As I’ve written again and again and again since I started this blog, I love spending time outdoors. Give me a mountain and I’ll be itching to climb it. Point me towards a sea and you’ll have to drag me out when I’m as wrinkled as a prune. And when those outdoor excursions involve elephants, crocodiles, and rhinos? It would take an epic natural disaster to wipe the grin off my face.
Because of that, Chitwan National Park was one of my favorite parts of my week in Nepal. One the first day of the New Year, we headed from Lumbini to Chitwan, and as soon as we crossed over into the park itself, my already high spirits skyrocketed. That trend continued when we arrived at our hotel, the Sapana Village Lodge.
As the hotel manager handed me our room key, he’d remarked, “This is the best room of them all. You’re right beside the elephants.” I’d laughed it off, thinking he’d just been joking with me. Nope. Not a joke. There was an honest-to-goodness, real elephant barely ten steps from our door. As it turns out, Sapana had an elephant tucked away in the back of their grounds, and to say that I was happy about it would be a gross understatement.
That happiness was tempered by the fact that my stomach was still a bit uneasy. I developed an unfortunate pattern of feeling fine all day but then spending the entire night wracked with nausea. Then again, being awake so much during the night meant that I got treated to the sounds of monkeys, elephants, and something that sounded like it wanted to eat me. When your hotel room butts right up against a national park, you’re bound to hear some restless wildlife.
Our days in Chitwan were a pleasant mix of relaxation and adventure. Our second day started out with an early canoe trip in the park, which sounds like it should have landed firmly in the “relaxation” category, but for me, it was definitely the latter. Our boat ride on the Ganges in Varanasi had definitely frayed my nerves a bit, but that was nothing compared to how on-edge I felt in a rickety, dugout canoe that felt like it would tip over at the slightest shift in weight. Normally, I wouldn’t mind getting dunked in a river. I grew up canoeing with my family and friends, and I’d always felt pretty comfortable on the water. When that water is filled with crocodiles and who knows what else, as it was in Chitwan? Well, that’s a whole different story. It didn’t matter if the crocs were sleepy and languorous in the chilly early morning fog; a croc’s a croc in my book.
I made it out of the canoe unscathed, though, and my precariously stable stomach was all too happy to be back on dry land for a hike through the park. By that time, the sun had properly risen, and I was all too content to breathe in the pure air and soak up the sunlight that filtered through the sparse canopy overhead. After so many hours on trains and buses, my legs were happy for the exercise. Despite the fact that Chitwan is home to rhinos, elephants, tigers, and leopards, the most exotic animals we saw that morning were a whole lot of deer.
Not to say that was disappointing! After getting a rundown of what we should do if faced with something more dangerous, one of the other women remarked something along the lines of “There’s no way I’m going to remember what to do if we’re charged by an elephant versus a rhino versus a tiger. I’m just gonna run.”
Later that day, we headed back out into the park for a proper safari, this time from the relative (though rattling) comfort of a jeep. It was a surreal moment: barreling through dense, grassy plains, with the bright Nepalese sun warming my face, only to have the jeep screech to a sudden halt for our guide to point out crocodiles, monkeys, or deer from his makeshift watchtower post on the truck’s rooftop. For the most park, our ride was pretty tame…until our driver got wind of a nearby rhino from another group, at which point, we rattled and bumped our way down the rutted roads and around a few tight corners to come face-to-horn with a rhinoceros.
Let me tell you something. Rhinos are freaking huge. Yeah, you can see them in a zoo and get a grasp of that concept, but when you see one out in the wild as nature intended it, and there’s nothing between you and its gray hulk…that’s when you truly understand just how hefty their massive bulk really is. It’s more than a little intimidating, but it’s just as awesome. Suddenly you’re aware of how massive the rhino (and its horn) is and how tiny you are. I was happy to park myself on the jeep’s roof to survey the animal from that vantage point, but our driver, much braver than me, insisted on commandeering my camera and creeping forward to snap a few choice shots. Our guide did the same with his own camera, and as he was reviewing the shots afterwards, he told us, “When you’re there taking pictures, you’re not even pausing to consider about if they’re any good or not, because all you can think is ‘Oh shit, rhino, oh shit, rhino, oh shit.’”
The next morning, a few of us managed to get one last trip into the park, this time on the back of an elephant. Compared to the poor pachyderms at the Amber Fort in Jaipur, these elephants were happy, healthy, and well-treated.
The mahout “driving” our elephant seemed genuinely tuned into her needs. At one point, he instructed us to shift our weight for better distribution and comfort, and another time he slid down to remove a stone that had become lodged in Laxmi’s foot. (At this point, I’d thought somewhat nervously, “I’m now on a mahout-less elephant…”) While that’s all and good on its own, I found it particularly interesting that he used an ankus, a metal rod with a sharp hook at the end, to do so. Any steering was done via gentle taps of a wooden stick. In comparison, the mahouts in Jaipur used their heavy metal ankus to direct their elephants, often delivering a sharp whack to the head or digging the sharp hook into their ears.
Though we still saw nothing more exotic than a few peacocks and a herd or two of deer, I was amazed at how much more wildlife we saw from atop an elephant. For all their apparent bulk, elephants move so silently and deliberately that they’re more graceful that you’d ever expect. Compared to our rattling jeep from the previous afternoon, we might as well not even have been there, for all of the attention that we got from the other animals.
Once we returned to Sapana, we were off again, this time winding up through hills and over white-capped rivers flanked by craggy ravines. Pokhara was our next stop, where sleepy Lake Phewa and panoramic views of the Annapurna range awaited us.