For a few intense moments that seemed like infinity, I spotted a pair of eyes fixed on me. The powerful gaze made my heart beat faster, but as the oar sliced through the cool waters of the Rapti and my boat raced ahead, the rhino returned to its mud-addled bath. I was glad with the private exchange, but also heaved a silent sigh of relief; we had gone pretty close in my bid to get a better photograph.
In the heart of the Chitwan National Park in Nepal, which recently celebrated three years of zero poaching, rhinos that look straight out of prehistoric ages roam the wild free as their early predecessors, and getting up close to them is only one of the privileges of this park.
I arrived at Barahi Lodge early afternoon, driving past Tharu mud homes that still follow traditional living, complete with cattle and livestock, and a mandatory dwelling on a pole for pigeons outside every home. The hot afternoon made my pit stop at the bare Tharu museum brief, and I was happy to swiftly get to the comforts of my accommodation. Before long, I was digging into a delectable Nepali thali complete with a typically local, hot, schezwan pepper chutney that I hadn’t tasted before. After this, I was torn between an elephant safari into the forest, and a lazy catnap that befits a heavy meal. My naturalist Subhash quelled my confusion, and I spent the evening rhino-spotting across the vast grasslands that are their natural habitat, continuing into the subtropical broadleaf expanse beyond.
Part of the vast ‘terai’ regions that form the Himalayan foothills across India and Nepal, Chitwan, Nepal’s first national park, was also declared a Natural World Heritage Site in 1984, and joint manning efforts by the forest department and the Nepalese army have helped keep poachers of its endangered one-horned Asiatic rhinoceros and the royal Bengal tiger at bay. Other than the two dominant mammals, Indian pangolins, Indian porcupines, wild boar, hog deer, spotted deer, and sub-species of monkeys, hare and squirrel live in the park. A jaunt through Chitwan is possible on elephant back as well as on foot — the latter is not an option in most Indian national parks.
Rest and repose I returned exhausted to my cottage, which is inspired by Tharu architecture. It is replete with mud walls and floors and finished with beautiful mosaic patterns, a plump bed, and a balcony overlooking the Rapti. A restful night later, I was out again in the park, searing on a jeep this time, through dense foliage of sal, palash, elephant apple and flame of the forest. High up from an old watchtower, I peered through Subhash’s binoculars and spotted fishing eagles, warblers and flycatchers. Chitwan is home to over 500 resident and migratory species of birds that include some globally threatened ones such as the Bengal florican, black-chinned yuhina, and Gould’s sunbird, among others. After three hours of roaming the forests, I was pleasantly surprised to stop at a different part of the park by the river where we watched more birds. The efficient Barahi boys laid out breakfast over the jeep bonnet. The spread was a real luxury in the middle of nowhere. Trundling in the jeep, I headed back for an ‘interactive’ session with the lodge’s well-kept resident elephants, for whom hot afternoons mean a splash in the cool river. Not a mere ‘fun session’ as I had expected, the exchange turned out to be well-rounded and informative, and one that left me drenched. And here is where I realised that aside from being one of the plushest accommodations of the park, Barahi is one which aids in making the wild an experience in itself. Most of the naturalists are locals. From learning about hunting habits to amazing facts such as twice the diameter of an elephant’s foot equals its height (I actually checked it with a piece of rope with the mahout’s help), I returned enlightened.
Before I left, I wanted to relive a memory I had of my first visit to Chitwan many years ago. I had taken a narrow, wooden boat with a fisherman and floated down the Rapti to watch a sunset. This time, though, I went all the way down the mouth of the river, past floating rhinoceros, darters, ruddy shelducks and flocks of bar headed geese. We docked the boat into the corner of a little river islet, where a cosy sundowner setup awaited us. As I sipped a cool drink and watched the sun spill gold into the Rapti, I silently wished the park many more years of successful conservation and many more dreamy enthusiasts, and hoped to return a third time to lose myself in the magic of its enchanting forest.
Fly to Kathmandu from New Delhi, and then to Bharatpur in one of the many small-seater aircraft that ply between the capital and other local destinations. Barahi Lodge will organise your pickup from there, along with your entry and safaris in the park. (₹48,000 for three nights inclusive of all meals and the complete jungle experience; www.barahijunglelodge.com )
For bookings and more information, visit www.pugdundeesafaris.com
Shikha Tripathi is an adventure and travel journalist based in Binsar in the Uttarakhand Himalaya