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Nepalese Tourist Bus (Marie Javins)

In search of Chitwan's disappearing rhinos


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21st October 2012

Marie Javins re-visits Chitwan National Park and wonders where all the rhinos have gone

I sat in a cafe near my Kathmandu hotel eating a grilled yak-cheese sandwich. I was there to read up on Chitwan National Park lodge possibilities and then hotels in Varanasi, India – my, a lot of bedbugs were mentioned in the Varanasi reviews – when my laptop seized up in a spinning hard drive fit. The MacBook hadn't been the same since it had flown off  the motorbike at the Gabon-Congo border. I waited impatiently for the spinning to stop, and that's when a kitten jumped into my lap. She curled up and went to sleep.

That seemed auspicious, so I went ahead and booked the place I had up on my screen – Sapana Village Lodge in Chitwan.

I'd been to Chitwan in 1998 as part of a Dragoman overland trip from Kathmandu to Damascus, and remembered it fondly. It’s a national park where you ride elephants while searching for rhinos. We'd seen a half-dozen rhino back then, both from elephants and from a Jeep and even by walking (which was terrifying but fun). Unfortunately, a number of the rhino had been poached during Nepal's intervening years of political strife.

Sapana had good online reviews and as a bonus, responded quickly to my emails. They'd pick me up at the bus, take me out on excursions, lodge and feed me, and yes, even deposit me on the India-bound bus the following morning. Click.Book. 

Varanasi was trickier. I remembered being overwhelmed with the chaos in the city during my previous trip, but had enjoyed watching the pilgrims down by the Ganges. Varanasi was between me and my goal – Darjeeling, where I'd drink some tea, then launch myself into Bhutan a few days later.

I could stay by the ghats, I thought, and be in the thick of it. But then, I was tired and the thick of it was probably amazing but chaotic. Maybe I’d be better off in the new part of town. Maybe it was time to cash in some hotel points and stay at the Radisson.

I thought about this as I roamed the alleys of Thamel on my last night in Kathmandu. Thamel was probably all the chaos I needed, with the clogged roadways and footpaths, the polluted air from all the motorbikes zipping by, barely missing pedestrians, the Tiger Balm salesmen, and the guys who walked around sawing little bows across tiny wooden instruments that resembled local violins. I loved that I could wander around Kathmandu and suddenly come upon a temple or a shrine, but I could do without being nearly run down by motorbikes and bicycles rickshaw taxis several times a day.

Still, Kathmandu was a familiar place to me, the kind of tourism I understood after the tourism in Tibet that had been so morally challenging. I appreciated its familiarity and ease.

Familiarity and ease can be nice things when you are on a long trip, I thought, as I turned a corner and nearly walked into a rickshaw.

"Rickshaw, madam?"

"No, thank you."

"How about hash?" He opened his hand to show me a newspaper-wrapped packed.

"Uh, no, not that either."

I avoided the violin-seller, any more rickshaw drivers, and the motorbikes of Thamel and went back to my room. I had to pack up and fit in all the souvenirs I'd purchased – including what was labelled a baby-yak-hair blanket – so that I could post them home from India.

Tomorrow would be an early morning.

And I'd need a rickshaw to get to the bus stop.

But I was pretty sure I wouldn't have any problem finding one. 

The sunny roads of Kathmandu were empty as the tourist bus pulled out of town at seven in the morning. And as we started on our way to Chitwan National Park, I thought how strange it was that so many local citizens took the tourist bus, and that the roads were empty in the countryside too. I had been a novice traveller in 1998, but I was sure the roads had been crowded.

It wasn't until several hours into the journey that the Nepalese journalist sitting next to me explained that there was a public transportation strike today. Only the tourist buses and private cars were running.

That explained why so many Nepalese were on today's tourist bus.

The bus wobbled alone along the narrow, curvy road through the green foothills of Nepal. When we had a flat tyre, no one seemed to mind. The bus staff whipped the old tire off and replaced it in a flurry of efficiency. The passengers loaded back onto the bus and were off again.

We pulled in at an empty lot close to Chitwan after lunch. A man on a motorbike was there to collect me for the five-minute drive to the lodge.

The manager, Naran, showed me to my room. Which was gorgeous. Lovely. I wished I were staying longer instead of going on to India in the morning.

I had lunch, quickly scrubbed some laundry in my room’s sink (wringing it out in a towel and hanging it under the ceiling fan,which dries laundry quickly every time), and was then led off out of the lodge grounds, past men riding on elephants, and to the road to the community jetty.

Some of the lodges in the area have their own excursions, their own canoes and guides, and their own elephants. But the lodge I’d chosen – along with some of the other local hotels – was involved in community tourism. They participated in the community canoe, guiding, and elephant safari programmes.

My guide and I climbed into a dugout canoe for an evening wildlife-spotting expedition on the Narayani River, which was racing quickly this time of year. This is rainy season in Nepal, and my friend back in Kathmandu had warned me that Chitwan would be wet and flooded.

It was – but that was OK. We weren't rained on while out in the canoe,but unfortunately the ride went really quickly because of the speed of the water.

We zipped past crocodiles and birds, but no tigers or rhino. This didn't really surprise me. My guide had seen three tigers in a decade of guiding. And I had been warned that the number of rhino had decreased. The ride itself was pleasant as we were carried through the national park by the current.

We pulled up next to a field full of grazing water buffalo, then squished over the field to the government's elephant breeding centre. Elephants are used in security here, to patrol the park to look for poachers, and raising one to work takes huge resources. Each elephant works with a single driver/trainer and assistant throughout its career. If the driver leaves, the assistant takes over and a new assistant is introduced. These two men are responsible for cleaning and feeding the elephant as well as training it.

Wild elephants come to visit the female elephants at night and that help introduce new baby elephants.

I watched the elephants – one frisky baby was too young to eat grass,but that didn't stop him from mimicking his mother, messing up her food in the process. The trainer bellowed a bit and looked annoyed, but the baby just ran away from him and found other food to mess up.

My guide led me back to the river, where we jumped in a dugout canoe ferry to cross over. The owner of the water buffalo, a woman from the local village, jumped in with us. Her water buffalo swam, as she yelled at them from the boat, trying to get them to stop playing in the water and go faster. Of course, she wanted to get them home for the night, but also, any time spend in the water is risky for the younger water buffalo, as crocodiles would be quite happy to have a snack.

She tossed a stick at her herd. It hit one of the buffalo squarely on the head, surprising it. The buffalo blinked and hurried through the river.

A truck was waiting for me on the other side to take me back to camp, with its yummy food and atmospheric, cool room.

But I couldn't get used to this. After an early elephant safari – which compared to my 1998 trip, was disappointing now that so many rhino had been poached – I’d be heading to India in the morning.

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