Royal Chitwan National Park

A plush bus had carried us out of the Himalayas and down onto Nepal’s southern plains, known as the Terai.  Until a few decades ago, the region was a malarial swamp unfit for farming but, thanks to mosquito eradication efforts, its villages and wildlife refuges now attract outsiders.
A man from the Rhino Lodge was on hand to meet our bus.  He escorted me, Sue and Garreth from Britain, and a German named Jentz to an ox cart driven by a local boy named Shankar, who said he was seventeen.  We climbed into the cart and sat on facing wood benches.  Our patient ox plodded down a long dirt lane past huts and farms, then pulled us out into a slow river.  When the water rose nearly to the floor of the cart, we all pulled our luggage onto our laps, just in case.  But it rose no higher.
An evening storm was brewing.  In the foothills, great flashes lit up the black clouds.  Thunder echoed across the Terai.  As we rolled beneath a flowering tree, seen against a backdrop of heavy clouds, the wind shook loose a sweet aroma.  I felt overtaken by images from Tagore’s poetic book Gitangili, and the Nobel Prize winner’ praise of the landscape of rural India.
About sunset, we arrived at Rhino Lodge, in an area known as Sauraha near the boundary of Royal Chitwan National Park.  Twenty whitewashed cabins formed a horseshoe around a lawn with flowerbeds.  The clean and simple cabins with concrete floors and thatched roofs each had four small, screened windows that closed only with shutters.  Inside stood two wood frame beds with foam pad mattresses and mosquito nets.  To the rear of the complex, I found the toilet and shower building with black barrels serving as solar water heaters, on the roof.

After a rest, I walked over to the dining house and found other guests talking by candle-light.  A recent storm, with a lightning strike nearby had destroyed the generator at the lodge.  Following dinner, we listened to a talk on wildlife of the area and learned of activities available.
Walking back later, brilliant stars and a half moon shown in the clear sky.  Next morning, the Himalayas towered like a broken wall of ice along the northern horizon.  A German climber was pointing out the summits — Machapuchare, the Annapurna Massif to the left, the Manasli Massif at 8000 meters and Himachuli to the right.  In the pristine clarity that follows a good rain we had a perfect view of those incredible ranges.
The lodge keeps an elephant to do heavy work.  The mahout, astride the broad neck, drove his young female into the rear service yard.  The roped bundle on her back was green banana tree stems and leaves that would feed her during the next few days.
I shared a breakfast table with Kitty and Wai Man from Hong Kong.  Then we three and some Australians walked upriver to where we’d been told we could find a guide and dugout canoe to take us across the river to Royal Chitwan — royal because Nepal was ruled by a king who is the default owner of all resources.
Our boatman poled his craft along, then let us drift with the slow current.  Sitting on low wood benches, we relaxed while our guide named many of the water birds.  We saw three species of egret, ruddy ducks, ospreys, cormorants, and sand martins that nest in holes they dig in the soft riverbank. Most of us let all this information slide over us as we gazed north at the white line of snowy peaks shining in the sun. “That one is an irutian kingfisher.  See the blue back and rusty red belly.  That’s the small pied kingfisher, and there’s a darter which is similar to a grebe.”
Having arrived at our down-river stop, we climbed the bank into a tall grass meadow.  Walking along the edge of a forest, our guide pointed out honey kites, wagtails, a large killdeer.  “There go two shrikes.”  We saw magpies, a blue-tailed bee eater, large golden-backed woodpecker, and lots of colorful parrots.  This guide knew his stuff, correctly pronouncing all the Latin names of animals and plants and providing much information about habitats, habits and the Chitwan ecosystem.  I jotted down more names for my list — a rose-headed parakeet, gray-headed mynah, common mynah, roller, forktail and the Little owl.
In this area of the park, the lush natural grassland of the river bottom appears to surround islands of jungle on slightly higher ground.   Deep in the forest, we glimpsed the spotted backs of shy Chitral deer.  A rhesus macaque sat in a tree and watched us pass as hog deer scattered away into the nearby tall grass.  By running silently ahead on the path while the guide stopped the group for a lecture, I saw a group of wild boar that the others missed.
But I paid for my solo time.  The guide gave me a stern warning not to do that again.  If I’d come across a rhino, anything could have happened — none of it good.  Minutes later, hushed by our leader, we approached a sleeping rhino deep in the brush.  We could see only its massive form like a large boulder among the trees and fragrant flowering bushes.  We stepped over piles of rhino turds.  “Each animal consumes about 100 kilograms of plants and drops 40 kilos of manure daily.  When full grown, they weigh 2000 kilos. An adult Indian elephant weighs 3000.”
Late that afternoon, following a mediocre lodge lunch that consisted of a gray broth with a few noodles in it, it was time for the long-awaited elephant ride.  On the walk to meet our beasts, we bought bananas and oranges to make up for the bad meal.
Mahouts had gathered at a walled compound near the park boundary, where the elephants were brought to tall platforms.  We riders climbed up a wood ladder and stepped across to sit on the hard wood bench mounted on the elephant’s shoulders.  Three of us sat side-by-side, with the mahout right in front of us, guiding the lumbering animal with a pronged stick.
A line of eight elephants started into the forest, carrying visitors from many nations down a wide trail.  Rocking along, sliding into the Dutch guy beside me, this felt like seatbelt time.  Of course, no such luxuries were provided but the ride grew no worse.  The elephants walked smoothly and were remarkably surefooted on the muddy and steep places.
Through the open woods we could see the wide grassland, rust and gold in fine slanting sunlight that looked perfect for color photographs.  We soon emerged into a dense prairie as high as the elephants’ bellies.  Rhinos are terrified of people and will not let us approach on foot without charging.  But because rhinos are extremely nearsighted, and because they have no natural fear of elephants, they don’t realize these are slave elephants carrying members of an aggressive hunting species.
The small rhino herd grazed contentedly as we approached.   The only rule was, no talking.  Our voices could have set the rhinos off on a run for safety.
A mother at least four feet wide glanced up as we neared her young calf.  Her horn looked very large, her eyes tiny.  She went back to munching, grinding grass with her huge teeth, as we framed photos of this remarkable scene.
Our mahout steered the elephant among the rhinos, providing new views and closer looks.  The light was perfect.  I snapped dozens of pictures.  At one point our feet were no more than four meters from the back of a rhino who stood watching the horizon for trouble, twitching its ears and scenting the air.
Seeing these beasts up close, I realized how foolish I’d been to leave the group earlier. If one of these animals got mad or frightened, and decided to run you down, you’d have about as much chance of surviving the experience as you would walking away from an encounter with a hit and run bus.
That evening, in the dining lodge, those of us who’d been at Chitwan a few days felt like old-timers as we filled in the group of new arrivals about what they would be seeing.  I stayed up late talking with the other travelers, hearing about backcountry treks and grand adventures, the kind of tale swapping that is among the supreme pleasures of visiting remote areas.  I was not anxious to get to bed.  Early the next morning, I had to face the torturous, winding road back into the mountains and clamoring Kathmandu.


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