We left Pokara early in the morning and caught the bus down to the village of Souraha on the borders of the Chitwan National Park in the southern strip of Nepal known as the Terai. Our bus was greeted by a near desperate group of hotel touts as it’s destination and I was quite thankful that we’d already arranged the accommodation and could navigate our way through them to our waiting jeep. The Maruni Sanctuary Lodge was a lovely little network of thatch roofed bungalow rooms on stilts in a garden of tall slim trees hidden back from the road and run by probably the most effeminate man in the whole of Nepal, Madhav, who was lovely. On the first afternoon we went to visit an elephant breeding centre with two Austrian girls, Sylvia and Andrea, and watch their feeding. Initially though we were too preoccupied with two furiously fighting cockerels on the path to pay any attention to the elephants! The younger elephants aren’t tethered so two of them came bunddling out onto the path to search us for potential bananas and bread. They may still be babies but they are still a good ton of charging elephant and watching one come running directly at me down the path was a little intimidating. Don’t worry, Madhav said helpfully, just don’t be afraid, they can smell the fear in your sweat. Great, just act natural I thought. Luckily the bounding baby halted before turning me into a serious insurance claim, felt me up and down with her trunk looking for food and then disappointed bounded off again with a slightly sulky expression!
The next day we all got up early to be taken on a Jungle Walk. I did suggest strongly to the guide afterwards that this should maybe be renamed Leech-feeding which would be a more accurate description. We were told the appropriate responses to a tiger or Rhino encounter, Tigers – gather together and look scary (!), Rhinos – hide in the bushes or better climb a tree if they charge. We needn’t have worried, unlike the foolish tourists the animals stay well under cover and hidden after any torrential rain. We did spot plenty of monkeys and a peacock on the canoe ride down the river but once on foot the only creature apart from the bright red cotton bugs that were out and about were the leeches. Luckily they didn’t seem to fond of me although I caught a few hopefuls making their way up the backs of my trousers, three managed to get a good drink out of Sylvia’s stomach (none of us worked out how they got there!) but they really seemed to like Andrea who it turned out had somewhat of a leech phobia and I don’t think massively enjoyed the walk!
When we got back to the riverside it was time for the elephant bathing. Very simple, the elephant’s handler, the mahout, brings the elephant close to the edge of the river (I would like to point out the self same river we’d just spotted the snouts of two large, hopeful crocodiles in) and you grasp the tough ears on both sides, place your feet on the trunk and at a signal the elephant raises its trunk propelling you onto the head where you climb over and sit on the animal’s back. Now when they say elephant bathing they do, in fact mean tourist bathing, because the elephants rise up and fill their trunks with rather muddy monsoon river water and liberally spray it all over their passengers, several times. We were still gasping and laughing when the elephant then suddenly dropped down into the river, rolled over and threw us in (you can tell they love this part). The mahout helps you back up (he has miraculously stayed standing on the elephants back during this whole interlude and remained bone dry!) and you do the whole thing all over again. It is absolutely brilliant, so much fun and completely worth getting soaked!
In the afternoon we had a slightly more formal elephant ride on the safari into the national park, it’s a curiously sedate, rocking and mildly uncomfortable way to ride, and given the size of the elephant not the best way of trying to happen unawares on any jungle animals but still a bloody cool way to get about. We did spot a mother and baby rhino feeding in a clearing, several peacocks and a family of large Sambur deer. When we got back to the lodge Kristy and I were inducted into the game of Carom, Nepalese billards played with discs on a flat wooden board, the guys working there were very patient with our initially feeble attempts to flick one disc into another and sink them in the corner holes but by the end I think we’d almost got the hang of it!
Our final day in the Chitwan we ended up on a traditional Ox-drawn cart ride out to visit a Tharu village, the main ethnic group in the area (originally driven out from India to settle in the previously uninhabited Terai region). The houses are all constructed from mud and dung with hay rooves, many of them with stilts. Mothers and children sat talking or playing on simple wood and hemp beds on the front porches, buffalo and goats fed on large hay bales under open sided barns and chickens and families of ducks ran all over the road and paddled in the adjacent ditches…it really was like stepping back in time.
So now I am back in Kathmandu, Kristy and I had time for shopping yesterday and dinner at Fire and Ice which does the most surprisingly wonderful pizza and then today visited the beautiful restored Garden of Dreams. It was originally built in the 1920s and then abandoned to disrepair before being rescued about six years ago and restored. It’s an oasis of calm, with pavillions, marble statues, white benches and fountains in the general craziness of Thamel. Really peaceful and incredibly beautiful.
So now, back to being the lone ranger and a final (hopefully) attempt to get this bloody Indian visa, seriously if there are problems this time, heads with roll! Also, the most bizarre group is staying at the Kathmandu Guest house right now. Now fair enough, if you seriously want to prescribe to a cult-like religion that believes that an evil alien race of beings has parasitised every bodies brains and that only by paying vast sums of US dollars and the proper meditations can you free yourself, on your own sanity be it. But why oh why would you parade around in a t-shirt to let everyone know. At least these were my thoughts upon spotting the yellow t-shirted Scientology International Volunteer Group at breakfast. I shall be steering well clear!