April 22, 2012

#Nepal #travelogue part 3, #Chitwan #elephant safari at #tigertops jungle lodge

This is the third of several posts about our recent totally awesome family vacation to Nepal. We worked with the fabulous folks at Geographic Expeditions to plan and book the trip.

I once heard someone describe US airport screenings as "security theater." That is, it is designed to trick us into feeling safer, not necessarily to make us safer. I'm happy to say that Nepalese domestic terminals do not engage in such chicanery. Security appears to be more of an afterthought than a customer service nightmare.

I found the domestic terminal in Kathmandu baffling and chaotic, much in the way I imagine my first time at a cattle auction might feel. We had to pass through two security screenings, both with metal detectors, but neither of which was actually monitored by security personnel. They stood by, but we ran our bags through the scanner and then picked them up on the other side, and walked right through.

In any case, we found that flight departure times are merely hopeful guesses, but we were thrilled that our flight boarded only 15 minutes past our departure time. We were further thrilled when we found we were on a charter bound for Meghouli airport instead of the larger but more removed Bharatpur. And that the total passenger count would be eight: Two pilots, one flight attendant, the four of us, and Katy from Oregon. In this plane:

I think it seats 24, but we had room to spread out.

The flight was just 25 minutes to Meghouli, which is on the border of Chitwan National Park. The boys were thrilled to be in such a small plane, with no cockpit door... thus, they could monitor the instruments. In case the pilots weren't. And the crowning moment: on approach, when we realized we were landing on a grass airstrip. So cool.

It's about now that we realized we were entering the jungle. In Nepal. For real.

Chitwan National Park is a preserve in southwestern Nepal, designated the country's first national park in 1973. Most Americans, when they think of Nepal, conjure images of the Himalayan peaks at 25,000+ feet. We stupid Americans all assume the whole country starts at 20,000 feet and goes up from there. But Chitwan lies at a very hot and humid 400 feet in the lowlands, with hills rising to about 2,500 feet. The highest part of Chitwan is still 1,300 feet below the highest point within five miles of our home. Not what we expected from Nepal.

But boy, what a treat.

Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, Chitwan National Park

It's really a jungle. With real wildlife. Wildlife that can kill you. And, we found out at the Tented Camp, spiders.

Chitwan was established as a refuge for protection of the dwindling rhinoceros population, with armed patrols and military bases (encampments surrounded by barbed wire, essentially). Throughout our 48 hours in the park, we encountered no fewer than six armed patrols walking the paths and jeep tracks. I'm happy to say their efforts are working. We saw many rhinos, including a mama with her baby.

As a bonus, Ethan got to see various assault rifles, mostly of Chinese or Russian make. He kept us well apprised of the details.

Surprisingly, roads in the jungle are somewhat better than Kathmandu's.

We were to stay one night at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge deep within the park, and another at the Tented Camp a few miles away. To get there, we got into a "jeep" (although they drove Land Rovers, all the guides called them jeeps) and bumped and jostled along a gravel road, then a dirt track, through jungle and savannah until we got to a river. Where they had us get out of the jeep and into a boat. Then, on the other side, back into a jeep to bump and bounce to the lodge.

Do they serve drinks on this cruise?

There was a second river, after the boat crossing, which we could drive through. Our guide pointed out to us an elephant platform--a place where you walk up a flight of steps and out onto a jetway so you can board your elephant--which would be used if the river got too high for passage by jeep. "Too high" appears to mean "water pouring over the hood and into the cabin at a rate sufficient to make baling futile." We drove right on through.

The lodge comprises a small bundle of buildings in the jungle. An office, a big common dining area with well stocked bar, two motel-like buildings, and a family bungalow a short walk from the main building. We were given the family bungalow, with big living room and three small apartments and our own 60 year old houseboy.

The lounge and bar; the porch to the right has a gorgeous view of the savannah. Straight ahead you can see how well stocked the bar is. Surprisingly, the bar did not have the NFL Network. Or, for that matter, television. Or perhaps even electricity.

Our three-bedroom bungalow away from the madding crowd.

The main living room. Fire pit? Does it ever get less than 75 degrees here?
They boys' bedroom, with their own full bath. And, yes, electric lights and flush toilets.

Hey, kid, get your feet of the coffee table!

There was to be no relaxing in the living room, however, as we were scheduled for an elephant safari almost immediately upon arrival.

Two other groups went on the same elephant safari. As it happens, they turned out to be wonderful, delightful traveling companions. Alisa (not sure if that's how she spells it) and two of her three children, and Simon, who is a colleague of our friend Kirk at Geographic Expeditions. We were with Simon only in Chitwan, but Alisa, like us, moved on to the Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge after her stay in the jungle. Lovely, delightful people, and it was truly a treat to share this experience with them (and also with the aforementioned Katy). I only hope they feel the same about us.

Our elephant was a young one (though how can you tell with all those wrinkles) named Chan Chun Kali-Jacks. She was pleasant if a bit tippy going up and down steep banks, but she didn't fall over and she didn't feed us to any rhinos.

Traffic is fierce in the jungle.

The safari starts at the elephant loading platform. Up to four people can sit in one elephant's "saddle." The saddle is a small platform on which you sit facing sideways, with a stout railing to give you something to grip so your knuckles turn white. Recommendations include wearing dull colors because rhinos will get less angry. I guess maybe it's a gang thing.

We hoped to see a tiger. Chitwan is home to both Bengal tigers and leopards, but the one is rare and the other more rare. Any hopes on elephant back are high hopes, however, so off we went. Within minutes, we met this fellow:
He huffed at us, and our elephants trumpeted at him. Eventually, he turned and waddled away, understanding that discretion is the better part of a good tourist safari experience.

We saw quite a bit of wildlife on our safari. Birds, including kingfishers and peacocks and vultures and several others. Plus monkeys. Plus a turtle.

I don't actually know what this is, but it was beautiful.

Monkey! (To be said in a Jack Sparrow pirate voice.)

But these are jungle monkeys, not holy monkeys.


But what we were really hoping to see was a tiger. We knew they were rare, but they'd been seen in the area before, and not that long ago.

The Chitwan area used to be a hunting ground where the royalty, the ruling class, and later rich travelers with big egos and little... um... sense of sense of their place in the universe... would come to hunt tigers and leopards and rhinos and even sloth. I don't imagine the sloth give a very exciting chase. I suspect the British accountants chose sloth for their big game expeditions.

Our safari, though, was for photos and wonder only. We wondered if we would get a good photo. SPOILER ALERT: We did not. But we did see a tiger paw print in the mud, which was nearly as exciting. In the same way, sort of, that sharing a city bus with Scott Baio is roughly as exciting as snogging with Valerie Bertinelli.

The paw print. He went that-a-way!

After two hours we called it quits and returned to a wonderful Nepali dinner with our new friends in the dining hall. Overnight, we were treated to a thunder and lightning display, with a brief but biblical downpour the like of which I'd never seen before. The lighting lit the sky almost nonstop for 20 minutes. No joke: the sky was "on" more than it was "off" during the lighting. The storm seemed far away, however; the constant thunder was like a distant fleet of B-52s rumbling through the night. What a show Nepal put on for us.

WAY better than Disneyworld.

The next installment will include our boat safari, our jeep safari, bathing the elephants, and the Tented Camp. Don't touch that dial!


J P Hannan said...

I won't. I'm off to find part 4 immediately!

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