Once we decided that Nepal was on our itinerary we both had different ideas on what activities we would be doing. Cameron was interested in trekking (Nicole not as keen on multiday hikes) and Nicole was interested in rafting and animals. So after our trekking adventure, it was decided we would head south to the Terai lowlands. Our eyes were set on the infamous Royal Chitwan National Park in search of the Royal Bengal Tiger and the one-horned Indian Rhinoceros. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to spot these rare and distinctive creatures!
Even though 'strict' measures are in place to help protect the animals of Chitwan, poaching is still a huge problem and some are still in danger of extinction. With only an estimated 80 tigers and 550 rhino's left in the enormous park we were determined to test our luck and hope to spot one while on an elephant safari or jungle trek (surely our luck should change after five days of trekking in the rain?).
We arrived at the makeshift bus station, basically a dusty gravel pit with a wooden shack, with our new guide waiting to transfer us to our riverside hotel. Our room was pretty basic (fan, mosquito net and attached bath) but we were within meters of the Rapti River, a stunning view at sunrise and sunset and a soothing sound before bed. The next few days were going to be busy.
Our first activity was visiting the elephant breeding centre where the female elephants were located. Sometimes the caretakers would bring a male over from another reserve to breed, but most of the time the males just wander through the jungle (when they are 'ready') to the breeding centre in search of a female mate. A couple of baby elephants were brave enough to stroll away from their mom to visit us. They used their trucks to check us out, looking for food. When they realized we didn't have anything they lost interest and kept wandering about. It was a neat experience being so up close and personal with these extraordinary animals.
The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and by 7:00am we were on a canoe crossing the Rapti River to start our jungle trek. We were joined by a group of five English students that had just completed seven weeks of volunteeer work in a remote Nepali village. The hike started with a very serious briefing from our guide. He went over safety procedures and escape methods in the 'unlikely' event that a bear, tiger or rhino attacked. Climb trees for rhinos, don't climb trees for bears, run fast for rhinos, walk slowly for tigers, stay out of sight of rhinos, don't leave the sight of the tiger… it was all a little intimidating and bizarre.
We were also told there were poisonous snakes but the likelihood of seeing one was very small. And lastly, in the river were crocodiles, Muggers as they're called in Chitwan, so we needed to be cautious around the riverbanks. After the briefing we started quietly walking through the dense forest… it was a surreal feeling knowing that you were leisurely walking in the backyard of such dangerous creatures (Are they watching us?!).
It didn't take long before we spotted monkeys, and lots of them. They were loud and having a great time jumping and swinging gracefully from tree to tree. We walked through thick bush and giant grass that was over four meters tall. At times we wondered "how will we ever see wildlife with the vegetation taller than us"? Our guide acknowledged that because of the time of year it was unlikely we'd see anything because the grass was so high and overgrown. Our group of seven didn't end up seeing anything spectacular on the jungle trek but it was beautiful scenery and fun to 'maybe' catch a glimpse of the elusive tiger. We hoped our luck would improve on the elephant safari later that afternoon when the heat cooled down.
Prior to arriving at the park Nicole had read about the possibility of bathing the elephants, a task high on her list of 'must do'. It is such a unique experience that most people never get a chance to do, so she fully intended to capitalize on the rare opportunity. On our canoe trip back across the river we passed the bathing area where elephants were rolling around in the river spraying water from their trunks onto keen tourists. It didn't take long before Nicole was on the back of an elephant heading for the river. Cameron was just as happy being the photographer on the sidelines (he's not a fan of animals bigger than him and also wasn't keen on swimming in waters with the elephant dung floaters).
A favorite trick of the trainers was to command the elephant to tip over on its side while the tourists were still on its back, creating a huge splash and dumping everyone into the river. Then the handler quickly got everyone back on the elephant because everyone was swimming in the same river as the crocodiles! Bath time was more of play time. Nobody really bathed the elephant but it seemed as though playtime was just as much fun for the elephants as it was for the pleased tourists.
Continued on "Chasing Rhinos in Chitwan" blog...