Chitwan National Park is our first destination outside of Kathmandu. Chitwan – Heart of the Jungle – used to be a favorite hunting ground for Nepal’s ruling class during the winter seasons. Until the 1950s, the journey from Kathmandu to Nepal’s South was difficult; the area could only be reached by foot.
For us it was much easier, a car ride of about 6 hours through the Himalayan foothills. Below is the route we took. It is about 170 km. With about one hour for lunch, 5 hours, about 5 km/hr (20 mph). You can imagine the quality of the roads, given the speed we were able to travel.
In the 1950s the areas around Chitwan were opened up for poor farmers, needing land. The ensuing big animal poaching reduced the rhinoceros population from about 800 to 95. To preserve this population and protect what was left of this environment and animals, Chitwan was made a National Park in 1974, officially named, “Royal Chitwan National Park” at the time, and then granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
The drive was through low hills, by rivers, trees, and terraced farm lands mainly growing rice.
For lunch we stopped at the Riverside Springs Resort, not because we had heard of it, but due to a couple of roadside signs.
It turned out to be a very nice place. We lunched in a shaded terrace outside with a great view of the river.
They have a swimming pool that seems like something from a Hollywood movie.
A good sized river flows by.
This river is used for white water rafting and kayaking, I see.
We pass by a number of small towns. Here is a typical street scene.
The mountains and bright green rice fields that line the way are beautiful.
In one area, there were a few roadside stands selling these colorful decorations. They look like tassels, to decorate your life.
We came out of the mountains, into a flat area. As far as the eye can see are rice crops.
We start seeing signs for Chitwan hotels and resorts–many signs. Must be getting close.
Chitwan Riverside Resort
The Chitwan Riverside Resort is where we will be staying. This was recommended by a local friend who Carol met through the travel site www.couchsurfing.org. (We found Couchsurfing very helpful on this trip.)
Nice place, next to the Rapti River. We arranged for all our activities through them. We also ate breakfast (and a few other meals) at their restaurant.
A man poles his canoe home for the night.
Cultural Dance Performance
The first night we were invited to a “Cultural Program.”
This happens every night, so the big crowd watching kind of surprised me. I guess this is about one day’s new tourists visiting Chitwan. It is free, so I bet almost every visitor comes.
Most of the dancers were young men carrying bamboo sticks, rhythmically beating them on their own, and other dancers’ bamboo sticks.
Towards the end there was a fire dancer!
And for the last dance, they invited people to join them onstage. Quite a few people did join in.
The next morning started with a foggy mist over the area.
This is our big “Safari Day,” starting with an elephant in the morning, and jeep in the afternoon.
Our first real activity at Chitwan was to ride on the back of an elephant. To get on, we climbed up stairs to a platform the height of an elephant, then stepped on its back and lifted our legs into the four-person howdah. The howdah is strapped on by a cinch belt that goes under the belly, and a cable that loops under the tail.
Each elephant is handled by a specialized driver called a mahout. Wikepedia tells us that a mahout starts as a boy in the ‘family business’ when he is assigned an elephant early in its life and they would be attached to each other throughout the elephant’s life.
The mahout sits atop the elephant’s neck, where there is a rope for him to hold onto. He uses his feet and sticks to guide the elephant’s movements.
Carol and I boarded first. Four people fit in this howdah.
Several elephants are loading up. I guess we will be going in a group, a caravan of elephants.
We head out. The howdah sways with each step.
From the vantage point behind the mahout, we can see that she has a pierced ear. And who knew elephants were so hairy?!
For stability, the mahout’s feet are held by something like stirrups. In the photo below, you can see how he prods the animal with a stick on the back of the head.
From here it’s also possible to get a good idea of how the mahout uses his feet behind the elephant’s ears to guide her.
We come to the Rapti River and are going to cross. The elephant path into the river is steep and muddy. It is a precipitous step into the water from the riverbank, and kind of a jolt when you’re riding on top. I have to say that I was wondering just how agile and sure-footed these giants are.
On emerging on the other side of the river, the elephant in front of us slipped and went onto one knee. But we got into (and out of) the river just fine.
Elephants weigh about 10,000 pounds, so a weight of 600 – 800 pounds is not too much for them to carry easily. It is like a 200 lb. man carrying a 12 pound pack. We are told that the elephants used for riding are, all female. The males always might go crazy – just ask any woman – so they are not used to carry passengers.
After crossing the Rapti River we rode through a forest. Occasionally an elephant pulls up to grab a bite of food. The mahout does not try to stop her this time. Maybe there is only so much you can do to stop a hungry elephant from eating.
The jungle on the other side of the river is pretty thick, and branches grow into the space of the path. The mahout and riders in the front have to catch these and pass them behind as we move through the forest so the branches don’t crack into the riders sitting on the rear for the howdah.
After a while we saw a bit of wildlife. Here is a Woolly-necked Stork, known for walking slowly and steadily on the ground, seeking its prey.
The only other animals we saw was a group of spotted deer. In the photo below, one is barely visible.
Our mahout. I saw him as a skilled elephant handler.
Coming out of the forest on the way back.
Crossing the river again.
Back to the place where we got on. To exit the elephant, she backs up to the stand so the people can disembark.
Carol and Richard standing by the elephant and mahout.
As we drove by, I noticed a traditional house, probably lived in by a poor farming family. The walls are reed mats, covered with dried mud. Thatch roofs, naturally. Inexpensive, made from materials occurring around here.
After lunch we go for our Jeep Safari. We have to start our jeep ride by taking a boat across the Rapti River.
We walk maybe a quarter mile through the high reeds.
Then there are several jeeps, waiting for riders.
We pile in and start our ride. We will be out for several hours, trying to find wildlife. There are bench seats along each side of the truck bed. The best view is standing up, holding onto one of the bars.
We drive through a lot of forest, and ford several streams. Lots of trees. Little wildlife, just an occasional bird.
After a while we come to a military checkpoint. They check our papers to make sure that we have permission to be here. I think they are here to prevent poaching. We saw a patrol walking down a small road later in the afternoon.
Sometimes we would see oxbow lakes. There is a xxx bird below, standing on a submerged branch.
Our guide searched around for rhinos, but found nothing. Below, he is seen climbing a tree for a better vantage point. He told us he thought he saw something “yellow and black” moving. But no tigers presented themselves.
We were out several hours and basically saw nothing. We talked to another group that had been out on a jungle walk. They reported seeing rhinos and other wildlife. I think walking is the way to go. The jeeps make too much noise, any sensible animal would leave long before the jeep got there.
Our guide, disappointed that we saw so little, took us to an nearby elephant station after we finished our jeep run. He took us here since there is an elderly rhino that hangs around this place. Here he is.
He is pretty used to people, so we could be maybe 15 feet from him. He seems happy grazing here. I don’t think I will bother him. He is pretty big. Adult rhinos go from 2000 – 3500 lbs.
We stopped to watch the sunset over the Rapti River. Sunset watching is a popular activity here, and there were probably more than 100 people at this spot today.
We had dinner in town, at KC’s Restaurant. I recommend this place. Very nice grounds, good service, good Western food. Try the New Nepali Kitchen Restaurant if you want good local food.
Canoe Trip on the Rapti River
The highlight of the next day is to go on an early morning canoe ride.
Driving to the river we see this sign, notable given our experience in India. It declares that this is an “Open Defecation Free Zone.” Well, congratulations everyone!
We boarded the canoes. These are really dugouts, made from a single kapok log.
Our guide stands at the front of the canoe.
The jungle banks are very green, lined with tall trees.
Here is another bird by the river, an Intermediate Egret.
A man passes us, poling his canoe.
We heard about crocodiles here. We have looked in reeds at the side of the river, trying to spot one. Then here we are, no difficulty in spotting this guy. He is maybe 8010 feet long. This is a Mugger crocodile. Gharial crocodiles are also found here, but with their narrow fish-eating jaws they are easy to tell from Muggers.
Elephant Breeding Center
Afterward we went to the Elephant Breeding Center, another popular tourist spot. School kids are brought here, too. We saw a big group from a college in Pokhara.
The baby elephants are all kept in one place. Their mothers are there too. The mothers are chained to a post much of the day (and do not like it). The babies are free to wander around. They never get too far away from Mother, though.
After a twenty-two-month pregnancy, the mother gives birth to a single calf that weighs about 115 kg (250 lb) and stands over 75 cm (2.5 ft) tall. Elephants have a very long development. As is common with more intelligent species, they are born with fewer survival instincts than most other animals. Instead, they rely on their elders to teach them what they need to know. This center gives the young elephants a safe place in which to grow.
The guide told us that there was a birth of twin elephant babies five months ago. That is extremely rare.
Mother elephant nursing her baby with breast milk.
Elephant products are available here, too. What a unique souvenir!
Our guide, still determined that we would see some wildlife, took us for a bird walk in the nearby forest. It was midday, so few birds. Lots of trees.
An Elephant Bath
A highlight of the trip was the elephant bath. We had not planned to do this, but we heard such raves from a man we rode with on the jeep safari that we thought we would check it out.
We thought we’d be standing next to the elephant with a long-handled brush, scrubbing the sides of the animal. Imagine our surprise when they asked us to climb on the elephant’s back. Carol went on first, with the help of a “leg-up” from the mahout, and sat bareback, astride the neck, with a rope to hold to. I was next. The elephant knelt down for us, but it was still all I could do to climb on.
I was behind, with only Carol to cling to. I tried holding on with my legs, like you might on a horse.
The mahout led the elephant into the river for the bath.
Then we found out what an elephant bath really was: she was giving US a bath! What a shock!
We got a good soaking.
Then the mahout had the elephant kneel down to lie in the water. As he moved from side to side doing this, I couldn’t hold on and slid off sideways. On my way down I pulled Carol off. We were already so wet that being in the river didn’t make much difference.
He asked if we wanted to get back on, but we both had had enough, so we waded out of the river. A couple of old men, watching from the bank, thought that this was really funny, and were still laughing as we climbed up the bank.
Later in the day, and another canoe passes us by. The river life has its own rhythm. You go at the speed of the river, with the currents of the flow. It matters not what you want, you have to do what the river lets you.
Parade of the Elephants
In the evenings about sundown every night, there is an elephant parade, as the riding elephants come home from their hard day at work entertaining the tourists. This is certainly part of the special atmosphere of Chitwan.
We watched the sun go down from the hotel this night. It’s our last night here, tomorrow off on the next leg of the adventure.
This place was certainly worth the visit. The one thing I would do differently though, is to sign up for the “Jungle Walk,” and not the jeep safari. The jungle is more alive when you are quiet.