Chitwan, Nepal’s oldest national park is the heart of the jungle, an ark in a world of diminishing wild places.
I put my arms around her head and lean forwards. Playfully, she tosses me into the air like a rag doll. At two and a half years old, Chandra Kali is a big girl. Each morning I purloin a couple of apples and bananas from breakfast to share with my favourite elephant at Tiger Tops. Mischievously, I pull her tail and dash around to twirl her trunk like it’s a whirly-gig. She squeals at me with joy. Her companions are all adults and I believe that my playmate misses rough-house play with a creature closer to her size.
Travellers normally come to Tiger Tops Lodge, a unique privately owned and operated safari business situated wholly within the park’s borders, to see endangered Bengal tigers but I also fall in love with an adorable elephant.
In the local language, Chitwan means ’the heart of the jungle.’ Established in 1973, the Royal Chitwan National Park also attained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1984. Its 932 sq. kilometres make it one of Nepal’s largest wilderness areas. Located in the country’s southern Terai region it stretches along the Indian border for more than 50 kilometres and adjoins the Parsa Wildlife Reserve, creating a complex eco-system that combines riverine forest, open grasslands and the rugged Churia and Someshwor Hills, themselves part of the greater Himalayan range. As a globally significant environment which Nepal takes great pride in protecting, the national army stations guards in camps scattered around the park. Their constant presence is a strong deterrence to would-be poachers. The education programme set up by the Tiger Tops’ management team and the Nepal’s Parks and Wildlife Service engages successfully with surrounding villages whose combined efforts have turned the corner to conservation’s favour. Finally, local people are beginning to understand that a live tiger is worth more than a dead one. The Bengal tigers of Chitwan National Park may yet survive the 21st century. It’s one of the last places on Earth where they still roam relatively safely.
Tigers are the star attractions here, and like most large predators, they sleep for nearly twenty hours per day. Seeing one is an extraordinarily rare event for even the most devoted wildlife seeker. Their silent nocturnal perambulations cover many square kilometres of territory, ensuring that they remain practically invisible. A tigress with her two nearly full grown cubs prowled near the lodge one night. They left behind only fresh pug marks. I heard nothing.
Elephants on the other hand, sleep for only a few hours and they never cease to entertain. Active for nearly twenty hours a day, they communicate via almost imperceptible movements, use low range vibrations or send messages via frequencies inaudible to humans. Conversely, they can also be quite noisy. An elephant hullabaloo is a deafening experience. Sleep is impossible when they’re in the mood to party, I discover after a long day doing the rounds of the park searching for tigers.
Seeing a tiger run across a river is a thrilling sight, so I’m told by a well-pleased gent from the English Midlands when our elephants cross paths during a morning safari. There are few guests at Tiger Tops; with only twenty rooms it’s very private and exclusive. This is a rare chance encounter with another guest. We quietly exchange notes from an elephant trunk’s distance. His watery eyes peer behind thick glasses. ’I just come here last night. Guess I can go home now, got to see what I come for.’ ’What did you see?’ I ask. ’Tiger. Oo-er, you should’ve seen it, quick as lightening it were.’ But my own view was blocked by the aptly named elephant grass. I can barely see the looming Himalaya Mountains much less a striped cat running through its perpendicular patterns. Tiger camouflage is near perfect. Later, I return to Chandra Kali to assuage my disappointment. She tosses me into the air. While I roll back into the dirt, arms akimbo and legs buckled, I am convinced that she is laughing with me.
From the first day, I feel like a latter day Mowgli from the Jungle Book. I’m on an old fashioned shikari minus the trophy hunting. My goal is to see as many live animals as possible, to try to understand them and gain a better sense of this remote region. Perched high on my Chitwan mount, Chan Chun Kali Jacks, I envisage going completely native. The climate is amenable. It’s either cool and dry in winter or wet and hot in summer. I estimate that my chances of survival are fair. Dhani, my eagle-eyed guide on these excellent adventures, interrupts my reverie by pointing out a python’s sinuous track. It looks like a log has been dragged in soft earth. ’It’s gone to that hole over there, see?’ he indicates what looks like an excavation site. ’Big snake,’ I say. ’Yes, but not the biggest, I’ve seen one swallowing a whole chital.’ Sambar and chital deer roam these grasslands between the riverine jungles in huge herds. An adult chital deer weighs at least 80 kilos, more than me. ’So, I could become python food Dhani?’ I ask. ’Sure, but the tigers, the gaur, the rhinos and the marsh mugger crocodiles are more dangerous.’ He mentions four large indigenous animals casually. Maybe I’m not Mowgli material after all because now I don’t feel so safe on Chan Chun Kali Jacks. I saw a clip on YouTube of a tiger attack in an Indian national park. The traveller who captured the footage was lucky not to have been ripped apart.
Dhani taps me on my shoulder and whispers, ’Sloth bear and her cub at 3 o’clock.’ The sloth bear is rarer than a tiger. I’m very lucky to see one with a cub. A shaggy black coat emerges from behind a tree. Shielding her cub behind her, she raises herself up on hind legs, adopting a threatening posture. Though she’s equipped with long front claws and a reputedly short temper, she’s no match for our elephant, who responds by stamping her feet and attempting a mock charge. Our phanit, (the Nepalese word for mahout) settles Chan Chun Kali Jacks while the bear moves her adolescent cub to a safe distance. We follow them until they disappear down a creek bank. ’You’re very lucky,’ says Dhani. ’I’ve only seen two other bears this year.’ I beam with delight, my inner Mowgli is overjoyed.
Dhani Damang has worked at Tiger Tops since 1969. He’s the wonder guide, able to pinpoint a tiny scarlet minivet in the uppermost branch of a flowering kapok tree as if it were the size of a road-train on its way to Darwin. ’I can’t see it Dhani,’ I say, which has been my refrain since arrival. Dhani takes my avian myopia in his stride. Tim Edwards, one of Tiger Tops’ owners tells me that Dhani is completely lost in a city so I feel slightly less inept. The Edwards family began Tiger Tops more than forty years ago as a privately owned luxury camp set in a remote wilderness, its primary purpose being to educate visitors about the wonders of wild Nepal. Past guests have included various British royal family members, Mick Jagger and most recently, Orlando Bloom. Dhani tells me that he has seen nature at its best while working at Tiger Tops for so many years. But my constant failure to sight tiny birds in faraway places is embarrassing. The sloth bear I can see, the minuscule red bird perched between maroon kapok flowers fifty metres away I can’t, but there’s hope for me yet.
I count forty-eight rhinos in a week. Twenty years ago I saw only three in as many days. Tim informs me proudly that Tiger Tops and the government’s conservation efforts have been effective. There hasn’t been a rhino poached here in several years. Chitwan’s ideal habitat creates perfect conditions for rhinoceros unicornis, the highly endangered Great One-Horned rhino. Fewer than 3,000 are left in the wild, most of them here and in India’s Assam Province. I see pregnant females, numerous adolescents and on one fine morning, a newly born calf with its mother strolling through a meadow.
Another success story in Chitwan, is that of the gharial. The second largest member of the crocodilian species, males regularly attain a length of six metres and weigh over a tonne, females are slightly smaller. These fish eating crocodiles were once hunted to the brink of extinction. At Chitwan eggs are collected from nests, incubated at a hatchery and released when the young are deemed large enough to survive. Their greatest threat is loss of habitat and scarce fish stocks due to low river levels caused by, experts say, global warming. Industrial pollution has wiped them out in less remote areas. For now, the Rapti River which flows through Chitwan is a safe sanctuary. One afternoon I paddle in a wooden canoe downriver to a popular sunning spot. A dozen adults lie basking on a sand bank mid-stream. The harem’s dominant male, stretched out on the hot sand merely a canoe’s length away is at least five metres long. He splashes me thoroughly with his spatulate tail while retreating hastily into deep water.
The days at Chitwan acquire a special rhythm. I’m seduced by their mesmerising quality. Waking before dawn, I wash quickly in dim light. Dressed in loose fitting khaki and wearing rubber thongs, I walk to the dining hall. Dhani and I share a cup of chai while we discuss our approach to the day. Will I see a tiger? He desperately wants me to see a tiger. My lack of expertise with the birds is bringing out his latent pity. If a half blind Liverpudlian can spot a tiger in only one day, why can’t I in a week? We walk the short distance to the elephant camp, say hello to Chan Chun Kali Jacks and her phanit, Shira. On to her back I climb, slipping my bare feet behind her ears. We trundle into the cool mist, her low rumbling signalling to other elephants that all is well in the heart of the jungle. Sunlight glimmers through sal tree boughs. Steam raises off the river, a rhino lumbers into view. He’s a big bull. ’Crazy rhino that one,’ says Dhani, familiar with this rhino’s unpredictable habits. He tells me that occasionally rhinos charge so we keep our distance. ’If an elephant is attacked by a rhino, it’s difficult to get them close again. They never like rhino after that.’ Avoiding a head-on collision with the rhino disguised as a Mack truck, we head into the forest. A gaur cow was killed by a tiger the night before and there’s a good chance the big cat will linger near the carcass. The gaur is the world’s largest wild cattle so this is no small display of tiger power. A cloud of flies signal that the carcass is nearby. The stench is strong too. All is quiet. Is the tiger guarding its leftovers? There are hooves, bits of backbone and a haunch in the bloodied grass, but there’s no tiger here. Dhani tells me that a tigress probably did it. ’If it was taken by a male, he would stay with it. The females hide undercover instead, leaving the kill to male tigers, hyenas or jackals. The females are more secretive.’ I learn another fact while I wonder how much a tiger can eat. ’Forty kilos in one sitting,’ Dhani tells me. That’s a lot of gaur grub.
An hour later, we see claw marks on a tree. The deep scratches are four metres up its trunk. ’Big male,’ Dhani confirms. ’They patrol their territory all the time using trees like this to let other tigers know where they are and not to come too close.’ We climb down from Chan Chun Kali Jacks’ back to examine the marks more closely. ’Here, smell this spot here,’ he instructs while pointing to a dark stain on the bark. I sniff reluctantly. A whiff of ammonia, spice notes and a slight muskiness pervade. ’It’s where this tiger also scent marks.’ An aroma I won’t forget quickly. ’How can you tell it’s a male?’ I ask. ’It’s further up the tree, males urinate higher.’ ’So, this contest occurs outside pubs too?’ But when I translate my weak joke Dhani doesn’t understand the Aussie reference. You can’t take the man out of the jungle”¦
Back at the lodge, I take stock. The rhino count is increasing and my tiger encounters are becoming more physical. I breakfast like a starving Mowgli, grab an extra apple, a couple of bananas and head down to the ellie-stables for playtime with Chandra Kali. After joining her at the river for a bath, I return to the lodge and write notes on the verandah while the elephants have a siesta. Lunch is brief. We saddle Chan Chun Kali Jacks for the day’s last safari. There’s always more bird watching to be done. 523 species are known to inhabit Chitwan. I think I’ve seen at least 50 but can’t be sure. I’m beginning to confuse egrets with storks. Dhani successively points out a rufous necked thrush, a sparrow hawk and a red-banded bulbul, all of which I glimpse momentarily. A muntjac doe, or barking deer, bounces into view for an instant, her dainty feet barely touching the ground. Langur monkeys leap effortlessly from one sisal tree to another. A lone hog deer speeds into a thicket, head down, long back legs pumping furiously. A family of wild boar saunter by. ’More tiger food,’ Dhani assures me. ’Ham sandwich,’ he adds. We’ve become easy companions. He tells bad jokes as well as I. Dusk envelops the jungle. A peacock sits on a low-hanging branch, singing a mournful tune, the first bird I spot without Dhani’s help. Its spread of feathers wouldn’t look out of place at a disco, unsurprising that I don’t miss it. Perhaps I’m getting the hang of this twitcher’s game after all, but no tigers. We return to the lodge for dinner. Meals are communal, allowing an opportunity to share stories and compare notes. Tonight’s convivial table chat is all about tiger sightings. ’Did you see the tiger today, the one near that gaur carcass?’ someone asks me. ’No,’ I respond. ’But I did see two crested serpent eagles and one honey buzzard.’ I look down the table and catch a look of disappointment on Dhani’s face. I grin and he flashes me a relieved smile. Returning to my room later that night, fully content after another day in the heart of the jungle, I drift off to sleep and dream about tigers burning brightly on aspiring wings, (with apologies to William Blake.)
Getting there: Both Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines have convenient one-stop connections to Kathmandu via their hubs in Bangkok and Singapore. Transfers to Chitwan National Park’s airstrip at Meghauli with Yeti Airlines and into the park via a river crossing and a short 4-WD journey can be booked through Tiger Tops.
Staying there: For Tiger Tops’ information and reservations: www.tigermountain.com
All meals are included in the tariff and there is a well-stocked bar where guests meet to discuss the day’s events. Package deals including hotel accommodation in Kathmandu, internal flights and transfers, park fees, elephant safaris and activities can be seen on the website. The park and lodge are both closed during the monsoon from July to October.
Travellers will inevitably stay some nights in Kathmandu. Highly recommended is the Dwarika’s Hotel. It houses a treasure trove of Nepalese art, is run like a Swiss watch and has the added benefit of its own generator. Electricity supplies in Kathmandu are presently very erratic due to drought and a reliance on hydro-electricity for power.
Tom Neal Tacker is an award winning writer and regular special guest contributor to Travel Editor’s Desk. You can read more of his adventures at nakedhungrytraveller.com.au