Chitwan National Park in Southern Nepal is home to the Asian Rhino. The vista is quite African, tall elephant grass, shallow rivers and incredible sunsets. The quiet town of Sauraha is the kick-off point for most safaris and for cheaper accommodation in dilapidated lodges. In addition to rhinos, the park is home to deer, monkeys, wild elephants and elusive tigers. Domesticated Asian elephants are everywhere, used for tourist jungle safaris and by the government to take a census of the number of animals in the park on a regular basis. Like everywhere in the world, Chitwan rhinos are in danger of poaching, with many individuals being lost each year.
We stayed at Jungle Adventure Lodge, at the end of the town, on the river, near where you are able to spot rhinos sometimes in the grass on the opposite bank. Our bus journey to Sauraha was, as bloody usual, eventful and arduous, this time the delay due to rioters who were up in arms over a murder the night before where the police had done nothing. The words “petrol bombs” and “guns” were being muttered into mobile phones by the Nepalese passengers on our bus. We were 40 mins from our final destination, tired and dusty, but this kind of thing is met with a kind of resignation – travelling in Nepal doesn’t always seems to go to plan.
After two hours sweltering on the bus and no sign of the promised police escort, our driver decided he was going to try to navigate to Sauraha on the local roads. Off we bounced down pot-holed dirt tracks, continually stopping to ask for directions from bemused locals (involving much arm waving, shouting and conflicting opinions), whilst we watched rural life unfold beyond the windows. The whole bus joined in the camaraderie, practically cheering when we finally saw signs for Sauraha.
Arriving at our lodge we quickly decided on an itinerary out of the options available. We only had a day and a half, although we’d heard that it was very easy to see rhinos, being quoted anything from a 75% to a 97% chance – which, given our luck with animal-spotting, we reckoned was more like 50/50. We decided on a rafting trip, half day jungle hike, elephant washing, elephant safari, and a trip to the breeding centre to see the baby elephants.
That night I got acquainted with Pinky – a beautiful female elephant that is owned by the lodge. Armed with a packet of biscuits I was not only allowed to pet her but feed her. She opened her mouth and I reached up and put a tiny biscuit in it, getting covered in elephant slobber at the same time. Her eyes watched my every move, as she either gently took the biscuit with her trunk or let me deposit it directly in her vast maw. I went through an entire packet, and could have happily run down to the shop to get more and stayed there all night. I was so enraptured that the guy who worked in the lodge joked that he would get me some hay so I could sleep next to “my love” if I wanted! The elephants are tethered, and for four hours between midnight and the early morning they lie down and sleep. In the morning they are taken into the jungle to feed as they eat over 150kg of food a day. I am in absolute awe of these animals, there is such intelligence in their eyes that you can’t help be anything but.
We set off on our hike the next day, hoping that our animal-spotting mojo had improved since India. We spent a pleasant hour rafting down the river and spotting kingfishers. Then we were off through the tall elephant grass of the Nepalese jungle. Our guide, Raj (more on him later), gave us a spiel about what to do if rhinos charge, which isn’t as unlikely as it sounds: we met two people who it had happened to. Rhinos have appalling eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell. As you have to be very quiet anyway, the chance of sneaking up on one if you are downwind of the animal is quite likely. The advice was: a) find the nearest tree and climb it, b) if you can’t climb it then hide behind it, and c) if all else fails and there are no trees, run in a zig-zag. Why on earth you would have to run in a zig zag when the rhino is charging in a straight line seems ridiculous, but I think it acts on the premise that rhinos can’t turn easily - sort of like a large stationwagon with no power steering.
Our little group headed through the undergrowth, but after 2 hours had spotted little more than rhino shit, the tail of a deer as it bobbed off in the distance, and we thought we may have heard a sloth bear. Then we encountered a group who had spotted a rhino in a stream. Quietly we crossed over the river on a narrow log in order to sneak up on the animal and get better views. We were rewarded by the sight of a rhino submerged in the water about 20m away from us, blowing bubbles out of its mouth as it enjoyed its bath. We watched it for about a minute, its ears twitching at the electronic noises made by our cameras. The Asian Rhino is smaller than its African counterpart, and looks like it is plated in a suit of armour. We were all enraptured, and could have stayed there for a lot longer, but our guide was starting to look nervous at the lack of available trees to climb.
After our hike we rushed down to the river’s edge in town for my favourite activity in Chitwan: elephant washing! The elephants gather in the river with their mahoots, or drivers, and tourists climb on their backs and get sprayed with water from the elephant’s trunk. It was one of the most fantastic things I have ever done, and has strengthened my love and respect for our proboscine friends even more.
There is one experience that isn’t in the guidebooks however, but it should be for sheer entertainment value. It’s called the Raj experience, and is only open to single Western women.
The day we arrived, I had a brief afternoon walk with one of the guides from our lodge, whose name was Raj, and a lad from New Jersey, called Mike. Later that evening there was a knock on our door: Raj asking us if we wanted to go on a free night safari. Carolyn had just got out of the shower, and I was exhausted, but agreed to go on the promise that Raj often spotted rhino on the banks. My heart sank about 5 minutes in when I realized that this was no night safari, this was a date. The Quintessential Chitwan Experience: The Raj Experience.
Raj’s modus operandi is to get a woman on her own, generally offering to take them on a walk or free guided night safari. Then he asks if you would like to sample some local alcohol. When he has you in a remote location, he waxes lyrical about how people aren’t meant to be on their own, and laments the fact that he’s divorced and no Nepalese woman will touch him, all conveyed with the expression of a beaten puppy. Adopting his sincerest expression goes into a spiel of how amazing you are, and how much he fancies you, even though he's only known you for mere minutes. The coup de gras is the offer of a head massage - he's well-trained apparently.
To be honest the setting WAS incredibly romantic, there were fireflies, the sound of the night-time jungle, and the stars were out. If I’d been there with anyone but bloody Raj I may have even been swept up in the moment. As it was I firmly spurned all advances, resolutely cast my torch along the riverbank hoping to spot something – possibly even a crocodile who I could throw Raj to – and after 10 minutes demanded to be taken home. He didn’t stop trying, on the way back he offered to take me for momos (a Nepalese dish), and then asked if we could go swimming after our trek the next day, all of which was firmly declined. I figured I wasn’t the first gal he’d try to take down the Chitwan night time safari path, and was I ever right…
After comparing notes with 5 other girls, it turns out that he tries it on with every Western girl who walks through Jungle Adventure Lodge’s doors. I’d been sucked into the night safari. A couple of the other girls had got fed up of being pestered about the head massage and had given in – only to be pulled firmly into Raj’s crotch and suffer the worst head massage known to man. One of the girls on our trip, Anna, had to go on a safari on her own with him and had to resist the urge to throw him in the path of a charging rhino. After refusing to a) hold his hand, b) go for dinner with him, c) have a head massage, the hike was over and he frogmarched her back to the lodge. Luckily they’d already seen a rhino. The vast turnover in visitor numbers means that Raj always has fresh meat, and even if people compare notes they’d be gone soon enough. What was even more disturbing is that I don’t think it is restricted to Raj – apparently other guides try the same thing. So single women travelling to Chitwan beware: you may have close encounters with more than just elephants and rhinos!