Monday morning we went to Pashupatinath, the large Hindu temple in Kathmandu, on the way to the airport. We paid a young guy to be our guide, and he was pretty good -- he explained which were the real sadhus (holy men) and which were the tourist sadhus who eat meat, drink beer, and demand money from tourists who take their pictures. He also had a silly way of talking ... when he described the function of a large bell that they ring to summon a certain god, he said "this bell is how the Hindus send e-mail to God, tell him they want his attention." And when we were watching them cremating some people on the banks of the river, he explained that it takes 2 hours to cremate the average woman's body, 3 hours to cremate the average man's body, but I would need about 4 hours. Now that's the type of information you can't get many places.
There is a Mother Theresa home at Pashupatinath. We walked through and saw where the people live, and it was pretty touching -- old people in various states of crippling and disfigurement, living on low benches on long dark corridors, many in each room. Mom dropped some money in a collection box, then the guide explained that that collection box was put there by the government and money placed there didn't really go to the poor people. Then Mom wanted to give some money to the people themselves, but he explained that they wouldn't know what to do with it and might buy things other than food or have it stolen, so she wound up giving a donation to the guy who managed the place, for use in buying food.
Then we went to the Kathmandu airport and flew in a small Twin Otter plane to Royal Chitwan National Park. We landed on a grass airstrip with thatched huts lining the runway and a few soldiers keeping people and livestock off the runway while we came in -- as soon as we had landed the soldiers went back to the little wooden airport building (a little smaller than our house!) and people, cattle, and goats began wandering back out across the runway.
For our two days in Royal Chitwan, we decided to stay with Tiger Tops. They are the most experienced tourist lodge in the park, and also the most expensive. They have several facilities in Royal Chitwan and other parts of Nepal, and we spent one night at each of two of their Royal Chitwan locations: the Tent Camp and the Jungle Lodge. One of our reasons for choosing Tiger Tops was safety -- this is a malaria-risk area, and there are also lots of big dangerous animals around, so we decided to splurge on accommodations.
We spent the first night in Tiger Tops Tent Camp, which is at a remote location -- you have to walk the final mile through the jungle to get there. We had a tent with a small bathroom in a bamboo hut out back (actual shower and toilet), and of the 12 tents in the camp only four were occupied that night so it was very peaceful.
The first afternoon we went on an elephant safari, and we lucked out on the elephant and driver. Our elephant was named Shamsher Gaj, a 19-year-old male with beautiful big white tusks. His father is at the Jungle Lodge (where we stayed the next day), and we later heard how Gaj was the result of an unplanned pregnancy. When an elephant gets pregnant, it's out of commission for at least 5 years (2-year gestation and 3 years to care for the baby), and the baby elephant must be fed for 15 years before he can work a single day. (Hence the expression "white elephant," of course.)
Our driver was the #1 handler of Gaj (there are 4 men assigned full-time to each male elephant, 3 to each female), and riding on the back was another #1 driver from another elephant -- his elephant was sick this week. So we had two very talented guides with us, on a young strong bull elephant, and we saw lots of wildlife.
That first safari, we saw several rhinos (prehistoric and awesome - hinged parts all over the place) and lots of deer (several different types), a few wild boars (very fast when spooked), and numerous monkeys, birds, a few crocodiles, etc. And we saw some huge perfectly formed tiger footprints in a sandy trail, but no tiger. Tiger sightings are pretty rare, and there are about 40 adult tigers in the vicinity of Tiger Tops. The best guides know every one of them by their markings and footprints, and can look at tracks and say which tiger went by and how many hours ago. They read things like the amount of degradation of the edges of the footprint, whether it has a texture that indicates it was there before the morning's dew, and many other details.
The elephants are huge and strong, of course, but also pretty smart. Our two guides and the elephant were in constant communication. For example, I would raise my camera to take a picture, the guide standing behind us on the back of the elephant would grunt softly, the driver would give the elephant some sort of command via his bare toes touching the backs of the elephant's ears, and the elephant would immediately stop and stand very still. Pretty cool. The elephants are trained to know about 30 verbal commands, and about 10 silent commands that can be transmitted by the toes to the ears or via hand signals from the driver.
We met two women at tent camp who we wound up hanging around with for our two days in Chitwan, and the four of us had a great time. There were Judy from Florida and Maggie from Indiana, two Purdue alums who have traveled together almost every year since they went to Purdue together in the late 60's. Despite some last-minute changes to their plans -- Judy actually had a fax from her office hand-delivered to her on the bench shown here, outside the Jungle Lodge -- Maggie and Judy had an itinerary that overlapped ours almost exactly for a week. We saw them in Nepal (Tiger Tops and Kathmandu) as well as India (Varanasi and Agra), and enjoyed their company and sense of humor very much.
After dinner at the communal tent, we retired to our tent, situated on the edge of a bluff overlooking the river and flood plains. A group of deer, including a huge stag, grazed 50 feet below, while huge brush fires lit up the sky in the distance (the natives set them to burn off the grass and grow a new crop for thatching huts and so on). Many types of birds, monkeys, and other animals made weird sounds late into the night. Very peaceful, and a dramatic change of pace from Kathmandu.
The next morning, we went on an early safari and we got Gaj and the same two guides. Only one other elephant went out that morning, a British couple whose driver followed ours a good distance back most of the time. We drove up the valley into the rising sun, and just before 7:00am we reached the place where the fires had been burning. The ground was black, and the tree stumps were still smoldering, each sending up a plume of grey smoke. They spotted some tiger tracks, but these ones were very subtle and I couldn't see them.
The guy on the back of the elephant jumped off, crouched down to analyze the tracks, then pointed in one direction. The driver leaned down, looked at the tracks, and pointed in another direction. They debated, we changed direction many times in the next half hour, them speaking quickly in Nepali to each other the whole time. I started to think this was a show for our benefit, to try to impress us or something. Then the birds nearby made a new type of call I hadn't heard before, and both guides got very excited, whispering "he is here, tiger here, tiger here."
We continued to track in various directions, and our driver whistled to the other elephant's driver to have them make a flanking move to cut off any chance of the tiger slipping away toward the river. Then, suddenly, they were both screaming TIGER, TIGER, and there he was, about 70 yards straight ahead of us. He was standing on low half-burned grass, and the sun was right behind him, so I couldn't see the color, but when he turned and bolted away there was a great silhouette of his powerful and graceful gait. He stopped, partially behind a tree, and I hesitated to snap a picture because I was near the end of a roll of film and I thought we'd get another chance when he moved away from the tree, but he ran straight away behind the tree into 10-foot tall elephant grass and disappeared.
Unfortunately, Mom didn't see the tiger, but she thought the excitement was very thrilling, and she noticed five rhinos standing within 100 yards watching us the whole time, which I didn't even see because I was so focused on the glimpse of the tiger.
COPYRIGHT (c) 1999 BY DOUG MAHUGH. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.