Deep inside the sal forest on the southern bank of the Reu river, a massive commotion stopped me dead in my tracks. The sun approaching its zenith, and the humidity levels rising, songbirds had come out to feed, and, well, sing. To my untrained ear, it was a mass cacophony, albeit a very pleasing one. To my guide, the naturalist Krishna, it was a means of identification. He closed his eyes and looked beatific for about five seconds. Then he started reeling out the names: velvet-fronted nuthatch, black-naped monarch, white-bellied erpornis. “You can tell all this by their calls?” I asked, frankly astonished. He grinned shyly and said, “Yes, but I can see them too.”
To see birds, and animals, in the jungle, what’s required, apart from highly trained faculties, is a quick brain. The passerines were wheeling and darting around a small marsh so overgrown with dense bushes and entwined branches of innumerable trees, that often to spot a bird meant predicting where it was going to go next. So I followed a small flock of monarchs for a while, soon realising that the passerines were following a largely set pattern of tree to water, water to tree. They weren’t just feeding on insects, they were being social. Another lesson learnt.
I was three days into a steep personal learning curve about the ways of the jungle at the Chitwan National Park. Like most people, this vast forest in the Nepalese terai wasn’t the first thing I’d think of when ‘the most mountainous country in the world’ sprung to mind. It would be Himalaya first, Himalaya second, and the Kathmandu valley third. But my first view of this vast forest quickly brought home to me how unfair I’d been to this diverse Himalayan nation. Chitwan is stunningly easy to reach. A combination of an hour-and-a-half long flight from Delhi to Kathmandu, followed by a twenty-minute flight from Kathmandu to Bharatpur brought me to the park’s gateway. Another hour’s drive along bumpy rural roads found me sipping a cold drink in the lavish environs of the Barahi Jungle Lodge, overlooking the Rapti river, one of the three main waterways that define Chitwan.
Barahi is a sprawling resort of standalone huts set in a wide arc around a bend in the Rapti. Since it opened a year ago, the resort has been drawing rave reviews, and it’s easy to see why. Apart from the stunning setting (there’s a watchtower on the premises from where you can get amazing views), the resort offers every luxury imaginable, without being an eyesore or a strain on the environment. Its 35 boutique rooms are built using traditional techniques and charming Tharu-inspired artwork lights up the rooms. The main building is aestheticaly designed, with a book-lined lounge, a large restaurant with a sit-out deck and a swimming pool facing the river. Like the other huts, my room too had a balcony facing the river, and a couple of hours spent sitting there provided me with a huge bounty of birds, lizards and, on one occasion, even a rhino sighting on the far bank of the Rapti. The staff were gracious and helpful, and on hot, humid days, a chilled glass of juice was never too far away. The lodge sits right next to the community forest of the indigenous Tharu people of the area. This is a part of the 750 sq km buffer zone that surrounds the mammoth 932 sq km park. The locals often visit the forest around dawn to collect grass, and in their own way, act as efficient guardians of the forest and its creatures.
I was eager to get a taste of Chitwan, so after a quick lunch, I set off on my first elephant safari, along with the lodge’s two naturalists, Krishna and Vineeta. The lodge maintains a fleet of four elephants, and one of them, a sweet young female called Ranikali, was waiting near the raised rampart chewing on a clump of long grass. At 35, she was only a year older than me, and I warmed to her immediately. Her massive head was covered with sparse, rough hair, and despite her aura of immense strength, her young eyes radiated peace.
At a muttered word from Ranikali’s phanit Rajudai, the giant swayed off on a trail, past some thatched houses, over an electric fence and into the forest. The change was stunning. This was probably the fastest transition I’ve ever experienced from cultivated fields to deep forest. Sal trees reared up thick and impossibly tall, as the elephant beat a steady and sure trail through the dense undergrowth. And there, almost immediately, was wildlife. A herd of chital, led by a couple of long antlered males, leapt away from our advance, retreating discreetly behind some gooseberry thickets and continuing to graze. It’s quite a grand thing to amble by on the back of an elephant; I could feel every stride that Ranikali took in my bones, as her immense form crashed past overhanging branches. There was more movement in the bushes, and Krishna, who was riding pachuwa (literally, standing on the elephant’s back), murmured “hog deer.” I followed his pointing finger to find the well-camouflaged animals, who evidently felt they needed to hide better—there was a flash of white as they turned tail and ran deeper into the forest. We carried on, swaying and thumping on the howdah. Soon we were clear of the forest and in the grassland.
The kans and the elephant grass swayed gently in the evening breeze, as Ranikali stomped along. The rains had helped the grass grow to incredible heights, and we were quite submerged, sailing in a sea of grass broken only by stray trees full of chattering birds. The forest beyond the Rapti was clothed in a soft mist as we descended into a narrow channel of the river meandering through the grassland. Suddenly, there were big crashing sounds and Ranikali’s stomach started to rumble. There was a group of five rhinos bathing in the water, all of whom had stopped to look at us warily. As Rajudai gently guided the elephant towards the beasts, I realised that the crashing sound was coming not from the rhinos in the water, but from one in the tall grass, who had wandered in right in front of Ranikali. From the length of its horn, it seemed like a female, and for one heart-stopping moment it seemed that the startled rhino was going to charge. Then it gave way in front of the elephant’s larger bulk, and splashed ungainly into the water.
We followed her in at a more discreet distance. Krishna drew my attention to two males who seemed to be squaring up for a confrontation on the far bank. They made some snorting sounds, shook their heads menacingly, and then decided that it would be better to wallow in the water instead. In they went.
The next day was reserved for a boat ride down the Rapti, but not before another safari, this time at the break of dawn, as a thick mist lay on the river and the forested hills of the Churia range in the distance. Into the jungle we went, this time on the back of Sundarkali, and met the same group of rhinos, who seemed quite impervious to us by now. This, of course, meant a good photo op. We continued down to the river, as the sun made its appearance as a dim yellow spotlight, struggling to break through the gloom. The birds were out in full force and in fine voice, especially the long-tailed shrikes which balanced delicately on the tall grass and sent out mellifluous trills. A group of chestnut-headed bee eaters waited patiently for the sun to come out, bringing with it the bees. Greater coucals, stonechats and squawking bulbuls were making an almighty racket. Down by the river, Sundarkali decided to drink some water, snorting and spraying more than she drank. A little way away, the eyes of a submerged gharial watched us closely.
I was to meet more of them later in the day, when Krishna and I floated down the Rapti. In the dry months, the river can be crossed easily on foot, but now the stream was quite swollen. I didn’t have to wait long for a sighting. Just across the river from Barahi’s docking bay, a giant mugger was sunbathing. Krishna’s powerful binoculars brought this magnificent beast even closer. It was massive; at least ten feet in length, its eyes closed, snoozing. Apart from a wild boar, the mugger is probably the most dangerous animal in the forest, a silent and deadly killer. Soon, other crocodiles started appearing—the graceful gharials; their long thin snouts and massive bodies making them look like some terrestrial narwhal. They too were sunbathing on little sandbars in the middle of the Rapti, their scales glistening in the afternoon sun. Egrets and storks flew by, and deer kept stumbling out of the forest onto the banks of the river, before panicking and running back in.
Soon, the hills started to draw closer and another river came in from the left to join the Rapti. This was the Reu, which flowed through the heart of the forest. Hundreds of birds were wheeling about in the tall grass here, evidently enjoying a rich feast of insects brought out by the humid heat. Much as the weather was uncomfortable, I realised that it was essential for making Chitwan the rich and varied habitat that it is. Once upon a time, just a few thousand years ago, forests like this one stretched all the way from the Brahmaputra to the Indus, where much the same animals roamed unrestricted amidst sal forests and riverine swamps. No wonder the Indus Valley Civilisation has left us images of the one-horned rhinoceros, the one real unicorn the world has known.
Gharials filled the sandbars, and this gladdened my heart, as these beautiful fish-eating crocodiles are highly endangered, and it’s rare to catch sight of so many anywhere on the Indian subcontinent. Finally, the largest river, loomed ahead. The Narayani, aka Gandaki, is a proper Himalayan river, and so huge that there’s an entire gigantic forested island called Bandarjhula (also a part of Chitwan) smack in the middle of it. As we neared the confluence, called Khoria Mohan, I could hear the roar of the big river, and see its white, boiling current meeting the placid flow of the Rapti. Our boatmen carefully turned the canoe around to face the flow of the Narayani’s current, but even that couldn’t stop the boat from rocking a fair bit as the current hit us. We then laboured our way up to the bank for a fantastic sunset, and the sight of a lesser adjutant stork out for an evening walk on a nearby sandbar.
While my knowledge of Chitwan’s wildlife was increasing, the gracious people at Barahi ensured that I got enough comfort to balance the heat and my hectic itinerary. This mostly took the form of gigantic meals—sumptuous breakfasts at the end of a dawn safari, lavish multi-course set lunches and dinners. I loved the Nepalese thali, with its many vegetables, a delicious dal, and options of a smashing chicken or fish curry. The net result of this was that, no matter how much I rushed about all day, I invariably went to bed feeling that I’d put on more weight.
Krishna had promised me a full day of jungle walking, and despite fears that the rains might have obliterated the trails in the forest, we decided to take our chances. My permit duly arrived from the park headquarters, and we set off down the river once again, heading for the confluence of the Rapti and the Reu. A thick mist shrouded the river as we neared the point where the two rivers met. The boat docked under a looming sandbar beside the Reu, and we clambered up it, and right into impenetrable elephant grass. We had two options—we could take a trail through the grass beaten down a few minutes earlier by a passing rhino and run the risk of stumbling upon it, or find a way along the crumbly, eight-foot high edge of the bank, till we exited the grass and entered the sal forest. Despite the possibility of a drop down into the river, we took the latter option, and it took us a good half hour to negotiate our way through the grass, with quite a few tumbles thrown in, before we found ourselves under the canopy of the forest proper. This was prime tiger territory, Krishna said, as he led me off the main track into dense forest, to show me a stream that was much frequented by tigers, especially early in the morning. We approached cautiously down a barely noticeable tiger-made trail to a point where a seasonal stream coming down from the Churia hills met the Reu. There was little water, though the wet earth beside the stream was littered with pugmarks, mostly old. But one set was very fresh; Krishna reckoned about an hour old. Frankly, I was glad to see that the tiger that had made the prints was going in the opposite direction. We pressed on through the thickets, past some silk cotton trees with their eerie branches. The local Tharus worship the tree as a symbol of the goddess of the forest, Ban Devi. I bowed my head and followed Krishna.
Soon we came to the outliers of the hills. Amidst a pure stand of sal trees, stood large insect mounds. Some of them had been raided recently by passing sloth bears for food. There was plentiful deer in this stretch of the forest, as well as stray wild boars, and we would have almost stumbled on one, had it not been for Krishna’s keen eyes. We waited and watched as the boar, with its young, made its way across the trail, before carrying on up a trail into the hills. After climbing for half an hour, we were clear of the canopy, and the Reu, the Rapti, the Narayani and the huge forest lay below us in a wide panorama. We reached an abandoned Nepalese army post—the army is in charge of guarding the forest in Chitwan—called the Bell Tower and took in our surroundings. Behind us, to the south, rose the thickly forested ridges of the Churia range. Giant red ants patrolled the ground and eagles soared in the hot air. We tracked a lone rhino crossing the Reu.
It had already been a pretty successful day of sightings, but the best was saved for last. Just before heading through the elephant grass back to the boat, Krishna led me to a long swamp called Munda Tal. We wanted to catch sight of a mugger, but what we got was a bonanza of rhinos. There were at least eight individuals there, including three cubs, languidly cooling off in the water, their gnarled, wet hides glistening in the midday sun. Egrets stood on their backs, pecking for insects. A Himalayan flameback woodpecker diligently pecked away at a sal tree, while a stern-looking drongo stared at us from another. We hung around for the longest time, looking at this wonderful scene, until an irate langur tried to piss on us. We’d overstayed our welcome, and, this final lesson learnt, it was time to head back to the air-conditioned joys of Barahi.
Getting there: Royal Nepal, Jet Airways, Air India and Indigo fly daily from Delhi to Kathmandu for approximately Rs 6,000 one-way. Kathmandu to Bharatpur is a 20-minute flight operated by Buddha Airlines and Yeti Airlines for approximately NPR 3,500 one-way. Bharatpur to Chitwan is about an hour’s drive.
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK: Established in 1973, Chitwan National Park became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984. Chitwan is divided into four sectors with its headquarters in Kasara. Protecting a unique terai habitat along the floodplains of three major rivers, the park has made a success story of preserving the threatened one-horned rhinoceros, the tiger and the gharial. It is home to at least 60 species of mammals, 55 amphibians and reptiles, and over 500 species of birds.
BARAHI JUNGLE LODGE: Barahi Jungle Lodge (from $350 doubles; www.barahijunglelodge.com) is the Chitwan property of the highly-rated Pugdundee Safaris (0124-297-0497; www.pugdundeesafaris.com). Set in the buffer zone on the banks of the Rapti river, the resort offers 35 deluxe boutique rooms with a private balcony that overlooks the river. The main building offers a large multi-cuisine restaurant, as well as a sit-out deck, a swimming pool overlooking the river and an open-air bar. Apart from its luxurious setting, the lodge offers elephant, jeep and on-foot safaris accompanied by excellent naturalists. You can also enjoy the local Tharu culture with a visit to Tharu homes, the Tharu museum as well as cultural programmes organised by the lodge.
Pugdundee has a special offer for Indian tourists of Rs 24,000 per person for 3N/4D on a double-sharing basis which includes safaris, lodging and meals as well as complimentary return flight tickets from Kathmandu to Bharatpur and pick-up and drop from Bharatpur airport.
IS NEPAL SAFE? The devastating earthquake that struck Nepal in April has hit the country’s economy. Massive rebuilding and rehabilitation is the need of the hour, and to effect this, Nepal requires all the tourism money it can get. It is completely safe for visitors, and the people remain as warm and welcoming as ever. So go ahead and plan your Nepal trip.