We had just exited the narrow, pirogue-type canoe leaving the rest of the tourists to float farther down river. My guide Krishna and I climbed the bank and stood at the edge of the jungle. Krishna became suddenly serious.
“We are now entering jungle,” he began speaking in broken English. “This not our world. This animal world. Can be dangerous.” The jungle we were about to enter was not like the jungle I imagined. It was not dense Amazonian jungle or even like the jungle I had seen years ago in Costa Rica. Rather, this was more open forest with medium-high trees and low brush.
Krishna continued, “Walk close behind me and don’t make noise. If I see animal, I signal what to do. If dangerous, I signal back up and move away.” Krishna carried only a three-foot long stick for our protection. He then began to enumerate the dangers of the animals we might encounter. “Rhino have poor eyesight. Can only see close-up maybe twenty meters. But have very good smell and hearing and can run very fast. If too close, we run back quickly. If attack, try to climb tree higher than eight feet.” I looked around at prospective trees and calculated the likelihood of my being able to climb them. Of the trees sturdy enough to support my weight, none seemed to have branches appropriately spaced for climbing. Krishna continued, “If can’t climb tree, go behind big tree. Rhino can’t see. If rhino come right side, you go left side. Wait and hide until rhino pass, and then we run and hide behind other trees.” Play hide-and-seek with a two-ton Indian rhinoceros I thought.
“Wild elephant can be dangerous too,” Krishna continued. “If elephant attack, we run. Sloth bear dangerous too. For bear, we stand and make lots noise.” Okay, I think I got it—run and hide, run, and stand and make noise.
“Jungle also home to Royal Bengal tiger.” At this point, Krishna paused. Male Bengal tigers can weigh almost five hundred pounds and be ten feet long in length not including the tail; females are only slightly smaller. For some reason, purposely or otherwise, Krishna didn’t give any advice on what to do if we were attacked by a tiger.
There is something truly sobering about going into an environment where there are man-eating tigers that can potentially attack and kill you. Particularly in an underdeveloped country like Nepal where seemingly anything goes, and particularly when accompanied only by a five-foot, five-inch Nepalese guide carrying only a three-foot-long wooden stick.
After he had finished his instructions, we stepped a few feet down the trail. Krishna stopped again. “That tiger track.” I gazed at a large single dusty imprint on the trail.
This was all happening in Chitwan National Park on the southern boundary of Nepal along the Indian border. Chitwan National Park is Nepal’s first national park and encompasses more than 360 square miles. It was established in 1973 and became a World Heritage Site in 1984. It is noted for its diverse wildlife including wild elephants, rhinos, buffalo, sloth bears, deer, leopards, crocodiles, scores of different bird species, and—yes—tigers. And lest you think I exaggerate, on average four or five people are killed in the park area each year by tigers, along with a lesser number who are injured. A little more than a year ago, a woman was killed very close to where we were walking that day. Three months ago, a Dutch tourist spent two hours in a tree avoiding a tiger.
I had taken a six-hour-long bus ride to Chitwan from Pokhara. The first thing I noticed when I got off the bus was how hot and humid it was. If had taken the time to look at the weather forecast, I would have seen that temperatures were predicted to be above 100 degrees Fahrenheit all week. Sweat formed on my forehead and rolled down my face. When I mopped it up, it immediately reformed. Also, I noticed all the guides and staff at the hotel where I was staying were also hot and sweating copiously. I thought this a particularly bad sign that the local people were also hot and uncomfortable. They should be used to it I thought.
The lodge where I am staying has dozens of rooms, and sits along a narrow river with crocodiles in it. It is like camp. When I arrive, I am given an itinerary at the outdoor reception desk, where I am to meet for all the activities.
4:30 Tharu village + Elephant Stable Visit + Short Nature Walk
7:45 Tharu Cultural Show
7:00 Canoe Ride + Jungle Walk + Elephant Breeding Center Visit
12:45 Jeep Safari + Crocodile Breeding Center Visit
10:30 Elephant Bath (please tip to elephant driver)
12:00 Lunch3:00 Elephant Safari
Despite all the rooms, I am told there are only two other guests staying in the lodge at this time, a Nepalese couple I have yet to see. My room is on the third floor with faded walls and mosquito netting draped above the bed.
“You got the standard room,” the host says, “so there is no air-conditioning.”
“You have a fan,” he says gesturing to the ceiling fan, “but there is no electricity.”
With that, he turns and leaves.
Promptly at 2:15 PM I arrive in the restaurant for lunch. Three or four workers are resting at the tables. Apparently I am the only one here for lunch. I get a bottle of ice-cold water from the cooler, sit alone at one of the many tables, and the waiter Bhewan brings me lunch: a small bowl of tomato soup with two wedges of white bread, chow mein, a dozen French fries and some cut-up cucumber and carrots.
After the late lunch, I go walking with my guide Krishna, who has apparently been a guide for 28 years in the park. We go several hundred meters from the hotel to the river. He points to several log-shaped objects in the river—crocodiles. There are two types of crocodiles. Gharials have long narrow snouts with fine razor-sharp teeth. The males have a bulbous growth on the tip of the snout. Gharials mainly eat fish. The other crocodile is called the mugger, which looks more like the stereotypical Australian or US crocodile. Muggers are larger (growing up to seven meters in length) and can attack humans. Indeed, a short while later as if to reinforce this point, I hear a guide telling a young woman to back away and not stand so close to the bank.
Krishna and I continue walking and pass several soldiers with rifles at the entrance to the park. For safety reasons, you are not allowed to walk alone or enter any part of the park without a guide. Krishna points out a red deer on the far bank, and then a rhinoceros with its thick armor-like grey plates lumbering and grazing in the grass fifty meters away across the small river.
Within another few minutes, we have seen a mongoose and countless different birds. Then an elephant comes wandering out of the low bush coming toward the river. Elephants are kept by the government nearby and this particular elephant is old, a 73 year old female, and she is let out and roams in the jungle during the day but every night returns to the compound, returning home as it were. We watch as she sloshes across the shallow river following a well-worn path towards the compound.
Later, we see more elephants in the compound itself. Female elephants are in small enclosures surrounded by electric fence. Male elephants, which are notably more aggressive, cannot be held by the electric fence, in part because their tusks don’t conduct electricity and they can just bash their way through the fence, so instead they are chained around both legs to giant stakes in the ground.
We pass the area where the government elephant drivers, the men who train, ride and control the elephants, live. It is a series of run-down, dirty shacks near the elephant compound. I couldn’t imagine living there. Krishna says elephant driver is a good job—but dangerous. Sometimes elephants go mad, he calls it, and without warning.
Dinner than night is similar to lunch. I eat alone at a table outside: a bowl of greasy chicken soup and two wedges of white bread, rice, potatoes and a chicken leg. It has grown dark and while I am eating, insects swarm around me. A large black beetle the size of a walnut lands on my arm. Another bug dives into the thin gravy on the plate and begins swimming around. I leave the cultural show early. There is no electricity at night back in the hotel. It is impossibly hot and humid. I sleep under a pink mosquito net, which when draped over the bed looks like a pink jellyfish.
The next morning, other tourists from other hotels and I float down the river in the narrow canoes. I don’t put my hands in the water, although I am told the water is too shallow here for crocodiles.
When Krishna and I enter the jungle, after seeing the ominous—at least for me—tiger track, we walk slowly. Soon we spot a herd of small spotted deer. Near a watering hole, there is a deep hole diving laterally into the bankside. “Crocodile live in there,” Krishna says. Then he begins pounding on the sides of the hole hoping to entice the crocodile to come out. I can see marks in the earth where the crocodile has slithered into or out of the hole. Krishna continues pounding and staring down into the hole. Nothing comes out.
A short while later a large eight-foot long snake crosses the path in front of us. But it doesn’t move slowly like the snakes I am used to. Rather, it moves very fast quickly gliding over the tops of the leaves on the forest floor, crossing the trail in front of us and disappearing behind a tree. We see a large peacock dancing spreading its tail in a small clearing.
We move slowly looking for wildlife. Krishna points out the large three-toed footprints of rhino and their giant droppings but we see no actual rhinos. Alongside a tree, Krishna stops to point to linear scrapings about six feet up the trunk. “From tiger,” Krishna says. “Tiger stand and scrape claws on tree.” He pointed off to one side on the trunk, “New ones here.” Indeed, there were some new six-inch long scrapings that looked as if someone had just done carved them out of the tree with a knife.
Krishna extends the walk because I am enjoying it so much. I seem to walk with heightened senses. I look this way and that; I stop and listen to every noise and every stirring of leaves. Occasionally, I look behind me since I’ve read that tigers attack from behind. Of course, most people aren’t aware that they are being attacked before they are attacked, but I take some consolation in my occasional furtive looks backward.
We reach the elephant breeding center of the park where baby elephants are born and cared for, and according to my understanding, eventually raised to be used by the park. The woman was killed by the tiger last year near here. The elephant moms are all chained to posts with their children chained by their sides. All the elephants make a continual rocking motion with their heads and trunks. It is sad to see them chained like this. It is incredibly hot. One of the babies is only one-month old and hides behind its mother’s ponderous legs as I pass.
At lunch, Bhewan and another waiter hover around me like vultures. I talked to both of them at some length before, but we had reached that strange impasse where their lack of English and my lack of Nepalese precluded the conversation from going any farther. Now I just want to eat. It’s weird enough eating alone in a dining room, but to have two guys making slow circles around your table and stopping, standing for a few seconds a foot from the table and then continuing on—it’s unnerving. I just want to eat. I don’t know whether it is because I was friendly and nice and no one else is, or because they are bored, or because they think this is good customer service or some combination of all the above. I set down my fork. One approaches, “Are you finished, sir?” “No,” I answer, “Everything very good,” I add. The waiter drifts away momentarily. The other one shows up over my other shoulder. I had been writing in a small notebook—actually I had brought the notebook to lunch to make it seem I was busy—and the other waiter now reads over my shoulder. “Baya weaver bird,” he says noting an entry I had made in my notebook. “Small yellow bird,” he adds.
I lower my head and continue eating giving the appearance of a man who is very hungry and very focused. Later I will talk with them more, but for now I don’t make eye contact.
In the afternoon, I go on the jeep safari. About eight of us are loaded on seats in the open bed of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and we go off into the jungle. Over the next four hours, we make a wide circuit through a section of the park. There are several Nepalese Army outposts along the route where we stop and a guard checks the vehicle’s permit. Apparently, the outposts are there to prevent poachers who are after rhino horn and elephant tusk. We are told not to take any pictures at the army outposts—I guess they are to remain secret—and that our cameras will be confiscated if we do. We see more deer and more rhinos, some of which are immersed with only their heads showing in thick slimy green water. We pass local people holding umbrellas above their heads while seated on the backs of small elephants. Much of the jungle here is thick grass, taller than a man’s head, and an easy place for tigers to hide I think. We arrive at the outdoor crocodile breeding center, which costs one hundred rupees to enter. There are various pools with different sized gharial crocodiles, the ones with the long snouts. Some of them just stand there at the pool’s edge with their mouths open. They all have those lifeless crocodile eyes that just seem to stare at you.
That night back at the hotel there is no electricity. A member of the staff comes to the door of my room as I lay sweating in the dark. I don’t use my small headlamp because it attracts the mosquitos and I am not quite ready to go under the mosquito netting yet.
“Excuse, sir,” he says, “Electricity not work tonight, here is candle.” And he proffers me a small candle and a box of matches.
The mornings are cool and nice at the hotel. I sit on my veranda and watch the birds in the trees. The baya weaver bird, previously mentioned, makes long conical hat-shaped nests in the palm trees which are just above eye level from my veranda. The nests are unique not only for the elaborate unique design, but also because the nests open downward, an adaptation presumably to prevent snakes from entering the nest. There is a nesting chamber halfway up inside the nest. The male baya weaver, whose crown becomes yellow in color during mating season, partially builds the nest and then advertises it to passing females. Females then inspect the nest, and if one finds it acceptable, the male will then complete the nest, with the female adding a few finishing touches, supposedly a glob of mud here or there.
After breakfast—fortunately several new guests have arrived and the waiters are busy with them—I go to bathe the elephants. This turns out to be perhaps the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Down at the river, about ten elephants are in the water with their drivers. All the drivers have either sticks or metal rods that they use to poke and control the elephants. The drivers continually speak harsh commands to the elephants and the elephants obey: standing, walking, stopping and flopping down on their sides in the water. The drivers, most are young, balance themselves standing on the backs of the elephants. When the drivers are in the water and want to get on the elephant’s back, they give a command and the elephant lowers its trunk, the driver steps on the trunk and is lifted upward. The driver then steps onto the elephant’s head and from there onto the elephant’s back. Despite the continual yelling at the elephants, the drivers truly seem to love their animals and most have broad smiles on their faces as they alternately caress the animals and command the huge beasts to do such things as lie on their sides in the shallow river. The elephants seem to enjoy their time in the water also.
It is my turn to sit on an elephant’s back. I strip down to my shorts and enter the river. One of the elephants lies on its side and I grab the rope around its neck (almost like the rope you might see around an animal’s neck at a rodeo), and hoist myself onto the elephant’s back just behind its head. The driver yells his commands and the elephant rises up out of the water. The elephant’s skin is very thick with scattered coarse long black hairs. The driver then gives a command and the elephant lowers its trunk, fills it with water and sprays the water backward at me over the top of its head soaking me. This is repeated numerous times to the delight of the elephant driver and those watching from shore. After a period of time, I am let down and the whole process is repeated with other guests. When everyone is done, we spend some time alongside the elephant, which is now laying on its side in the water. Its trunk is submerged; occasionally the double-nostril tip breaks the surface and sucks in air. The elephant driver uses a rock to rub and remove the mud on the elephant’s skin. We help. The elephant seems to enjoy this or at least tolerates it. I spend a long time with the elephant in the water. The driver than lifts the elephant’s giant feet (more yelling at the elephant presumably “lift your feet, lift your feet”) and with his metal spike digs rocks from the elephant’s feet. Actually the drivers all command the elephants in Hindi, apparently the universal elephant-command language.
After lunch is the elephant safari. A jeep picks up tourists like myself from various hotels and takes us a short distance outside of town where there are platforms a dozen feet off the ground. Four in a group, we climb rickety ladders and wait on the tops of our platforms. An elephant, the driver sitting across its neck, backs up to the platform and we climb aboard sitting on a smaller platform on the elephant’s back, each of us straddling with our legs one of the vertical uprights of the platform. The elephant then takes off. It is a rolling rocking motion, and not particularly fast. There are dozens of other elephants in our group each with four people on their back along with their driver, and we all take off toward another smaller river, first passing a booth perched on stilts where the driver hands a ticket to someone in the booth. It is pleasant and part of the fun is just looking at the whole elephant army moving haphazardly—each driver picks his own route—through the undergrowth toward the river. The elephants stop in the river and spray their underbellies and sides with water, then we move into the jungle. Again, it is not an unpleasant way to travel, and the rolling motion has a calming effect. Occasionally, an elephant will snatch a branch with its trunk as it goes by and eat. We go up and down small hills; branches scrape past on either side. My particular party is generally quiet pointing out birds to one another. We see more deer, and a crocodile half submerged in a pool. After several hours, we arrive back where we started and disembark. The jeep brings us back to our hotels.
There is still an hour or so before sunset. The sky has been hazy my whole time in Chitwan. I rent an ancient bicycle in town, 70 rupees or 70 cents for one hour, and pedal around the dusty streets of the town, then go a short distance out into the countryside where people tend fields. The sun coalesces into an orange blur near the horizon before settling into the jungle.
That night back at the hotel, we have electricity for an hour. I run the fan at full speed lying spread-eagled on the bed feeling as if I am beneath the prop of an airplane. In the morning, I take the long bus ride back to Pokhara.