The atmosphere is tense. We've hardly recovered from our morning expedition aboard a massive Asian elephant, where our mahout -- the elephant's trainer and lifelong companion -- surprised us by giving chase after two rhinos through the dense underbrush. Now, over a steaming bowl of garlic soup, Malin has second thoughts about our next activity, the jungle walk.
"'Lonely Planet' says it's pretty dangerous." She frowns, looks at her boyfriend, Daniel. "People have died on this trip. Maybe we shouldn't ... ."
My sister and I exchange wry looks. What do the guidebooks know? Just last week we sat on our perch at the Irish Pub in Thamel, laughing, as one by one the fresh tourists, guidebooks in hand, walked into Kathmandu's busiest intersection. Each one would look in the book, look up, and see the sign: Alice's Restaurant. Ascend the staircase. The rooftop cafe soon filled with tourists, all with noses in guidebooks. All repeating the same experience. Hilarious!
"If it weren't safe," I pointed out, "they wouldn't be doing it." Malin shrugged.
How To Handle A Charging Rhino
The dugout canoe lies extremely low in the Rapti River as our Tharu boatsman poles us across the swift current. I keep watch for crocodiles. We are a group of seven -- my sister Sally and I, Daniel, the Swedish couple, our guide (armed only with a bamboo stick) and his assistant. We scramble to shore, disappear into the tall grasses of the savanna on a well-worn trail. We soon reach the jungle. In a clearing under a saal tree, the guide stops, addresses us.
"When a rhino charges ... ."
The Swedes look at us in alarm. No backing out now!
Welcome to Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, where every moment is an adventure. Like many visitors with a tight travel schedule, we've chosen to experience the park by booking into one of the many all-inclusive camps along the park's periphery -- in our case, Tiger Camp. Bounded on two sides by wilderness, the camp boasts an unobstructed view of animal activity across the river. On a two-day, three-night package deal -- costing roughly $95 per person -- we enjoy a busy roster of activities designed to immerse us in the jungle and the culture of the Terai, the lowlands of Nepal.
Warned to either run in circles or climb a tree if attacked, we silently slip down a jungle path, single file, guide in front, assistant guarding the rear. A rustle in the trees above; the guide motions us to stop. Langurs! With tawny fur, black faces, and long tails, a troupe of these monkeys play in the high branches of a silk cottonwood tree. Malin pulls out her Nikon and starts snapping some photos.
Behind us, the underbrush crackles. Our guide whirls around, the look of terror on his face unmistakable. I hold my breath, expecting the worst, but it's only another tour group, nosily emerging from the bushes. I let out a sigh of relief.
An hour later, I learn the meaning of fear.
It's clear that our guide doesn't relish his job. It wouldn't surprise me if they draw straws to decide whose turn it is to lead the next group of lunatic tourists into Chitwan's dense jungle and broad savanna for the six-hour walk. But it's his job to find us animals, and it's the fierce creatures that keep the tourists coming here -- especially the tigers and rhinos.
He stops. Sniffs the air. Leads us off the beaten path into a peninsula of jungle jutting out into the savanna. The tall elephant grass waves, crackles, and then we hear an unmistakable snort. "Rhinosaur," he whispers, motioning us to silence. Bamboo stick firmly in teeth, he shimmies up the nearest tree to scout its position. I'm left standing at the front of the line, defenseless.
A Flash Of Gray
The rhino snorts again, more loudly. The grass bobs. My heart is in my throat. I survey the trees surrounding me. Will any of them support my weight? When will I know to run? I'm afraid to breathe.
Chomping. A flash of gray. The rhino moves away, deeper into the savanna. A sigh of relief. Our guide comes back down the tree.
"You'll have to climb trees to see them well," he says. He looks us over. Not likely. These are young, tender trees -- no problem for the average Nepali male, around 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 110 pounds, to climb, but not us. He shakes his head, points us back to the main trail. Thankfully, we retreat.
On the broad jeep causeway through the savanna, Daniel asks him whether anyone has died from rhino attacks. "Six, seven people this year." He shrugs. Then, not wanting to scare us from returning, adds, "All villagers. During the grass-cutting."
Under an ages-old contract with the king, who ceded his royal game preserve in 1972 to become a national park, the Tharu villagers may enter the grasslands and chop down a limited amount of the 12-foot-tall elephant grass for use in building their traditional homes. They are beautiful terra-cotta structures made from a mix of mud, dung, and grass.
But the savanna is the greater Asian one-horned rhinoceros' favorite habitat -- and there are more than 900 of them in 60 square kilometers of park, the second-densest rhino population in Asia. Confrontations are inevitable. Even at home, the villagers are at risk. Unlike the 60 or so Bengal tigers in the park, the rhinos have no compunction about crossing the river and raiding the crops.
"What do you do when there's a rhino in your yard?" I asked a Tharu villager later that night. He grinned. "Run."
The next morning we see rhino tracks through the potato fields.
A brightly colored blur of crimson and yellow streaks out of the tall grass and across the road, startling all of us. "Jungle chicken," says our guide. I figure he's pulling my leg. It's not until several weeks later I read that domesticated chickens did indeed descend from the wild chickens of the Asian jungles.
While we see no more rhino, we come across rhino tracks, rhino scat. We pass other tour groups on the jeep trail, then slink back on smaller trails into the underbrush, encountering several types of small deer -- a herd of delicate spotted deer, some small barking deer. More monkeys -- rhesus, this time -- chatter in the treetops. A blur of green turns out to be a parrot. Our guide pauses at a gnarled tree, runs his hand over the bark.
"Tiger was here." We look closely. Deep claw marks. Fresh. Staking out the boundaries of its territory.
If you're willing to spend upwards of $200 a day, you're virtually guaranteed to see a tiger. Three camps -- Tiger Tops, Temple Tiger, and Island Jungle Resort -- are plunked down in the thick jungle inside the national park, with night-viewing platforms to watch the wildlife at play. But after the rhino encounter, claw marks were as close as I wanted to get to a tiger in its home habitat. And that goes double for the sloth bear. It's a small creature, but fierce and unpredictable -- more frightening to our guide than a tiger.
Nearing sundown, skies shifting to hues of lilac and pink, we have our final brush with a rhino -- again, on the savanna's perimeter. Our guide climbs a tree. We can hear the rhino stamping, snorting; see the tall grass waving, feel the echo in the air as it crunches into a thick shock of grass. Fearful, but curious, we hide behind tree trunks, peer into the grassland. A flash of horn. Our guide jumps to the ground, leads us away. "Hurry -- we must hurry!" Adrenaline racing, we thunder down the trail, back to the main path. "We must get back to the boat before sundown."
A large sambar deer ambles brazenly onto the path as the light wanes. We hike with renewed speed. The creatures of the jungle have started to emerge -- it's their time of day. It's no longer safe to stay.
Back at Tiger Camp, over dinner, we laugh off the moments of fear. Ask the coordinator, Saanta, when the best animal-watching time is. "March," he says.
Malin shakes her head. "I might come back," she says, "but I am never doing that walk again."
Making The Trip
Royal Chitwan National Park lies along the Nepal-India border, in the lowlands known as the Terai. Park officials strongly advise against entering the jungle on your own without a guide. We chose to book a package through Himchuli Tours in Pohkara, the primary agent for Tiger Camp. The package rate includes "tourist bus" transportation to and from your destinations within Nepal, all food, lodging, and activities. Our rooms, neat and clean and unusually spacious, contained proper mosquito protection (a must in the Terai) and a western-style toilet.
Besides the jungle walk, we enjoyed a dizzying slate of activities -- "reminds me of summer camp," my sister grumbled. A canoe trip down the Rapti River took us past cobra holes and slumbering crocodiles to Asia's only elephant breeding center, where we had a chance to get up close and personal with the multi-ton babies. An unexpected elephant polo team practice session seemed surreal. Morning birding along the river afforded the opportunity to catch the showy displays of Indian rollers.
The hour-long elephant safari got us within scant feet of rhinos; since there are many wild elephants roaming this jungle, the rhinos take no note of the tourists in the howdah on an elephant's back. Optional activities include a jeep safari ($10/person) -- the best way to bag a tiger or leopard on film -- and a visit to a breeding center for the endangered gharial, a fierce crocodile.
For more information on Royal Chitwan National Park, consult your travel agent, or visit these websites:
Nepal National Park Information (http://www.visitnepal.com/nepalinfo/pinfo.htm)
Royal Chitwan National Park (http://www.south-asia.com/showcase/Tour/chit.html)
The author of the series Exploring Planet Earth (TFCB/Millbrook Press), Sandra Friend hails from Orlando, Florida. A frequent traveler and outdoors enthusiast, she has just completed her first hiking book, 50 Hikes in Central Florida (Countryman Press, 2002).