We have finally arrived in Nepal, a country of mystery and adventure that has struggled so much in recent years. Knowing that we would soon be there, we were unsure what to expect. How much of the country was still in ruins? Is it safe? Will we be able to get the most out of our time here? The bus ride certainly provided enough time for us to mull over our thoughts, as the winding roads from Varanasi to Chitwan borrowed 16 hours of our lives. The thick fog would have been obstacle enough but it was also election time in Uttar Pradesh, so the streets were filled with thousands of people all along the highway with successful candidates being carried through the street covered in flowers and throwing coloured powder.
A border crossing into Nepal is quite an ordeal these days as the blockade on supplies means the area is full of trucks patiently waiting for months to enter the country. Officials stamp your passport as you leave India and enter Nepal, casually asking for “chai money” for their troubles. It is all rather different to what we are used to back home.
We wound through the Nepalese roads towards the National Park and could instantly feel the calm come over us after India. There were actually not people everywhere! Eventually we arrived in Chitwan after a roadside stop for warm chicken broth, Nepalese rum and lemon, and a taste of the famous ghost chillies… and yeah, they were bloody hot.
Chitwan is a small town full of hotels, safari companies and little restaurants and shops struggling to get by. The tourism industry in Nepal has been strangled by recent events and walking down the street in Chitwan felt like a ghost town. Everything was ready for people to come; the shops were stacked and the restaurants open, but there were just hardly any people.
On our first day we decided to go on a bicycle tour of the surrounding villages to get more of an idea of rural life in Nepal. We got on our bikes and you could spot us as tourists from a mile away because we were the only ones wearing helmets. The villages were lovely, with mud-walled houses and thatched rooves, and goats and chickens running around everywhere. We watched a family building their house which was quite an effort! Mixing the mud and dung, preparing the elephant grass for the walls and then having to wait weeks until being able to put on the next layer. The finished product did look great though!
In the distance we heard the familiar sounds of music and groups of people having a good time – A WEDDING! And that means one thing in India and Nepal: you must forget your Western etiquette of not being a party (especially wedding) crasher, and join in. There was food, chai, plenty of people and a whole lot of dancing. The bride looked gorgeous and everyone was having a great time, the music picked up again and Patrick decided to have a go at dancing which was to the amusement of most guests. The wedding was a welcome addition to the day although we are not sure that we will attend another event in cycling lycra, it did cause quite a stir.
Our second day was the day we were to explore the National Park on a jeep safari and canoe ride. We jumped into the canoe against all our human instincts as the river was FULL of massive crocodiles which the guides would casually float past and say ‘oh yes, this one killed two men last year’. The two hour boat ride was beautifully peaceful, with a huge array of birds flying overhead and we even learned to love the crocodiles… from a distance. We turned a corner in the river and looked back to see a rhinoceros drinking from the river! It was in full view and a really surreal moment. At that point the group announced that we could probably turn back now because that was probably all our good luck spent – but how we were wrong.
The jeep safari turned out to be the most fruitful in our naturalists’ career (and he had been working in the Park for over 20 years!). The total haul was:
- 8 rhinoceroses
- 7 wild boars
- 1 sloth bear
- 1 rock python
- Many monkeys
- Many deer
- Many birds
- Too many crocodiles
- A BENGAL TIGER!!
The naturalist had been coming to the park for hours every day and had not seen a Bengal Tiger in over seven months. It was such a surreal experience for us and it was hard to realise how rare it was because we had seen all this in less than three hours! But when we came back to the town after the safari we were treated like celebrities as people would crowd around to see the photos of the famed tiger. People simply could not believe the amount of animals we had witnessed, and even for us it felt like a dream. Celebratory Nepalese rum by the bonfire was certainly in order.