Ever since we started planning our RTW trip and more specifically, the Nepal-part of it, we have dreamed of doing the elephant safari in the royal Chitwan national park. Things don't always go as you plan them though, and luckily so, since the trip we ended up taking turned out to be quite wonderful, and even though it is impossible to compare without doing both, I can hardly see how this could have been in any way worse.
As we were looking for places to stay at in Sauraha, which is the town in which most of the jungle activity offering agencies and hotels are stationed at, we came across the Evergreen Ecolodge. Hostels.com gave it a very reasonable price of 650 NPR per night. The lodge is run by part French, part Nepalese owners, and is such a queer looking place that all the other tourists walking past it would stop to take pictures. Our room, a "nest", was a tiny hut supported over two meters high on bamboo sticks. The inside of it was roughly the size of a large double bed, or a bit larger and it had a cone shaped straw roof. It was almost tall enough for me to stand up straight in and maybe would have been without the provided mosquito net. The only problem we had with the design was that it was held together by steel wires, which weren't trimmed to perfection on the inside so you had to watch out a little in order to not get scratched. Our nest was special out of the three available in that it had an attached bathroom, which basically meant a curtain covered extra "room" on our suspended terrace, with a seat and a bucket. All the ensuites as well as the shared toilet were the bucket-style, which was perfectly fine for us as we are accustomed to such in basically every Finnish summer cottage. Other room types were the "woven hut", which on the outside looks like a traditional bungalow, and the deluxe "bottle room", constructed of used and discarded glass bottles. There was also a bar/restaurant being built in the same way, by using glass bottles instead of tiles. Other provided facilities included the communal "jungle shower", walled with bamboo but lacking a ceiling, and the two sinks next to this.
Why is the Evergreen Ecolodge so important to mention and to describe in such accuracy? Because it was just plain awesome! There was a nice vibe and a welcoming spirit to the place, it didn't cost us much of anything and primitive as it was, it was still the nicest place we stayed in in Nepal. The owners were very nice and on the first night Bijay, a self-proclaimed "jungle boy", took us and a few other guests around the town and the nearby government elephant farm. He told us a ton of interesting stuff, answered all our questions and showed us all there was to see. As he was doing that, he also explained to us how the elephants are treated and told us a bunch of stories about his work with animal rights. As he was doing this he made us wonder if the elephant safari would be such a nice thing to do after all. Not going in to the details of the animal rights thing, we also started considering if it would be worth the money to take the expensive elephant ride when apparently those only last for one and a half hours!
Evergreen Ecolodge doesn't offer elephant treks, nor does it promote those in any way. Instead, they advertise the option of the "jungle walk". Having read way too much of our copy of Lonely Planet, we had the idea that this option would be perilous to say the least. There are tigers in the jungle, as well as sloth bears, but encountering those is rare. The bigger issue seems to be the rhinos and the wild elephants. Then again, there was a massive pile of rhino dung only a few dozen meters from our flimsily built nest, so they did move around the city area as well. And as Bijay put it, the real danger is on the bus ride to Chitwan (sure enough, if I remember correctly, there were two trucks laying on their side and one broken down bus on the four hour trip from Lumbini…). So we decided to do the jungle walk!
We were offered a day and a half-package (this is where our trip started to feel a bit like a package tour, if only a little). The price for the whole thing was 4850 NPR per person when we went with the Danish couple we had met on the bus. The price covered everything but the foods and the tips for the guides, even the national park entrance fee, which has been raised from 500 NPR to 1500 NPR per person. We started our first day in the nearest restaurant where we had breakfast and also took lunch with us. This was painfully slow though, it took about an hour and would have gone a lot smoother had we made the orders the day before as we thought we would. It also wasn't the cheapest place, they charged 300 NPR for simple breakfast when the Uption-restaurant just next door offered the same for 155 NPR. Anyway, after we had our stomachs and backpacks full of food, we headed out to the shoreline of the river separating Sauraha from Chitwan. Our guides met us there and we took a wooden canoe to the other side, where we were told the basics of how to thread in the jungle. To make a long story short, herbivores you run away from, carnivores you try to scare off by huddling in a group, and most importantly, do as the guides tell you to do. Then we were off.
Before the walk I made the mistake of reading other peoples blogs about similar trips. They all talked about how scary it was and how there's danger lurking everywhere. However, I didn't find any (in the short glance) that described any actual dangers encountered by the authors. Then again there were the two Australian girls on the bus from Lumbini who told our Danish companions that they had encountered a wild elephant, ran away from that, only to find a rhino, from which they also had to run away from. So, somewhat nervous we entered the jungle with our two guides armed with the bamboo sticks everyone likes to mention. Note to all those who plan on carrying their own sticks as feeble protection (as I did), find the stick beforehand, there are very few bamboo there and all the sticks on the ground are half rotten. Anyway, we started in to the jungle, through somewhat thick vegetation, saw some wild chickens and deer almost right away, but only through the trees and stuff. Later we entered a large area covered by tall grass that wasn't yet burned off this early in January. We saw some hornbills from the distance and the huge holes dug by sloth bears in search of termites. Then it was time for the big ones!
Our guides stopped us on the road as they heard rustling in the tall grass. They made us walk slowly back as they kept listening, tension growing ever denser. Then we heard the unmistakable sound of Nokia-Tune from the pocket of the senior guide! Anyway, the junior guide was sent off to investigate. He didn't find anything so he started throwing rocks in to the grasses, apparently to piss off anything in there. Sure enough, something moved and we were eventually able to make out the back and the ears of a rhino before it disappeared again. After that we continued on, saw some king fishers and other birds, and walked to a high watch tower where we had lunch and a two hour brake, since the animals wouldn't be moving around anyway in midday. There was a large open area right in front of the tower, on which we could see maybe two dozen deer hanging around. Not that interesting. Until we heard some noises and saw the deer gather up in a tighter group and run away from the line of the taller grass. Why? Our Danish companions yelled "Tiger, tiger!". Yeah right, it is extremely rare to see a tiger, only about one in hundred… Wait, is that a freaking TIGER?
IT WAS! I estimated the distance to the animal to about 150 meters. My camera has 18x optic zoom and I could see it somewhat clearly on the small screen for the moment before I screwed everything up and lost it. The Danish guy got a picture of it though, and zoomed really close, you can make out the shape of a Bengal tiger. It was there and we saw it, if only for a second. Back at Evergreen, Bijay had joked that only Chinese cameras are fast enough to catch the tiger. Apparently Danish ones are too, good for them and us too, as we got the picture from them. We spent the next hour and a half waiting for the tiger to return, but it never did and we continued on.
We went in to some sal forest, where our guides spotted some markings on the sand presumably made by a python. They started tracking it along a dried riverbank and eventually found the thing. Estimated three to four meters long, the shy little snake tried to escape from us only to have our guide grab its tail and pull it back! It curled up and hissed at us for the longest time as we were taking pictures and video of it. After that we kept going and came back to the grass line area, where we stood on a small hill waiting for rhinos to come and greet us. We actually were lucky enough to get a good look at one before it too disappeared into the grasses. For something that big and awkward looking, they sure move quietly. By then the sun was starting to descend rapidly so we rushed back to where the canoe had taken us over the river. We paid our guides 500 NPR each as tip, which didn't seem to make them overly happy even though it was apparently an extra 50% to what they were otherwise paid.
The next day we started as late as Noon as we were taken by a motor rickshaw (it was supposed to be an ox cart, but all the drivers were on a picnic or something) to another shore where we again got into a canoe. We had a different guide who pointed us the different crocodiles laying on the shores as well as some water birds. I also learned that even though you should at all times keep your fingers out of the water because of the crocodiles, they are OK with GoPro-action cameras as they "know what those are and are used to them". Smart crocks. After the 20-30 minutes in the canoe we took ashore for another jungle walk in somewhat less treacherous terrain. Sure, there could be rhinos too, but our guide didn't even bother with the customary bamboo stick. As this was only half day trek, and through denser vegetation, we didn't see all that much but were able to spot a wild boar at least. We finished the day with a stroll around the elephant breeding center and a local village, after which we were taken back with the same noisy rickshaw. The guide received the same 500 NPR tip as the previous ones.
All in all, the jungle walk was definitely worth doing and it wasn't the least bit scary, or at the very least, there was really nothing to be scared about. Not saying that there couldn't be, as we did see some rhinos and even the elusive tiger. However, I would definitely recommend this for everyone who's weighing between the options of the elephant safari and the jungle walk. It's longer, so you have a better chance of seeing animals and you have two guides who can tell you all kinds of neat stuff about the jungle instead of just the elephant mahout whacking at the face of his ride. Also, the Evergreen Ecolodge is highly recommended, if you can stand the somewhat primitive settings. The atmosphere more than makes up for it!