled across some barking deer deep in the undergrowth. Beautiful, nimble creatures, they scattered but not before we got a picture to prove it. Soon after, in a small clearing, we spotted the rhinoceros. They were adults, resting in the afternoon heat. What we didn't know was that they are so used to their elephant-friends we could approach within only a few metres. Exhilerating stuff!
Our journey back was uneventful, apart from the misty pink susnset and distant views of the Himalaya over the grasslands.
Now check out the entry for trek number two.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 9, 2002
Royal Chitwan National Park
Chitwan District of the Narayani
Attraction | "Elephant Trekking - part two"
SPECIAL NOTE:The elephants we are on today are privately owned. Painted with cool designs, these guys look so much happier than the government-owned elephants of our first trek. The owners sang to them during our trip, letting them stop regularly to drink and graze on the juicy forest.
Our route took us to the northeast, along a corridor of jungle and grassland, punctuated with the occasional Tharu village of mud brick houses. The opportunity to interact with the villagers along the way was a highlight. Smaller river tributaries cut through open grassland fringed with forests. We observed rural village life in all its glory, eventually congregating at a large field where around six elephants and their passengers stopped to watch an intense inter-village volleyball game in progress.
We spotted countless peacocks, more deer, mongoose and noisy monkeys, before coming across some rhinoceros sunbaking in the afternoon heat. It was almost dark when we returned, a happy band of intrepid travellers indeed, but I swear my bum ached for a week afterwards.
FOOTNOTE:Padam, our guide, tells us that each year the area "loses" many people to the wildlife. Last year the figure was close to 50 and more than a few tourists have had close shaves. Most are killed by leopards and tigers with the occasional injury by a rhino. The animals wander freely through the villages and even some of the hotel properties, so you don't want to go wandering too far at night!
"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 $100 a night or you can pay $3 to $40 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; $25 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; jungle walks, canoeing trips, elephant safaris and jeep safaris. Each one costs between $5 and $15, and they can be combined to form your own programme. 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.