A chatty blind lady, a really pongy old lady, a number of saronged ladies and a teenage girl who insisted on leaning across Mike to spit out the window every five minutes; just a selection of the characters that filled our bus on our way to Tansen, a small hillside town in the western hills…214 days in.
We spent a pleasent few days in this sleepy little town, so sleepy that we had to try a few shacks before we could persuade one to cook us breakfast even though the street commotion started at 5 am with a constant din of school kids. Full of sweet fried bread and with the streets beginning to empty of students, we headed up for the view from the tower atop Shreenagar hill, which, in typical Nepali style was a misaligned, unfinished, bare concrete structure with steel rods poking out at all given opportunities.Tamsen is famed for the production of dhaka, a grey and pink woven cap that completes the national dress, and so we popped in to watch production going full tilt, although our presence rather put pay to productivity with Mike and fag ash Lil somehow communicating to each other through the medium of grins and laughter. The other draw of Tamsen is the fabled Rani Mahal, known locally as the Taj Mahal of Nepal. ‘Know locally’ is one of those terms which can often be translated as ‘a really poor verson of’ and skimimg through a handful of blog posts we figured this was in that category. But looking for a bit of adventure that a 14 km round hike over green valleys would surely lead to is all part if the experience. So after a full briefing from Manmohan, our fab guest house cum font of all knowledge, we followed our sketch map accompanied by Glenn’s able sense of direction. With paths diverging and merging in equal measure we were soon in a bit of a pickle, but with a few nods, grunts and hand guestures from the locals (some of which contradicted what the last had just inferred) progress was made, even if it did come at the cost of more jungle bashing and bum sliding down goat sized tracks. Four hours later we were at the Mahal which, possibly mostly due to low expectations, seemed pretty decent for a delapadated, unused building that is free to enter, it even boasted arched views of the Kali Gandaki, the very same river we rafted along just days before!
Leaving Tansen we took that rarest of buses – one that arrived on time; just as well as it was an 8 hour journey, and waiting for us at the other end as promised was Mr B. with his jeep to whisk us off to his home stay on the edge of Bardia National Park.
Shortly after sunrise the following day we excitedly set out for the jungle. Accompanied by our stick-wielding guides Arjun and Seusilla we were full of anticipation. What would we see? Rhinos, tigers, hephalumps? What would we hear? Exotic birds singing, monkeys howling, deer calling? What would we be mauled by? Rabid mongoose angry at the other animals getting all the attention? We soon found ourselves wading across the Koraha River where the sound of a herd of elephants roaring in the distance made for an encouraging start.
Shortly after the crossing, we bagged our first beast of the day – a marsh mugger crocodile sunning itself on the river bank. We almost missed it due to its alarmingly good impression of a log which any performing arts student would proud of. Moving on, the eagle-eyed Sugs spotted a python stretched out among the leaves on the forest floor eyeing the ankles of unsuspecting passers by. At about 2 metres long and more than a Gurkha’s honed bicep across it was apparently just a baby!
Once out of reach of the slippery fellow we tried sitting tight on the riverbank in the hope of spotting a tiger having a paddle, but with no luck. Soon enough it was time for lunch. At our briefing the night before we’d been advised not to wear sunscreen because the animals might pick up on the scent. Imagine our surprise then when rather than meekly nibbling on a meagre chapati for sustenance, out came a vat of potato curry and another one of veg fried rice, all washed down with a boiled egg and a banana! Every wild beast in a 50 mile radius must have had a heck of a whiff in their whiskers! Needless to say we didn’t spot anything of note for the rest of the afternoon! To ease our woes a little we popped into the park HQ where Vikram, an orphaned rhino that doesn’t much care for the wild, lives. He was happily munching his dinner before settling down for a snooze, awwww!
Day 2 in the jungle dawned and with it a myriad of birds with plumage and names that were colourful and exciting enough to turn Sugs into a passionate twitcher, a passion that lasted for at least 3 days afterwards. Monkeys alarm calling got Arjun’s pecker up and we were soon dashing to a riverbank spot where some tiger action had been witnessed by other groups the day before. We waited, and tick followed tock followed tick followed tock…4 hours passed. Nothing. Time for a new tactic – to stalk the watering holes where fresh footprints of tigers and rhinos were plentiful. We walked along an almost dry riverbed in blistering heat, holding up in a few spots along the way. Still nothing. Taking off our boots we waded across the river once again, feeling decidedly defeated. And then came the phone call…
With enough excitement to suggest that 12 tigers were having a water polo match just upstream, Arjun told us to run! Caught in that awkward sock half-on half-off situation, for a split second I thought a tiger was about to nibble my ears. Cottoning on, the socks were ditched and we all joined the dash, thundering through the undergrowth with all the grace and subtlety of a one man band trying to catch a train. We soon arrived at the spot where we had spent the morning but rather than being greeted with a flurry of felines all we got was a gaggle of Frenchmen with grins on their faces and tiger snaps on their cameras. We’d missed them by 2 minutes. “There may be more” Seusilla said hopefully, but as the French grew louder and our spirits sunk lower we’d more or less resigned ourselves to another fruitless day. And then, all of a sudden; a crash from along the path, an excited guide, a 10 metre sprint, a scrum of people peering out from the undergrowth and ta-dah, there she was! A fully grown young female tiger strutting her stuff along a sunlit beach before calmly, coolly, but nonetheless swiftly crossing the river and disappearing from view. At more than 100 metres away it wasn’t the sighting to end all sightings but a sighting it was and happy jungle-dwellers we were!
After two twelve-hour days in the wilderness we decided to take day 3 in Bardia a little easier. Our first stop was the national park’s crocodile breeding centre, home to marsh muggers as well as endangered gharial crocs which, with their ludicrously long, impossibly narrow snouts are the longest snappers in the world. In the centre both species lounge around looking like they’re plotting something sinister, occasionally getting their freak on in order to boost numbers in the wild. With old sacks stuffed under doors to block gaps and rickety looking fences it was clear that safety was being taken very seriously indeed. Perfect! Our next stop was the village of Thakurdwara, just down the road from the national park. As Bardia is so far from Kathmandu it gets far fewer visitors than other parks, and those that do visit, it seems from our foray, rarely make it to the neighbouring village. Women threshing corn, kids dehusking beans with stones, old men gossiping outside mud and thatch tea shacks – it provided a real snapshot of rural life in Nepal.
After finding a local eatery where everything is cooked on a wood-fired clay-built stove, we began our pilgrimage to the elephant stables, or hattisar if you will. The Nepali national parks have been breeding elephants for many a year, using the animals for both rides through the jungle and occasionally to carry out conservation work. The ethics of “domesticating” elephants are hotly debated. On the one hand elephant safaris generate income for the park which can be used for conservation work, but on the other some elephants can be mistreated by their mahouts (trainers) who use unreasonable force to tame an animal that is unquestionably wild. In the hattisar they each have an area to themselves and were given a hearty feed after their hard days work as well as, to our surprise, a hot towel bum wash (which had quite an affect on the gents, he hem). Even so, it’s difficult to look past the chains around their feet and the fact that since campaigning Nepali kings and the like aren’t so prevalent these days, if it weren’t for money toting tourists, they wouldn’t be “stabled” at all. The debate rages on.