2011
05.10

There are some wilderness experiences that not only enhance our appreciation of nature, but also remind us of our place among the inhabitants of this planet. Anyone who has been on an African safari or glimpsed a grizzly in the wilds of North America has experienced the humbling sensation of realizing that we are not always on the top of the food chain. Though it is a little unnerving to be put back in our place, it is vital to the survival of all species that we recognize this is a world in which we share, not rule, lands which many creatures have long inhabited before us.

One of the best places to experience wildlife in their purest form is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Chitwan National Park in Southern Nepal. This fantastic reserve protects over 932 sq km of sal forest, water marshes, and elephant grass and serves as one of the premier wildlife-viewing national parks in Asia. Meaning “Heart of the Jungle”, Chitwan is home to more than 50 different species of mammals, including rhinos, tigers, elephants, leopards, monkey, sloth bears, wild boar and hyenas. There are also more than 450 different species of birds and at least 67 species of butterfly. Along with the high-profile animals, Chitwan offers the chance to see barking deer, spotted deer, hog deer, sambar, massive guar (Indian wild oxen), and two species of crocodile. This incredible collection of animals in a beautiful wilderness setting makes Chitwan one of the biggest drawcards for tourists in Nepal.

Most visitors set aside several days to experience all that Chitwan National Park has to offer. The park is best appreciated by staying deep inside the park in one of the luxury lodges where you will be surrounded by the sights and sounds of the jungle. Prices range from $150-750 per person and include the activities for which the park is famous. Those on a budget (as we were) opt for the more affordable lodging in Sauraha, a small village teeming with tourist facilities on the edge of the park. Many people visit Chitwan on package tours arranged in Kathmandu which is the easiest approach for those staying inside the park. Though if you are planning to stay in Sauraha, it will probably be cheaper to arrange accommodation and activities independently from the 80+ hotels and countless tour operators awaiting you in this small, yet touristy village.

The best time to visit Chitwan is from October to March, particularly in late January and February when the elephant grass is cut by villagers, greatly improving visibility and your chance of spotting wildlife. The monsoon season generally runs from June to September and during this time many of the park roads are impassable and the grass can grow as high as 8m, making it very difficult to spot animals even a few feet away.

No matter how you choose to visit the park, the activities included in packages are available for all visitors to enjoy. The most popular way to experience the park seems to be atop one of the many jumbo elephants that can be seen walking on the village streets or along the riverside. The elephants offer an uncomfortable ride with three or four passengers packed into a platform atop the animal’s heavy, rolling gait. It is easy to spot wildlife from the vantage point high above the tall grasses, but many tourists (myself included) are bothered by the treatment of the animals by their drivers who whack their skulls with heavy sticks and metal hooks. I would highly recommend that you avoid the elephant rides which are painful both to passengers and elephants and defeat the purpose of a national park intended to protect the same animals on which you are riding.

A much better way to experience the park are the jeep safaris which feel less like a zoo and get you much deeper into the park. The animals are fairly accustomed to the jeeps at this point and you will have the opportunity to get up-close to rhinos and elephants, among many other animals. Also available are canoe trips which explore the Rapti and Narayani Rivers at a relaxed pace though you are likely to see little more than birds and crocodiles.

The most adventurous way to experience Chitwan National Park is on a jungle walk. Chitwan and Bardia National Parks are two of the few wildlife parks in the world where you can explore on foot accompanied by a guide. It is an exhilarating and humbling experience to step into the jungle with only your guide’s bamboo stick to protect you from one-horned rhinos, wild elephants, temperamental sloth bears, and elusive Bengal tigers. Attacks are not uncommon and tourists have been killed so one must carefully consider the risks. Though, as we found, with the right guide there is no better way to experience the humbling power and beauty of Mother Nature than on a jungle walk in Chitwan National Park.

The accommodating staff at our hotel, Jungle Adventure World, had arranged several activities for us, beginning with a morning jungle walk. Our excitement for venturing into the wilderness far outweighed any sense of danger and our biggest worries were of the weather which drenched us as we began our trek. Yet, our guide, Harka Kuml, was undeterred by the rains and led us into the jungle with boyish enthusiasm and great anticipation for the 4-hour trip. He reminded us that wildlife viewing presents no guarantees, though he was obviously determined to grant us success. As a Chitwan native and guide of 16 years, Harka possessed the traits which I prize in a guide- knowledge, experience, and most importantly, an intense passion for his work.

Led by Harka and backed by another cane-wielding guide, Rachel and I raced into the jungle along rain-sodden trails attempting to match our guide’s quickened pace. While other large groups ambled along jeep roads, we followed narrow, twisting trails through vine-covered sal forests, our eyes constantly scanning our surroundings for signs of life. Birds fluttered through the trees and Harka matched their calls with his own. Spotted deer, surprised by our presence, hopped away and disappeared into the forest. Rhesus monkeys scampered up the trees and the sight of the mothers and their babies caused Harka to squeal in delight. The rain could make finding animals difficult, our guide had explained, but already we were off to a great start.

Through fields of elephant grass almost 20 feet high, we matched the pace and enthusiasm of our excitable guide. He led us back and forth across the road, along the riverbank, and up the ladders of wooden overlooks that offered uninterrupted and beautiful vistas across the national park. With eyes peeled for rhinos and elephants, we saw only vast fields of grass and distant mountain peaks. For an hour or more, our only sign of life were the other groups who surprised us on the trail. I could see Harka was growing frustrated and I tried to assure him that, wildlife or not, we were having a great time.

With the clock ticking down and still no success, Harka raced through the forest to “one last spot” as we followed in chase. Then a twig suddenly snapped and our guide slammed on the brakes, his bamboo pole thrust to the ground in lightning-speed defense. My heart momentarily stopped as I imagined vicious sloth bears or the quick death of a tiger’s claw. Yet, it was only another group and they bore the grim news- nothing to be found at the last stop ahead. None could have been more upset than our hopeful guide who appeared crushed and dejected, as if all our efforts had been in vain.

We turned and followed the other group, but Harka quickly regained his composure and bolted off onto another trail. Crashing through elephant grass, he studied the ground for tracks and strained to hear the sounds of the forest. I had already accepted that no animals would be found and was content to have just spent several hours in the jungle with my girl and our guides. Then Harka came to a sudden halt, his body bolted upright, and he turned to us with large, bulging eyes and a great grinning smile. “Rhino,” he whispered.

His mood instantly changed and his sudden seriousness was not lost on us. Harka instructed us to grab our cameras and leave our bags while he led us forward with caution and care. Through the forest and above a creek, a vast field of elephant grass stretched for as far as the eye could see. I peered into the distance knowing that my lens would be inadequate for photographing a far-away subject in such great camouflage. Then I let my eyes fall to the creek before us and the large gray boulder that rippled the waters. That is no boulder, I suddenly realized. The rhino was just ten feet away!

At the creek’s edge, a tree perfect for climbing angled its way above the water and directly above the one-horned rhino. Harka hoisted Rachel onto its trunk and instructed her to climb. The best defense for a charging rhino is to climb a tree and this one presented the perfect opportunity for viewing and defense. With Rachel well out of harm’s way, I positioned myself behind the tree and began snapping photos, ready to climb at a moment’s notice. Realizing our presence, the rhino rose from his position laying in the cool creek waters, perked his ears, and sniffed the air around him. Poor eyesight would make us difficult to spot, but his other keen senses were undoubtedly aware of our presence. He stared straight in our direction, but showed no signs of attack.

To stand just ten feet away from this massive, seemingly prehistoric beast was an experience more humbling and thrilling than words could explain. Yet, among us, no one seemed as excited as Harka who slapped my hand and patted my back, ecstatic with our success. Realizing that my position was obscured by limbs and leaves, he took my camera and ventured into the open (and unprotected) ground to photograph the rhino. And when the immense rhino sank back into the waters, he crept down just a few feet away and shook a branch which stirred the creature and sent us scrambling up the tree. Though our distance was incredibly close, never once did I feel in danger as his first priority was always for our safety. Still, it was as exhilarating as any wildlife encounter I have ever experienced and I will not deny a bit of relief when the incredibly powerful one-horned rhino finally walked away.

Though our hopes had been fulfilled, this would not be our last encounter of the day. During our afternoon jeep safari, we spotted four more rhinos. Most were far away, but one we found wallowing in a mud puddle escaping the afternoon heat. Harka led me from the safety of the vehicle to get a better photo and when the rhino rose and faced us, I scampered onto the jeep’s hood sending everyone into a fit of laughter.

Most unexpected were the two sloth bears that Harka spotted in the high grass just off the road. Of all the animals at Chitwan, none are more feared than these shaggy black bears, tigers included. These notoriously temperamental animals have long, sharp claws and are known to go straight for the eyes and face. Yet, when Harka grabbed his stick and asked if I wanted to chase after them, I grabbed my camera without a second thought and charged into the high grass behind him. Sometimes a good guide can inspire confidence in you that perhaps should not exist; luckily, the bears were long gone already.

Late in the afternoon our jeep bounced along the dirt road back towards Sauraha with a truckload of grinning passengers, despite the intense, sweltering heat. Chitwan National Park had provided us with so many memorable moments, it was hard to believe this had all occurred in one day. I looked around at my fellow passengers and saw the contentment that shone upon their faces. But still, no one looked as pleased as Harka who stood high above us still searching for animals, a smile covering his face as he humbly thanked the first deer he spotted that had began our streak of incredible fortune.

4 comments so far

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  1. Kyle and Rachel that was an exciting day for me, I felt as if I was along for the walk and ride. I know it was truly a great day for both of you, sounds so exciting and you make
    it so alive I almost felt that I was there. I enjoy your photos, but I enjoy your
    writing more. You are so talented in both fields.Keep up the great work AN
    HAPPY TRAILS to both of you. Congratulations on your engagement and I hope
    you and Rachel can have as many happy years together as your Grandmother and I
    have had so far. Both of you look so happy!!!!

  2. Enjoy your photograph. Harkha is my friend.

  3. Hi Kyle, I really enjoyed your stories and pictures from Chitwan. I visited Sauraha in 1993 for the first time and many times after that. Harka is a long time friend but it is almost ten years since I saw him and his family. The photo of you, Rachel and Harka makes me really happy!

    Keep on with your excellent photography work!

    Best regards, Thomas, Stockholm (Sweden)

  4. incredible bud