In Search of Wild Rhinos (1987)
Updated: Jan 20
This narrative forms part of our one year-round-the-world honeymoon adventure (1986-1987). After our aborted trek into the Annapurna Section of the Western Nepali Himalayas, we headed south down from the mountains to Chitwan, affectionately known as the terrai.
Our plan was to travel down to the terrai in search of the wild rhino, then cross the plain to to the holy city of Benare along the Ganges River, said to be among the oldest cities in the world. Sadly, I couldn't shake the effects of Giardia, and was sicker than a dog. I may have aggravated the situation by becoming de-hydrated at the end of our 5-day trek, along with getting a sunburn from the high altitude sky. I was so weak the day after our trek that lay in bed almost all day.
Our allowable time in Nepal and India was quickly running out as I convalesced in Pokhara at a cool altitude, gazing upon Machupuchharre from our cozy front porch, dreaming about India, and beyond that, Rome ... the eternal city.
Typical of many travellers, we spent more time anticipating our next destination, instead of fully being in the moment, at the lake, one of the most beautiful, peaceful, relaxing slices of paradise we'd found along our entire journey.
We'd hoped to meet up again with our Aussie friends Sue and Lou, but they never arrived; later, we learned they didn't want to take a bus back up to the mountains from the terrai, having had their fill of the dreaded Nepali "banger".
The weather was very cool by the lake, unlike what we could expect when we headed into India near the end of the hot season, as the entire sub-continent patiently awaited the coming of the rains from the Himalayas, whose beginnings we'd witnessed in the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Three days later, I'd recovered sufficiently to make the run for Chitwan National Forest, "only" a five hour bus ride away! Chitwan was another in a series of magical destinations known to those on the old dusty trail, disciples of the "Church of Lonely Planet" (what we would do without our trusty guide books was beyond me).
After our 5 am wake-up call (which seemed typical for our travel days), we hailed a taxi to the bus depot. Once more, to our dismay, sat the "express bus;" the second cousin of the old banger we had to take from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Once boarded, the bus filled to bursting with locals and a few farangs. We kept thinking there couldn't be room for more people, let alone for another chicken (there were a few under the seats in cages).
It began to pour as we pulled out of the dusty station.
"Just great!" I said. "Our gear stowed on the roof isn't covered by canvas."
"Shit!" said Elaine. "Everythings gonna be soaked by the time we get to Tandi!"
(I later discovered that the book I was reading, "Slow Boats To China", which I had tucked into my backpack before it was put up on the roof, had almost drowned!)
The early part of the journey descending Pokhara Valley was a series of starts and stops, to load even more passengers! Our seats weren't anything to be proud of; our knees were up around our chins, and we were jammed into a "three-seater" ... a Nepali man was almost on my lap. The chickens clucked, the people swayed, and as the rain came pouring down, the windows steamed up.
As we descended a series of canyons and gorges, I was dismayed so see that the bus lacked windshield wipers. The driver's assistant would lean out across the driver's window in an attempt to wipe down the rain. As we passed a deep crevice with a raging river below, for a moment I thought we were headed over the edge. I almost puked my guts, I was so scared. This bus ride had become a bad dream with the stereo incessantly blasting shrill Indian music, non-stop honking of the horn by our driver, the bus jammed to the gunnels. I concentrated on breathing, closing my eyes, and imagining we'd already arrived. It was absolutely terrifying.
There aren't any atheists on a third world bus.
Our driver must have known the road by heart, because he certainly couldn't see out the window. Somehow, after three hours, we emerged from the gorge to Moguli, where many passengers disembarked. Then, we descended into a steeper gorge, along an embankment next to another raging river, the same route we'd risen from Darjeeling on another bus ride from hell a few weeks earlier.
(Later we heard traveller's terror tales of buses being swept into the river, not uncommon during the monsoon season.)
The gulch reminded me of the Fraser Canyon in BC. The good news was there was somewhat more visibility for the driver, as the rain had tapered off. We saw fishermen setting their nets in the muddy waters below, before we crossed a section where two rivers joined forces, one a raging torrent reducing the other to a standstill.
We finally emerged from the canyon into the terrai at Nenayara, where we had the opportunity to stretch our cramped legs for the first time in four hours. We gorged on the last of our snacks purchased in Pokhara: homemade chocolate brownies, croissant and Buff cheese, and a special treat of a chocolate and fruit bar, definitely a most unusual repass amidst the squalor of the bus depot.
The Himalayas were shrouded in mist as we cruised along the pancake flat terrai. To our right, we noticed a small incline, which we took to be the National Forest. A week earlier, the park had been closed to farangs, because King Berendi of Nepal had arrived on his annual hunting expedition to kill a tiger. Considering these were endangered species, we were surprised how proud the King was of his accomplishments. But the King of Nepal is an arrogant son of bitch, if only judging by his opulent palace in Kathmandu next to poverty and despair too disgusting to believe.
(His karma was to be played out in the near future, as the very foundation of Nepali government was shaken by an uprising and a revolution.)
At Tandi, we disembarked the bus feeling as if we'd been beaten by five thugs who'd then stomped on our bodies. Our packs weighed at least 50% more due to the amount of water they'd absorbed. Fortunately, we didn't have to carry them, only load them onto a bullock cart. Our transport to a lodge was arranged by a young Nepali guy who'd jumped on the bus at Nenayara; he spoke good English, and, thankfully didn't appear to be a tout. He provided us with a promotional card and brief description of his lodge, described as:
At Near The Park
Single, Double Bed with fome
Nature Guide, Nature Cook
Just 2, 3 minute walking than Comming ticket office
Single 10 rps, Double 20 rps
With such great marketing, how could we resist, let alone be led astray?
The bullock cart taxi was one of those terrific funky travel experiences that stays with you forever. We sat under an arched, hand made roof, which had been covered with canvas, as if drawing inspiration from the covered wagons in old western movies. Grateful to be out of what was now a hot sun, our procession (other westerners occupied their own carts) moved very slowly toward the gates of the park, some 5 km from the highway.
Wild Wild West Bullock Cart Taxi
The landscape was verdant, an aura of ripe fertility about it. The journey took an hour and a half; we been joined in the cart by "Kiwi Joe", who'd been moving about Asia for several months and had been a guest at our hotel in Pokhara.
We even crossed a river in the true old west fashion; the bullock pulling our cart might have enjoyed the feeling of the water, but we weren't sure.
Soon, we arrived in a very primitive travellers' centre, which consisted of a series of thatched mud bungalows. We were pleased to see that ouur lodge was very quaint, and even included landscaping, something usually lacking in low budget establishments. There was even a restaurant with decent food, considering how far off the main road we found ourselves. We were greeted by a some friendly French travellers, who immediately informed us the elephant ride was one of the most exciting adventures they'd ever had in their lives.
Our gear was all soaked as stated earlier, so the first thing we did was attend to this mess. Our cabin looked like we were having a yard sale once everything was strung out to dry. But our spirits were quickly lifted when we saw our first elephant come to pick up some guest for their 3 pm appointment.
The driver backed the big guy against a platform, while the riders climbed some stairs. This allowed easy on, easy off access for passengers, who clambered aboard a seat designed to hold a driver, the mahmout, and two passengers. Then, with a mighty yell by the pachyderm, they were on their way into the terrai, in search of the one-horned rhinoceros.
We decided to rest up for the night, reserving a ride for the following day. We spent an amusing evening with the French couple, who were in their sixties, and had lived in Australia for the last 20 years. Despite all those years in Oz, they still spoke with incredibly thick French accents.
They were an inspiration, moving about the planet on the cheap every other year. Jacques' face was a mask of ever-changing expressions, as he told one amusing tale after the other. His wife, Helene, played the "straight man," as we assumed she must have heard his travel tales many times.
Our much anticipated elephant ride began when we boarded ramp #1 off the restaurant. Kiwi Joe joined us at the last minute and for most of the journey, sat at the back of the saddle on a wooden seat topped by a small cushion, seemingly unconcerned by what we considered a precarious perch.
On a gorgeous, clear afternoon, we set off down a small trail headed toward the river, the elephant creating a soothing rhythm with his graceful gait and enormous round feet softly landing on the ground, as if cushioned by giant marshmallows.
We turned from the river towards a small clearing, where cattle peacefully grazed, unintimidated by our entourage. Then, without warning, we quickly plunged into the bush, branches flying into our faces, until we soon realized we'd better duck out of their way.
In what seemed like only the blink of an eye, we caught our first glimpse of a rhino in a clearing. Our driver decided to give chase, using his whip as he slapped the elephant's side, which literally kicked him into high gear. We came upon a mother and her young baby drinking at a small stream. We were so close to them I was able to snap very clear photos with a wide angle lens. Rhinos have poor eyesight, but are endowed with excellent hearing: their ears pop up like an antennae, and rotate when an intruder is near! Fortunately, these two didn't hear us, or if they did, they didn't seem to mind our presence.
We were fascinated by these sturdy creatures; they looked so pre-historic and it was incredible how their skin literally looked like armor-plate. We watched them drinking as we continued to snap photos, and I guessed this had become a common occurrence for them, preferring us to hunters, I'm sure. Off in the distance, Joe spotted three more grazing, so we trudged off in pursuit. Our driver was adept at sneaking up on the animals, and we were able to follow this group for more than 15 minutes.
It was extraordinary to witness these majestic creatures in their natural surroundings, an experience rapidly diminishing throughout the region. We passed huge termite mounds, and marveled how they looked as if stalactites had risen up out of the rich, red earth.
In total, we observed seven rhinos, a few deer, and birds of many colours — blues, reds and greens zipping about us, together with their unseen companions creating a cacophony in the underbrush.
We felt more like we were in Africa than in the subcontinent, but as we gazed over the plains rising up toward the majestic Himalayas, we were reminded that we were still in Nepal.
As we completed our four-hour ride, we emerged from the bush and plodded down to the river. We gasped at the scene in front of us, which was simply spectacular: the golden sun was slowly sinking over the terrai, turning the landscape an incredible shade of purple, as giant cumulus clouds soared over the Himalayas and the villagers returned from their long day in the field.
Yes, the world from atop an elephant is a very magical place.
TAKE A HIKE
The next morning, we hired "A Guides" to lead us into the National Forest for a hiking tour (the area we'd explored on elephant back bounded the park, but we hadn't yet actually gone in). Our guide cost the princely sum of $3 for the entire morning, saving us from potentially hiking in circles once we'd gotten inside the park, as maps were non-existent.
As it happened, our guide was also our hotel's waiter!
The early morning light was magical for photography, so waking at 5:30 am proved to be a good call. Also, an early hike meant avoiding the heat of the noonday sun, as the terrai sweltered at midday. At the gate, we were suprised that we were forced to pay a $4 fee to enter the park, more than the cost of our guide!
Along with a group of locals, we carefully crossed the river, which rose up to our thighs in places. One man lugged his bike across, the Himalayas forming a dramatic backdrop, and this became one of my favourite photos of our trip to Nepal. Nearby, elephants forded the stream with loads of sweetgrass, adding to the morning's splendour and picturesque quality.
We arrived at a small forest, and then climbed a platform which acted as a lookout onto a huge field of sweetgrass. Our guide immediately spotted a grazing rhino, so we all climbed back down with another group of farangs, then slowly approached the beast. We stopped when we got to within 30 feet; the rhino remained placid and continued to chew its meal. While I was unafraid, I did keep one eye behind us to determine how near a tree was, in case we needed to beat a hasty retreat.
We continued on into thick bush, which reminded me of the jungle at Tikal, Guatemala, due to the cries of birds echoing in the forest. A peacock flew overhead, losing a feather, which we found and kept as a souvenir. Before long, we came to another clearing, face-to-face with another rhino, who didn't seem to mind us at all. We had longed become used to these giants and had lost our fear of them for the most part, but I knew not to become too complacent as they could eaily charge us, if they were spooked.
We continued deeper into the bush, while many winged creatures flew overhead. Turning off a small branch trail, we heard crashing overhead in the trees. "Monkeys!" our guide exclaimed. We couldn't get close enough to get a proper look at them, for they were at least 100 feet above us, but occasionally, we'd spot a grey and black face poking out from the leaves. Their howling left no doubt as to their species, they were Lemur Monkeys, and as they swung from tree to tree, it seemed they were putting on a show for our benefit.
Walking in the jungle soothed us, the sounds of the birds and animals making for a peaceful, relaxing, Zen-like experience. Our guide wasn't talkative, yet he knew his way through the forest. We came upon a group of small deer, vanishing at our first sound, despite efforts to creep up on them.
It was all very magical; the area largely in a fairly natural state. There wasn't much tourism, except for the primitive farang village where were staying, and the world-famous Tiger Tops Lodge, 40 kms further into the bush, an enclave for rich foreigners. Man had encroached, of course, but not as in many places we'd been, allowing for a profusion of natural beasts. We were pleased to see that the villagers had pride of place and not only took care of their homes and gardens, they had clearly worked to preserve their environment.
To top off our fantastic day, when we returned to our lodge, we were surprised to greet our friends Sandra and Michelle, who'd finally extracted themselves from Pokhara Lake to travel down to the terrai. Kiwi Joe, who'd departed Chitwan that morning, had informed them of our location, so we had a grand reunion with our companions who'd travelled with us from Calcutta on some very horrendous journeys.
Hard travel makes for great companions.
Instead of departing for Varanasi as planned, we wisely decide to spend some extra days in Chitwan, as travellers arriving from India reported average daily temperatures of over 40 degrees celcius.
On our last evening, we sauntered down to the river to watch the sunset. Children, buffalo and elephant bathed below as we sat on the bank, the purple sky showing off for us. If this wasn't a little slice of heaven, I don't know what else was.
Next Stop: India