You may have never heard of Chitwan National Park but its actually a World Heritage-listed park and classed as one of the best wildlife viewing reserves in Asia. Chitwan is also only a 18 minute flight south west from the craziness of Kathmandu and is currently where I am sitting – on the front verandah of my bungalow listening to the birds and cicadas. Its such a great change of pace from the last few weeks where beeping horns and touting men have dominated.
It was kind of like a long weekend for me – I flew down to Chitwan on Friday morning, I’m spending the weekend sightseeing and then I fly back to Kathmandu and onwards to Delhi (on Monday).
I have arrived in the monsoon season, which means temperatures have soared to about 45’C and the humidity is high! The season sees less tourists which is great for me because there are hardly any people in the jungles and the resort is near empty. Because of the heat all the activities are planned for early morning and late afternoon. That means I can relax in the air conditioned cottage…except for when the electricity is cut, from 1pm to 4pm!
Electricity black outs or “load shedding” are normal across all of Nepal, including Kathmandu. The electricity is rationed across certain parts of the city and villages due to lack of fuel to run the power stations. Most restaurants and hotels have their own back up generators but many smaller shops shut down over their 3 to 4 hour cut.
It was a very successful animal sighting trip considering the weather and I saw seven One-Horned Rhinos which are classed as one of Chitwan’s Big Five. I love the scientific name of this rhino – Rhinoceros Unicornis – maybe all those sightings of unicorns have been true! In the wild they are glorious and gigantic! About the size of a car, their body looks like a jig-shaw puzzle, with their front and back ends locked together to the mid section. I saw five of these monsters, including one super-cute baby rhino, on the jeep safari which goes deep within the jungle. In the back of an open air ute myself and the other passengers bumped along the rocky roads travelling through lush, green jungle, open plains of sweet, tall grasses and along the flood plains of the swiftly flowing Rapti River. Also on the jeep safari I saw numerous birds including vultures, peacock, heron, stork, crane, cuckoo and kingfisher.
Macqaque (ugly, nasty looking monkeys with the very short tail) and langur (much prettier monkey with a black face and long, slender tail) were swinging from the trees through the jungle and usually with them are deer – including the red spotted deer, sambar deer (the largest breed and very muscular) and the barking deer, that actually sounds more like a cross between a growl and an elephant. The deer and monkey work together – the monkey alerting the deer to predators. Wild boar was also a common animal lurking in the forest.
In addition to the jeep safari, I also had a great guide from the resort who took me on two four hour private treks through different parts of the park. The first day we set out along the Raphit River near the resort and walked through the jungle and came across an abandoned resort. Once upon a time resorts and lodges could be built within the National Park. However the Government is now pushing for all of this accommodation to be shut down and relocated outside the boundary. Its such a shame to see a once glamorous resort hidden eerily behind vines, branches and leaves. The doors on all the rooms are securely padlocked and the stone pillar gateway now leads to nowhere.
We trekked through small villages and local homes and I saw the privately owned elephants chained by their hind leg under their shelters. There are three types of elephants in Chitwan – privately owned, government owned and wild elephants. The same issues seem to exist in Nepal with elephants as they do in Cambodia. Elephants just love to eat and love to roam and this basically means they get up to mischief and destroy crops and eat farmers out of house and home. Therefore local villages capture the elephants, attempt to domesticate them and then chain them during the night-time and allow the elephant to eat in controlled areas with their mahout. Some of the privately owned elephants are also used to cart tourists around through the jungle and also for the absolutely delightful (note sarcasm) elephant bath time “experience”.
I got to witness this first hand. I’m going to name and shame – Chinese, Indians and Americans (who should know better) that think its an unique experience to wander down to the river and assist the mahouts to wash their elephants. Sounds lovely doesn’t it…poke, prod and push your feet into the elephant’s head as your climb onto it’s back full of beat marks; pose with the peace sign as your friends take your pictures; wait as the mahout starts screaming and shouting and whacking the side of the elephant commanding it spray water from its truck over you; explode into fits of laughter; wait again as the mahout start ranting once more for the elephant to sit/lay down in the water; elephant does not wish to sit/lay in the water; mahout gets angry, climbs off elephant and uses a hook, yes a hook to grab the elephant’s ear and painfully force it to lay in the water; tourists fall off; more laughter erupts – what a fantastic experience; who is next!
I just stood there dumb founded looking at these people wondering if they actually saw what was going on or whether they are too wrapped up in “tourist touting traps” that they are too stupid to see. What makes me even more angry is that Lonely Planet recommends this as a “Don’t Miss”.
The government owned elephants are more of a breeding facility, where again, the elephants are chained when not roaming with their mahout. It was an absolute thrill to see an elephant baby and it actually walked right next to me. The babies aren’t chained and are allowed to roam as they usually stay near their mummy. It was like a little ball cuteness, much like a puppy, happy, flapping its ears, ambling along with a little jump in its step! Even the army officers it was having a game with couldn’t resist cracking a laugh!
There was one fantastic elephant sanctuary where instead of chaining the elephants a large and I suspect a very electrified fence has been installed. Therefore the animals can roam in a small paddock which does have a nicer feel to it.
The following day I woke about 7am to the heat once more but also to distant thunder. My guide, Bush Tracker, and I trekked deeper into the jungle, this area was more grassland, so there were large Sal hardwood trees, which are timbered for housing and furniture building. Along the walk Bush Tracker pointed out the type of poo on the track which included wild boar and rhino. We also stopped to look at a tree that had been scratched and clawed by a tiger to mark his territory! This made me slightly nervous as it was so quiet in the jungle and I hadn’t seen any other trekkers. Bush Tracker also only carried a stick which would have been interesting! That distant thunder continued to grow deeper and closer during our trek and the sky between the leafy gaps was an angry black colour. It wasn’t long and the monsoon rain started to fall over us. It was cold and refreshing but the sweat still out shown the rain! We continued to trek until we reached the cliffs that lead to the flood plains where a rhino was grazing happily. The thunderstorm by this time hit hard but it didn’t stop us – it was great fun as we slid down river crossings and then trudged back up the other side in the sticky mud. We sought refuge in a tree house further down the track, which is used as a viewing point of the river. After the rain stopped we headed off again and spotted deer and wild boar who had come out to play before making our way back to camp around lunch time.
The Chitwan is a magical place but it does have it fair share of issues most commonly poaching of rhinos, tigers and elephants. As alarming as it is to see army officers roaming the villages and jungles of Chitwan with machine guns they are doing an excellent job as rhino and tigers numbers are increasing. Sadly I didn’t get to see that elusive tiger, but you never know…a tiger may have seen me!