Our hand-hewn dugout canoe bumped against a muddy bank that materialized out of the soft fog hanging over the Rapti River in Chitwan National Park. Regretting that we had to leave the ethereal, misty river so soon, I gingerly walked the length of the narrow wooden boat, trying not to upset its delicate balance and scrambled up the embankment for a pre-trek briefing. Earlier, our guide had warned us to be on the lookout for crocodiles and poisonous snakes, which occasionally jump into the boats. Even so, the canoe had felt relatively safe, but now we were standing in thigh-high jungle vegetation dotted by an occasional small tree.
As a veteran of a nine-day safari through Tanzania’s National Parks and a day tour in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, I am no stranger to safaris. However in Africa we were not allowed out of the car, with one exception; in Arusha National Park I strolled through herds of warthogs, water buffalo and giraffe, accompanied by an automatic rifle-toting park ranger. Here, the only weapon allowed our guide was a long stick.
“Chitwan National Park is home to sloth bears, tigers, elephants, and the endangered one-horned rhinoceros, so we must be prepared before trekking,” he explained. “If we encounter a sloth bear, you must run and climb a tree; a small tree is OK. If we have problems with rhinos you must run as fast as you can and climb a larger tree. Do you know what to do if we come upon a tiger?”
“Run?” one of us suggested meekly.
“No. You must back up very slowly. Then you turn and run.”
“And what about an elephant?” one of us inquired.
“You cannot run from an elephant and climbing a tree will not help. If an elephant charges, you die.” And with this final comment he turned and headed off into the jungle.
I had no illusions about encountering a tiger, as they are shy nocturnal animals that are rarely sighted. The closest we would get to a tiger was likely the enormous fresh paw print encased in the mud just feet from where our canoes had landed. It was the rhinos that I had come to see, since they were the only one of the “Big Five” animals that had eluded me during my African safaris. Thus despite our Nepali guide’s alarming instructions, I fell in right behind him on a narrow but well-worn footpath, reasoning that the relatively open landscape would allow us to spot any large animals in time enough to flee. A dozen steps later my theory was rendered useless when he suddenly turned off the path and headed into dense riverine forest where there was no hint of a trail.
“Too many people in other groups on the paths – too noisy. We will never find rhinos if we follow them,” he whispered.
Carefully, I matched his footsteps as we ducked under tree branches and avoided dry twigs that cracked and echoed like sonic booms when stepped upon. I was so focused on the ground that I nearly ran into him when he stopped abruptly and crouched down.
“Deer, antelope,” he said, pointing to a distant thicket.
When my eyes finally adjusted to the dim light, a herd of deer emerged from the mottled brown and green palette. We continued deeper into the forest, where supple vines snatched and curled around my ankles, tripping up any foot not carefully planted. Through a gully and over an embankment, we checked a wallow hole our guide knew to be a favorite of the rhinos but it was empty. Gradually the landscape changed from high canopy hardwood to marshland with small bushes and trees, none of which where tall enough to provide protection from a rhino. And of course, that is where we found them, lying in a muddy pond too far away for decent photos.
Our guide put a finger to his lips, signaling us to follow quietly. He threaded expertly through soggy bottomland and circled around to a small opening that looked directly into the water hole. One-by-one, he motioned us forward for photos.
“Quickly,” he hissed in my ear as I stepped up. I’d hardly had time to snap two shots when the first rhino stood up, looked directly at us, flapped its ears, and took a threatening step in our direction.
“Run!” he insisted, shoving me back into the obscuring vegetation.
He didn’t have to tell me twice. Fortunately, the rhinos chose not to pursue us, for if they had, our willy-nilly headlong crash through the jungle would have easily led them to us. Finally, our guide judged us to be a safe distance from the rhinos and hollered for us to stop. We regrouped and were headed for the elephant breeding camp when the guide tugged me backwards and pointed to something moving stealthily through a dark thicket about 20 feet away.
“Monkey,” he said excitedly. I saw movement but couldn’t make out any details; hoping for the best I raised my telephoto lens and shot in the direction of his finger. Later, I looked at the result. The photo certainly shows an animal of some kind, although the fuzzy image is more reminiscent of Sasquatch than a monkey.
A few minutes later we emerged into open plain and stopped for a leech check. Despite long socks, boots, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts buttoned at throat and wrists, one woman found a leach feasting on her groin and several others picked them off their backs. My friend Sherry Ott, who writes about worldwide travel at Ottsworld.com and spent a month volunteering in Nepal, had forewarned me about leeches so I’d been on the lookout and had picked one off my trousers and another off my arm before they could sink their blood-sucking mouths into my soft flesh.
Even with the mud, dripping perspiration, slimy leeches and threat of poisonous snakes, I’d do it again in a heartbeat, just for the thrill of standing a couple hundred feet from one of the world’s most dangerous wild animals, protected only by a stranger armed with a stick.
Giri Gurung, managing director of Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures, organized a portion of my travels in and around Nepal, including my trips to Nagarkot, Changu Narayan, Chitwan National Park, and an amazing four-day homestay with his family, high up in the mountains above Besishahar, in the tiny village of Puma. Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures office is in Kathmandu, conveniently located in the Thamel backpacker district. Their website is www.nepaltourismtravels.com.np, and Giri’s email is [email protected] or [email protected]