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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jungle Adventures in Chitwan

We’d promised the girls an “elephant safari,” and Chitwan National Park was the place to deliver! After a wonderful 3-day run down the Seti River, we crammed into a local bus for the quick ride to Tadi Bazaar… then a short bumpy jeep ride to Sauraha, directly across the Rapti River from the N.P. boundary. Sauraha is Chitwan’s main town for do-it-yourself explorations in the park, and has tons of cheap (…and fancy) hotels, gift shops, guide agencies, and all the typical backpacker amenities. Of course, we would have preferred to stay at Tiger Tops or one of the other plush all-inclusive safari camps deep inside the park itself, but at $300 per night per person, it was just a bit high for our budget.

We had 3 full days to spend here, and decided to do whatever it took (aside from staying at Tiger Tops!) to show the kids as much wildlife and birdlife as possible…. Multiple elephant safaris? What the heck! Merry Christmas girls!!! So the first task was to avoid the many pushy guides and agencies in town, and find the best birding guide. It only took a couple of stops… United Jungle Guide Services has a few offices in town, and when I strolled inside to ask about finding Chitwan’s most experienced birders, Anil was working on his Facebook page. He was editing some photos from a few weeks ago of 2 Brits who he himself had taken birding, and asked if I knew who they were. Nope… didn’t recognize their faces, but I did recognize their names (Carol & Tim Inskipp) as the authors of all the best birding guidebooks for India, Nepal, Pakistan, etc.! I’d found our man!

Anil set us up with several wonderful outings, and truly provided us with expert guides! We did a full day jungle jeep drive on our 1st day, which allowed us to see a large amount of the park. Most visitors do a half-day drive, but therefore only get half as far into the bush… and with 10 or 15 jeeps driving that same “1st half” roundtrip, there is a lot more noise, disturbance, and less wildlife! Our driver was also an hour late, which at first was upsetting, but it turned out to be a blessing. By leaving an hour after the crowds of other jeeps, we had the dirt roads to ourselves for several hours and saw heaps of birds, deer, crocs, a wild boar and other critters. Krishna took us through many diverse habitats, and really worked hard to spot a wide variety of birds… We visited the gharial captive breeding center, a critical facility that is trying to save this rare crocodile. The kids oohed and aaahhhhed at the “cute” reptiles! A lunch break at a truly remote and somewhat ramshackle observation platform gave us a full 45 minutes to quietly watch a one-horned Rhino and her 2 offspring slowly graze by… The “baby” was about 6 months, and the 2-3 year old was still hanging around the pair. Momma was pretty pushy and aggressive with her “teenager,” grazing together but firmly keeping it away from the baby. It was such a thrill to catch glimpses of these massive creatures, just 100 yds. away, so well camouflaged in the dense elephant grass! The afternoon brought us past several oxbow lakes, and we finally exited at Kasara, the park HQ, to drive at higher speed outside the park back to Sauraha. This allowed us to linger longer inside the further away less-visited parts of Chitwan. On the way back, in the buffer zone “community forests,” we spotted our best Rhino yet…. Just 10 yards away in a creek drainage. We parked on the tiny bridge, with the engine humming just in case, close enough see her nostrils flaring and hear her sniffing us! What amazing animals! As a sweet unexpected treat, we enjoyed the “huge red ball sunset,” and the alpenglow on the Himalaya, about 80 or 90 miles to the north…. We could pick out Annapurna, Manaslu, and Dhalagiri, where we trekked just a few months ago! Ahhhhhh…. So lovely!!!! And it was pretty amazing to be seeing such an astounding span of altitude, viewing the 27,000-foot peaks from the 500’ Terai!

The next day we decided to take an hour-long canoe ride, and visit the elephant breeding center. Drifting in the dugout canoe down the Budhi Rapti gave us up-close views of crocodiles and gorgeous birds like herons, egrets, storks and several species of iridescent kingfishers. The birds don’t seem to recognize a floating boat full of humans as a threat, so they rarely flew away as we drifted by. Had we been on foot, we would have spooked them…

Elephants can move safely and efficiently through the jungle, and the breeding center raises and trains them for jungle patrols, park service work, wildlife surveys & research, and for tourist rides! The kids literally flipped-out over the baby elephants, and are already making plans to study zoology & “elephantology” so they can work with elephants someday. The 2-year old brothers living here are apparently the first surviving pair of twin elephant babies born anywhere in the world… pretty cool! After the elephants all headed out to graze in the jungle with their parents and trainers, we took a few hours to stroll back to town. Tharu villages are scattered around the area, surrounded with brilliant yellow mustard flowers that they harvest for the oil. The houses and barns are built with mud walls plastered on a framework of grass that’s harvested once a year from inside the Park. We saw bundles of elephant grass everywhere, drying in the sun, waiting to be used for walls and to repair and re-thatch their roofs. Thousands of cuuuuute baby animals thrilled our kids, and made the miles roll by quickly.

That evening we actually got to board our elephants, rocking & swaying through the community forest for couple of wonderful hours… again, we saw tons of birds, and a couple of species of deer; chital & barking deer. You ride on a square wooden “howdah” perched 10-12 feet high on the elephants’ back. The “mahout” sits on the elephant’s neck, and drives it by pushing his bare feet into the huge floppy ears. The occasional corrective whack on the elephant’s head with a stick disturbed our kids, but our mahout was relatively gentle with “Ranikoli.” The constant wave-like swaying and rocking made me wonder if people ever get “elephant-sick.” Do mahouts ever take Dramamine? We thoroughly enjoyed the meditative swaying pace of the elephant, and the kids were quieter than usual, carefully scanning the thick vegetation for deer and birds from their elevated perch…. What a ride!

Sunset from the back of the largest land mammal on the planet puts everything into perspective. It seemed as if we could see the curve of the earth from up there as the big red ball settled into the soup for the night.

On our last day we had planned to do another morning canoe float in a new area, and then have a more relaxed afternoon…. but several of the best experiences were yet to come! The canoe ride down the Jan Khola (?) was even better than the first, with far more exquisite birds and surprisingly clean clear water! The kingfishers were stunning in the morning light… my new favorite color is “kingfisher blue!” There were also several crocs, including a 6-footer who slipped into the river, swam straight towards our canoe, then disappeared under the water grasses directly under us…. “That was REALLY cool… but a little scary too,” said Sylvie.

We got back to Sauraha just in time to see the mahouts bringing their elephants down to the river for their daily bath, and everyone is welcome to join in for a good scrub… for 50 rupees! The kids went bonkers, and gushed repeatedly about this being “the BEST thing I’ve ever EVER done in my life!!!!” They were required to wear huge life jackets for “safety,” but that was the only precaution… this is definitely not OSHA approved! 3 or 4 people scrambled up on the elephant’s back as they kneeled on the ground. The kids struggled to cling to each other and to its backbone as the beast lumbered and jerked up to it’s feet, then tromped on into the river… then it was splashing, laughing and elephants spraying everyone with their trunks for an hour. Eventually the animals would lay down in the river (more like squatted and fell over into the water), and the riders tumbled off too. Then they got to scrub the bristly elephant hides and backs with stones they’d picked up off the riverbed. Having such playful & close physical contact with those massive creatures made our kids giddy with joy! I was a bit worried one might roll over and squash someone, but no one got hurt… And we were the only ones around for an hour or so… until a huge crowd of 30 Nepali teenage boys showed up, stripped to their black undies, and rampaged around the river screaming, splashing, and tossing rocks and yelling as they pushed each other off of elephant backs. The final judgment, from Dawn & Maya, was “that was even better than swimming with dolphins, and that cost us $170!”

On our last evening, Anil and Krishna took us on an evening bird walk