I arrived at the bus park in Hetauda without issue, but my request for a ticket to Chitwan prompted the teller to ask me about a series of possible destinations, all of which were villages on the edge of the park. The question stumped me. Without a guidebook, I resorted to impersonations of tigers, crocodiles and rhinos until the man grew tired of my gesticulations and wrote me a ticket. "Five minutes", he said, pointing at a rickety bus nearby. I tossed my bags up onto the roof and ran to grab a curry, which I ate standing by the entrance, watching the bus. After two spoonfuls of rice, a grunt and a spurt of dust told me the bus was readying to depart. I wolfed down as much of the curry as I could, dropped some money on the counter and ran after the bus, scrambling through the door as we rolled out of the park.
An uneventful two hours later, we switched to another bus to drive us into Sauraha, a village on the edge of the park.Like most of Nepal right now, the park is all but bereft of tourists, though obviously well-prepared for their arrival. This makes it all the more manageable for hobos like me, who don't have to struggle too hard to find our $3 bungalows on the river side. For three blissful days I lived an easy routine of practising tai ji in the mornings and reading throughout the afternoons, while I waited for others to arrive to share the price of a forest trek. Sometimes, at least, life is about being, not doing. Traveling gives you the space to stay 'in the moment', as the masters would have it. When you are in another country, when everything is foreign, everything new, you find the time to observe life, both inner and outer. Instead of watching a movie, you watch a great, sinking red ball descend from the sky. The Sun disappears into the river, but it remains light for over an hour. I sit, drinking tea, writing this, wondering how the light gets left behind.
How quickly we become accustomed to the extraordinary. I say hello to the elephants and their trainers on my way to the bakery in the morning. One night, lost in my own thoughts on the dark and dusty paths, I almost walked right into one! On the edge of the river, a group of youths invite me to join them, offering supplies of mushrooms or hash. I watch a herd of cattle pass within mere metres of a large crocodile, sunning itself on the bank. A woman appears, waving her arms, shouting at the beasts. The cows turn to face her, grunt in vague acknowledgement and shuffle on at their own, lazy pace. The crocodile never stirs.
After three days I am joined at the Tree Land Lodge by Natalie and Louise, two Irish lasses who are eager to sign up for a jungle walking tour. Though of different ages and backgrounds, we were all on much the same page as far as lifestyle concerns. Natalie works as a psychotherapist, but travels whenever possible, and has spent a lot of time in India. Louise takes work with homeless shelters and other important centres, while insisting on continuing her tradition of escaping every Winter, and traveling three months of the year.
We set out together the next day, along with "Tutsey" - our guide - and his silent, unnamed assistant.We entered the park via an hour long canoe ride down the Narayani river, a tributary that runs all the way to the Ganges in India. The sheer variety of birds that frequent this area is almost as astonishing as the daredevil approach they take towards the local population of marsh muggers, a kind of freshwater crocodile. We saw numerous kingfishers and wagtails, herons and peacocks, as well as buzzards, cranes and eagles, wintering away from the colder climes of Europe and Siberia.
As we stepped out of the canoe, the real adventure began. In the mud of the bank were a series of fresh tiger prints, leading into the forest. We followed the same trail as Tutsey told us how to deal with the various animals in the park. If a bear was to approach, we should stand our ground and beat at the ground with a stick. To escape a charging rhino, one was to climb the nearest tree or, failing that, run away in a zig-zag pattern. Though tigers are extremely rare, if confronted with this king of beasts, we must not run, but stand our ground, always maintaining eye contact (probably easier said than done!). I asked Tutsey what he considered to be the most dangerous animal in the park. "The rhino", he said. "Both my uncles were killed by rhinos."
We did not have to wait long before catching sight of one. After walking for around an hour, we rounded a corner and saw the great beast standing plainly in the middle of the path. Upon noticing us, it did not run or charge, but slowly shuffled off into the dense grass, which hides even the largest of animals. The rest of the morning was quiet, except for the brief glimpse of a herd of deer, just visible in the distance through the trees. Around noon, we sat down to a thoroughly unsatisfying lunch of soft white bread, chopped chillies and boiled eggs, in the shade of a wooden hide, with a commanding view of the plains around us. Nothing stirred but the birds.
There are few ventures so exhilarating as stalking through the forest in the company of an experienced guide. As we moved on, we continued to find signs of recent tiger activity. Tutsey pointed out the huge paw prints as we passed, as well as piles of tiger poop. Up ahead, one tree had been clawed and scratched to a tremendous height; the tiger must have stood over six feet on her hind legs. I began to feel that she was only up ahead of us, or close by, watching, stalking us. The idea is not so far-fetched; it is said a tiger is a hundred more times likely to see you, than you are to see her.
Soon after, we again glimpsed the brown fur of spotted deer, watching us through the trees, but they remained too distant to see clearly. We passed two marsh muggers sleeping lazily in the Sun on the opposite bank of the river. There were bison stomping through the bushes close by, heard but unseen. Up ahead, Tutsey signaled us to stop. "Rhino", he whispered. "Big one." We inched closer to where he was pointing. Mere metres in front of us, a huge bull, bleached white by a layer of dried, caked mud, trundled on through the grass. It looked up, cocked its head and immediately charged away through the grass, quickly becoming invisible.
It was growing late, but they greatest prize was still to come. Tutsey stalled on the path, signalling to us: stop; be quiet; listen. He cupped his hands to his ears. A stick cracked under paws. The leaves were brushed by something unseen, which crunched the foliage loose. We tried to peer through the grass, seeing nothing. "There! Look!" A huge, sloth bear pawed its way out from the bush, standing on the road, perhaps five metres in front of us. We stood face to face with this great bulk, too stunned to reach for our cameras. I looked into its eyes, dark and animal, ringed with spots of brown. For a terrible moment, I feared it would charge us and tear us apart with those great clawed paws. My heart stopped in my chest. But in a matter of seconds, mere seconds, it turned and ran into the bush. We waited fifteen minutes in silence, hoping she would reappear. It was to no avail; this briefest glimpse was all she would allow.
I am proud to say that the last great animal we encountered was spotted not by Tutsey, but by me. Through the grass, I spied our third rhino, chomping up great bundles of straw. We watched him for a long time before he finally seemed to sense our presence, turned and walked away.
Our last stop before crossing the river which marks the park's natural boundary, was at a series of small lakes, inhabited by large numbers of marsh muggers. These great reptiles lay motionless along one whole bank of the river, as though dreaming through some endless prehistoric slumber. Peacocks, ducks and a bright blue bird I have forgotten the name of, hopped around these sleeping giants, poking and digging in the wet mud, only inches from their flattened, elongated jaws. Again, I was amazed at how little afraid they seemed and wondered if they had some contract, some symbiotic agreement.
Once ferried over the water, the women settled into their accommodation (already bought and paid for), while I went out in search of cheaper eats. After a long, unfruitful walk, I was invited in by a local family whom I approached to ask for directions. In the kitchen/bedroom of their humble household, I was treated to a gigantic portion of curry and rice, with omelette and pickles aside. All were extremely curious as to my country, life, occupations and destinations and I did my best to respond to their questions, put to me in terribly broken English. I paid them handsomely for their kindness and returned to the hotel on the river to sleep.
The second day was much less eventful, involving only a short walk through the forest reserve on the opposite bank from the main park. Tutsey set a quick pace and we for most of the time we saw nothing except monkeys, watching us from the treetops. Only as we crossed a stream did we pause, when Tutsey spied a large stag watching us through the undergrowth. I sat down, observing in silence as the stag was joined by a doe. This was our first clear sighting of the deer we had glimpsed so often the day before and they now seemed almost unafraid, posing gloriously in the shallows of the stream as we took a series of photographs. The perfect ending to a mostly wonderful trip.
Next Stop: Lumbini. Birthplace of the Buddha.