The call of the wild…

(Emily) Luckily, the morning mistiness and threatening rain were soon a distant memory as we rode away from Pokhara and south towards Chitwan National Park. It would have been perfectly do-able to get to Chitwan that same day but we had read about a small village called Bandipur, en route to the park, which sounded like a bit of a gem. Continuing the theme, we found the ride to be extremely pleasant, taking us past paddy fields and through lush green hills – perfecto! There were more buses on the road that there had been on the Siddhartha Highway (in fact, it was all buses and 125’s; no cars) but although they hurtled along at quite a pace and belched out smoke like mad, they generally saw us coming and moved over so it wasn’t a problem. I was really surprised when we came upon the turning up to Bandipur after just a couple of hours on the road (it was only 80km after all); we had both been enjoying the ride and weren’t even close to that ‘are we nearly there yet?’ feeling. We paid a small fee to get through a barrier – Bandipur is part of a development programme that works towards keeping the village and its residents operating profitably whilst maintaining a sustainable artisan way of life – and began the steep ascent up to its location on a high ridge above the town of Dumre. It had been a while since I’d done hairpins so there were a few hairy moments!

At the top, we soon found that it was impossible to take the bikes into the old village (which was completely pedestrianised) so we parked up and James went off on foot to check out potential guesthouses. While I was waiting, one of the first things I noticed was that the place was incredibly touristy – every second person walking back and forth through the entrance to the village was a foreigner (I guess they’d all been reading Lonely Planet too!) Given the high volume of backpackers and other tourists, it was no great surprise when James came back to report an almost fruitless search; most of the guesthouses were full, including the cream of the crop, a gorgeous oldy-worldy tavern-esque building that looked particularly cute. Bummer. However, there was room going at a homestay just a few hundred metres away (an important consideration as we would have to lug all our stuff from the bikes to wherever we were staying) so we ‘snapped it up’ for want of other options. It was a bit of a hole – no running water, a smelly drop toilet and the ‘beds’ were little more than cots (rock hard cots at that) – but it was so bad it was comedy. I don’t even think the room was meant for guests, it had more of the air of a young daughter’s bedroom. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers! On the plus side, the guy at the flashy hotel just outside the pedestrian area said we could park in his gated garden once he heard that we were on ‘big bikes’. This was certainly preferable to the visitors’ bike parking on offer which was little more than a dirt pit and already rammed full of 125s, and not particularly secure looking!

Bandipur was as charming as we’d hoped it would be – a gorgeous living museum of traditional Nepali culture (James: and giving Em a much needed ‘ethnographic’ fix!), where local people went about their daily business with little regard to the tie-dye draped travellers that appeared at every turn. Many of the houses still had their original carved wooden window frames and over-hanging slate roofs and, as we’d seen in many of the villages we’d passed through so far in Nepal, a sense of pride in their homes was very much in evidence in the neat courtyards and pretty gardens. We had a little wander, enjoying yet more warm smiles and the fact that the children who approached us were simply doing so to say hi, not to ask for money or sweets (à la India), then stopped for a hot chocolate in a café overlooking the valley to write diary as the sun set. There we got chatting to a couple of girls from the US who were staying in Bandipur as part of a charity programme – a great thing to do post-uni, especially as it’s the perfect location for combining it with trekking or adventure sports in your time off. We went to the ‘Old Inn’ for dinner, still gutted that we couldn’t stay the night but at least we could enjoy the ambience for the evening. They offered a buffet meal around a camp fire out on the flower filled patio – perfect, particularly given that the nights were getting pretty chilly now we were in the hills. We invited a lone female traveller, Kathy, to join us and ended up having a very interesting time chatting with her over a very tasty Nepali curry. A great evening!

I can’t say our night in the homestay was the best sleep I’ve ever had (a bit difficult when the bed’s like plywood and not long enough to lie straight on) but at least it meant that we were up and away early, something we normally find a bit of a challenge! It’s a shame that it was such a hazy day as the scenery en route to Chitwan was awesome, particularly coming back down from Bandipur on the twisties. Once back down in the valley, the road ran alongside a beautiful wide clear river, however,  it may have been our imagination but the driving did seem to get worse as we headed further south towards the Indian border – coincidence?  I think not! Also, the road surface deteriorated and we had long stretches of dust and potholes.  Hmmm, seemed rather familiar…The final stretch into Sauraha (the town on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park) was dirt road but very enjoyable as it took us through tiny untouched villages where wheat was laying out across the road to dry and life just seemed generally unchanged. Once in Sauraha, we checked out a few guesthouses and found one with a price to our liking (a lot of them were quite expensive as they capitalise on the fact that most people come as part of a set tour group) – it was simple and clean and the mosquito nets over the beds enhanced the safari vibe (although in reality, of course, it just meant that this was a mosquito heavy zone – not so evocative!) James got chatting to a couple who were overlanding in a camper from Spain to Australia with their two kids – what a great experience and proof that it’s never too late!

Part of the attraction of Chitwan was that it offered elephant safaris and also the chance of seeing a tiger (being one of the few parks that actually has them). However, when we visited a few tour offices for information, it soon became apparent that that elephant rides didn’t actually enter the park proper and that the only real chance of spotting a tiger (though still very remote) would be to take a full day jeep safari that largely involved waiting and watching in the hope that a tiger would appear. After much deliberation, we decided to pass on the elephant ride, knowing that we would have the opportunity when we got to Thailand and instead set an itinerary for the next day that involved a morning jungle walk then a jeep safari in the afternoon. We got an early night ready for an early morning rendez-vous down by the river…

We rose when it was still dark but soft morning light was just breaking over the river by the time we got down there to the meeting point. It was really quite a magical scene: dawn mist rising amid the reeds, majestic elephants crossing the shallows and long, dug-out canoes cutting silently through the water. We clambered into our dugout with our two guides -  one of whom, Dorma, was the park’s first female safari leader -  and began a tranquil hour-long ride down river. Along the way we spotted lots of different birds, including kingfishers and peacocks, but unfortunately (or fortunately?) there were no crocs to be seen as the water was too cold at that time of day. Perhaps later… The canoe deposited us a few kilometres down river, onto the bank across the other side from Sauraha, which meant we were now in the national park (the river marking the border). After a little pep talk about what to do when face to face with various animals (rhino: stay still as they can’t see well, tiger: don’t turn your back. Ok, sorted) we started off into the jungle, with one guide walking in front and one behind at all times for safety. We’d only been walking for ten minutes or so when Dorma drew our attention to a nearby tree – the bark bore several long scrapes about six or seven feet up the trunk. These were tiger scratch marks!! It was quite exhilarating knowing that, even if we never got to see them , we were walking through areas where tigers were roaming freely, perhaps even  observing us from deep in the undergrowth… coolio! We really enjoyed the walking safari and the company of our two guides – it was a relaxing way to see the flora and fauna on offer and, without wanting to sound like a ponce, you did feel ‘at one with nature’. Towards the end of the walk we came upon some deer: ok, I know you can get right up close to deer in Richmond Park back home whereas here we couldn’t get too close lest we scared them off, but it was exciting having the guides track their movements and seeing them in a completely natural habitat. No tigers, though : (

A few hours later and our walk returned us to the river, back opposite the first few buildings that marked Sauraha. A quick crossing in another dug-out had us safely deposited on the other side and we spent lunchtime watching the elephant bathing from the bank – brilliant! The bond between an elephant and its trainer is amazingly close (often they will stay together for life) and it was fascinating to see how man and beast worked together in harmony during the washing process. The trainer only has to say a command, in a level friendly voice rather than barked like an order, and the elephant obliges, whether it be to lie down, lift its foot for cleaning or even squirt itself with water to rinse off! We watched two elephants have their bathtime while we were there and it struck us how gentle and respectful the mahouts were in how they interacted with them. Pure viewing pleasure!

That afternoon we were booked in for a jeep safari, cue our third river crossing of the day. We were a little bemused when seven of us were ushered into the back of one small jeep but it wasn’t too much of a squeeze in the end as two of the guys stood up the whole time (trying to be a bit cool, I think!) At first it seemed like it might be four hours of driving down dirt tracks looking at nothing but walls of tall grasses on either side but after a while we started to see something other than vegetation: wild boar, peacocks, deer and… er… chickens! The route took us to the crocodile breeding centre, set up to protect and promote gharials (one of the two species of crocodiles found in the park, the second being the rather alarmingly named ‘marsh muggers’) which are rather odd looking reptiles with very narrow elongated snouts. (James dorky fact: The word ‘mugger’ or to mug is actually taken from the Marsh Muggers, after British colonial types in Nepal and India witnessed these crocs snatching their victims from the river banks.)  They had different pens according to the crocs’ birth year so you could see how they developed from little nippers to full grown adults – some of them were very large indeed! Back in the jeep and a few more chickens later we were starting to think we were out of luck in terms of spotting anything impressive but a drive down by the river revealed some marsh muggers lurking in the shallows across the other side. Shame there was no water buffalo attack à la the famous youtube video but you can’t have everything!! We were just heading back to the drop off point for the canoe back to Sauraha when we turned a corner and low and behold, a humungous rhino was standing right in the middle of the path. YES! Right at the end of the safari and we had been duly rewarded for our patience. The jeep crept forward and managed to get pretty damn close before the rhino plunged abruptly into the undergrowth. We thought that was it but then spotted the shrubbery moving a few metres away – he’d stopped again and soon moved into a clearing where we once more had a great view. It was amazing to see a rhino so near – they really do look prehistoric with their huge armoured plates and the sheer size of them is staggering. Needless to say, we were all very excited to have seen something so extraordinary and returned to the village very satisfied customers.

In the evening, we went for a meal at lovely place by the river and somewhat lowered the tone by challenging each other to eat a spoonful of chilli salsa then dissolving into hysterics… we’ve been on the road a long time now, these are the kinds of things we do to entertain ourselves!! We’d had a great day and were in high spirits after already having so many positive experiences in Nepal. Tomorrow we would head to the capital, Kathmandu; the name alone conjuring up a sense of magic and adventure. Bring it on….

11 Responses to “The call of the wild…”

  1. Jackson says:

    Nepal sounds great, it’s on the list to go to sometime.
    Loving seeing your photos, you both look so well and happy, miss you lots.
    x (x)

  2. Jess says:

    Loving James’ fact re muggers!

  3. Suzanne says:

    Great stuff guys!! Nepal sounds awesome-would LOVE to go there.

    Sending you both lots of love.

  4. Mary says:

    You ‘read’ so much happier thank goodness. Nepal sounds a much more content place to be.

    Love Mary

  5. Jo and Ben says:

    Nepal sounds amazing. Would love to visit one day…maybe we can go later on in life, in a camper van with the kids like the couple you met! Jungle trekking with the possibilities of encountering a tiger or two sounds so exciting if not quite nerve-wracking, armed only with the advice of not turning your back to keep you safe! What an experience it must have been.

    Safe travelling.

    Lots of love
    Jo and Ben xxx

  6. Mama/Kate says:

    Oh, you happy people! Can’t wait to see you on Jumelle. Good times! x

  7. julian says:

    Great blog and photos as always. Must get some Nana remarks for you!
    Love from Dad X

  8. joanna says:

    OMG – traditional – your favourite, Em, and with chickens – very spesh! All sounds fantastic! Just to make you smile – Yr3/4 did a traditional nine lessons and carols at the church today and did a quick preview for us at school this morning. Imagine, if you will, 4 ‘precious’ little boys jumping up and down as high as they could, waving sleigh bells in the air in all the appropriate moments during a rendition of Jingle Bells, whilst 15 members of staff sat on the sidelines wetting themselves with laughter. Pure genius!
    Love to you both x

    PS You can also see deer in the field at the end of the road in Bisley
    PPS Definition of ‘chilly’: snow, ice, freezing fog, frost, temperatures of -5 (on a warm day)=chilly in England
    PPS Yes, does sound a bit poncey but we might let you off! xxx

  9. Jackie (AKA Mum) says:

    Just looked at latest photos and Nepal is definitely one for the list ! I especially love the elephant pics they’re so gorgeous. You both look fantastic, so healthy, will you be able to settle down to ‘normal’ life after this ??!!

    Love and hugs, Jackie xxx

  10. Martha and Marcus says:

    Hi guys, just catching up with this one a bit belatedly. We saw some of those crocs (or similar – I don’t remember the name but they had long thin snouts!) at the Natural History Museum yesterday. And we saw a Rhino and tiger too! Nepal looks fun, can’t wait to hear about Thailand (hurry up with your next post James! lots of love, M&M xxxx

  11. Downunder says:

    Good to catch up, those crocs are actually caimans they belong to the croc family and originate in central and southern america.Their only predetor there is the Jaguar. two creatures to keep well out of the way of. Take care, D,S,D&M,

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