After the Annapurna Sanctuary trek, I spent a few days resting in Pokhara and thought about what I would do next. I was due to fly back to India in a week’s time, so I decided to visit Chitwan National Park before returning to Kathmandu.
Chitwan lies close to the Indian border, roughly midway between Pokhara and Kathmandu. It’s home to a variety of animals like elephants, rhinos and tigers and I thought I might get a glimpse of them in their natural habitat.
Despite the discomfort of my previous Nepalese bus ride, enough time must have passed for me to again embark on another cross country bus journey. This time it was from Pokhara to the town of Sauraha on the edge of the national park. The second half of the six hour journey was particularly bad. We travelled along a rough dirt road that wound its way down from the foothills of the mountains onto the flat subtropical lowlands of Nepal.
As the bus drove into Bharatpur, a large city close to Sauraha, the relative flatness of the landscape and the masses of auto-rickshaws on the road, indicated we were close to India, in fact only about 25 kilometres from the border.
Sapana Village Lodge
From the bus stop, it was just a short ride in an auto-rickshaw to Sapana Village Lodge, which I’d booked a few days earlier. The lodge was the essence of calm and peacefulness, comprising a series of two storey buildings each with eight rooms, spread out over spacious and shady grounds.
I had an excellent room – a real jungle bungalow enhanced with modern conveniences like electricity, hot water and a comfortable bed. Like all the rooms it was nicely decorated in a traditional manner by the local Tharu people. The place had an authenticity and natural calm about it that I liked immediately.
While having lunch on the raised decking that formed the outdoor dining area, I saw my first elephants – their mahouts on board – being walked down to the river to splash around and feed on the surrounding grasses. Local villagers could often be seen along the river as well, washing their clothes, bathing or tending their herds.
After a peaceful night’s sleep, I woke to a thick blanket of fog. It seemed appropriate for a lodge in the jungle. It was eerily quiet. The only sounds were those of birds. Every morning it was the same and by mid-morning it had lifted and the day was clear and sunny. After breakfast, I left on my first activity of the day – a visit to the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Centre.
Canoe Trip to Khorsor
It began with a short drive in a jeep to the Budhi Rapti River on the edge of the national park. On the river bank, still shrouded in fog, were a series of traditional dugout canoes, each made by local Tharu people from the trunk of a single tree that grows in the forest. Sapana Lodge had provided me with a guide and together we joined a small group of people in one of the canoes for a 45 minute ride up the river to the breeding centre. There were six of us in the canoe including the oarsman, but it was a wonderfully peaceful journey. The only sounds were the occasional bird and the guides descriptions of various plants, animals and birds we saw along the way. The forest was completely still.
The fog was only just starting to lift, rising like steam from the river. I sunk my finger into the water and it was surprisingly warm. The guide said the crocodiles like to bathe in the warm water in the morning before climbing onto the river bank after the fog clears to catch the sun.
There were two types of crocodiles in the river: the snub-nosed Marsh Mugger which eats fish, deer, monkeys, livestock and probably people and the less dangerous pointy-nosed Gharial that only eats fish. We saw both varieties, either partially submerged or lying in the mud, completely motionless.
There were numerous birds including bright blue kingfishers, herons, storks, cormorants and eagles. There were spotted deer, monkeys, elephants carrying people on safaris and in the distance, we even saw some rhino.
From the riverbank where the canoe journey ended, it was just a short walk to the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Centre. It was established by the Nepalese government in 1986 to boost declining elephant populations and create a supply of working elephants for the region.
The centre consisted of a series of open-walled roof structures, each home to a mother and calf. They were both chained to a post while they were there but each day were taken into the forest for at least five hours to graze and get some exercise. It is not particularly pleasant to see any animal secured with a chain or even a leash, but all the elephants at the centre appeared well looked after. In recent decades, it has been necessary for Nepal to raise elephants in captivity as the population of wild elephants has declined due to deforestation and increasing human populations.
Another animal under threat in Chitwan has been the one-horned rhino, prized by international poachers for its horn. There is apparently a strong demand for it in Vietnam, fuelled by the myth that rhino horn powder is a cure for cancer [source]. During the last several years Nepal has engaged both the police and the military to help protect the park from poachers.
After lunch, in the mid-afternoon I left by jeep for my second excursion of the day. We drove to a place by the river where half a dozen elephants were waiting to take people into the jungle. Their mahouts would reverse them up to a set of stairs so we could climb onto the small cushioned platform (called a Hauda) on top of their backs. I shared the platform with an Asian couple and their young daughter. The mahout sat directly behind the elephants head and used his bare feet, discreetly tucked behind its ears, to control its movement. Occasionally he would give it a soft whack on the head with a stick if it didn’t respond to his instructions.
We ambled off straight towards the river. It was a much bouncier ride than I expected, like a slow motion version of travelling along a jeep track on a Nepalese bus. I was immediately glad I’d decided on the 1.5 hour ride rather than the half-day safari.
Not long after the elephant started crossing the water, it stopped in mid-stream and started spraying water over its sides, to cool itself down. My shoes and trouser legs got a soaking in what appeared to be a complete disregard or lack of awareness for the passengers perched on its back. It also lifted its massive tail to allow poos the size of footballs to drop into the river.
Before moving on, it reared its head and let out an enormous roar. It became apparent to me that I was not on a ride, I was on a live animal. Anything could happen. It could suddenly decide to roll over and crush us all beneath its weight. We were virtually trapped inside the platform on its back. There would be no way to get free in time. And what if a pack of Bengal tigers suddenly ran out of the forest and decided to attack it, two tigers biting chunks out of each leg. Surely such things could happen in the jungle. These thoughts came and went through my mind as I was thrown to and fro like a tiny boat on a rough ocean. I never really got comfortable with the elephants gait but it was certainly the best way to travel through the forest and see other animals up close.
Deer were the first things we saw, but not long after we came upon two one-horned Indian rhinos, grazing on some plants. It was fascinating to be so close to them. There were at least four elephants, all with passengers, that had gathered around the pair of rhinos for a better look. The rhinos seemed almost oblivious to being the centre of attention, which made the whole spectacle all the more interesting.
We moved on and spotted another pair, this time a mother and child. It was quite amazing. The couple I was sharing the elephant with said they’d been on a day-long jeep safari the previous day and had only seen a couple of rhinos from a distance, so we had been quite lucky. Elephants were definitely the best way to see them, although it comes down to luck at the end of the day. The park also has Bengal tigers, but they are even rarer to see. They tend to only roam much deeper in the jungle and generally only at night.
As we were making our way back, one of the elephants that was trailing us got closer and closer. Apparently it was friends with the one I was on. Then some playful antics started happening that none of us, except maybe the driver, thought were very playful at all. My initial thoughts of jungle mayhem came surging back, but luckily things calmed down as we crossed over the river and approached the dismounting platforms.
Although it was an uncomfortable ride, it was a truly unique experience. What was particularly memorable were the personal characteristics of the elephant. The way it would stop regularly along the walk to eat or poo or let out a roar. It seemed ok with carrying small groups of people on its back for walks around the forest, but it made sure it still got to do some of the things it really enjoyed and wouldn’t let a strict adherence to duty get in the way of some playful antics with its friend.
The next day I took a 20 minute flight to Kathmandu, in order to avoid another long bus trip. I booked into a hotel in Thamel that Clare and I had stayed in before. It was basic but reasonably comfortable and in a good location. There were a few places in the city I still wanted to explore before I left for India in three days’ time.