Crowds converge at a temple on a festival day. Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
I just made my fourth trip down to Chitwan for a few days, staying at our favourite spot, Sapana Village Lodge. There’s lots of things I like about Sapana, but one of its greatest attractions is how it makes me comfortable with hot water showers, comfy chairs and places to relax, but doesn’t cut me off from local life. From a comfortable reading spot, I can watch everyday life going past me on the river. Locals are washing clothes, fishing, or just using the river to get around. Abundant bird life hovers overhead. Majestic cranes, ibis, storks, hornbills, sunbirds, night jars, and the beautiful asian paradise flycatcher are all here, swooping down to the water to drink. (We come to Chitwan to see the amazing elephants and rhinos, but for sheer variety and volume, you really can’t beat the birds.) I find it so relaxing. I love the wild life and the river. They keep me coming back for more.
So to get back to the upside of life around here, after being weighed down by too much Kathmandu dirt and disorder lately, here are a few photos from a lovely time we just had at an organic farm down in Chitwan a few weeks ago. The farm was part of a tourist resort, providing fresh produce, meat and dairy to the guests, and supporting the livelihoods of about 140 locals. They even set up a small school for the children of the employees.
We loved looking around at the animals and crops. Here are a few highlights:
We came upon them so quickly I wasn’t ready with my new camera, so the photo isn’t focused properly on the subject. But you can see them hiding there in a mud hole, looking very much like giant clumps of mud, except for the giveaway ears. We see you, Mr Rhinos!
…And they saw us. Sitting on an elephant looking down, we watched them take an early morning breakfast bath in the glorious mud. Last night it had rained for the first time in four months, heavy jungle rain that left everything soaked and steaming, and we had lain awake listening to the thunder and lightening the night before. Everything was now so wonderfully cooler, and the rhinos were enjoying what must have been their first mud spa of the season.
Not surprisingly they were not too happy about being disturbed, but they weren’t really skittish or aggressive, just a bit put out. It reminded me more of young kids forced out of the backseat of the bus now that the big kids want their seat back. And the big kid was the elephant, not us. Apparently rhinos and elephants get along just fine. They don’t notice us humans freeloading on the elephant’s back. Its all about the elephant, not us, and the rhinos knew to move over so the big guy could take a turn. Sorry guys!
We stopped to take a close up and the last rhino posed for the shot. I love his mud stripe!
In case you didn’t know, gharials are prehistoric cousins of the alligator, fish-eating reptiles with strange narrow snouts that end in a ball. They might like fish, but some of the larger ones we saw…I’m sure one of my limbs would have made a tasty snack in a fish shortage! But fortunately for us at the Breeding Center, we were safely separated by stainless steel mesh.
The breeding center was built about ten years ago with WWF money and donations from other sponsors in response to the increasing problem of gharial extinction. Its populations have reduced dramatically in the last 70 years and it is now listed as “critically endangered.” The breeding center incubates the eggs and raises babies, and keeps populations of gharials from all age ranges. You could walk from pen to pen and see them at 2, 5 10 and even 45 years old, but I understand most are released into the wild once they reach the age of 4. I couldn’t find any statistics online on the impact that the center is having on the wild populations, but hopefully its a positive one.
Our big adventure for this part of the trip was to go out into the jungle on a jeep. I’d been warned that the safari part of this was limited. There are animals there, but its not like Africa with an abundance of wildlife. So we took the adventure as a jungle trip, rather than a safari, as the experience of just being out there in nature is a special one. So first thing in the misty morning, as the first part of our adventure, we headed down to the Rapti river, which forms the boundary of Chitwan National Park. Its shallow and fast, and the only way to get across and stay dry (sort of) is by hollowed-out canoes. These are less than stable…I really thought I was going in!
From the opposite bank, we walked to our jeep, and then drove dirt trails into the jungle. In the early morning, the birds were really active and you could see kingfishers and all sorts of colorful and beautiful birds. It was hard to capture them on film without a fantastic camera lens, but wonderful to be there and listen to them sing anyway. When we saw the first peacock, we reached for our cameras and he flew into a tree. Here is my best shot:
Later peacocks kept showing up everywhere. It was mating season, and the males were strutting around. By the end of the day, we were saying “oh that’s just a peacock” and recognizing their cries. Hard to believe that we got used to such a spectacular bird, so they seemed common like pigeons! As it got warmer, the mist lifted and the terrain changed. I loved how different areas of the jungle had their own feel. My favourite was the open grasslands and the cotton silk trees: the beautiful reed-like grasses and the angular, vaguely oriental feel of the trees were stunning. Add to this the imagination of what may be hiding in the grasses, and our eyes were set ahead, frantically scanning the view.
We stopped at one of several viewing platforms to take a breakfast break. The rickety platform did give us more elevation to see around, but unfortunately no animals interrupted our meal.
So what did we see that day? No tigers, unfortunately. They are now considered the prime wildlife sighting because they are so rare. There’s only about 200 Bengal tigers left in the park. But, fortunately, there’s now a concerted effort to stop poaching and track the surviving tigers. Hopefully, their numbers will slowly start to increase. We saw lots of beautiful birds, countless peacocks, monkeys, deer, boars, alligators, cranes and wild ducks, a rhino and — most significantly of all — a black sloth bear. A large, male actually. They are considered the most dangerous and unpredictable of all wildlife in Chitwan. He was actually frightened by us and ran along the horizon, trying to find a way to cross our path. He finally darted across our trail, but too fast for me to catch a shot. Maybe next time.
First stop on our roadtrip was Chitwan, where we had visited last year over Christmas. We stayed a second time at the charming Sapana Lodge and met again with the “pregnant elephant” who now was mum to a three month old calf. He was adorable! We went over to pet him and he was hungry for attention. He sucked my silk shirt up his nose and wrapped his trunk around my legs. He was so wonderfully goofy and eager….just a really, really big baby. It did bring the expression “charging around like a baby elephant” into new perspective. It was so funny to watch something so powerful be so clumsy.
The keeper fed his mum some sugarcane, and he tried but just couldn’t coordinate stuffing the sticks into his mouth. They were just too big and he was too uncoordinated, but his mum loved them! Talk about a sugar high!
Around midday the keeper would take them both down to the river for a bath. And the little elephant swum around his mother, hiding under her belly and diving underwater to snorkel. Nearby the local Tharu kids were playing football and tossed the ball for the baby elephant to catch, but he was far more interested in the water and for us it was so much fun to watch elephant bath time!
In the afternoon, the elephants were taken out to a fenced enclosure by the river where they grazed and hung out. The local kids took their soccer game out of the water when it got a little cooler and ran over to us asking for their picture to be taken. We went over to see the baby again, and he came running over to a gap in the fence, straight to my outstretched hand. He wanted to play and out he came! I guess baby elephants play with one another head-to-head and tousle with their trunks. He tried that with me and very nearly knocked me over! He sneezed on Susie’s clean white shorts, which were now covered in sooty elephant snot. (We think he’d been nosing around in one of the fire pits.) Then he got really frisky and tried to play-charge me. I turned around to try and use my back weight to stop me from falling over. I was laughing but also a little afraid that he trample me as he charged at my butt and pushed me around like a steam engine. Susie was laughing but also a little cautious, so getting this on camera was not an option. But we did manage to get some pictures of the kids playing with him:
It was a wonderful opportunity. If I’m lucky enough to come back again in a few months he will be bigger and probably too dangerous to play with- if indeed he still wants to play at all.