Early on a summer morning, I woke up from my bed in Sauraha, a village on the edge of the Chitwan National Park. Eight of us, all slightly petrified, all majorly excited, were headed out on a walking safari experience in the core jungle area of Chitwan.
We walked past a sleeping Tharu village, where dew glistened on parijat petals. We had walked through this buffer zone between the village and the forest during sunset the a day before. It was a pleasant walk, amid vines reclaiming abandoned elephant stables, antelopes grazing on green pasture by the edge of Rapti River.
The Rapti and Narayani Rivers together form a natural border for the Chitwan National Park. Our guide, Gautama, told us that Chitwan is as ancient as Mount Everest. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chitwan National Park is home to myriad species of bird, sloth bears, endangered one-horned rhinos, Royal Bengal Tigers, gharial crocodiles and more.
A wooden dugout boat was awaiting to take us to the edge of the jungle. We crossed the river and spotted many kingfishers, storks, fish, eagles and a pair of static eyes lurking behind a bush of hyacinth. It took us a while to figure out that it was an adult crocodile! A faint track led us deeper into the jungle.
Military and jungle guards frequent the area. With a lot of effort and growing tourist numbers, the Government of Nepal has been successful in reducing poaching. Considering the high price rhino horn can fetch on the Chinese black market, that is quite an accomplishment.
We soon spotted the remnants of a wild boar, a half-eaten body lying behind a bush. A tiger or leopard had caught it the previous night, and could come back at any time to continue its feast. An adult tiger needs around 50 kilograms of meat a week. A shiver went down my spine. Looking at that dead boar, it suddenly struck me that I was really in the middle of a jungle! I didn’t think I’d know how to react if a tiger came my way.
Our guide told us: “You should maintain eye contact with the tiger! You blink, he jumps.” I thought I was more likely to run, run fast.
“Don’t worry, tigers only attack from behind!” the guide joked (at least, I think it was a joke). I wanted to cry!
As we continued the walk we came across wild vines, elephant grass double my height, and huge shal trees, some as old as 400 years.
“How fast you can climb a tree?” asked the guide. “You should climb one if a rhino charges. Or run into the jungle. Run zigzag, so he can’t move his head fast enough!” A rhino has limited eyesight and can only charge by following the sound of footsteps. He also told us to throw away our backpacks if a rhino came towards us, as the scent helps to distract them.
An elephant, however, with its long trunk, will not let you stay in a tree for long. Again, we were told to run in a zigzag pattern. Encountering a sloth bear, a venomous cobra or a leopard can be tricky, but at least encounters with them are very rare.
We walked in a line, with two guides with bamboo sticks at the beginning and the end. The guides are naturalists and know the jungle well. They slowed down, sped up, retreated, smelled the air, listened to the sound of the jungle, and conjured all the magic they could to ensure our safety.
There are many swamps and marshes in the jungle, some almost dried up and awaiting the fierce monsoon downpour. While walking past one such swamp, we halted at a stunning sight. A crash of rhinos, a rather rare sight considering they are solitary animals, were taking bath. It could have been a matriarch with her children or a young family. We could spot at least four of the animals behind a thick bush. A strong, pungent odor filled the air.
Soon after, they sensed us. Our footsteps and camera shutters did not delight them early in the morning. One of them started to run. It was not a charge, as it ran in the opposite direction from us.
We continued walking. This time, we met a mother-daughter duo, taking a bath in a swamp. She grunted many times to show her disapproval of us being there. The guide told us to retreat. Standing at a safe distance, we climbed into a tree to take her picture. Her horn had been half eaten away by birds or bats. The calf was happy to play in the cold water.
We took a different route back to the camp. We crossed a misty lake named Nandbauzu. Legend say that two sisters-in-law committed suicide here, and locals believe the area is haunted. On the way back, we spotted tiger prints, which our guide thought were only minutes old. We also spotted many wild mushrooms, skeletons of antelopes with majestic horns, and monkeys. We even crossed the river on foot: it is less than half a metre deep, and clear water was refreshing.
Altogether we spent four hours on our walking safari in the jungle. I suggest wearing covered shoes and clothing to stay safe from scratches, ants, and other insects. While my senses were always on high alert during the walking safari, I cannot recommend this enough! I felt a little more alive inside the jungle.
Article and photos by Madhurima Chakraborty.